Text: Richard P. Benton, “Friends and Enemies: Women in the Life of Edgar Allan Poe,” ­Myths and Reality­, Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1987, pp. 1-25:


­ [page 1:]


Richard P. Benton

Most men begin life in the closest possible relation with women i.e, with their mothers. It was Edgar Allan Poe’s misfortune never really to have known his natural mother, Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins, an English actress recently arrived in America and married to a Baltimore law student, David Poe, Jr., who then joined her on the stage. She was noted for beauty, charm, and theatrical talent. She played opposite many prominent actors, including John Howard Payne. She also possessed courage. Separating from David Poe, with whom she had quarreled, she assumed responsibilities of a single parent, despite the rigors in her profession. Having come to Richmond in early August 1811, she brought her three small children with her: Henry, three; Edgar, two; and Rosalie, one. After five appearances on the Richmond stage, she fell ill about the middle of October, wrecked by overwork, emotional stress, and ravages of consumption. By 10 December she was dead, aged twenty-four.

No doubt what she dreaded most about dying was leaving her three small children parentless. New homes had to be found for them. William Henry was sent to his grandparents, Major (called “General”) David Poe, Sr., and his wife Elizabeth. Edgar was taken in by the Allans and Rosalie by the Mackenzies, both families of Richmond. David Poe, Jr., whereabouts unknown, died within a few weeks — before or after — his estranged wife, cause unknown.

The effect on Edgar Allan Poe of never having reached that level of consciousness before his parents’ demise for him to know their affection is described in an 1835 letter to Beverley Tucker, who mentioned to him in a previous letter that he had known Poe’s actress mother and that he recalled her outstanding beauty. Poe replied: “In speaking of my mother you have touched a string to which my heart fully responds. To have known her is to be the object of great interest in my eyes. I myself never knew her — and never knew the affection of a father. Both died . . . within a few weeks of each other. I have many occasional dealings with Adversity — but the want of parental affection has been the heaviest of my trials” (Ostrom 78-79). Poe’s subsequent behavior, particularly his persistent need to be closely associated with some woman who could play the role of mother to him, whether Frances Allan (the first Mrs. Allan, his “foster-mother”); Mrs. Stanard, the mother of his chum, Richard, who became a “substitute-mother” to him; Mrs. Maria Clemm, his aunt who became his mother-in-law; her daughter, Virginia, who became his “wife-mother”; Mrs. Shew, his physician-nurse; Mrs. Whitman, the poetess he tried unsuccessfully to marry; Mrs. “Annie” Richmond, the married woman he deeply loved but could not have for a wife; or Elmira ­[page 2:] Royster Shelton, former childhood sweetheart and later a widow he was planning to marry when he met his death.

From the time Poe was taken in by the Allans of Richmond in 1811 until the death of Frances Allan in 1833, he regarded them as his “Ma” and “Pa.” In corresponding with John Allan (who never legally adopted Poe) the young man normally addressed him as “Dear Pa” or “My dear Pa.” On 1 December 1828, Poe expressed anxiety regarding Mrs. Allan’s feeling toward him: “My dearest love to Ma — it is only when absent that we can tell the value of such a friend — I hope she will not let my wayward disposition wear away the love she used to have for me” (Ostrom 11). After he had become a cadet at West Point and again incurred John Allan’s displeasure, that gentleman informed him that he wished no further communication. Nevertheless the young man replied, 3 January 1831, in a letter full of bitter remonstrances. Referring to the death of Frances Allan, Poe said: “I came home, you will remember, the night of the burial — If she had not died while I was away there would have been nothing to regret — Your love I never valued — but she I believed loved me as her own child” (Ostrom 41). I doubt that Poe’s disvaluation of Allan’s love was altogether true. His ruffled pride probably caused him to strike back at his “father” to hurt him by way of revenge for having ultimately rejected him.

When Poe left West Point, March 1831, he headed for Baltimore. There he sought refuge in the only home open to him — that of his aunt, Mrs. Maria Clemm, a widow with a thirteen-year-old son, Henry, and a nine-year old daughter, Virginia. Poe’s grandmother, Elizabeth Poe, and his brother, William Henry, his senior by nearly two years, also lived in that household. The grandmother was a paralytic in poor health who lived on a government pension and was cared for by Mrs. Clemm. William Henry Poe, now a victim of alcoholism, had been to sea and had experimented with being a writer. He died 1 August 1831.

