Text: Anonymous, “Poe's Life in Fordham,” New York Times, January 18, 1891






A few weeks ago there died at Fordham one of the last inhabitants who remembered Edgar Allan Poe and knew him intimately during the latter's two years’ sojourn in that pretty little suburb. And to lovers and admirers of that much-slandered poet it will ever be matter for regret that the Rev. Father Doucet (to whose death we have referred) did not leave us some authentic written or verbal testimony as to the personality of the poet whose friendship he is said to have enjoyed to an unusual degree at a period perhaps the most interesting in Poe's varied and eventful life. From what little can be gathered now it would seem probably that this intimacy revealed to the reverend father many of those delicate traits of a naturally reticent character which have not been always credited heretofore in the public's estimation of Edgar Poe.

Although Poe was by no means a Jesuit or a Catholic, he would naturally find, with that broad-minded tolerance peculiar to most literary people, much that was congenial and even inspiring in an intercourse with the refined and intelligent Jesuit fathers of St. John's College, an institution which was founded, it may be noted, about ten years before he himself made his home in Fordham.

In an interview with Father Soully, President of St. John's, I was told that Poe frequently visited the college, generally in the afternoon or evening when the Faculty were at leisure and could entertain him. He was often on these occasions much depressed in sprits, (this was at the time of or after his wife's death,) and, seeming to crave sympathy, would usually go away feeling brighter and happier for a few hours’ unrestrained conversation. Sometimes, however, he would linger on as though dreading to return to his death-stricken home, and the hospitable fathers would provide him with a bed, and the grateful poet would spend the night with them. It was seldom enough that Poe could meet congenial spirits, and those afternoons and evenings spent at the college must have been a beneficial intellectual relief to his speculative mind, a sympathetic listener being always a delight to one possessing his brilliant conversational powers.

Lacking any personal recollection of the poet himself, Father Scully showed me a brief notice of him that appeared some years ago in the college paper, from which I take the following description:

“Poe was a familiar figure at the college forty years ago. Of a retiring disposition as regards the people of Fordham, he was perfectly at home with regard to St. John's. There seemed to be something congenial in the atmosphere of the place that drew him to it, and though he often went with no express purpose of seeing any one of the Faculty or students, it seemed to soothe his mind to wander at will about the lawn and the beautiful grounds back of the college buildings. It must not be thought from this that he had no friends there. He has three special friends at the college, Rev. Fathers Doucet and Thebaud of the Faculty and Gus Thebaud one of the few students of that time who are now alive. It was one of Poe's greatest gifts that he could make friends wherever he went. To see him was to love him. He had a charming presence. A most intellectual countenance, brilliant dark eyes, a high forehead with the temples well developed, and a pale and sad expression of face were what attracted people. His features were a trifle sharp and made up an almost typical American face. It was a pleasure to see him and still more to listen to him.”

There are two other gentlemen now living at Fordham who have something of interest to tell in regard to Poe. One of these, Gen. Morris, is the son of the poet George P. Morris, who edited the old New-York Mirror, and who was at all times a warm friend of Poe. The General recollects Poe's coming into the editorial rooms one day and presenting with much modesty a poem that he had just written, and about which he desired Morris's opinion. In putting it before him, the poet told the kindly editor that he had not been able to make up his mind as to the value of his production, and would like to know whether he (Morris) considered it good for anything. Transcribed in his beautiful handwriting, on the excellence of which Poe justly prided himself, and coming fresh from his fervent imagination, the poem must have appeared more that [[than]] ordinarily effective. At all events, Morris was not long in coming to a decision, and soon exclaimed with enthusiastic admiration to the pleased poet: “It is by all odds the best thing you have ever written!” And posterity will surely see nothing of friendly prejudice in this favorable opinion, for the poem in question was Poe's “Raven.”

That Poe, of all men, did not at once recognize the surpassing beauty of “The Raven” and should have been in doubt as to its merit is hard to conceive. That he was amusing himself with an assumed modesty in anticipation of his friend's uncompromising praise seems quite probable, for it was one of Poe's peculiarities to disguise his own feelings and personality not only in his writings but in his intercourse with other people. He loved a fantastic joke and nothing gave him more pleasure than to mystify the public about himself. Poe's “Raven” was first published in the Mirror, but from “advance sheets” of a magazine.

