Text: Mrs. Martha J. Lamb, “Poe’s House at Fordham,” Appleton’s Journal (New York, NY), vol. XII, whole no. 278, July 18, 1874, pp. 75-77


[page 75, column 3, continued:]



“WHERE is Fordham?”

The very question I asked of Sophomoros.

“Is it possible that you do not know?” he replied, deferentially at first, but growing insufferably pompous as he proceeded; “how singular that any one who has studied the geography of the different countries of the world through actual travel should be obliged to come down to first principles, and institute home researches! Fordham is an inconspicuous portion of New-York City, a few miles north of the Harlem River.”

“Thank you,” I said, meekly; “I was aware of that fact in a general way; but it being a place, like some faces, which never made special impression upon my memory, I am not able to locate it with precision. How may it be reached?”

“Variously; chiefly by steam and horse cars. Boats do not run up there yet. It is not so much their fault as their inability to navigate dry land. Have you any violent call in that direction?”

“I wish to visit the home of Edgar Allan Poe, and if the steam-cars are available 1 will go this morning.”

Sophomoros made investigations, and announced that there was a train at a quarter past nine.

As I was hurrying to catch it, he overtook me, panting, and exclaimed:

“It is the Harlem Railroad cars you want. I will show you to them.”

“And why not the New-Haven?” I asked, as we threaded our weary way through the labyrinth of apparently endless uncertainties inside the Great Central Depot.

“Because they won’t let you off at Fordham. They would never dare go tooting through New England again if they lowered [page 76:] their intense respectability by stopping at so insignificant a station.”

“Where are you going!” the train was moving, and I spoke excitedly instead of interrogatively, for I had an intuition that Sophomoros, after the reckless manner of college boys, contemplated a jump in front of Old Columbia.

“To the home of the poet. I may as well. I have no recitations of importance to-day, and I would really like to see where my personal benefactor resided,” he replied.

“Personal benefactor?” I repeated.

Engraving of Fordham Cottage [thumbnail]

[[Poe’s Fordham cottage]]
[[Illustration on page 76]]

But there was no time for explanations. An old lady pushed into the seat beside me, and Sophomoros, who was standing, walked to the end of the car and looked through the door at the prospect. Into the tunnel, out again, through dark passages, over bridges, past groves and cottages, and in less than thirty-five minutes the ride was accomplished. Then came a walk of nearly half a mile. We crossed the railroad track, and a wide, dusty street, paused at the door of a little twelve-foot cube real-estate office for specific directions, and then ascended a picturesque hill, [column 2:] upon the very backbone of which stands the house where Poe wrote “The Raven.”

I approached it with a feeling of reverence. I hardly know which struck me the more forcibly, its diminutive size or its quaint antiquity. The gable-end is partially sheltered from the street by an aged cherry-tree, with wide-spreading branches; and pear and apple trees, of a former generation, hover about on its other sides, like sentinels on duty. The fence which incloses both house and grounds is lined with lilac and currant bushes. Pushing open a little gate, we stepped gently over the walk and upon a low veranda which decorates the south front. “Grandma! grandma!” cried a voice from an invisible source, “somebody’s come.”

Presently a feeble-looking woman, wearing the inevitable cap and spectacles of eighty, hobbled round the corner from the kitchen, and, in answer to my modest inquiries, said:

“Oh, I don’t know. She can tell you all about it when she comes. She won’t be long away. There she is, now,” directing my glance to a young woman, who was coming up the street with her arms full of parcels. [column 3:]

“She” was undoubtedly the mistress of the m:insion. As soon as she learned the object of my visit she went round and opened the little narrow door from the inside, and admitted us to a low, square parlor.

“This is the room where Mr. Poe did his writing,” she said, with an air of justifiable pride in the felicitous possession. “We have not been here long enough to fix up the place much. It’s dreadfully out of repair. The chimney smokes so that we can hardly stay in the kitchen. There are two rooms on this floor and two rooms above, but the house is full of little closets and nooks, and more roomy than it seems.”

She was picking up and putting away various articles that were lying on the chairs, and certainly did open doors in most unexpected places. But a mist circled about me, and I lost sight of her altogether. Another presence seemed to pervade the apartment. A tall, lithe, graceful, manly figure, with classic head well poised, a handsome, pale face, over which a smile seldom played, and large, dark, variably-expressive eyes, looking grave and tender melancholy, or [page 77:] shooting fiery tumult, according to his mood. A brilliant but erratic star. A genius, perhaps not of the highest order, but none the less a genius.’ A poet who thrilled the world with many wondrous harmonies. An author of honorable position among leading creative minds. An artist in the use of words, with rare gifts of invention and expression. A critic who regarded an ambiguous sentence, a false rhyme, or a dull book, in the light of a high crime, and who brought down his lash with such a stinging cut that it always left a scar. A man excessively and essentially human, whose infirmities of character and disposition were the bane of his career, and the occasion of all manner of inglorious experiences. There was a fitness, something even poetical, in the framework of his surroundings. Two windows to the north opened upon an exceptionally beautiful landscape in summer, and a wide expanse of immaculate snow in winter; and two windows to the south swept the pretty garden and fields be yond. Thus there was no lack of sunlight to reveal the contradictory hauteur and sweet ness in his ever-changeful countenance, as, sitting at the round table in the centre, he plied his ready pen; and, in their season, the perfume of many flowers, and the music of birds and bees, filled the air which fanned his brow.

“If you will walk up-stairs I will show you the chamber where Mr. Poe slept, and where they say his mother-in-law used to lock him up for days together,” broke in upon my reverie.

