Text: Mrs. Elizabeth Oakes Smith, “Recollections of Poe,” Home Journal, March 15, 1876, p. 1, cols. 5-7, and p. 2, cols. 1-2


­[page 1, column 5, continued:]

For the Home Journal.






HUNDREDS of critiques have been written upon Shakspere’s [[sic]] character of Hamlet, and hundreds more will be written, and yet that world will not tire of the subject, for Hamlet is a representative of those rare creations that sometimes appear upon earth, who are “in the world but not of it.” Combinations of poetry and sensitiveness, whose moral and intellectual composition fail to see through the veritable existence of things; to reconcile the ought to be with their own sad experience, and who find it “all a muddle.”

So it is with Edgar Poe, the strange, weird creature of eloquence and song, whom nobody seems to understand, and yet who exercises such a fascination over the human mind: it was so in his lifetime, and it will continue to be so, as long as his solemn “nevermore” finds its echo in the common heart. He was a Hamlet man in many phases of character, and I have often thought that Edwin Booth is more thoroughly identified in the character which he personates, in that of Hamlet than any other, from a like cause. In the midnight scene of the burial of Ophelia, he, to my mind, is neither Edwin Booth nor Hamlet, but Edgar Poe. His person, voice, face, and manner seem to undergo a perfect transformation to that of the author of “The Raven.”

At one time Poe lived in a little band-box of a house at Fordham, adjoining the grounds of the Seminary of St. Francis Xavier, and the Brothers, as they traversed the grounds to their midnight mass, often encountered Poe flitting under the solemn shadow of the overhanging trees, his arms folded upon his breast, so rapt in his dreamy fancies that he did not observe the passing of the Brothers. In scenes like this he was more at home than in the crowded city; more himself by the

“surf tormented shore,”

than in the society of men and women. This was his real character, dreamy, abstract, and essentially solitary; but he did not like this estimate of himself — he did not like to be regarded as a man impelled by his genius, but rather as one who held all his faculties by a Promethean power. This is the secret of his many mistakes in life. Society magnetized him out of his true sphere; rendered him self-assertive, and sometimes foolishly emulous of doing as men of coarser make might do with impunity.

He was essentially a child, with a child’s freaks and caprices, but withal a child’s unearthly questioning, and wild, tormenting fancies. I have seen women perfectly spell-bound while, with his beautiful intonations, he gave form to some splendid poetic theory, some vast, eloquent idealism which he clothed in exquisite diction, which I am sure was like a midnight dream even to himself, and which his listeners did not comprehend a word of, being, in fact, a resumé of his “Eureka” put to music.

The first time I ever saw Mr. Poe he called upon me with his pretty child-wife, who must have been to him as near as anything earthly could be, “Lenore,” with her large, lustrous eyes, and serious, lovely face. I had been inclined to a prejudice against him, from some gossip that had come to my ears, but seeing him disarmed it all. I noted his delicate organization — the white, fine skin of a face that had upon it an expression of questioning like that of a child, a shade of anxiety, a touch of awe, of sadness; a look out of the large, clear eyes of intense solitude.

I felt a painful sympathy for him, just as one would feel for a bright, over-thoughtful child. I said at once:

“Ah! Mr. Poe, this country affords no arena for those who live to dream.”

“Do you dream? I mean sleeping dream?” he asked, quickly.

“Oh, yes! I am a perfect Joseph in dreaming, except that my dreams are of the unknown, the spiritual.”

“I knew it,” he said, softly, “I knew it by your eyes; and I — the great shadowy realm of dreams, whose music, hidden from mortal ears, swells through all space, and gleams of more than mortal beauty ravish the eyes, come to me — that is to dream!” and his eyes were far off in expression as if he saw them upon the instant. Suddenly he asked:

“Do these sweet, shadowy faces wear to you an expression of pain?”

“Not so much of pain as grave thoughtfulness — a tender sympathy.”

“Ah! That is your mind — to me they wear a look of suffering — patient suffering — almost an appeal — and I spread out my hands to reach them. I call to them in my dreams. I am more to them than they to me. I call upon them to speak, but they are silent, and float away, pointing onward.”