According to John B. Haskins, who is, I think, the only person now residing in Fordham who lived contemporaneously with Poe at that place, Poe was “a modest, unassuming gentleman. He came to Fordham in 1848, and lived in the little Valentine cottage with his wife and her mother, Mrs. Clemm, for two years, during which time I met him frequently. He was a very quiet, courteous fellow, engrossed in his fervent poetic fancies and laboring with conscientious care over his writings, about which he was never at ease until, by dint of continued polishing and many alterations, they fulfilled his own fastidious literary taste. His mind had a strong bent for mathematics, which, I think, is clearly evidenced in many of his stories, and yet he was thoroughly unpractical in the ways and necessities of the world, caring little and knowing absolutely nothing about money.

“While he lived here he suffered the most abject poverty. The rent of his cottage, which was $65 a year, was largely unpaid when he left it, as was also the case with various bills for groceries, &c. When his wife died, of whom he was devotedly fond, he was unable to pay her funeral expenses, and a number of the townspeople were compelled to come to his aid with contributions of money. Without his mother-in-law, Mrs. Clemm, it is hard to imagine how Poe and his child-wife could have lived at all. But Mrs. Clemm was a practical as well as a warm-hearted old lady, and did her best to protect these two, who were little more than children, in her care. You remember the lines from ‘Annabel Lee’:

“ ‘I was a child and she was a child

In this kingdom by the sea.’

“Poe wrote that lovely little poem in Fordham soon after his wife's death, and weird and imaginative though it is, it bears the impress of actuality in every line — even to the ‘tomb by the sounding sea.’ Mrs. Poe was buried in sight of the Harlem River, and there many a night the agonized poet would spend a weary vigil, recalling, doubtless with sorrow and remorse, the fragile being whose short existence his own actions had frequently marred with grief. For that Poe drank, and drank to excess, is, I suppose, a fact not worth disputing. I have frequently come home from the city and found him ‘half seas over’ in the public house and sadly in need of some strong hand to rescue him before it was too late. I can remember well on these occasions leaving my horse and guiding the unsteady, silent poet to his house, at the door of which he would dismiss me with a most courtly bow, for even though intoxicated Poe was a gentleman to the very core.

“Mrs. Clemm — good, practical, motherly Mrs. Clemm! — I used frequently to meet on my way to town with a huge market basket on her arm journeying to Vessey Street, where she would dispose of her erratic son-in-law's latest literary wares to the Democratic Review, New-York Mirror, or the Monthly Knickerbocker, and with the beggarly proceeds (for they paid poorly in those days) fill her basket with food for her half-starved protégés.

“As for Poe personally, one could not help being strongly impressed by his marked individuality. He was a genius straight through, if ever there was one, with an indefinable quality about him that appealed to one's deepest feelings for love and sympathy, besides the inevitable tribute of admiration which his bright intellect as shown in conversation would naturally call forth. Physically, his eyes were his most prominent feature. They were large and dark and soft as a woman's although bright sometimes with a masculine fire that seemed half human, half divine. Once seen, no one could forget this remarkable, unfortunate man, who seemed to be endowed with a mixture of curses worthy of a witches’ caldron — genius, poverty, and a love of drink! As to the latter, it has doubtless been much exaggerated by his biographers. Poe stove hard to conquer it, and it was only at certain periods that his enemy would get the better of him. I can positively assert that he was at no time a continuous drinker.”

That Poe was hopelessly poor while at Fordham we can gather from his appeal, which was made in his behalf at that period in the columns of the New-York Express:

“We regret to learn that Edgar A. Poe and his wife are both dangerously ill with the consumption, and that the hand of misfortune lies heavy upon their temporal affairs. We are sorry to mention the fact that they are so far reduced as to be barely able to obtain the necessaries of life. This is, indeed, an hard lot, and we hope that the friends and admirers of Mr. Poe will come promptly to his assistance in his bitterest hour of need.”

I believe that the result of this appeal was a contribution of $60. This description also of his wife's deathbed in the little cottage by an eye witness is not without pathos:

“She lay on the straw bed, wrapped in her husband's great coat, with a large tortoise-shell cat in her [column?:] bosom. The wonderful cat seemed conscious of her great usefulness. The coat and the cat were the sufferer's only means of warmth, except as her husband held her hands and her mother her feet.”

