Text: Charles F. Briggs, “The Personality of Poe,” Independent, December 13, 1877, vol. XXIX (whole no. 1414), pp. 1-2


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THACKERAY said, in his lecture on Dean Swift, that he would have been willing to be the boot-black of Shakespeare for the privilege of looking in his face; or to have been the pot-boy of Harry Fielding merely to have been spoken to by the great novelist as he came out of his room. A similar feeling has been experienced by every one capable of understanding the productions of a man of genius. Who would not be happy to perform almost any menial office for the privilege of looking upon the face of Raphael, or of listening to the voice of the man who composed the music of “Don Giovanni,” or of waiting upon the table at which Burns was a guest? It would be something even now to see the man who had seen Washington, or had listened to Patrick Henry or Franklin. That there are a good many people who think it would have been a happiness to see the face of that sad genius who wrote “Annabel Lee,” and “Leonore [[Lenore]],” and “The Raven,” and “The Gold -Bug” the writer of these lines has abundant reasons for believing.

But the author of “The Raven” was not a pleasant person to know well. Those who knew hiui only by his fascinating poems and his strange, mysterious stories can form no idea of his, triple character. There is hardly a difference of opinion in relation; to the place he is entitled to occupy as an author; no one questions his power as a poet, his originality and skill as a romancer, or his capacity as a critic. All concede that as a literary artist he is entitled to rank among the greatest of American writers, if not of contemporary writers in the English language. He stands in no need of, defense or apology as an author, and he cared for nothing else than a literary reputation. If he were alive to read the angry discussions that have been going on ever since his melancholy death respecting his morals and manners, he would laugh scornfully to think that anybody should deem it worth while to waste a word on a point which to him was a matter of perfect indifference. But it has been a point of honor with certain admirers of Poe’s genius to defend his character against what they choose to consider the malignant slanders of Dr. Griswold, and which one of them calls “ghoulish [column 2:] outrages.” The people who attempt these angry refutations of undeniable facts really know nothing about Poe beyond what they find in his published writings. and there is nothing in them that affords the slightest clew to the peculiarities of his character. He took good care that no one should ever learn anything about him from what he chose to give the world, and he was never so fanciful and so inventive as when he pretended to give little scraps of his personal experiences and surroundings. His “Annabel Lees,” his “Leonores [[Lenores]]” were, like his “Ravens,” purely creations of his imagination. He loved no one, though the objects of his hatred were many; and, if Dr. Griswold had not been restrained by a foolish delicacy, he might have given some startling evidences of the utter contempt which the poet entertained for persons who trustingly believed they were passionately beloved by him. He could write the tenderest and most touching letters, which he would bedabble with real tears, as he folded the paper, to women upon whom he had no other designs than an intention of sending his wife or her mother to them to solicit a loan of $50. Some of these women fondly believed in his passionate infatuation for them; but some others were cruelly undeceived before he died.

There are but few persons living who knew Poe sufficiently well to have seen him in both side of his personality, and they are disinclined to tell what they know. There were some, who knew him only on one side, who were utterly incredulous to his appearance on the other, and who preferred not to know him any other character than that of the decorous, genial, respectful, and accomplished gentleman in which he was presented to them. The late N. P. Wills, who had seen him frequently who enjoyed his conversation, and had found him always exact in his appointments, strictly honorable in the fulfillment of his engagements, scrupulously neat in, his attire, and deferential in his manners, could not believe that he was ever any different. Some of the ladies who have volunteered their testimony to the gentleness and sweetness of his manners; to the tender devotion which he manifested for his delicate wife, and the fondness he exhibited for his mother-in-law, honestly believed, all they wrote; no doubt, and looked upon the wicked Dr. Griswold is a dreadful ogre, who wanted to represent their angel poet as a demon.

Of all the biographies that have been published of the author of “The Raven,” that by Mr. Stoddard is probably the best; and, as he seems to have been influenced by no other than a sincere disposition to discover and narrate the truth, it is greatly to be regretted that he could not have had access to the materials which were left by Dr. Griswold, and which, it is understood, are now in the possession of that much abused gentleman’s last wife, or of ‘her brother. When Poe died, all of his1iterary remains were placed, by his Aunt, Mrs. Clein [[Clemm]], the mother of his wife, in the hands of Dr. Griswold, with full permission for him to make such use of them as he saw fit. She knew the relations which had existed between the Doctor and her darling Eddie,” and thought, him the most fitting person to be intrusted with the delicate duty of selecting from them such portions as might be of interest to the public. How the Doctor performed his duty, and how he has been abused for it, need [column 3:] not be considered here. But the great pity is that illness prevented Dr. Griswold from fulfilling the duty that he owed to himself, as well as to Poe, of giving; the world a fuller and more comprehensive biography. which would have been a complete justification of what he bad already, done, and might, perhaps, have satisfied the admirers of the poet who find it hard to believe that he was possessed of two such contradictory characters as he seems to have borne.