I have often recalled this conversation as a sort of key to his mental construction. He was entirely dominated by the imagination. He saw everything through the haze of this faculty. Phrenologically it was larger than any other faculty, and, like a vortex, drew all others into itself. So much was this the case that I think he was unable to view moral questions from a conscientious standpoint. He was fortunately gentle of heart, or he might from this cause, under a great stress, have reasoned himself into justifying anomalous acts, as did Eugene Aram; though, had he been rich and prosperous, he would most likely have wasted his fine genius in luxury and expense, involving the grand or the beautiful to the senses like the author of “Hall of Eblis.” But such was not to be. Poe, when I knew him, was poor, and struggling for daily bread. Utterly incompetent, in a business point of view, he was often sore perplexed, yet he made no complaint. He would set for long, long hours evolving those poems of such musical rhythm that they seem like dream music; and of mystical, far off significance, always with an element [column 6:] of pain, such as he spoke of in his dreams, and expressed in so many ways. Who but Poe would speak of a “surf-tormented shore?” Listen to the following as the sorrowful expression of a sad, sad life:

“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?”

Never was man more cruelly and more recklessly abused than Poe. Viewed in the ordinary standpoint of biographic structure, he was too often culpable, but considering him as a unique creation, from the standpoint of what was in the main, he was more deserving of our pity, even love, than of our condemnation. Some of these slanders had their rise in the lack of business capacity on the part of Mr. Poe. He was often driven to his wits end for daily bread, and but for the untiring devotion and ceaseless exertions of his mother-in-law, Mrs. Clem [[Clemm]], would have hardly kept should and body together for any length of time. He borrowed money, it is said, with no intention of repaying it; but this was not true. He would have paid it if he could. He mistook in borrowing of women, who have little money to spare, and who are not scrupulous in speaking of such things. That Edgar Poe may have subjected himself to the imputation of inebriety may perhaps be conceded, for a glass of wine would act fearfully upon his delicate organization; but that he was a debauched man in any way is utterly false. He was not a diseased man from his cups at the time of his death, nor did he died from delirium tremens, as has been asserted. The whole sad story will probably never be known, but he had corresponded with a woman whose name I withhold, and they having subsequently quarrelled, he refused to return her letters, nor did she receive them till Dr. Griswold gave them back after Poe’s death. This retention not only alarmed but exasperated the woman, and she sent an emissary of her own to force the delivery, and who, failing of success, beat the unhappy man in a most ruffianly manner. A brain fever supervened, and a few friends went with him to Baltimore, his native city, which he barely reached when he died.

To me, Edgar Poe was more spectral than human. Impassioned he was, in a high, weird sense, an unearthly, Promethean sense, in a tragic, Shelly-like sense, that suggested awe and mystery, if not dread. He was not an insane man, but a touch more would have made him so, if great

“Genius to madness is nearly allied.”

In the arena of his own being; standing alone, all was clear and coherent; standing in relation to others, disorder marred the harmony. There were many rumors afloat as to the real parentage of Mr. Poe, which is of little consequence to consider, for one or both progenitors must have been exquisitely organized, and have entailed upon their child a most wonderful and susceptible genius. He was entirely original, even if the worse for it, and so was the beautiful dreamer, Thoreau; but then the gentle Hermit of Concord was calm, thoughtful, and able to follow the bent of his mind, while Poe, more impassioned, was forced out, cast, as it were, upon the thick bones of the world, with no means of self-defence. I do not know how it would have fared with him had he not found the untiring friend he found in Mrs. Clem [[Clemm]].

“But,” somebody will say, “Poe was a man and ought to have been the protector.”

I know that is the theory, time out of mind — the traditional, conventional theory that man is protective, woman dependent — which is exploded by every day’s experience, and yet men are blamed for not being manly, and women blamed for being manish, as though people can help being what they are — help what is born in the bone. Men, such as Edgar Poe, will always have an ideal of themselves by which they represent the chivalry of a Bayard and the heroism of a Viking, when, in fact, they are utterly dependent and tormented with womanish sensibilities. I do not see that the sexes greatly differ, the strong of each and the harmonious of each being the exception and not the rule; if it were otherwise, novelists and poets would have nothing to do. Poe, then, was not able to take care of himself; he worked as best he knew how, wrote out of the affluence of his wild, dominating imagination, and died in good time, before poverty and many other disabilities had utterly wrecked him. The “Life of Poe,” by Dr. Griswold, is a libel, as are many other sketches of him.

