Text: Thomas Dimmock, “Notes on Poe,” Century Magazine (New York, NY), Vol. L, no. 2, June 1895 pp. 315-316


[page 315:]


Notes on Poe.

AT head of an article on “Poe in New York,” in the October CENTURY, is a portrait “from a daguerreotype owned by Mr. Robert Lee Traylor.” A footnote says:

This daguerreotype, made by Pratt of Richmond, was presented by Poe, a short time before his death, to Mrs. Sarah Elmira (Royster) Shelton, whom he had engaged to marry. It is believed to be his last portrait.

As more or less interest attaches to everything connected with Poe, I venture to tell what I know of this portrait.

During the Christmas holidays of 1854-55, I was walking down Main street, Richmond, when my attention was attracted by a picture in the show-case of a daguerreotyper, bearing this inscription: “Edgar Allan Poe — taken three weeks before his death.” I immediately climbed to the studio, and asked for further information, which was cheerfully given by Mr. Pratt.

“You know, of course,” said he, “that the early part of Poe's life, as well as the last months of it, was spent in Richmond. I knew him well, and he had often promised me to sit for a picture, but had never done so. One morning — in September, I think — I was standing at my street door when he came along and spoke to me. I reminded him of his unfulfilled promise, for which he made some excuse I said, ‘Come upstairs now.’ He replied, ‘Why, I am not dressed for it.’ ‘Never mind that,’ said I; ‘I'll gladly take you just as you are.’ He came up, and I took that picture. Three weeks later he was dead in Baltimore.”

Being satisfied then — as I am now — that Mr. Pratt told the truth concerning his daguerreotype, I at once offered to buy it; but naturally enough he declined to sell what, even then, was of considerable value. [column 2:] He told me, however, that he had made an excellent copy for the lady to whom Poe was engaged (not mentioning her name), and would make me one if I so desired. He did so, and this copy is now in my possession, in perfect preservation, after forty years.(1) It is in every respect, so far as I am capable of judging, quite as good as was the original; but it is not the original, nor, I am inclined to think, is that of Mr. Traylor. Where the original now is, I do not know; but whoever examines it, or a good copy, closely, will see that the picture is not such a one as Poe would be likely to give to the lady of his love. The dress is something more than careless. The “stand-up” collar is turned down over a loosely tied cravat; the high-cut waistcoat, with a sprig of evergreen in the buttonhole, is buttoned at the top, but is open nearly all the way down, and into the space thus left a white handkerchief is thrust, as if to conceal the crumpled linen. The coat is thrown back from the shoulders in rather reckless fashion, and the whole costume, as well as the hair and face, indicates that the poor poet was in a mood in which he cared very little how he looked. Moreover, Mr. Pratt gave me distinctly to understand that the copy for Poe's lady-love was made after his death, and at her request; and I also understood that the original had never been out of Pratt's possession. Doubtless he made several — perhaps many — copies after mine; but I am quite certain of the genuineness and fidelity of my own.

In February, 1860, I was again in Richmond, and being still deeply interested in everything pertaining to Poe, I endeavored to enlarge my then rather scanty information by inquiries among those who had personally [page 316:] known him. Except in a single instance, these inquiries were virtually fruitless; but the exception more than compensated for failure elsewhere. Mr. John R. Thompson, editor of the “Southern Literary Messenger,” and after the war a well-known journalist of New York, kindly gave me the benefit of his acquaintance with the subject under peculiarly favorable circumstances. I will condense into the briefest possible compass what Mr. Thompson told me, using his own words as nearly as memory permits.

I was editing the “Messenger” in 1848-49 [said he], when one day, probably in the latter part of 1848, on going home for lunch my mother told me that a stranger had called to see me, and had left a message to the effect that for a week past a man calling himself Poe had been wandering around Rocketts (a rather disreputable suburb of Richmond ) in a state of intoxication and apparent destitution, and that his friends, if he had any, ought to look after him. I immediately took a carriage and drove down to Rocketts, and spent the afternoon in a vain search — being more than once on the point of finding him, when he seemed to slip away. Finally, when night came on I went to the most decent of the drinking-shops and left my card with the barkeeper, with the request that if he saw the alleged Poe again, he would give it him. Ten days, perhaps, had passed, and in the press of occupation the matter had entirely gone from my mind, when on a certain morning a person whom I had never seen before entered the office, and asked if I was Mr. Thompson, and then said, “My name Poe,” without further introduction or explanation. As, singularly enough, I had never met my townsman before, I looked at him with something more than curiosity.

