Text: George E. Woodberry, “Chapter 12,” The Life of Edgar Allan Poe: Personal and Literary (1909), vol. II, pp. 213-236


[page 213, unnumbered:]

Chapter XII


THE cottage to which Poe had retired in the spring of 1846, although at the best a mean dwelling, was the pleasantest retreat he had known. It was a one story and a half house, then standing on King’s Bridge Road, at the top of Fordham Hill. Within, on the ground-floor, were two small apartments, a kitchen and sitting-room; and above, up a narrow stairway, two others, — one Poe’s room — a low, cramped chamber, lighted by little square windows like port-holes, the other a diminutive closet of a bed room, hardly large enough to lie down in. Mrs. Gove, on whose recollections all later biographers have relied for their knowledge, paints the interior: —

“On this occasion I was introduced to the young wife of the poet, and to the mother, then more than sixty years of age. She was a tall, dignified old lady, with a most lady-like manner, and her black dress, though old and much worn, looked really elegant on her. She wore a [page 214:] widow’s cap, of the genuine pattern, and it suited exquisitely with her snow-white hair. Her features were large, and corresponded with her stature, and it seemed strange how such a stalwart and queenly woman could be the mother of her petite daughter. Mrs. Poe looked very young; she had large black eyes, and a pearly whiteness of complexion which was a perfect pallor. Her pale face, her brilliant eyes, and her raven hair gave her an unearthly look. One felt that she was almost a disrobed spirit, and when she coughed it was made certain that she was rap idly passing away.

“The mother seemed hale and strong, and appeared to be a sort of universal Providence to her strange children.

“The cottage had an air of taste and gentility that must have been lent to it by the presence of its inmates. So neat, so poor, so unfurnished, and yet so charming a dwelling I never saw. The floor of the kitchen was white as wheaten flour. A table, a chair, and a little stove that it contained seemed to furnish it completely. The sitting-room floor was laid with check matting; four chairs, a light stand, and a hanging bookshelf completed its furniture. There were pretty presentation copies of books on the little shelves, [page 215:] and the Brownings had posts of honor on the stand. With quiet exultation Poe drew from his side-pocket a letter he had recently received from Elizabeth Barrett Browning. He read it to us.”(1) Outside, however, the broad views, in contrast with the dwarfed interior, had a fine spaciousness. Old cherry trees were rooted in the grassy turf, out of which cropped here and there the granite of the underlying rock; and a stone’s throw to the east of the veranda, overgrown with vines, rose the ledge itself, overhung by sighing pines, and looking off far across the meadows, woods, and villages, to the glimmer of ocean on the dim horizon. Of this little home in the pleasant country there are many reminiscences, curiously intermingling the beauty of nature with the poor life of the three occupants. Mrs. Clemm made upon all who saw her an impression of dignity, refinement, and especially of deep motherly devotion to her children; Virginia, at the age of twenty-five, retained her attractiveness, but the large black eyes and raven hair contrasted sadly with the white pallor of her face; Poe himself, gnawed by poverty and pride, anticipating grief, and nursing the bitterness that springs from helplessness in the sight of suffering borne by [page 216:] those dear to us, was restless and variable, the creature of contradictory impulses, alternating between the eagerness of renewed hope and the dull maze of the ever-recurring disappointment. Friends called on him, and found him anxious over his poverty, or inspirited by the letter from Mrs. Browning, or finding distraction with his pets, — a bobolink he had caught and caged, or a parrot some one had given him, or his favorite cat. The family seem always to have had a bird, or a cat, or growing flowers. He says he had fallen “dreadfully ill,” and from the end of February was unable to write a line for the magazines for more than five months, or to go out of the house or help himself in any way; at the end of July he was still apologizing for his handwriting as something done with great difficulty, but he was then getting better, though slowly.(1) Except his letter to English and a review or two, he seems to have done no mental work. He had but just recovered from the business trip of which his sister Rosalie, who was visiting the cottage, told the unhappy issue, and he himself the beginning in a letter to Virginia, which is unique in his correspondence: — [page 217:]

June 12, 1846.

