Text: Elizabeth Oakes Smith, “Autobiographic Notes: Edgar Allan Poe,” Beadle’s Monthly, February 1867, pp. 147-156


[page 147, column 1:]


I GIVE the Allan in this name because it is generally so written; but I think the middle one should be at once and forever dropped; since it is that of a man who had befriended the poet-protected and educated him, but who finally abandoned him to his fate, leaving him to battle with the world as best he could, he, totally unable to compete with the world, with no understandable weapons for the contest, born with vast, gloomy premonitions, shadowy intimations of grandeur, stupendous day-dreams, which had no visible relation to what was passing around him — weird, unearthly visions which shut out the real — gorgeous idealisms overmastering the actual; a demonized man, in the fullest sense; and when his guardian — this wealthy, conventional, every-day man — assumed the responsibility of taking such a boy in charge, he had no right to abandon him.

It may be said that the errors of Poe drove his friends from him, compelled them to abandon him; this is no excuse at all to a TRUE man. The greater his faults the more need of the friend. I do not believe one tithe of what is said about the moral obliquities of Edgar Poe; and, even were he as guilty as his worst traducers represent him, there was that pale, sorrowful face of his always pleading for palliation, always seeming to say, “I do not comprehend it all; I am beyond, above, or below it; I am not of it!

More than all this, the very appearance of the man gave the lie to these slanders. He was, to the last degree, refined in look and manner. I knew him for years-met him at my own house and in society, and never once saw any of those reprehensible aspects of character which have been imputed to him. I never once saw him when he bad even looked upon the wine-cup. With his delicate organization, I am sure that a very small quantity would affect him; but I am convinced he was not habitually addicted to any kind of intoxicating drink, and am well persuaded [column 2:] that a very little might excite nearly to madness a brain of such volume and delicacy of fiber.

Others have given currency to wild tales of orgies, in which they must have also partaken, or at least encouraged. I remember to have heard a Philadelphian poet, the author of Endymion, describe a scene of the kind. To him it was amusing-to me most painful. He remarked that, “the real contempt which Poe felt for his cotemporaries came out at once under the influence of the wine-cup, and he ridiculed, satirized, imitated and abused them right and left without mercy.” I did not think the presence of such a stimulant at all necessary for such a development; for the bearing of the man at all times, the curl of his lip, the cold sarcasm, the covert smile, each and all told of a man who measured himself with his fellows, only to feel his own superiority. And why should he not?

Yes, I repeat, why should he not? I must and will speak of this man, not as he manifested himself to the world, but by the measure of his intimations, by his own estimate of himself, which is a truer mode of judgment than the world knows. Yes, this man knew what was in himself, and this it was that sustained him through all the perplexities and disheartenments of poverty, and all the abuse heaped upon him by the cruelty and malice of his enemies; and it is this faith in himself which enabled him to command the respect even of those critical in judgment and austere in practice, and which sustained him to the last, and is now fast redeeming his memory.

Edgar Poe found persons of noble penetration, who could worthily estimate him. I find among my letters the following, from Sarah Helena Whitman, of Providence, R. I. I had written a critique upon Mr. Poe, published in the United States Magazine, to which she refers:

“It is said that all men have two natures — a higher and a lower — a divine and a demoniac sphere of life. It has been so painful for me to contemplate the lower sphere [page 148:] of his life, that I have habitually turned away from it to look at the other nobler or more interior nature. In this I believe, and would fain ignore the rest. * * * From any other point of view, I see that your estimate is a most kind and tolerant one. I like, especially, the passage commencing, ‘We listen as to a dirge, but it is not of mortal sounding,’ and that in which you speak of his manner toward women. I do not think with you, that his manner gave the impression of habitual insincerity. On the contrary, he seemed to me — in his private character — simple, direct and genuine, beyond all other persons that I have known. * * * I believe, too, that in the artistic utterance of. poetic emotion he was profoundly, passionately genuine; genuine in the expression of his utter desolation of soul-his tender, remorseful regret for the departed; his love, his hate, his pride, his perversity, and his despair. He was, it is true, vindictive, revengeful, unscrupulous in the use of expedients to attain his ends; but never false and fair-seeming from an inherent perfidy and hollowness of heart. * * * I feel sure that your notice will be read with interest, and will help to remove from his memory some undeserved imputations.”