Mr. White, proprietor of the Southern Literary Messenger, with whom Poe was at one time associated, often spoke freely to me of the latter, but more in sorrow than in anger. It was to Eliza White, the daughter, that he wrote first those epigramatic lines so often quoted, and which the poet subsequently passed round as a sort of currency to other ladies more or less engaging. They may be found in a volume, edited by Mary E. Hewitt, “In Memoriam of Fannie Osgood,” as follows:

“Thou would’st be loved? then let thy heart

From its present pathway part not!

Being everything, 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 — as simple duty.”

This reminds one of Shelley.

Modern biography dwells too much upon the dark, human side of the subject, and biographers forget to tread lightly upon the ashes of the dead. No amount of training can counteract the consequences of an unfortunate organization — implora pace!

Edgar Poe was born in Baltimore, January, 1811, and died in that city, of brain fever, October 7, 1849. Thirty-eight years of bewildered, intensified suffering. It is no wonder that his dreams were full of pain, and the keynote of all his imaginings, anguish and distress. Society may condemn, the good may deplore the shortcomings and eccentricities of this man; but, in the language of Cooper’s admirable Leatherstocking, we can only say he “lived up to his lights.” He found many friends, but always contrived to lose them — he had great opportunities, but was no more able to bear prosperity than he was to resist adversity. He was one of those difficult to help, because unable to help himself. He had travelled much, but I never heard him speak of this part of his experience, because I believe with him the actual was irksome and made little impression, while idealisms, abstractions, thought were all that was tangible to his mind, all that really had an existence in [column 7:] it. He was mystical and liked to talk about geometric harmonies and the power existing in numbers.

I think one reason why Mr. Poe seemed ungrateful to those who befriended him arose from a feeling which only a large, generous mind is able to surmount — a sense of dependence. On this ground he was not merely sensitive — he was foolishly excitable, and would wander off by himself and brood, and perhaps make an utter flight from the vicinity, regardless of consequences. He never found any fitting sphere of life, perhaps never could have found such, unless his lot had been cast in some little court such as Göethe and Schiller found in Weimar, where the moral atmosphere is not too punctilious, and the peccadilloes of genius are winked at because of the rareness of the gift.

The criticisms of Poe are often quoted as of more value than belongs to them. I think he was honest in the main in these; but his own mind was so peculiar, ran so in a given vein, that he had little hospitality for diversity of talents, no appreciation whatever for mere wit, and far less for humor.

In this connection I will remark, I never heard Edgar Poe laugh, rarely saw him smile, and when he did so it was nearer a tear than a smile. I used to say to myself, “Devils sneer or laugh — this man never does either. Angels smile; but there is no tenderness in this man’s smile; it is one that suggests pain more than sympathy or pleasure.” I never saw Poe eat, and those who knew him at his best observed that the “trencher” had little or no attraction to this purely intellectual child of imagination. Indeed, there was nothing in the person or manner of Mr. Poe to indicate sensualism or debauch; had it been otherwise he could not have held the place he occupied in the very eclectic society of the then literati of New York. At that time, at the houses of Rev. Orville Dewey, Miss Anna C. Lynch, (now Mrs. Botta;) Marcus Spring, James Lawson, and others of scarcely less celebrity, might be found some of the finest spirits of any age, whose worth and brilliancy entitled them to all the homage they received, and here Edgar Poe was an accepted and honored guest. His manners were refined, and his scope of conversation that of the gentlemen and the scholar. His wife being an invalid dared not encounter the night air, but he spoke of her tenderly, and often.

I had been talking with Catherine Sedgewick, who was a charming woman, bright and companionable, at that happy age when adulation has ceased to be graceful, and Mr. Poe joined us. Catherine Sedgewick was admired through a long life for her literary achievements no less than her fine moral tone, and womanly characteristics. Mr. Poe, I thought, had not much praised me in a critique upon “Autographs,” but this did not so much disturb me as the injustice he had done my husband. He had appreciated neither his genius nor his character, and this had somewhat prejudiced me against him. The conversation became animated, and I soon saw that a mind like Mr. Poe’s would utterly fail to understand or appreciate one capable of combining the ideas of a statesman with the irony of the humorist as in the “Downing Letters.” I saw that the “Raven” was really Mr. Poe; that he did not from another mental phase produce “Lenore” or any other poem, but the idiosyncracy of the author’s mind was continued in each, like his dream within a dream. Then I laid aside my bit of personal pique and recognized the weird poet such as he was.

“I am afraid my critique upon you did not please you,” he said, with his large eyes anxiously fixed upon me; I was half inclined to take him seriously to task, and now wish I had done so, but I only replied:

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

“I meant great praise,” he replied.