MY DEAR HEART — MY DEAR VIRGINIA, — Our mother will explain to you why I stay away from you this night. I trust the interview I am promised will result in some substantial good for me — for your dear sake and hers — keep up your heart in all hopefulness, and trust yet a little longer. On my last great disappointment I should have lost my courage but for you — my little darling wife. You are my greatest and only stimulus now, to battle with this uncongenial, unsatisfactory, and ungrateful life.

I shall be with you to-morrow [illegible] P. M., and be assured until I see you I will keep in loving remembrance your last words and your fervent prayer!

Sleep well, and may God grant you a peaceful summer with your devoted


Poe’s ill-health continued, and as the summer went on he grew no better, and daily Virginia failed and faded. Mrs. Clemm wrote to Rosalie despairing letters, and foretold the poor-house. Autumn came, the snow and the cold and the seclusion, and affairs grew desperate; the wolf [page 218:] was already at the door when by happy chance Mrs. Gove again called on the Poes, and found the dying wife in the summer sitting-room, which had been taken for her use. The scene requires her own description: —

“I saw her in her bed-chamber. Everything here was so neat, so purely clean, so scant and poverty-stricken, that I saw the poor sufferer with such a heartache as the poor feel for the poor.

“There was no clothing on the bed, which was only straw, but a snow-white counterpane and sheets. The weather was cold, and the sick lady had the dreadful chills that accompany the hectic fever of consumption. She lay on the straw bed, wrapped in her husband’s great-coat, with a large tortoise-shell cat in her bosom. The wonderful cat seemed conscious of her great use fulness. 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. Mrs. Clemm was passionately fond of her daughter, and her distress on account of her illness and poverty and misery was dreadful to see.

“As soon as I was made aware of these painful facts, I came to New York and enlisted the sympathies and services of a lady, whose heart and hand were ever open to the poor and miserable. [page 219:]

A feather bed and abundance of bed-clothing and other comforts were the first-fruits of my labor of love. The lady headed a private subscription, and carried them $60 the next week. From the day this kind lady saw the suffering family of the poet, she watched over them as a mother watches over her babe. She saw them often, and ministered to the comfort of the dying and the living.” The lady was Mrs. Shew.

The work of relief was taken up by Mrs. Hewitt, who wrote to Mrs. Osgood, December 20, 1846: —

The Poes are in the same state of physical and pecuniary suffering — indeed worse than they were last summer, for now the cold weather is added to their accumulation of ills. I went to enquire of Mr. Post about them. He confirmed all that I had previously heard of their condition. Although he says Mrs. Clemm has never told him that they were in want, yet she borrows a shilling often, to get a letter from the office — but Mrs. Gove had been to see the Poes and found them living in the greatest wretchedness. I am endeavoring to get up a contribution for them among the editors, and the matter has got into print — very much to my regret, as I fear it will

[page 220:] hurt Poe’s pride to have his affairs made so public.


The necessitous condition of the family, much to Poe’s mortification, was made public by a paragraph in “The Express,” which appears to have been kindly meant, since it merely appealed to his friends in his behalf: —

“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 a 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.”(2)

Willis, who saw this notice, gave greater currency to the facts by an article in his own paper, the “Home Journal,” in which he made his friend’s destitution the text of a plea for an authors house of refuge, and said what it was well to say, under the circumstances, in regard to Poe’s character: — [page 221:]