He was unmistakably a gentleman of education and refinement, with the indescribable marks of genius in his face, which was of almost marble whiteness. He was dressed with perfect neatness; but one could see signs of poverty in the well-worn clothes, though his manner betrayed no consciousness of the fact. Neither then nor later did he make the slightest allusion to my visit to Rocketts, and of course I made none. The result of the call was that I offered him a desk in the office, as he was then, he told me, engaged in the preparation of a new edition of his works. Knowing his unfortunate habit, I also offered him a sleeping-room adjoining my own, hoping thereby to control what could not be entirely prevented.

Poe was not what is called “a regular drinker,” but he was what is worse, a most irregular one, the desire for stimulants seeming to seize him like an attack of madness which he was powerless to resist. A single glass set his brain on fire, and it had, so to speak, to burn itself out before he could come to his senses. After a month, perhaps, of total abstinence, he would be “off” for a week; and then some morning would take his seat at his desk without saying a word about his absence, and with no indication in his appearance of what he had been doing meanwhile. His face was always colorless, his nerves always steady, his dress always neat. At first I tried to shorten the period of indulgence by looking him up in his haunts and trying to bring him home; but he never would come with me, and finally I was obliged to let him have his own way. Once I found him in a saloon called “The Alhambra,” frequented by gamblers and sporting men. He was mounted on a marble-top table, declaiming passages from his then unpublished “Eureka” to a motley crowd, to whom it was as unintelligible as so much Hebrew.

Drink was, so far at least as my knowledge extends, Poe's only form of dissipation. That fatal habit did not in his case bring with it the usual train of kindred vices. His tastes in everything else were naturally refined. I never heard him use a word which could not have been spoken with propriety in the presence of ladies; and he had the strongest dislike for every sort of slang, spoken or written. As a converser I have never heard his equal, except Macaulay; and the styles and, subjects of the two men were so widely different that no comparison is possible. Poe's conversation was more like soliloquy than anything else; he never seemed to be aware of a listener, or to need one. Usually he was very reticent. I am quite sure I never heard him laugh, and do not think I ever saw him smile; nor did he ever [column 2:] speak about his past life, or invite any questions concerning it — not even his extensive travels and strange experiences in Europe. Apparently his life had in it neither happiness nor hope. Undoubtedly he himself was the hero of “The Raven.” He was always very careful and methodical in his writing for the press, using always the old-fashioned letter-paper cut into strips of equal size, which, when filled, were rolled up, never folded. His penmanship was beautifully clear and distinct, and he never used a pencil. When he left Richmond, in the latter part of September, 1849, it was to return in a few weeks, and resume his work. Why he did not, you know.

Mr. Thompson gave me one of the slips of the original manuscript of the “Marginalia.” It begins with this sentence, “One of our truest poets is Thomas Buchanan Read,” and ends with a quotation from Lowell.

I may now mention a curious fact never, I think, stated in any of the biographies. For more than twenty-five years Poe slept in an unmarked grave. When I first visited the cemetery attached to the Westminster Presbyterian Church, corner of Fayette and Green streets, Baltimore, in February, 1860, I was shown the grave (not then where it is now), and was told that a monument was in preparation, and would soon be in place. A kinsman who accompanied me went to the workshop after my departure from the city, and made and sent me an exquisite pencil-sketch of the proposed monument, as it would look in the cemetery. That sketch — the only one in existence, I think — is before me. It represents a plain, substantial tablet of white Italian marble, perhaps three feet in height. On the side facing the grave is this inscription:







On the other side: “Jam parce sepulto.” On the foot-stone: “E. A. P.”

Three or four years later I was again in Baltimore, and again visited the cemetery. The grave was there, but nothing to mark it. The sexton could give no explanation or information, and after the expenditure of some time and trouble I finally found the man who had made the tablet. He told me this strange story, the truth of which I have no reason to doubt:

That tablet was finished and standing in my yard. It was to be erected in the cemetery the following week, and would have been but for a most extraordinary accident on the Friday or Saturday preceding. My yard adjoins the tracks of the Northern Central Railroad. A freight-train ran off the track, broke down the fence, and did more or less damage to other work; but the only irreparable damage was done to Poe's tablet. That was smashed to pieces, beyond all power of restoration.

The present monument was put up years afterward.

Surely Poe was that bird's

Unhappy master, whom unmerciful disaster

Followed fast and followed faster, till his song one burden bore ...

of never, — nevermore!

And disaster did not leave him even at the grave.

Thomas Dimmock.



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 315, col. 2:]

1 Mr. Dimmock has since presented this daguerreotype to The Players, New York. — EDITOR.





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