It is now seventeen years since Edgar Poe laid aside the earthly garment, and entered within the vail, yet, so far from sinking to oblivion, we find that every year awakens a new interest in his genius. Left without a stone to mark his place of burial, his own mind has created an imperishable monument.

He was born in the city of Baltimore, in January, 1811, and died in the same place, October 7th, 1849.

His father was studying law in Baltimore, when he became fascinated with an English actress named Elizabeth Arnold, with whom he eloped, and afterward married. It has been asserted that this girl was the daughter of the traitor Arnold — I do not know upon what authority. She seems to have been pretty and vivacious, but nothing more. The husband abandoned the law for the stage, and the two played together perhaps a half-dozen years, without acquiring either fame or money, and then died, leaving three children, two of whom fell into total eclipse, for we hear only of Edgar, the second boy. [column 2:]

When death entered the little dim, dingy green-room of the theater, and dropped the tinsel curtain forever between this world and the young, reckless pair, who left three helpless, uncared-for little ones to the tender mercies of men, which are often only cruelty, a merchant of Richmond, Virginia, by the name of Allan, adopted little Edgar as his own child. He was a spirited, handsome boy, precocious in intellect, and of arrogant, self-willed temper. Here was, certainly, fine material upon which to work — the germs of the scholar or the hero. But nature is stronger than education. I do not believe the blood of father or mother were of the best quality to produce the most reliable results. The excitements and exhaustions of the profession are not favorable to the best maternity — the tawdry accessories of the stage are note the most desirable associations for the growing mind and heart of a young child, who has every thing to learn.

Mr. Allan was childless and wealthy, and, it would seem, injudiciously indulgent to the boy, yielding quite too much to his arrogance, and far too lenient to his outbreaks of temper. But it must be borne in mind that the young Edgar was living in a society in which spirit was ranked as the test of manliness, where coercion was reserved, like the whip, for the slave only, and where the assertion that “he who ruleth himself is greater than he who taketh a city,” is a musty, old-fogy view, unbecoming a gentleman.

At length Mr. Allan, tired of the caprices and outrages of the boy-genius, and having married a, second time, and now become a father, turns him out of doors, without a cent in the world; and so this child of genius, reared in luxury, after having been born in the hot-bed of excitement, with his keen, precocious intellect and sensitive nerves, is a houseless beggar.

Mr. Allan died, as rich men can, peacefully in his bed; and men praise him as the “patron” of Edgar Poe. To my eyes he committed a grievous wrong. When he had once assumed the responsibility [page 149:] of this boy, it was his duty to carry it through, and to see how the world went with him. After he had denuded him by his indulgence, it was the hight [[height]] of cruelty for him to cast him, defenseless as he was, upon the hard bosses of the world. It must be borne in mind that he was but a boy of sixteen, and if this youth had become such a monster, he had been ripened under the very eye of his guardian. Where was the fault?

At the time when he was associated in Richmond with the excellent and simple-hearted Dr. [[Mr.]] White, as editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, he was but nineteen. Thus, three years after having been turned adrift in the world by his guardian, he is of sound mind enough and respectable enough in appearance to be taken into the family of Mr. White as assistant editor.

Even then he had written much, not only in prose but verse also — had written great quantities of the latter before his guardian abandoned him. One little gem of his was addressed, at this time, to Lizzie White, the daughter of his host — a fair-haired, blue-eyed girl, with a cast of mind not unlike that of Poe in sonic of its aspects — singularly quick, subtle, and impassioned. This poem, by the way, was afterward presented to Fannie Osgood, and appears as a tribute to that lovely woman. Let not that surprise the reader, for I have known poets to compel their verses to do duty to scores of fine women! This is the poem in question, as I saw it in the delicate chirography of Edgar Poe, with date, etc., in the hands of Lizzie White

“TO E. W.

“Thou wouldst be loved? then let thy heart

From its present pathway part not!

Being every thing which now thou art,

Be nothing which thou art not.

“So with the world thy gentle ways,

Thy grace, thy more than beauty

Shall be an endless theme of praise,

And love — a simple duty.”

This does not sound like a young profligate of nineteen-a Catullus, a Moore, enrapturing the senses, nor an Iago, unimpassioned but malignant; on [column 2:] the contrary, it is as ideal in its purity as Byron’s “She walks in beauty like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies,

And all that’s best of good and bright

Meets in her aspect and her eyes,” etc.