“In connection with this public mention of Mr. Poe’s personal matters, perhaps it will not be thought inopportune if we put on its proper footing a public impression which does him in justice. We have not seen nor corresponded with Mr. Poe for two years, and we hazard this delicate service without his leave, of course, and simply because we have seen him suffer from the lack of such vindication, when his name has been brought injuriously before the public, and have then wished for some such occasion to speak for him. We refer to conduct and language charged against him, which, were he at the time in sane mind, were an undeniable forfeiture of character and good feeling. To blame, in some degree, still, perhaps he is. But let charity for the failings of human nature judge of the degree. Mr. Poe was engaged with us in the editorship of a daily paper, we think, for about six months. A more considerate, quiet, talented, and gentle manlike associate than he was for the whole of that time, we could not have wished. Not liking the unstudent-like necessity of coming every day into the city, however, he left us, by his own wish alone, and it was one day soon after that we first saw him in the state to which we refer. He came into our office with his usual gait and manner, [page 222:] and, with no symptoms of ordinary intoxication, he talked like a man insane. Perfectly self-possessed in all other respects, his brain and tongue were evidently beyond his control. We learned afterwards that the least stimulus — a single glass of wine — would produce this effect upon Mr. Poe, and that rarely as these instances of easy aberration of caution and mind occurred, he was liable to them, and while under their influence, voluble and personally self-possessed, but neither sane nor responsible. Now Mr. Poe very possibly may not be willing to consent to even this admission of any infirmity. He has little or no memory of them afterwards, we understand. But public opinion unqualifiedly holds him blamable for what he has said and done under such excitements, and while a call is made in a public paper for aid, it looks like doing him a timely service to, at least, partially exonerate him.”(1)

Poe, who felt humiliated by these disclosures, of which Willis sent him a copy with a friendly note, wrote an open letter in reply, December 30, 1846, in which he tried hard to deny the actual misery of his condition, but only succeeded in forcing his pen to the guarded assertion that he [page 223:] had indeed been in want of money in consequence of his long illness, but that it was not altogether true that he had materially suffered from privation beyond the extent of his capacity for suffering. This labored statement, however, which is given in nearly his exact words, was soon afterwards acknowledged, in a letter to Mrs. Locke, of Lowell, Mrs. Osgood’s sister-in-law, who sent him some verses, and followed them with more solid expressions of interest, to be only an indulgence of his natural pride, which impelled him, he wrote, “to shrink from public charity, even at the cost of truth in denying those necessities which were but too real.”(1) Within a month, however, all his new hopes and old troubles were lost sight of in view of the rapidly approaching death of his wife. On January 29, 1847, he wrote to Mrs. Shew, whose attention had been unremitting during all these winter weeks, the following note: —

KINDEST — DEAREST FRIEND, — My poor Virginia still lives, although failing fast and now suffering much pain. May God grant her life until she sees you and thanks you once again! Her bosom is full to overflowing — like my own [page 224:] — with a boundless — inexpressible gratitude to you. Lest she may never see you more — she bids me say that she sends you her sweetest kiss of love and will die blessing you. But come — oh come to-morrow! Yes, I will be calm — everything you so nobly wish to see me. My mother sends you, also, her “warmest love and thanks.” She begs me to ask you, if possible, to make arrangements at home so that you may stay with us To-morrow night. I enclose the order to the Postmaster. Heaven bless you and farewell!


FORDHAM, January 29, ‘47.

In response, Mrs. Shew called to take a last leave of the invalid, who asked her to read some letters from the second Mrs. Allan,(2) exculpating Poe from causing any difficulty at his old home, and gave her Poe’s picture and his mother’s jewel-case as keepsakes. Curiously enough Poe’s old Baltimore flame, Virginia’s girlhood friend, who had also visited them in Amity Street, was [page 225:] there on the same day, and she, Virginia, and Poe being together, Virginia united their hands and said: “Mary, be a friend to Eddie, and don’t forsake him; he always loved you, — did n’t you, Eddie?”(1) On the next day, Saturday, January 30, Virginia died. Her husband, wrapped in the military cloak that had once served to cover her, followed the body to the tomb,(2) to which it was consigned in the presence of a few friends, Mrs. Ann S. Stephens, Mrs. Shew, “Mary,” Willis, and Morris being among them.

Poe is represented as very ill after this event; and although in the middle of March he partially recovered under the nursing of Mrs. Shew and his mother-in-law, he was again ill, and his life was believed to be endangered. It was necessary to raise fresh funds for his relief, and by the interest of various friends one hundred dollars were collected at once, and afterwards other sums were contributed. Mrs. Shew, who, as has been said, had received a medical education, [page 226:] decided that Poe “in his best health had lesion of one side of the brain”; and she adds in her diary, “As he could not bear stimulants or tonics, without producing insanity, I did not feel much hope that he could be raised up from brain fever, brought on by extreme suffering of mind and body, — actual want and hunger and cold having been borne by this heroic husband in order to supply food, medicine, and comforts to his dying wife, until exhaustion and lifelessness were so near at every reaction of the fever that even sedatives had to be administered with extreme caution.”(1) It was at this time that he dictated, in half-delirious states of mind, the roman tic and unfounded story, which he obliged Mrs. Shew to write down, of his voyage to France, his duel, and his French novel.

