Text: James A. Harrison, “Chapter 15,” Life and Letters of Edgar Allan Poe (1903), pp. 299-309


[page 299:]




DURING the Whitman episode and while he was travelling to and fro between New York, Providence, and Lowell, where he lectured in August on “The Poetic Principle,” he made some valuable acquaintances — the Richmonds, of Westford — who became attached and life-long friends to himself and Mrs. Clemm. We find him soon after in Richmond, Va., and on intimate terms with the poet John R. Thompson, editor of “The Southern Literary Messenger,” for which he was furnishing new instalments of “Marginalia.” Thompson became extremely fond of Poe, and wrote, after his death, a lecture on him which, it is greatly to be regretted, has seemingly perished. “When in Richmond,” reports Mr. Thompson, “he made the office of the ‘Messenger’ a place of frequent resort. His conversation was always attractive, and at times very brilliant. Among modern authors his favorite way Tennyson, and he delighted to recite from ‘The Princess’ the song — ‘Tears, idle tears’ — and a fragment of which,

“ ‘when unto dying eyes

The casement slowly grows a glimmering square,’

he pronounced unsurpassed by any image expressed in writing.” [page 300:]

For Mr. Thompson, whom he inspired with an affection similar to that with which he inspired all with whom he had personal dealings, he wrote much of his sparkling and vivid “Marginalia,” as well as reviews of “Stella” and Mrs. Osgood. To his quality and general worth Mr. Thompson, who saw so much of him in his latter days, bears feeling testimony. In 1853, writing to Mr. James Wood Davidson, Mr. Thompson remarks: ” Two years ago, I had a long conversation with Mr. Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning concerning Poe. The two poets, like yourself, had formed an ardent and just admiration of the author of ‘The Raven,’ and feel a strong desire to see his memory vindicated from moral aspersion.”

“Stella” was another link in the golden chain of women who honored and almost worshipped the poet, and who have done more than any other per sons to vindicate and cleanse his bedraggled memory. She was the woman to whom Poe, as he parted with her the day he left for the fatal journey to Richmond, entrusted the writing of his life — Miss Robinson, an accomplished lady of Baltimore, who had spent much of her early life in Cuba, where her father was engaged in business. She was a thorough linguist in the ancient and modern languages, and married an attorney in Brooklyn, Mr. S. D. Lewis. She tells of her acquaintance in the following lines: “I saw much of Mr. Poe during the last year of his life. He was one of the most sensitive and refined gentlemen I ever met. My girlish poem, ‘Forsaken,’ made us acquainted. He had seen it floating the rounds of the press, and wrote to tell me how much he liked it: It is inexpressibly beautiful,’ he said, ‘and I should very much like to know the young author.’ ” [page 301:]

Poe wrote of her: “Mrs. Lewis is, perhaps, the best educated, if not the most accomplished of American authoresses. . . . She is not only cultivated as respects the usual ornamental acquirements of her sex, but excels as a modern linguist, and very especially as a classical scholar; while her scientific acquisitions are of no common order.”

The lady translated charmingly from Vergil, published “Records of the Heart” (Appletons, 1844), “The Child of the Sea,” (Putnams, 1848), “The King’s Stratagem,” “Sappho: A Tragedy” (published in London, 1876, and dedicated to her “devoted friend Adelaide Ristori, the greatest living tragédienne”), and many fugitive poems. To her Poe addressed “An Enigma,” which appeared in the “Union Magazine” for March, 1848 — easily solved by combining, as in “A Valentine,” the first letter in the first line with the second in the second, and so on, until “the dear names that lie concealed within ‘t” are spelt out; and she was one of the warm friends who assisted Mrs. Shew and the Union Club in raising a purse of $100 for the destitute family after Virginia’s death,

Not long before the Virginia trip a cheering beam fell across Poe’s path in the friendship of the Richmonds (to which we have already referred) — a family who gave Mrs. Clemm a hospitable home and divided with the Lewises the kind offices of true friendship towards her after Poe’s death. This friendship began in the summer of 1848, when he was lecturing in Lowell on “The Female Poets of America,” and later, the “same year, when he lectured on “The Poetic Principle;” and it was to the “Annie” of this household that he addressed his strange and beautiful death-poem, “For Annie,” first mentioned in a [page 302:] letter to her, dated March 23, 1849, and first published in “The Flag of Our Union” the same year. It begins: —

“ ‘Thank Heaven! the crisis,

The danger, is past,

And the lingering illness

Is over at last,

And the fever called ‘Living’

Is conquered at last.”

The last two lines have the additional interest that Longfellow suggested them as an epitaph for Poe’s grave(1) when the Baltimore monument was erected in 1875.

Of this poem Poe wrote: “I enclose also some other lines ‘For Annie,’ — and will you let me know in what manner they impress you? I have sent them to the ‘Flag of Our Union,’ . . . I am sorry to say that the ‘Metropolitan’ has stopped and ‘Landor’s Cottage’ is returned on my hands unprinted. I think the lines ‘For Annie’ (those I now send) much the best I have ever written; but an author can seldom depend on his own estimate of his own works, so I wish to know what ‘Annie’ truly thinks of them. . . . Do not let the verses go out of your possession until you see them in print, — as I have sold them to the publisher of the ‘Flag.‘”

At Poe’s request Willis, his faithful friend, “disentombed” the poem from the newspaper in which it was buried and reprinted it in “The Home Journal.”