But why, it may be asked, exhibit any one except in the best phase of his character? When (Queen Elizabeth sat for her portrait, she ordered the Italian artist who had undertaken to put her unlovely features upon canvas, to paint her face without any shadows. Shadows, she knew, would reveal her wrinkles, of which she was not in the least vain. But when honest old Oliver Cromwell sat for his picture, he ordered the artist to paint him just as he was, “warts and all.” There are many people, however, who do not like to have the whole truth told about themselves, or about other people, if the whole contains any unpleasant facts. In the Spring Exhibition of paintings in our National Academy of Design there was a very admirable portrait of President Eliot, of Harvard University, by William Page. Everyone who knew the original extolled the excellence of the portrait; but every one knew also that the artist had given a view of the face which did not permit a crimson blotch to be seen. He had not falsified the truth; he had only prevented it from being seen. And this is the way that many famous portraits have been presented to the world. Talfourd did not think it necessary to suppress all mention of his friend Lamb’s infirmity in the matter of drink, nor did he hesitate to let the world know of the terrible act of the gentle Mary Lamb, who killed her mother, in a moment of insanity. It was necessary to reveal these unpleasant truths in order to give a complete and consistent biography of two most remarkable literary characters, whose works have been greatly admired. But in the case of Poe a different course has been followed, and consequently no biography of him has any pretensions to completeness and his character has been strangely misunderstood. Such a shower of abuse fell upon the head of Dr. Griswold for his moderate revelations in relation to the author of “The Raven” that no one has since had the courage to do for him what Oliver Cromwell wanted, and paint him as be was, warts and all. The warts have been omitted, and the world has lost one of the most remarkable portraits that it was likely ever to possess.

In personal appearance Poe was extremely interesting, and it was hardly possible to meet him in his sober moments and converse with him without being strongly impressed in his favor. His remarkably shaped bead, high and broad forehead, his pale complexion, large gray eyes, which always had a sad and tearful look, and his finely-formed mouth — all indicated delicacy and refinement of thought and tenderness of feeling. He never laughed and rarely smiled; but when he did smile there was always a partially-suppressed expression of sadness, which might be easily interpreted as a sardonic reproach for his levity. He spoke with great precision, as though, he were dictating moment an amanuensis, and never for a moment gave utterance to what might be thought a spontaneous or unconsidered [column 4:] idea. His dress was always scrupulously neat and free from anything bizarre or eccentric. He never wore an ornament of an description and wholly avoided colors. His manners were free from affectation, and, although they were graceful and unrestrained, yet he was perfectly respectful and deferential, and made every one feel as if he considered himself under a personal obligation to those who had the patience to listen to him. Such was his appearance when he was free from the excitements of a controversy and when he had not been disturbed by any intoxicating drink.

Those who had seen him only in his, serene moments were amazed and overwhelmed with disgust when he presented himself before them either during the wild excitement of a debauch or in the dreary moments when he was shattered in strength, feeble, and nervously striving to get the better of his conscious degradation. After drinking much less liquor than an ordinary man could have easily carried-off without showing any ill effect from it, he was wild in his looks, insolent and aggressive in his language, reckless as to his personal appearance, filthy to an offensive degree in his talk, and in every respect intolerably indecent. In such a condition he must have been a terror his wife and aunt; and she had on several occasions been compelled to call for help to prevent his committing violence upon the unresisting and helpless creature whom he is represented as loving so tenderly. When be was recovering from those fits of intemperance, he was one of the most pitiful objects conceivable — ghastly in his countenance. filthy in dress; weak, trembling, and piteous in voice — a disgusting and distressing object to look upon and a person to be shunned and avoided. No one who had ever seen him in this degraded condition could ever forget it or have any desire to see him again; and there was no difficulty for those who bad been so unlucky as to be the witnesses of his degradation to believe the stories told of his wretched state when he was found on that dismal, wintry night in Baltimore on which he died.

But his dissipations — which were not intentional, for he was extremely temperate, both in his diet and drink, unless he was subjected’ to strong temptation’s — were not the repulsive traits of his character. What rendered him so obnoxious to those who knew him intimately were his treachery to his friends, his insincerity his utter disregard of his moral obligations, and his total lack of loyalty and nobleness of purpose. He aimed at nothing, thought of nothing, and hoped for nothing but literary reputation; and in this respect he gained all that he aspired to; and his friends should be satisfied to know that he accomplished all, be labored for, and not endeavor to compel the world to award him a character which’ he never coveted and held in supreme contempt.

He was an artist, pure and simple. He aimed at nothing beyond artistic expression, and he regarded all didactic poetry as absurd in the extreme. To appear, and not to be, was what he aimed at. When he made his first entrance into a literary circle in New York, he created at once a most favorable impression. It was at a reception at the house of Mrs. Kirkland, where there were a good many of the New York literati, not one of whom had ever before seen him, and only a few had ever ­[page 2, column 1:] read anything of his writings except “The Raven,” which had just been published in Colton’s Whig Review. He had not been long in New York, and there was great curiosity to see the writer of that wonderful poem. He conducted himself with as much propriety on the occasion as a young lady at herfirst party, and astonished everybody by his perfect good manners, gentleness’, and ready replies to all questions.

But, notwithstanding the popularity of “The Raven,” and the brilliant review of Mrs. Browning’s poems, which be published soon after, he could not succeed in attracting an audience when he delivered a lecture on American poets, and he was greatly exasperated at his failure. His popularity increased; but evil times fell upon him, indiscreet friends led him into rash undertakings, he lost his wife, and at last the end came on that dismal wintry night in Baltimore; when he died at the zenith of his fame and when a prospect of better days than he had ever known was opening to him. But it is unnecessary to repeat here the melancholy story of his last days, for it is already too familiar to the readers of his productions.





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