Yet the two years spent in Fordham could not have been without some brief glimpses of sunshine and happiness. Poets are invariably soothed and comforted by an environment of natural scenery, and after the lapse of forty-odd years Fordham is still so rural and charming a locality that we can imagine it to have been a poet's true home before the first encroachments of a rapidly-advancing city had broken its quiet. Those who knew Poe during his residence in Fordham give ample testimony to his appreciation of the country by which he was surrounded. From a letter by Mrs. Whitman, to whom Poe was afterward engaged to be married, the following may be of interest:

“Rising at 4 o’clock in the morning for a walk to the magnificent aqueduct bridge over Harlem River, our informant found the poet with his mother (Mrs. Clemm) standing on the turf beneath the cherry tree, eagerly watching the movements of two beautiful birds that seemed contemplating a settlement in its branches. He had some rare tropical birds in cages, which he cherished and petted with assiduous care. Our English friend described him as giving to his birds and flowers a delighted attention that seemed quite inconsistent with the gloomy and grotesque character of his writings. A favorite cat, too, enjoyed his friendly patronage, and often when he was engaged in composition it seated itself on his shoulder, purring in complacent approval of the work proceeding under its supervision. During Mr. Poe's residence at Fordham a walk to High Bridge was one of his favorite and habitual recreations. The water of the Aqueduct is conveyed across the river on a range of lofty granite arches which rise to the height of 145 feet above high-water level. On the top a turfed and grassy road, used only by foot passengers and flanked on either side by a low parapet of granite, makes one of the finest promenades imaginable. The winding river and the high, rocky shores at the western extremity of the bridge are seen to great advantage from this lofty avenue. In the last melancholy years of his life Poe was accustomed to walk there at all times of the day and night, often pacing the then solitary pathway for hours without meeting a human being.

“A little to the east of the cottage rises a ledge of rocky ground, partly covered with pines and cedars, commanding a fine view of the surrounding country and of the picturesque college of St. John's, which had, at that time, in its neighborhood an avenue of venerable trees. This rocky ledge was one of the poet's favorite resorts. Here, through long Summer days and solitary, star-lit nights, he loved to sit, dreaming his gorgeous waking dreams, or pondering the problems of the ‘Universe,’ that grand ‘prose poem’ to which he devoted the last and maturest energies of his wonderful intellect.

Besides the “Universe” and some other prose works, we may add that Poe composed three of his best poems while in Fordham — “The Bells,” “Ulalume,” and “Annabel Lee.” “The Raven” was written in the Winter of 1844 in a house that stood a few hundred feet from the corner of Eighty-fourth Street and St. Nicholas Boulevard, at that time the Bloomingdale Road, and not, as its inmates will tell you, in the pretty little cottage in Fordham. How circumstantially exact such errors become! The very “room in which Poe wrote ‘The Raven’” is reverently pointed out to the visitor, and we doubt not that if there are any other houses in existence now in which Poe at some period lived, they will boast of a “Raven room,” and possibly a “pallid bust of Pallas” and a “cushioned seat.”

The Poe cottage, situated on quite a high hill on the King's Bridge Road, is still standing intact as Poe left it forty-two years ago, with the remains of the favorite old cherry tree still in front of it. It has recently come into the possession of William Fearing Gill.

Of the interior furnishing of the cottage nothing now remains that belonged to Poe during his occupancy of it with the exception of a candlestick and a pair of snuffers that are still attributed to him. A lady in Fordham, the daughter of a lady who placed blankets on Mrs. Poe's deathbed, is said to have in her possession Poe's rocking chair, table, glasses, and Bible. Now modern houses are rising up on every side of the unpretentious little dwelling, the grove of pines and the flowerbeds have long since passed away, and the wide landscape is filled with signs of growing city “improvements.” But there is still an air of picturesque rusticity about the place and the building itself, in spite of its new and finer neighbors — an eloquent meaning in the rough, shingled, weather-beaten roof, the rude blinds, and the small windows that remind us involuntarily of the poor, suffering poet and his beautiful dying wife who once made this humble cottage their home.



This article was reprinted in the New Orleans Times-Democrat for February 16, 1891. A clipping of this secondary form may be found in the Ingram Collection, University of Virginia, item 877.


[S:0 - NYT, 1891] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Poe's Life in Fordham (Anonymous, 1891)