Or Shelley’s

“The desire of the moth for the star,

Of the night for the morrow,

The devotion to something afar

From the sphere of our sorrow.”

It is easy to see lines of genius akin to the gloomy discontent of Byron, the unearthly melody of Shelley, and the gorgeous echoes from the Halls of Eblis in Beckwith, permeating the warp and woof of the mind of Edgar Poe. Before Mr. Poe came to New York, he traveled much, both at home and abroad; he had been partially educated at West Point, but his mind was neither mathematical, military, nor subordinate to soldierly discipline, as might have been conceived, and for this cause his relation therewith was dissolved, though he always retained the air inseparable from military training. It was said he made his way to Russia, and got into some difficulty there; be that as it may, he could not have sunk himself very low, for his looks and manner bore not the shadow of a trace of any irregularity.

If he did make the mistakes imputed to him, I can only say that Edgar Poe was right royally organized, when he could rise so above every vestige of disorder, as the lion shakes the clew from his mane.

While in Richmond he married his own cousin, and she a child of fourteen. Here was another error. But let us draw the vail over it, for it produced for him in the person of his aunt, and now mother-in-law, Mrs. Clem, one devoted, untiring, long-suffering friend, without whom his career would have been even sadder than it was.

It must have been in 1842 that Poe first came to reside permanently in New York. He was at once admitted into its literary circles, where his superior address and remarkable conversational powers at once attracted attention. [page 150:] Then there was more prestige attached to literature than at present exists. The field is now so over-filled, and the persons of marked genius so comparatively few, that the desire for companionship with literary persons is much less.

At that time, at the houses of Rev. Dr. Dewey, Miss Anna C. Lynch, Mr. James Lawson, and others of scarcely less celebrity, might be found some of the finest spirits of any age, whose brilliancy entitled them to all the homage they received. It was in these circles that I first met Edgar Poe. He had criticised myself and some others, who could well survive it, very severely, but not entirely ungenerously, and I harbored no malice against him. His wife was at this time much an invalid, and rarely went out, but he was fond of naming her, and dwelling upon her loveliness of character. His manners at these reunions were refined and pleasing, and his scope of conversation that of the gentleman and the scholar. Whatever may have been his previous career, there was nothing in his look or manner to indicate the debauchee.

The first time I spoke with him, I had been talking with Catharine Sedgwick, author of several works of much merit, and now arrived at that happy age when vanity or adulation are out of the question. I was not prepared to be pleased with Mr. Poe. That he had not very much praised me in his critique I did not so much care; but I felt he had done my husband injustice — he had neither appreciated his genius nor his character — and this had prejudiced me against him.

Gradually the conversation became animated, and Mr. Poe entered into it warmly; then I saw that a mind like his would not by any method of thought either understand or appreciate a mind that would produce the Major Downing letters. I saw that the “Raven” was really Mr. Poe — that he did not go out of one state of mind to conceive another in which he placed his “Lenore,” “Raven,” or other poems — but that he was what he wrote, his own idiosyncrasy, “that and nothing more.” Then I laid [column 2:] aside my personal pique and accepted the poet.

“I am afraid my critique on your poems did not please you,” he said, with his great eyes fixed upon mine, with a childlike anxiety in them.

I was half inclined to tell him the real truth, and now I wish I had done so, but, at the time, I thought to myself, “it is useless, he would not understand it,” and so I answered:

“I have no right to complain; you doubtless wrote as you thought.”

“I wrote honestly, and meaning great praise,” he answered. After his death, a small volume with his annotations, was sent me by Dr. Griswold, which were more flattering than his public notice.

Poe was an enigma to himself no less than to others, and was only happy in the few hours snatched from the actual, and irradiated by the ideal. He used to take his paper on which to write, and cut it into strips; these he would glue together as he wrote, and convert into rolls, often measuring many yards in length. His penmanship was fine, even to the utmost elegance — clear and distinct, as if from the hand of a graver. He was not an idle man. He studied much, and his contributions to the literary world comprised several volumes. They always were original and startling. His somber pictures and intricate machinery have a peculiar fascination which few can resist, while a weird, unearthly light, half angel, half devil, like his own poor self, wrought a wizard spell upon the mind. He obtained several prizes for these, and his articles generally were in demand. Indeed, we all recollect the interest felt in every thing emanating from his pen-the relief it was from the dullness of ordinary writers — the certainty of something fresh and suggestive.