Through all this period Mrs. Clemm was his household protector, and the portrait of her drawn by Willis shows the scene in yet another aspect: —

“Winter after winter, for years, the most touching sight to us, in this whole city, has been that tireless minister to genius, thinly and in sufficiently clad, going from office to office with a poem, or an article on some literary subject, to [page 227:] sell — sometimes simply pleading in a broken voice that he was ill, and begging for him — mentioning nothing but that he was ill, what ever might be the reason for his writing nothing; and never, amid all her tears and recitals of dis tress, suffering one syllable to escape her lips that could convey a doubt of him, or a complaint, or a lessening of pride in his genius and good intentions. Her daughter died, a year and a half since, but she did not desert him. She continued his ministering angel, — living with him, caring for him, guarding him against exposure, and, when he was carried away by temptation, amid grief and the loneliness of feelings unreplied to, and awoke from his self-abandonment prostrated in destitution and suffering, begging for him still. If woman’s devotion, born with a first love, and fed with human passion, hallow its object, as it is allowed to do, what does not a devotion like this — pure, disinterested, and holy as the watch of an invisible spirit — say for him who inspired it?”(1)

On recovering from illness and depression sufficiently to resume work in some degree, Poe confined himself to his home. He rose early, ate moderately, drank only water, and took abundance [page 228:] of exercise in the open air. From time to time he visited Mrs. Shew in the city, and she in turn called upon him, and would frequently advise him to contract marriage, with the warning that he could be saved from sudden death only by a prudent, calm life with a woman who had sufficient strength and affection to manage his affairs for him. On his part, he restrained his reply to remarks, which she termed ironical, regarding her ignorance of the world’s evil. The circumstances of the family may have been temporarily improved by the payment of the sum for damages in the libel suit; it is said that the sum was eaten up by lawyers fees, but that Poe gave a tea-party on the occasion, and was especially attentive to one fair guest. His life was, indeed, by no means so gloomy and solitary as has been thought. In this summer and autumn he entertained more than one old friend, like Eliza White of his early Richmond days, or new acquaintances, like the English ladies, who carried away bright recollections of his home. He had still the caged birds to pet, and now in addition he amused his leisure with cultivating a flower garden, in which were beds of mignonette, heliotrope, and dahlias. Frequently he would walk some miles to the westward, along [page 229:] uneven country roads lined with orchards, to the High Bridge, on whose lofty granite arches, a hundred and forty-five feet above high-water, the great aqueduct crosses Harlem River; and there on the elevated grassy causeway, used only by foot-passengers, he would pace by day or night, or would lean on the low parapet, alone. The ledge, too, back of his house, with its pines and the wide prospect, was one of his haunts, and thither he would retreat to escape literary callers, or to dream out the metaphysical rhapsody over which he was brooding; for it was in such solitary places that he planned “Eureka.” He had always been a rambler in all weathers, a sentimentalist with women, and a dreamer, and his personal life went on much in the beaten path of his temperament, after as before Virginia’s death.

This period was one of comparative inactivity, yet Poe’s name did not pass out of the public notice. Just before the death of his wife, at the moment when the public appeal was made for him, he had been cheered by echoes of his first reputation in Europe: —

December 30, 46.

DEAR DUYCKINCK, — Mrs. Clemm mentioned to me, this morning, that some of the [page 230:] Parisian papers had been speaking about my “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” She could not give me the details — merely saying that you had told her. The “Murders in the R. M.” was spoken of in the Paris “Charivari,” soon after the first issue of the tale in Graham’s Mag: — April, 1841. By the enclosed letter from Stonehaven, Scotland, you will see that the “Valdemar Case” still makes a talk, and that a pamphlet edition of it has been published by Short & Co. of London under the title of “Mesmerism in Articulo Mortis.” It has fairly gone the rounds of the London Press, commencing with “The Morning Post.” “The Monthly Record of Science”&c. gives it with the title “The Last Days of M. Valdemar. By the author of the Last Conversation of a Somnambule” — (Mesmeric Revelation).