After his death I received, through Dr. Griswold, a small volume of my poems, in which his annotations were more flattering than his printed notice.

The penmanship of Poe was fine, even to exquisiteness, like engraving. He was in the habit of preparing to write by cutting his paper into narrow strips and glueing the ends together; this he would roll up, often making [[a]] manuscript many yards in length. He was not an idle man, and his contributions to literature comprise several volumes. He obtained more than one prize, which he used to say he won in part because of his clear, plain writing, forgetting, or not knowing how startlingly original were his writings to other minds. His sombre pictures and intricate machinery have a peculiar fascination which few can resist, while a cold unearthly light, half angel, half devil, like his own sad self, wrought a wizard spell upon the reader. His critiques were read with avidity, not that he convinced the judgment, but because people like to see the idols of the public seized by the beard and knocked right and left to show whether they are gods or not. Sometimes he seized a real genius in the same cool hardihood, which did the author no harm, for he is a pigmy in giant’s armor that does not come out the stronger for assault. He hated Boston and her people with a childish hatred, not unprovoked by the mutual admiration which exists there for each other; but when he was invited in good faith to give a poem before one of their institutions it was a boyish piece of malice in him to go there with a miserable travestie upon something or other, and the recoil injured no one but himself. But when he had once conceived an idea he held on to it, was pertinacious in pursuing it, till the freak was exhausted.

As a prose writer the stories of Poe are finished in the highest artistic manner. They are not pleasing, perhaps not altogether wholesome, but they fascinate with a serpent-like power. He filled up incident and multiplied congruities like a man savagely intent upon making you believe him. We have no sympathy with the theme but it holds us with the tenacity of the “Ancient Mariner” of Coleridge. We read on with a ghostly interest, and draw a long breath at the close, glad it is over.

As a poet Mr. Poe may not be placed in the highest rank, but he will occupy a niche all his own. His wondrous vocabulary, his startling command of a weird, cold, passionate region, as of glacier glitter and gloom, will make him always sought after by the imaginative. The dainty ring of his chimes, the exquisite sweetness and iterating flow of his numbers can hardly be equalled. He is never didactic; that was out of the question, even if desirable to a poet, in a mind like his. Neither was he a Catullus or a Moore, enrapturing the senses — nor had he the exquisite sensuousness of Keats; he has not the unimpassioned malignancy ­[page 2, column 1:] of our Iago, but there is much of the gloomy discontent of Byron, and the unearthly melody of Shelley.

His “Annabel Lee.:”

“For the moon never beans without bringing the dreams

Of 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 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.”

Or Shelley’s

“The desire of the moth for the star,

Of the night for the morning

The devotion to something afar

From the sphere of our sorrow.”

Only the element of pain, so much a thread in this organization of Poe, is less apparent in what we have quoted.

The “Raven” is a poem so unique that we accept it without a question. We do not ask whether it will abide the hard nib of the critic, but impressed we care not how or why, we move onward to its stately march, repeating its melancholy refrain of “nevermore,” as from a sealed-up chamber of the heart. In spite of the foolish manner in which Poe affects to have written it, I believe it the most entirely spontaneous thing he ever wrote, because it characterizes best, or most fully the dirge-like, spectral-haunted quality of his own genius. Poe liked to repeat it to himself and hear it spoken of. It was the one poem of which he was himself fond. He was sensitive to blame as well as praise, and at the time he wrote “The Raven,” he had causes for discontent. One night at the Park Theatre, some distinguished actor seeing Poe present, interpolated in his part the refrain, nevermore. A thrill ran through the audience, and a profound sensation was produced. Mr. Poe referred to this in conversation with me, not in vanity, but with large, supernal eyes, as if the dirge were an ever-present echo.

“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.”

I believe one must be able to ignore all actualities in order to see anything in it.

I have heard Mr. Charles F. Hoffman read “The Raven,” in his fine, manly voice.

“It is greater than Mr. Poe realizes,” said Mr. H. “It is despair brooding over wisdom. The bust of Athæne becomes the perch of ‘The Raven.’ ”

I have heard no one else so startlingly interpret this solemn oracle.

Mr. Poe was pleased with the impression which “The Raven” produced upon me. In a morning call my canary alighted upon the head of Apollo in my room.

“See, Mr. Poe,” I said, “I do not keep a raven, but there is a song to song. Why did you not put an owl on the head of Pallas? However, there would have been no poem then.”