His critiques were read with avidity, not that he convinced the judgment, but because people felt their ability and their courage; he took the public idols so by the beard and knocked them right. and left, till people saw they were no I gods at all but miserable shams. Sometimes [page 151:] he found the genuine, and attempted the same process with a cool hardihood; but he is a pigmy in giant’s armor who does not come out magnified by the blows of an assailant. These critiques of Edgar Poe were live productions; he did not play with his pen, but wielded it. Right or wrong, all was real at the time. He was terribly in earnest. He was carried away as by an avalanche of words and emotions. Men and women with their books under their arms marched in grand procession before him, and he discovered the rich goods of one, the thefts of another, the divine art, the heavenly beauty, the profound meanings of some, while others were totally enigmatical and unrevealed to him.

He was himself in the highest degree original and unique, hence he could not abide either twaddle or plagiarism. Some of his strictures upon these grounds will long be remembered; and, by-and-by, when the accounts of certain authors are made up, it will be seen that he was more than three-quarters right. We need now, in this day of mawkish adulation, a critic with a trenchant pen like that of Edgar Poe’s. We need an eagle to swoop down upon the noisy brood of geese and crows and jackdaws, to set their feathers fluttering. It was a sad clay that took Edgar Poe out of the world of letters, just at the time when his powers were ripening, his judgment maturing, and I believe, and I speak not unadvisedly, his deeper and better intimations assuming shape and urgency. Though late, that part of his character was rapidly developing.

As a prose writer, his stories are finished in the highest artistic manner; they are so carefully and artistically completed, that they cease to be fictions, and not being facts, they assume the aspect of a lie. Indeed, Poe believed his own fictions for the time being, or he would have you think so; he became a part of them; he filled up incident, and iterated congruities like a man who is savagely intent upon making you believe him, while underneath he carries a Mephistophelean smile that can not be [column 2:] hidden. We have no sympathy with his characters or their surroundings, but he holds us, nevertheless, as the Ancient Mariner held his victim; we read on with a ghastly interest, we hurry on to the close, we can not escape him; we are not pleased but fascinated, and that is his power, a sort of serpent-holding which we can not resist. He was truly a demonized man — a man possessed: in other words, a man of genius. He will be remembered when better writers, healthier, and more beneficent, are forgotten, for though sometimes incoherent, always morbid, and reckless of results, he touched a vein to which all will more or less respond.

As a poet, he may not be placed in the higher ranks, although his wondrous command of a weird, startling vocabulary, always will raise his readers to the high, cold realms of the imaginative, where we yield instinctively as to a wizard spell. The dainty ring of his chimes, the exquisite sweetness and iterating flow of his numbers, can rarely if ever be equaled. When we have said this much, we have said all, for he awakens no hopefulness in the heart, no noble aspirations, only a lone, melancholy reminiscence, more painful than beautiful, more sorrowful than dear. We listen as to a dirge, but it is not of mortal sounding; it is as if a lost spirit stood beside some awe-engirdled lake, where funeral manes walk to and fro slowly, and the silence is unbroken even by the waters that kiss the gray pebbles, and there we hear the chant of a deep toned requiem. Witness the following from a poem entitled a “Dream within a Dream:”

“I stand amid the roar

Of a surf-tormented shore,

And I hold within my hand

Grains of the golden sand

How few! yet how they creep

Through my fingers to the deep,

While I weep — while I weep

Oh God! can I not grasp

them with a tighter clasp?

Oh God! can I not save

One from the pitiless wave?

Is all that we see or seem

But a dream within a dream?”

Here is nothing forced or unnatural; [page 152:] on the contrary, the words are simple and few, yet it makes the heart ache. He was haunted by the dim region of sleep and the mystery of dreams; we find it in his poetry; it hung about his eyes, and imparted a something like mystery to his appearance. He made you think of one weighed by the awe of his own being-like a child who has floated into an unknown realm, and who can not well open his eyes to read and understand what is before him; he has vague, incomprehensible visions of love; undefined yearnings, as the poet must have of love, only love, and he falls back haunted by phantoms. His loves are all ideal — there is no flesh-and-blood tenderness about them, but a dreamy phantasmagoria of gleaming eyes and angel wings. He says:

“For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams

O the beautiful Annabel Lee;

And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes

Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.”