My object in enclosing the Scotch letter and the one from Miss Barrett, is to ask you to do me a favor which (just at this moment) may be of great importance. It is, to make a paragraph or two for some one of the city papers, stating the facts here given, in connexion with what you know about the “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” If this will not give you too much trouble, I will be deeply obliged. If you think [page 231:] it advisable, there is no objection to your copy ing any portion of Miss B.’s letter. Willis or Morris will put in anything you may be kind enough to write; but as the “Home Journal” has already said a good deal about me, some other paper would be preferable.

Truly yours, POE.(1)

“The Literati” had been immediately succeeded, in November, 1846, in “Godey’s,” by a tale of Italian vengeance, “The Cask of Amontillado,” and in the December “Graham’s” was an installment of “Marginalia.”

In the earlier part of 1847 there had been nothing published but a few lines of verse, and as the year wore on only one review. Willis remained his literary friend, took pains to copy his poems, advertise his plans, and commend his genius whenever opportunity offered; and [page 232:] Poe on his part kept him informed in regard to his doings. In the “Home Journal,” March 13, appeared the lines mentioned, “To M. L. S —— ,” Mrs. Shew, of inferior poetic merit, and characterized by the peculiar and some times dissonant cadences of the later unrhymed poems. A week later the same paper announced as soon to be published, “The Authors of America, in Prose and Verse, by Edgar A. Poe,” but the work did not appear. The review of Hawthorne in the November “Godey’s,” in which Poe decides that Hawthorne is not original, after all, but only peculiar, was perhaps written long before, when Poe received the book from the author. “Ulalume “marked the close of this period in the poet’s career. It is the first poem characteristic of his genius since “The Raven.” “Many times,” says his friend Burr, “after the death of his beloved wife, was he found at the dead hour of a winter night, sitting beside her tomb almost frozen in the snow, where he had wandered from his bed, weeping and wailing.” This is the figure that goes with the poem, like an illustration, interpreting it to the sense. It is autobiography translated into imagination, and speaking a new language, a cast shadow of despair, with tarn and sepulchre [page 233:] for attribute and symbol, — a vision of the soul that sees its own wraith in all that is. It is a difficult poem, and was caviare to the general then, as perhaps such personal allegorizing art must always be.

In December the poem was published in the “Whig,” and reprinted by Willis in accordance with the following request from Poe, which may serve as an example of several such letters: —

FORDHAM, December 8.

MY DEAR MR. WILLIS, — Many thanks for the kind expressions in your note of three or four weeks ago.

I send you an “American Review” — the number just issued — in which is a ballad by myself, but published anonymously. It is called “Ulalume” — the page is turned down. I do not care to be known as its author just now; but I would take it as a great favor if you would copy it in the H. J., with a word of inquiry as to who wrote it: — provided always that you think the poem worth the room it would occupy in your paper — a matter about which I am by no means sure. Always yours gratefully,

EDGAR A. POE.(1) [page 234:]