At this time Poe was suffering from repeated disappointments; the numerous literary engagements which he had formed with “The Columbian Magazine,” “The Post,” “The Whig Review,” and “The [page 303:] Democratic,” were broken either by the failure of the periodicals or by their inability to pay; even his stand-bys — “The Southern Literary Messenger,” “Graham’s,” and “Sartain’s,” began to vacillate in their hospitality and to threaten to drop from under him. Articles were returned, were held up indefinitely after acceptance, or disappeared in the mails. He pours out his lamentations to his new Massachusetts friends and reveals to “Annie,” with a singular warmth of tone, all his personal feelings, hopes, and forebodings. All this fateful year was full of extraordinary portent for him:

“No, my sadness is unaccountable,” he writes to her, “and this makes me the more sad. I am full of dark forebodings. Nothing cheers or comforts me. My life seems wasted — the future looks a dreary blank: but I will struggle on and ‘hope against hope.‘”

This was a little while before he set out for Richmond on the final journey.

A lady correspondent of Mr. Gill’s(1) has given some graphic recollections of Poe at this time as he appeared to his Lowell-Westford friends:

“I have in my mind’s-eye a figure somewhat below medium height, perhaps, but so perfectly proportioned, and crowned with such a noble head, so regally carried, that to my girlish apprehension he gave the impression of commanding stature. Those clear, sad eyes seemed to look from an eminence rather than from the ordinary level of humanity, while his conversational tone was so low and deep that one could easily fancy it borne to the ear from some distant height. [page 304:]

“I saw him first in Lowell, and there heard him give a lecture on Poetry, illustrated by readings. His manner of rendering some of the selections constitutes my only remembrance of the evening which so fascinated me. Everything was rendered with pure intonation, and perfect enunciation, marked attention being paid to the rhythm. He almost sang the more musical versifications. I recall more perfectly than anything else the undulations of his smooth baritone voice as he recited the opening lines of Byron’s ‘Bride of Abydos‘: —

“ ‘Know ye the land where the cypress and myrtle

Are emblems of deeds that are done in their clime,’ —

measuring the dactylic movement perfectly as if he were scanning it. The effect was very pleasing.

“He insisted strongly upon an even, metrical flow in versification, and said that hard, unequally stepping poetry had better be done into prose. I think he made no selections of a humorous character, either in his public or parlor readings. He smiled but seldom, and never laughed, or said anything to excite mirth in others. His manner was quiet and grave. . . . In thinking of Mr. Poe in later years I have often applied to him the line of Wordsworth’s sonnet”

“ ‘Thy soul was like a star, and dwelt apart. ’ ”

The first mention of the ballad of “Annabel Lee” (published two days after his death in the “New York Tribune” for October 9th, then in “The Southern Literary Messenger” for November, 1849, then in Sartain’s “Union Magazine” for January, 1850) — literally a voice from the tomb, with the accents of Death and of undying music in it — is found in one [page 305:] of the letters to “Annie,” in which, speaking of the lines “For Annie,” he says: “The ‘Flag,’ so misprinted them that I was resolved to have a true copy. The ‘Flag’ has two of my articles yet — ‘A Sonnet to my Mother,’ and ‘Landor’s Cottage.’ . . . I have written a ballad called ‘Annabel Lee,’ which I will send you soon.”

In her “Stanzas for Music,” subsequently enlarged and published as “Our Island of Dreams,” quoted on p. 291, Mrs. Whitman(1) saw the germ of “Annabel Lee,” which she firmly believed was an answer to her poem from the striking allusions to “the night wind blew cold on my desolate heart” and “our lone island home and the moan of the sea,” occurring therein. Richard Hengist Horne saw in it one more instance of Poe’s “studied artifice, selection, or coinage, of liquid and sonorous sounds and words such as (to spell them phonetically) ullaleameannabelleells — (in the ‘Bells‘), are in ‘The Raven,’ which abounds in that long-drawn tone.”

The last pathetic glimpse that we get of Poe in New York is on an early summer morning in June, when, having spent the night with his “dear Muddie ” (as he affectionately called Mrs. Clernm) at Mrs. Lewis’s, he stood on the threshold of the hospitable home and, with streaming eyes and heart full of foreboding, bade farewell: a slight, poetic figure, tense with emotion, so full of dynamic force that even then, after many almost deadly illnesses, his brain teemed with projects for the future. All through these latter years one hears of “A Critical History of American Literature,” “The Literati: Some Honest [page 306:] Opinions about Autorial Merits and Demerits, with Occasional Words of Personality, together with Marginalia, Suggestions, and Essays ”: an expanded reprint of his Literati series, with quotations from Bacon and Coke; and “Phases of American Literature”; but nothing came of them.