This is as cold and ideal as the lines of Byron, quoted above,

“She walks in beauty like the night,” etc.

The “Raven” is a poem so unique that we accept it unquestioning. We do not ask whether it will abide the hard nib of the critic, but impressed, we know not, care not why-we move onward to its stately march, and repeat its melancholy refrain, with a sympathy, challenged we hardly know how. In spite of the foolish manner in which Poe pretends it was written, all for effect, it is probably the most entirely spontaneous production he ever wrote. It is the very expression of this dirge-like quality of his muse. It is greater than he knew. It expresses more than he meant. We know he loved to repeat it to himself and to hear it spoken of. It was the one poem of which he was himself fond.

He was pleased to see that I had an admiration for it; and one morning, when my canary alighted upon the head of an Apollo in my room, I pointed it out, and said,

“See, Mr. Poe, I do not keep a raven, [column 2:] but there is song to song: why did you not place an owl upon the head of Pallas?”

He smiled faintly — I never saw him laugh — and replied,

“There is a mystery about the Raven,” and then his eyes took the introverted, abstract look so common to them, as if he were pursuing an idea that eluded his grasp. Then he roused himself and said,

“You and Helena Whitman ought to live together — and you ought to be installed as queens and poets; all artists should be privileged to pay court to you. They would grow wise and holy in such companionship.”

“Will not women be thus installed as teachers — ay, even as protectors, in the true, ideal development of society?”

“We shall see it only as Hamlet saw it, in the mind’s eye.”

I have said I never heard him laugh I never saw him eat; indeed, he never made one think of any mortal necessity.

And now I must touch upon a subject delicate in itself, upon which I should choose to be silent did I not believe that great injustice has been done Edgar Poe in this relation. He was, it is said, treacherous to women, while at the same time they felt his irresistible fascinations. It is time this miserable cant were ended. Women of elevation and nobleness are not apt to compromise themselves. It is said letters anonymously written by their authors were found with the real name indorsed in the handwriting of Edgar Poe. If this be true, it is a burning shame to manhood.

It should be remembered that a man who would indorse the name of a woman upon a communication which she had seen fit to render anonymous, would be just as likely to indorse a false as a true name. He is not to be trusted in any respect.

And here I wish to say that the inordinate desire evinced by biographers to drag the relations of the sexes from the obscurity in which they have modestly chosen to enshroud them, and spread abroad names and persons, sacred [page 153:] to God and love, is a gross and reprehensible act. Lewes, in his recent life of Goethé, while he palliates the vices and strives to cover over the moral obliquities of the great man, is wholly unscrupulous in the use he makes of the names and the reputations of the women who became in any way associated with his career. In thus respect he has exhibited not only a lack of delicacy, but of justice also. Women must correct this phase of literature, they must teach authors to ignore the relations of the sexes in their biographies, or to remember that, abstractly, moral delinquencies are no more venal in the one sex than the other.

I do not believe that Poe ever was the all-subduing man to the sex which the vanity of some and the falsehood of others have sought to represent him as being. It should be borne in mind that always there is something arbitrary in these things — the great laws of God are always stronger in all persons, than any mere act of volition. A man may be as desirous to please, and as unprincipled in his action as it is possible to conceive; he may regard every woman as only so much human aliment to his vanity or his voluptuousness, and yet over and above all this recklessness on his part he must have certain genuine qualities which inspire confidence and engage the affections no less than those which excite the fancy.

Now it is well known that Edgar Poe was an adroit and elegant flatterer. His language was refined, and abounded in the finer shades of poetry and those touches of romance so captivating to the womanly character. He was always deferential — he paid a compliment to the understanding of a woman no less than to her personal charms. He had an exquisite perception of all the graces of manner and the shades of expression. He was an admiring listener — an unobtrusive observer, and delighted in the society of the superior of the sex. If there ever were exceptions to this — if ever Poe presented oblations upon an inferior shrine, it must be imputed to his poverty for the time being, which left him no choice; for, instinctively, he sought only the loveliest and best. [column 2:]

In saying this I do not mean to assert more than was due to him; but now to the point of distinction. Women, however their vanity may be flattered by the attentions of a poet, and however much the admiration of such may win a certain superficial response, are never deeply affected except by that which is wholly and entirely genuine. The true heart responds only to the true. Of the myriad of little loves which have made up the experience of the world, not one in a million is of magnitude sufficient to be in any way noteworthy. Made up of the irregular demonstrations of the mind as they are, by vanity, selfishness and spleen, to trumpet them before the world, to talk of them, revive names and characters doomed to perpetual obscurity, is a piece of foolish malice, or unjustifiable scandal, as weak as it is petty and wicked.

