Text: Mayne Reid, “A Dead Man Defended,” Onward, April 1869, 1:305-308


­[page 305, unnumbered:]


Being some reminiscences of the poet Poe.

NEARLY a quarter of a century ago I knew a man named Edgar Allan Poe. I knew him as well as one man may know another, after an intimate and almost daily association extending over a period of two years. He was then a reputed poet; I, only an humble admirer of the Muses.

But it is not of his poetic talent I here intend to speak; I never myself had a very exalted opinion of it, more especially as I knew, that the poem upon which rests the head corner-stone of his fame is not the creation of Edgar Allan Poe, but of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship” you will find the original of “The Raven;” I mean the tune, the softly flowing measure, the imagery, and a good many of the words, even to the “rustling of the soft and silken curtain.”

This does not seem like defending the dead poet, nor, as a poet, is his defence intended. I could do it better, were I to speak of his prose; which for classic diction and keen analytic power has not been surpassed in the republic of letters. Neither to speak of his poetry, or his prose, have I taken up the pen; but of what is, in my opinion, of much more importance than either — his moral character. Contrary to my estimate, the world believes him to have been a great poet; and there are few who will question his transcendent talents as a writer of prose. But the world also believes him to have been a blackguard; and there are but few who seem to dissent from this doctrine.

I am one of this few; and I shall give my reasons, drawing them partly from my own knowledge of the man, and partly from facts furnished me by a gentleman* who knew Edgar Allan Poe perhaps better than any other individual ever honored with the poet’s acquaintance. This gentleman, of pure, blameless life and noble instincts, through “good report and evil report” has remained faithful to the trust of friendship, and now, after the lapse of a quarter of a century, calls upon me to step forward in defence of our mutual but unfortunate friend — grossly libelled during his life — basely slandered when death stepped in to hinder him from speaking his own defence.

I respond to the appeal with the fervor man should feel, in rescuing a maligned memory from the clutch of calumniators. And in attempting to do this, I have no design to represent Edgar Allan Poe as a model of what man ought to be, either morally or socially. I desire to obtain for him only strict justice; and if this be accorded, I have no fear that those according it will continue to regard him as the monster he has been hitherto depicted. Rather ­[page 306:] may it be that the hideous garment will be transferred, from his, to the shoulders of his hostile biographer.

When I first became acquainted with Poe he was living in a suburban district of Philadelphia, called “Spring Garden.” I have not been there for twenty years, and, for aught I know, it may now be in the centre of that progressive city. It was then a quiet residential neighborhood, noted as the chosen quarter of the Quakers.

Poe was no Quaker; but, I remember well, he was next-door neighbor to one. And in this wise: that while the wealthy co-religionist of William Penn dwelt in a splendid four-story house, built of the beautiful coral-colored bricks for which Philadelphia is celebrated, the poet lived in a lean-to of three rooms, (there may have been a garret with a closet,) of painted plank construction, supported against the gable of the more pretentious dwelling.

If I remember aright, the Quaker was a dealer in cereals. He was also Poe’s landlord; and, I think, rather looked down upon the poet — though not from any question of character, but simply from his being fool enough to figure as a scribbler and a poet.

In this humble domicile I can say, that I have spent some of the pleasantest hours of my life — certainly some of the most intellectual. They were passed in the company of the poet himself, and his wife — a lady angelically beautiful in person and not less beautiful in spirit. No one who remembers that dark-eyed, dark-haired daughter of Virginia — her own name, if I rightly remember — her grace, her facial beauty, her demeanor, so modest as to be remarkable — no one who has ever spent an hour in her company but will endorse what I have above said. I remember how we, the friends of the poet, used to talk of her high qualities. And when we talked of her beauty, I well knew that the rose-tint upon her cheek was too bright, too pure to be of Earth. It was consumption’s color — that sadly beautiful light that beckons to an early tomb.

In the little lean-to, besides the poet and his interesting wife, there was but one other dweller. This was a woman of middle age, and almost masculine aspect. She had the size and figure of a man, with a countenance that, at first sight, seemed scarce feminine. A stranger would have been incredulous — surprised, as I was, when introduced to her as the mother of that angelic creature who had accepted Edgar Poe as the partner of her life.

Such was the relationship; and when you came to know this woman better, the masculinity of her person disappeared before the truly feminine nature of her mind; and you saw before you a type of those grand American mothers — such as existed in the days when block-houses had to be defended, bullets run in red-hot saucepans, and guns loaded for sons and husbands to fire them. Just such a woman was the mother-in-law of the poet Poe. If not called upon to defend her home and family against the assaults of the Indian savage, she was against that as ruthless, as implacable, and almost as difficult to repel — poverty. She was the ever-vigilant guardian of the house, watching ­[page 307:] it against the silent but continuous sap of necessity, that appeared every day to be approaching closer and nearer. She was the sole servant, keeping every thing clean; the sole messenger, doing the errands, making pilgrimages between the poet and his publishers, frequently bringing back such chilling responses as “The article not accepted,” or, “The check not to be given until such and such a day” — often too late for his necessities.