“The day before he left New York for Richmond,” says Mrs. Lewis, “Mr. Poe came to dinner and stayed the night. He seemed very sad and retired early. On leaving the next morning he took my hand in his, and, looking in my face, said, ‘Dear Stella, my much-beloved friend: You truly understand and appreciate me — I have a presentiment that I shall never see you again. I must leave to-day far Richmond. If I never return, write my life, you can and will do me justice.’

“ ‘I will!’ I exclaimed. And we parted to meet no more in this life. That promise I have not yet felt equal to fulfil.”

Mrs. Clemm noted the wretched spirits in which he parted from them, before leaving home, arranging all his papers and telling her what to do in case he died.

The parting on the steamboat was a very dejected one, though he tried in vain to cheer and comfort her with promises to return soon full of love and consolation.

John Sartain, the artist and magazinist, who edited the well-known periodical — Sartain’s “Union Magazine” — in which “The Bells” was published, lifts the veil and tells us what happened in Philadelphia to the ill-controlled and impoverished poet: another scene from Dante’s Inferno. Poe’s low nervous condition, his run-down physical system, his extreme mental depression on separating from his friends, the slow ravages of the lesion in the brain from which he was all this [page 307:] time suffering, an apparent utter prostration of the will before drugs or stimulants that would for a moment lift him out of the Slough of Despond or even momentarily restore an artificial vigor, were the subtle agencies at work to overthrow his brave determination to show Mrs. Clemm “how good he could be while he was away.”

“Poe,” says Mr. Gill,(1) “was an inmate [at Philadelphia] of the hospitable mansion of the artist and publisher, Mr. J. Sartain, widely known as the proprietor of ’Sartain’s Magazine,’ whose kindness the poet had frequently shared. Fortunate, indeed, would it have been for Poe had he met with this staunch friend on first reaching the city this time. Had he fallen into his protecting hands earlier, instead of meeting with reckless associates, ready as in old times to tempt him to the indulgence inevitably fatal to him, how different might have been his fate! But it was ordained otherwise. When he finally reached the residence of his kind friend, Poe was in a highly excited condition, almost distracted indeed. His mind seemed’ bewildered and oppressed with the dread of some fearful conspiracy against his life; nor could the arguments or entreaties of his friend convince him that some deadly foe was not, at that very moment, in pursuit of 4me begged for a razor for the purpose of removing the moustache from his lip, in order, as he suggested, that he might disguise his appearance, and thus baffle his pursuers. But, unwilling to place such an instrument in his hands, he was prevailed upon to allow his host to effect the desired change upon which he imagined his safety depended. The condition of [page 308:] Poe’s mind was such that Mr. Sartain, after persuading him to lie down, remained watching with him through the night with anxious solicitude, unwilling to lose sight of the unfortunate sufferer for a moment. The following night, Poe insisted on going out. He turned his steps towards the River Schuylkill, accompanied, however, by his devoted friend, whose apprehension was strengthened by the vehemence with which, without cessation, he poured forth in the rich, musical tones for which he was distinguished, the fervid imageries of his brilliant but over-excited imagination. The all-absorbing theme which still retained possession of his mind, was the fearful conspiracy that ’ threatened his destruction. Vainly his friend endeavored to reassure and persuade him. He rushed on with unwearied steps, threading different streets, his companion striving to lead him homeward, but still in vain.

“Towards midnight, they reached Fairmount and ascended the steps leading to the summit, Poe all the while giving free scope to the conversational powers for which he was always remarkable, insisting upon the imminence of his peril, and pleading with touching eloquence for protection. . . .

“He did n’t recover from this intense excitement until, subsequently, escaping from the house, he wandered out into the neighborhood of the city, and, throwing himself down in the open air in a pleasant field, his shattered nerves found a comfortless but sorely needed repose. He woke refreshed. . . .

“All that he could call to mind were the entreaties and persuasions of some ‘guardian angel’ who had sought to dissuade him from a frightful purpose.”

More than three weeks elapsed before Mrs. Clemm, [page 309:] distracted with apprehension and grief, heard from “Eddie,” and then he had reached Richmond and was at the house of Mrs. Nye, an old friend of the family. The man who could trace Conscience with such terrible force in others, through all the minute convolutions of the diseased brain; the man who could figure it in “William Wilson,” a frenzied Kriemhild as she pursues Hagen through the blood-stained stanzas of the “Nibelungen Lay”; the man who incarnated it, with its sister Remorse, in the flashing eyes and shadowy form of the “Raven”: this man had left his devoted “mother” without a line for three interminable weeks, and now turned up in the home of his youth, an honored and fêted guest!

This episode alone shows that Poe had become a wreck and should have been in some beneficent sanitarium where good food, perfect quiet, the laws of spiritual and physical hygiene, and absolute freedom from excitements might have restored his broken sense of responsibility.



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 302:]

1.  Miss S. S. Rice: Edgar Allan Poe: Memorial Volume Baltimore: 1877. [[p. 77.]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 303:]

1.  Life of Poe: Chatto and Windus: 1878, p. 209.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 305:]

1.  Ingram, II., 200.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 307:]

1.  Life of Poe: Chatto and Windus. London: 1878, p. 234.





[S:0 - LLEAP, 1903] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - Life and Letters of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Chapter 15)