Now, Edgar Poe had one radical defect of character, which large-minded and large-hearted persons will at once comprehend. He never inspired confidence. There was that something, which lawyers call malice prepense, not to be mistaken in him. He always seemed to have a design — to be acting a part. This, a woman of penetration never forgives. It is an insult to her womanhood which she resents for herself as well as her sex. No woman with a particle of self-respect encounters this in a man without an invincible repugnance, and therefore I assert that Poe might be a bad man to frivolous or intriguing women, but dangerous to no others; and, unfortunately, society affords but too many facilities for the practice of intrigue and deception.

In person, Poe was of medium hight [[height]], slender and refined in organization. Nature designed this man little lower than an angel, for his exquisite machinery rebelled at any and every violation of the laws of his creation. He should have respected these laws. Delicate, almost, as a fine woman, he had no aptitude for the life of the debauchee, and those who willfully and recklessly led this man into the habits of dissipation, knowing his infirmity, were guilty of a crime. It is [page 154:] not enough to say that people must take care of themselves; there are myriads of persons incapable of this, and therefore it is the duty of the strong to help the weak. I have been told that it was an amusement in some quarters for persons to present Poe with wine for no purpose but to watch its effect upon his sensitive nerves. This was nothing less than devilish, for it took little to move him from his proprieties.

The Raven of Mr. Poe evidently was written in one of those weird states of mind which were normal to him. I do not believe he had any fixed plan of construction. It created a deep sensation, not only among the literati, but among ordinary readers. Mr. Hoffman read it to me with much feeling, immediately it appeared.

“It is greater than Poe realizes,” he remarked, as he folded the magazine.

“I feel there is a shadowy significance in the poetry, but it is not clear as yet.”

It is despair brooding over wisdom; the bust of Pallas becomes the perch of the Raven.”

I have heard no one else read it in this way, and it was startlingly just, I think. I do not conceive that Poe understood his own oracle.

Mr. Poe was pleased with the impression produced; he was sensitive to blame or praise, at all times, and at this time had many causes for uneasiness.

He was present at the theater, he told me, when the principal actor, I forget who, interpolated the words “nevermore.” A thrill seemed to pass through the whole audience, and the sensation, together with its cause, were not to be mistaken.

How still, and with what an unearthly look of pleasure, Poe told me this. His large, open eyes fixed upon vacancy, and his clear intellectual face radiant. He then saw supernal lights, and heard supernal voices.

“You have read the Raven?” Ralph Waldo Emerson asked me.

“Yes, everybody reads it.”

“What do you think of it? I can see nothing in it.” [column 2:]

“To me it is wonderful. I do not care to fully interpret it; its merits are not to be estimated by the ordinary rules of poetry, but by the impression it produces upon the individual reader.”

Mr. Emerson did not pursue the subject; he is not imaginative; his poems belong more to the realm of fancy gathering facts than to the ideal which so eminently distinguishes that of Mr. Poe.

I never read the Raven, or recall it to my memory as a fact in literature, without a sense of solemnity strangely mingled with dread; the word even creates a vision as of a vast, silent, solemn cathedral; I walk its aisles alone, when forth from the dim, shadowy, spectral silence issues the “never more” from an unearthly visitant.

To me Poe was more spectral than human, and I used often to feel a deep sadness when I heard persons of ordinary perceptions and little idealism speak of him with severity. In this country there is no niche for the men of genius; everybody writes verses, but we have few poets, and very few with singleness of purpose to admire the patient toil of the student in the realms of Art. In Europe it is otherwise; there the severe rules of common life are not applied to the child of genius. He is recognized as exceptional, and fostered with genial care. The hardening process necessary to adapt our poets to the requirements of the Republic, is most likely to destroy the finer threads of his being, and by becoming “practical” he ceases to be ideal. Some few giants in literature are able to combine the actual and the ideal; but there exists a large class who are not strong, but are most lovely-stars of the lesser magnitude, which it is sorrowful to contemplate as fading stars, beautiful Alcyones, obliterated from the glittering galaxies of Art.