And she was also the messenger to the market; from it bringing back, not the “delicacies of the season,” but only such commodities as were called for by the dire exigencies of hunger.

And yet, were there some delicacies. I shall never forget how, when peaches were in season and cheap, a pottle of these, the choicest gifts of Pomona, were divested of their skins by the delicate fingers of the poet’s wife, and left to the “melting mood,” to be amalgamated with Spring Garden cream and crystallized sugar, and then set before such guests as came in by chance.

Reader! I know you will acknowledge this to be a picture of tranquil domestic happiness; and I think you will believe me, when I tell you it is truthful. But I know also you will ask, “What has it to do with the poet?” since it seems to reflect all the credit on his wife, and the woman who called him her son-in-law. For all yet said it may seem so; but I am now to say that which may give it a different aspect.

During two years of intimate personal association with Edgar Poe I found in him the following phases of character, accomplishment, and disposition:

Firstly: I discovered rare genius; not at all of the poetic order, not even of the fanciful, but far more of a practical kind, shown in a power of analytic reasoning such as few men possess, and which would have made him the finest detective policeman in the world. Vidocq would have been a simpleton beside him.

Secondly: I encountered a scholar of rare accomplishments — especially skilled in the lore of Northern Europe, and more imbued with it than with the Southern and strictly classic. How he had drifted into this specialty I never knew. But he had it in a high degree, as is apparent throughout all his writings; some of which read like an echo of the Scandinavian “Sagas.”

Thirdly: I felt myself in communication with a man of original character, disputing many of the received doctrines and dogmas of the day; but only original, in so far as to dispute them, altogether regardless of consequences to himself or the umbrage he gave to his adversaries.

Fourthly: I saw before me a man to whom vulgar rumor had attributed those personal graces supposed to attract the admiration of women. This is the usual description given of him in biographical sketches. And why, I cannot tell, unless it has been done to round off a piquant paragraph. His was a face purely intellectual. Women might admire it, thinking of this; but it is doubtful if many of them ever fell, or could have fallen, in love with the man to whom it belonged. I don’t think many ever did. It was enough for one man to be beloved by one such woman as he had for his wife. ­[page 308:]

Fifthly: I feel satisfied that Edgar A. Poe was not, what his slanderers have represented him, a rake. I know he was not; but in truth the very opposite. I have been his companion in one or two of his wildest frolics, and can certify that they never went beyond the innocent mirth in which we all indulge when Bacchus gets the better of us. With him the jolly god sometimes played fantastic tricks — to the stealing away his brain, and sometimes, too, his hat — leaving him to walk bareheaded through the streets at an hour when the sun shone too clearly on his crown, then prematurely bald.

While acknowledging this as one of Poe’s failings, I can speak truly of its not being habitual; only occasional, and drawn out by some accidental circumstance — now disappointment; now the concurrence of a social crowd, whose flattering fellowship might lead to champagne; a single glass of which used to affect him so much that he was hardly any longer responsible for his actions, or the disposal of his hat.

I have chronicled the poet’s crimes, all that I ever knew him to be guilty of, and, indeed, all that can honestly be alleged against him; though many call him a monster. It is time to say a word of his virtues. I could expatiate upon these far beyond the space left me; or I might sum them up in a single sentence; by saying, that he was no worse and no better than most other men.

I have known him to be for a whole month closeted in his own house — the little “shanty” supported against the gable of the rich Quaker — all the time hard at work with his pen, poorly paid, and hard driven to keep the wolf from his slightly-fastened door; intruded on only by a few select friends, who always found him, what they knew him to be, a generous host, an affectionate son-in-law and husband, — in short, a respectable gentleman.

In conclusion, I have to say that he is not a gentleman who has slandered Edgar Allan Poe. At starting I had intended to prove it, by the words of one who, better than I, knew both the poet and his traducer. But, allured by my own old memories, I have miscalculated the space at my disposal, and must leave for a future issue a defence of the maligned man, more elaborate and much better substantiated by facts.

When these come before the public, they will elicit the sure verdict: that, in the list of literary men, there has been no such spiteful biographer as Dr. Rufus Griswold, and never such a victim of posthumous spite as poor Edgar Allan Poe.


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 305:]

­ * Thomas Cottrell Clarke, Esq., of Philadelphia.





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