I followed my guide in resentful silence. Her reminder was inopportune, to say the least. Truth is less welcome than fiction when it turns the canvas so as to show that a monarch of marvelous intellectual powers and possibilities can be an abject slave to the miserable vice of drunkenness. Poe did not, as many suppose, do his fine work under the influence of stimulants, but he drank to excess periodically. One glass of wine, and his whole nature was reversed. All that was angelic within him became demoniac. His will was obviously, and, for the time, irresponsibly insane.

The chamber had a roofed ceiling, with a sharp point in the centre. At the east end was a high wooden mantel, with a small, square window on each side of it, and there was a little, one-paned window under the eaves to the south. For an instant Poe’s “Philosophy of Furniture “ flashed across my mind, and his words, “The soul of the room is the carpet; a judge of common law may be an ordinary man; a good judge of a carpet must be a genius,” stood out in living colors upon the floor. Then my eye fell upon the door, with its queer, little, old-fashioned panels, and last century’s latch two-thirds of the way to the top. Little weird lights danced about me, and a chord vibrated, which filled my soul with pleasant mournfulness, as I saw before me the picture of the sad, haunted scholar, struggling with Fate and Memory personated in the Raven on the bust of “Pallas above his chamber-door.”

The vision clung to me long after I had turned back to commonplaces and the head of the steep, winding staircase. I paused [column 2:] once more in the little study-parlor where Poe spent so many checkered hours. And again it seemed full of him — the shrewd, arrogant, thoughtful, irreverent, cold, cynical, melancholy, versatile scholar — him who, in his most eccentric vagaries, never committed an offense against rhetorical propriety; him who, day after day, and month after month, with studious patience, analyzed the theory and resources of versification; him who, although not given to gushing spontaneity, was skilled in bringing the life and grace of his rhythm into dependence upon the spirit beneath.

I found Sophomoros sitting upon a plateau of rock in the southeastern part of the grounds. It was large enough to accommodate a picnic-party, and was ornamented with moss, primroses, and blackberry-briers. It commanded a charming and imposing view of country scenery, from the Hudson River to Long-Island Sound.

“What are you doing?” I inquired, abstractedly.

“Speculating in Fordham lots; figuring in my mind how New York is going to look when it is finished with churches, coliseums, and hippodromes, as far as the eye can reach from this point. — By-the-way, Mr. Poe had rather a cheerful home here,” he continued, regarding the cottage and its strip of land with marked attention. “I wonder if, in any of his most extravagant flights of fancy, he ever suspected the city of designs upon his poetical quiet? For my part, I shall cherish Poe’s memory with gratitude because of the little twist he gave my future. You see I had about made up my mind to be a genius — do a little of the fine frenzy myself. Then I blundered upon his ‘Philosophy of Composition,’ and one glimpse of his picture of the ‘vacillating crudities of thought’ — the true purposes seized at the last moment, the innumerable glimpses of idea that never arrived at the maturity of a full view, the fully-matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable, the cautious selections and rejections, the painful erasures and interpolations, the wheels, and tackle, and scene-shifting, and step-ladders, and demontraps-was sufficient to convince me that I should rather be a private citizen.”

“Do you know or remember all the points in Poe’s history,” I exclaimed, with sudden energy. “He was born under the sunny skies of Virginia, and his inheritance was the strange waywardness which has made his life a puzzle and a mystery to the world. He was left an orphan in childhood; was adopted by a man of wealth; was petted; educated; furnished with unusual facilities for study and travel; supplied freely with money, and, unrestrained either by sound principle or discipline, acquired luxurious, dissolute, and reckless, instead of business habits; and, when his large expectations vanished through his not having been named in the will of his so-called benefactor, he found himself illy able to cope with the necessities of existence. He turned to literature without profound literary motives, and he had no tact in converting mental fruits into bank-accounts. His whole course was [column 3:] up-hill, and there was a drag attached to him.”

We left the rock at length and went back to the house, but it was only to ask for water from the well with its old-fashioned curb and windlass and very cranky crank.

“That was Mr. Poe’s cow-house over there,” said the young woman, as she drew up the bucket, pointing with one hand toward a little stone inclosure some six feet square in the side of the ledge. Some chickens were playing about it, and a few clambering vines hung over the half-tumbling wall in a disappointed kind of way, as if regretting the roof which time had demolished.

The mid-day sunbeams were dancing riotously among the trees and shrubs and newly-made flower-beds as we took a long, lingering, and mute farewell of the poetical dwelling-place, so fruitful in associations. He of the lofty minstrelsy has slept his last sleep for a quarter of a century, but his world-wide reputation will only brighten and deepen as the years roll on.




Although the article and the caption for the engraving identify the Fordham cottage as “The House in Which Poe Wrote ‘The Raven’,” that honor actually goes to the farmhouse of Patrick Brennan, where Poe rented rooms in 1844. Poe did not move to Fordham until early in 1846, a year after the poem had been published.

Martha Joanna Reade Nash (1829-1893) married Charles A. Lamb on September 8, 1852, but was divorced from him about 1866. She was born in Plainfield, MA, and educated in Easthampton and Northhampton, MA. About 1857 moved to Chicago, IL, and after her divorce, to New York City. The name Sophmoros is almost certainly a made up one, presumably derived from the word “sophomore” and likely identifying him, if there really were such a person as depicted in the article, as a student in his second year of college.

The article was reprinted in Echoes of the Aesthetic Society of Jersey City, New York: Thompson & Moreau, 1882, pp. 133-144, with some revisions, primarily the insertion of a recitation of Poe’s poem “The Bells.”


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