There were many rumors as to the parentage of Poe, which it is of little consequence to consider, for the fact must remain, that father and mother, one or both, must have possessed organizations exquisitely fine and intellectual. Their child was a poet in every sense; certainly he was not like any other person [page 155:] we ever met; he was entirely original, if the worse for it, and without any adaptability to the circumstances around him. I do not know how it would have fared with him had he not found one true, patient, devoted friend in the person of his wife’s mother, Mrs. Clem [[Clemm]]. She never wearied in her love and thoughtfulness for him.

“But, madam,” somebody says, “you do not consider that Poe was a man, and ought himself to have been the protector.”

I know that is the traditional and conventional opinion of the masculine sex, which I, from my stand-point of observation, do not think is at all carried out in the experience of life. I am not telling of manly men, able to brunt the fight, but of a class by no means adapted to its rough encounters, although every one of these men, ay, and these women too, have an ideal of themselves, justified, too, by some internal consciousness, by which they could meet the utmost that may befall humanity without a groan; and I think they would have done so. It was the dull canker of everyday life which fretted and corroded them.

Mr. Hoffman used to say,

“I could easily die for a cause, when I could not live for it.”

“You think, then, that heroism is an impulse — a momentary madness?” I said.

“By no means; the last act may be sudden, but it must proceed from a heroic make, just as cowardice may exist in the man undetected, till the emergency betrays it. Our acts are prompted by what lies deeper than ordinary observation.”

Mr. Poe was spiritual, abstract, intellectual; he had a manly sense of independence, which rendered patronage of any kind repugnant to him. I do not think he ever found any very appropriate sphere in this life; genial moments, green oases in the dreary waste he certainly found, for he, in one phase of character, had an almost childish desire for companionship. I have often thought how happily such a man as Poe, and some others, might have been, placed in [column 2:] an atmosphere of taste and appreciation, in some little court-like that of Bavaria for instance, which so fostered the genius of Goethé and Schiller; but in our country the life of genius is a perpetual struggle.

His marriage had been, as I have said, premature, to his cousin, a sweet, stag-eyed girl, who devoted herself to him in the same way that she would have devoted herself to a greyhound or any other handsome pet, but who could add little to his mental or moral growth. I have always regarded this marriage as an unfortunate one for the poet, who needs a more profound sympathy always, if he would sound the depths of his own genius. That he loved her tenderly none will deny, and some of his sweetest lyrics owed their inspiration to her delicious eyes and girlish affection. She was his playmate, his pretty child-wife, for she was but fourteen at the time of her marriage.

Later in life, after the death of this child-wife, Mr. Poe became greatly attached to a lady of rare genius and deep spiritualism. The engagement was broken off, perhaps wisely oil the part of the lady. A story is in circulation to the purport that Poe, repenting of the engagement, visited the lady in a state of intoxication, in the hope her disgust would release him. I do not place any reliance whatever upon the motive of this visit. That he might have visited her in this unfortunate state is more than possible, and that such might have been the consequence also; but that it was from no such design upon the part of the unfortunate poet I am equally confident.

He may have talked wildly and in unmanly wise, after such result, but it was nothing more than the reckless language of a child who has marred some precious work. He found then, as always, persons ready to listen to the wild, mortified language of genius, and to go away and report it; but the better soul of Poe disclaimed it altogether.

One of his most touching and significant poems was addressed to this lady, and I am happy to, say she, who was so [page 156:] well able to read and understand the true soul of a poet, despite of all that may tear the harmony of its demonstrations, has not failed to cherish tenderly his memory. She is worthy of the “Lines to Helen.”

I once heard him say,

“Had I known Helena sooner, I should have been very different from what I have been. I am fond of the society of women-poets always are; and I have found enough to play into my foibles and palliate my defects; but a true woman, with superior intellect and deep spiritualism, would have transformed my whole life into something better.”

The remark has force in more ways than one. It indicates the sincerity of regret which the man must have felt in view of the past, and is also a fine tribute to the angel-mission of woman. This was uttered but a few weeks before his death, when his last work, Eureka, upon which he had expended much time and thought, was beginning to attract some attention. He had expected more. He had thought this deep utterance of a poetic soul would be hailed as a revelation, and his chagrin was not to be concealed. He was ill at ease at this time. He felt his best life had not been realized. He was always grave, now he was melancholy. Circumstances painful and mortifying had transpired, and he reviewed them with grief.