“No, there is mystery about the raven.”

Then he referred to Mrs. Sarah Helena Whitman, remarking:

“Such women as you, and Helena, and a few others ought to be installed as queens, and artists of all kinds should be privileged to pay you court. They would grow wise and holy under such companionship.”

“Will not women hereafter be installed as teachers, counsellors and friends, even as protectors in a high sense?” I replied.

“Ah! well, I shall see it only as Hamlet saw, in the mind’s eye.”

As I have said, to me Poe was more spectral than human. I have felt a deep sadness when I have heard persons of ordinary perceptions and little idealism abuse him, as indicating how impossible it is for genius in our midst to be understood. We prate about individualism, but no sooner does it make its appearance than we are frantic to crush it out, and pelt it with stones like the boys in the fable of the frogs. Mr. Poe suggested something solemn and cathedral-like, tones coming from far distances, and blending in receding vistas. His poems awaken no hopefulness, no sympathy, no noble aspirations, only a lone, painful reminiscence, more distressing than beautiful. We listen as to a dirge, but it is not of mortal sounding; it is as if a lost spirit stood beside some awe-engirdelled shore where funeral manes walk slowly to and fro, and the silence is unbroken by the dead waves that kiss silently the gray pebbles, and then we hear coming out of the deep silence the solemn chant nevermore. He was haunted by the dim region of sleep and the mystery of dreams: we find it in his poetry, and it gleamed from his strange eyes, and imparted something like mystery to his whole being. His loves were all ideal; there is no Rubens flesh and blood about them, nothing but a dreamy phantasmagoria of gleaming, starry eyes, and angel wings, half rising out of a Beckwithian Hall of Eblis.

It has been said that Edgar Poe was treacherous to women, while at the same time they felt his irresistible fascinations. It is time this miserable cant were at an end. Superior women are not apt to compromise themselves. It has been said that letters written to Edgar Poe, without signature, were found after his death with the author’s names endorsed upon them. A man that would do this would as soon endorse a false as a true name. I doubt the story altogether. I do not believe that Poe was ever the all-subduing man to the sex which the vanity of some and the falsehood of others have represented him. It should be born in mind that always there is something arbitrary in these things — the great laws of God in the being of each is more powerful 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 so much aliment to his vanity, caprice or voluptuousness, yet over and above all this recklessness on his part, he must have some basis of genuine manhood to inspire women with confidence in him; he must have a certain degree of human tenderness, to evolve affection no less than fancy.

Women, however their vanity may be flattered by the admiration of a poet, and however much such admiration may win a superficial response, are never deeply affected except by that which is earnestly genuine. Of the myriad of little loves which have made up the staple of the world, not one in a million is of sufficient magnitude to be at all noteworthy. Made up of the irregular demonstrations of the mind as they are, made up of vanity, selfishness, spleen and jealousy, to trumpet them before the world as we find them in certain biographies, to revive names and characters doomed to obscurity, is a piece of foolish malice, of unjustifiable scandal as weak as it is wicked. Mr. Poe was not one to inspire a true confidence as a rule of life. I think he did not care to win this kind of confidence. It grated upon his pure idealism. He lived another life — abstract, ideal. Few women ever entered the grave, inner circle of his sombre life. Few cared to do so.

He was an adroit and elegant flatterer for the time being, his imagination being struck by some fine woman. His language was refined, and abounded in the finer shades of poetry praising; a woman’s eyes, he likened them to “the brown leaf which had fallen by still waters.” Asked to define grace, and he gave the name of a woman who had passing touched his fancy. He was always deferential — he paid a compliment to a woman’s understanding no less than to her personal charms. He had an exquisite perception of all the graces of manner and shades of expression. He was [column 2:] an admiring listener, an unobtrusive observer, and delighted in the society of superior woman.

Mr. Poe was of medium height, slender, and erect as a military man — this was due to the training he received at West Point. The last time I saw him he called when my carriage was at the door on my way to Philadelphia, where I was to lecture. He seemed greatly disappointed, even grieved, saying over and over:

“I am sorry I cannot talk with you, I had so much to say. So very much I wished to say ——!”

I recall his look of pain, his unearthly eyes, his weird look of desolation, with a pang even now. Little did I surmise that the grave was so soon to hold all that was mortal to Edgar Poe. Peace to his ashes.





[S:1 - HJ, 1876] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Recollections of Poe (E. O. Smith, 1876)