Willis prefaced his reprint with the desired inquiry as to the authorship of “Ulalume,” and described it, in words that may not have seemed to Poe indicative of sympathetic insight, as an “exquisitely piquant and skillful exercise of rarity and niceness of language,” and “a curiosity in philologic flavor.” Since this extraordinarily inane characterization, the best opinion has differed widely in regard to this ballad, and still most men of poetic sensibility would say no more in its favor than did Willis. It is built out of the refrain, the most difficult mode of construction, and consequently it requires in the reader not only a willingness to accept monotony as a means of expression, but a content with it; the thought moves so slowly, with such slight advances from its initial stage, with such difficult increments of meaning and indistinguishable deepening of tone, that, like the workings of an expiring mind, it only just keeps wearily in action; its allegorizing, moreover, is further from nature than is usual even with Poe, and implies by its very simplicity that long familiarity with its imagery that Poe possessed. For these and other reasons, the sympathetic mood, without which no such poem is comprehended, must be of rare occurrence in this case; but if [page 235:] ever that mood comes, — that physical exhaustion and mental gloom and dreaming upon the dark, in which the modes of expression in this poem are identical with those of nature, — then, in spite of jarring discords, cockney rhymes, and coarse types of mystery and horror, this poem may well seem the language of a spirit sunk in blank and moaning despair, and at every move beaten back helplessly upon itself. It was writ ten at the period of Poe’s lowest physical exhaustion. The criticism that finds in the ballad he thus wrote merely a whimsical experiment in words has little to go on; it is more likely that, taking into consideration, too, the lack of finish in conjunction with the justness of touch in its essential structure, we have, in this poem, the most spontaneous, the most unmistakably genuine utterance of Poe, the most clearly self-portraying work of his hand. That, to most readers, it is unintelligible, and is suggestive of humor rather than of pathos, only marks how far Poe was now removed, through one and another in fluence, from normal humanity. As the winter advanced he applied himself wholly to thinking out what he then believed would prove his best title to the remembrance of posterity, “Eureka.” [page 236:]

A glimpse of him at this work is afforded by an affectionate reminiscence of Mrs. Clemm’s, which was reported by Mr. R. E. Shapley, of Philadelphia, in a newspaper, and has by chance been preserved: —

“He never liked to be alone, and I used to sit up with him, often until four o clock in the morning, he at his desk, writing, and I dozing in my chair. When he was composing ‘Eureka,’ we used to walk up and down the garden, his arm around me, mine around him, until I was so tired I could not walk. He would stop every few minutes and explain his ideas to me, and ask if I understood him. I always sat up with him when he was writing, and gave him a cup of hot coffee every hour or two. At home he was simple and affectionate as a child, and during all the years he lived with me I do not remember a single night that he failed to come and kiss his ‘mother,’ as he called me, before going to bed.”

In the main parts this account seems to apply to the whole period of his widowerhood, and portrays the family interior, the intimate domestic scene, as it was in the latter years, when Poe came back to the shelter of his mother-in-law and to work from his various ventures and visits in the outer world.


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 215:]

1 Six Penny Magazine, February, 1863.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 216:]

1 Poe to drivers, July 22, 1846. The Century Magazine, February, 1903.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 217:]

1 Ingram, ii, 88, 89.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 220:]

1 Griswold MSS.

2 Griswold, xi.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 222:]

1 Home Journal, December 19, 1846.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 223:]

1 Griswold MSS.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 224:]

1 Ingram, ii, 107.

2 It is incredible that the second Mrs. Allan ever wrote to the Poes, but Poe may have preserved letters from the first Mrs. Allan during his early absence from home. The letters have never been found.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 225:]

1 Harper’s Magazine, (March, 1889), loc. cit.

2 The tomb belonged to a Valentine family, unconnected with the Richmond Valentines; at some time after its demolition the remains of Virginia were re-interred beside Poe’s grave at Baltimore. Cf. a curious article, The Bones of Annabel Lee.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 226:]

1 Ingram, ii, 115.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 227:]

1 Home Journal, October 13, 1849.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 231:]

1 Poe to Duyckinck, loc. cit. p. 10. The passage referred to is doubtless that given by Griswold, p. xxxv, as from L’Entre Acte, October 20, 1846. Poe had unwittingly been the cause of a suit between two Paris papers, each of which had translated The Murders in the Rue Morgue without acknowledgment. The Revue des Deux Mondes, October 15, 1846, contained a critical notice by Forgues, and Isabelle Meunier translated some of his tales in the Démocratie Pacifique and other papers, apparently the same collected in Les Contes d’Edgar Poe, Paris, 1846.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 233:]

1 Poe to Willis. MS.



The article by R. E. Shapley may be the one printed as “Edgar Allan Poe: Some Personal Reminiscences of the Dead Poet,” which appeared in the Bristol News for December 21, 1875, but may have been reprinted from elsewhere. In this version of the article, Shapley’s name is erroneously given as Shipley, which Woodberry seems to have corrected.


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