He called upon me one morning and found me preparing to start for Philadelphia, where I was engaged for a course of lectures, and our interview was necessarily short. He seemed disappointed-grieved.

“I have so much — so much I wished to say.”

I recall his look of pain, his unearthly eyes, his emaciated form, his weird look of desolation with a pang, even now. Little did either suppose the grave vas so soon to hide fill that was mortal in hint from human sight. Peace to his ashes!

It is asserted in the American Cyclopedia, that Edgar Poe died in consequence of a drunken debauch in his native city. This is not true. [column 2:]

At the instigation of a woman, who considered herself injured by him, he was cruelly beaten, blow upon blow, by a ruffian who knew of no better mode of avenging supposed injuries. It is well known that a brain fever followed; his friends hurried him away, and he reached his native city only to breathe his last.

Mr. Poe, near the close of his life, lived in a little band-box of a house at Fordham, and there his wife died. The Brothers of the Jesuits’ College, in that place, contrary to their wont, gave him free access to their groves and gardens, and there he unquestionably passed the happiest years of his life. His simplicity of mariners and studious habits endeared him to the good Brothers, who often saw him at midnight as they passed to their vigils, moving silently under the lofty trees, too absorbed in meditation to notice their presence.

I have more than once sat spell-bound under the Shakesperean illusion of Edwin Booth as Hamlet, and always in the grove scene I thought of Poe. The same deep thoughtfulness — the profound expression of sadness — the weird silence and gloom which harmonize so wonderfully with the character of the shadowy Dane, served to reproduce the image of Edgar Poe. Mrs. E. O. Smith.



In Beadle’s Monthly for March 1867 are two replies to this article by Mrs. Smith. The first, and more significant, is by Dr. J. E. Snodgrass. The second, beginning in column 2 on page 287, follows:


[[. . .]]

MRS. OAKES SMITH’S paper on Edgar A. Poe, in the February issue, has elicited response and remark in various ways. One communication we give elsewhere. Another, which touches upon an incidental point, is as follows:

MR. EDITOR: In the interesting sketch of Edgar A. Poe, contributed to the February number of BEADLE’S MONTHLY by Mrs. E. Oakes Smith, is an inaccuracy which is strange, considering the general familiarity of the authoress with her subject which the article evinces. In speaking of the composition of “The Raven,” Mrs. Smith says:

“The Raven” of Mr. Poe evidently was written in one of those weird states of mind which were normal to him. I do not believe he had any fixed plan of construction.”

The fact is, “The Raven” is not a sudden flight of fancy, written on the spur of the moment. On the contrary, it is one of the most carefully-composed poems ever given to the public. It was written only after the most mature deliberation. Its length was one of the first things decided upon. The emotion to be appealed to, the best manner of malting such appeal, the iterated refrain, “nevermore,” (which suggested itself to the author as the saddest word in the English language), the nature of the climax, the time to arrive at it, the leading on of the reader’s mind to it, and many other points, were made subjects of careful study before a line of the poem was written. The most highly wrought up verses were written first, and the preceding ones afterward. Throughout [page 288:] the poem, Mr. Poe carefully considered every effect he wished to produce, and studied the best manner of appealing to the minds of his readers. The above is, in substance, what he states in a long letter, which may be found in any complete edition of his works. Felix.

In reference to the point here made, we believe both Mrs. Smith and “Felix” are in error regarding the poem. It was, we believe, finally perfected, as Poe himself stated, by the slow process of elaboration and art-study; it shows that in its every word used; but, as it now stands, it is not the original. “The Raven” grew out of an earlier poem, possessed of something of its present features, and fully embodying the conception which gives it its symbolical significance. It was that conception which he “worked up,” by the most deliberate processes of composition; and whatever the merits of the production, its first and more inspired form — if Poe may be said to have had any “inspiration” at any time — is to be found in the first composition.

Mrs. Smith essentially rewrote the present article for her recollections in the Home Journal in 1876, although she added little information that was new.


[S:0 - BM, 1867] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Autobiographic Notes: Edgar Allan Poe (E. O. Smith, 1867)