By this time Edgar was no stranger to Aunt Maria and her family. After his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army, April 1829, he had returned to Richmond, thinking of entering West Point. In early May he had journeyed to Washington armed with testimonials from his officers and a letter of introduction from John Allan to Major John Eaton, Secretary of War. Poe applied for appointment to the Military Academy. Then he went to Baltimore to find his relatives. Having discovered his Aunt Maria and her family, he boarded nearby from sometime in May until late December 1829. Indeed, he may have continued living near the Clemm family until his appointment to West Point came through in March 1830. At least he was nearby on 10 December, when he sold a slave belonging to Maria Clemm in the Baltimore slave market. During his residence near the Clemms he was not idle: in December his second volume of verse, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems was published by Hatch & Dunning of Baltimore. In short, when Poe returned to Baltimore in March 1831, he was already well-known to his relatives there and was welcomed back, this time to live with the Clemms, where he remained for virtually four years. ­[page 3:]

Poe’s relationship with his grandmother, Elizabeth Poe, could not have been very close. From the time he knew her, she was paralyzed and bedridden. He mentioned her, however, with respect as the widow of General Poe, and with sympathy regarding her long invalidism. Later, in August 1835, while residing in Richmond, in answering an inquiry of a Georgia relative, William Poe, Jr., Poe described the family of Amity Street, Baltimore: “Mrs. [Elizabeth Poe] the widow of General D. Poe, and the mother of Maria, died on[ly 6 week]s ago, at the age of 79. She had for the last 8 years of her life been [confine]d entirely to bed — never, i[n] any instance, leaving it during that time. She [h]ad been paralyzed, and suffered from many other complaints — her daughter Maria attending her during her long tedious illness with a Christian and martyr-like fortitude . . .” (Ostrom 67). As for Maria Clemm herself, she was perhaps altogether the most important woman in Poe’s life. She looked after and cared for him with devotion and loyalty from the time he was twenty-one until the end of his life at age forty. Although she undoubtedly caused troubles she proved indispensable to him.

About 1 August 1835 Poe left to work as assistant editor of the Southern Literary Messenger. He kept in constant touch with Mrs. Clemm and Virginia, back in Baltimore, however, and he sent them money as soon as he had any to spare. Nevertheless, near the end of the month, Mrs. Clemm greatly shocked him by requesting advice concerning a communication from her prosperous second cousin, Neilson Poe of Baltimore. He had offered to take her and Virginia into his home, support them, and, in addition, provide for Virginia’s education. Strongly attached to Virginia and planning to marry her, Edgar was completely shaken by this news. In a panic-stricken, even pathetic letter, he replied, pleading with his aunt to reject this generous offer. Arguing that Virginia’s happiness was all that counted, he affirmed that he loved her passionately and desired to make her his wife. Indeed, he pointed out, he had already procured “a sweet little house” in Richmond where the three of them could live together in their own paradise.

Poe’s prayer to his aunt was successful. Mrs. Clemm rejected Neilson Poe’s offer of succor. She and Virginia joined Edgar in Richmond in October, where they lived temporarily at the boarding-house of Mrs. Yarrington. Edgar and Virginia were married there on 26 May 1836. The house he had procured proved too small to accommodate them, however, and they had to find other quarters. Poe ceased his editorship of the Southern Literary Messenger on 3 January 1837. Although very successful in increasing the circulation of the magazine, Poe found, nonetheless, that his ideas conflicted with those of the owner White, who grew equally unhappy when he found that his assistant sometimes got drunk. The two parted, it appears, more or less amicably. White was not competent to edit a literary magazine, and Poe was ambitious. He decided that his own prospects would be better served if he invaded the North. At first he chose Philadelphia, and finally New York, where he achieved his maximum fame while he lived. From Richmond, to Philadelphia, to New York he, Virginia, and Mrs. Clemm shared their lives until: “A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling” his “beautiful Annabel Lee, / So that her high-born ­[page 4:] kinsmen came, / And bore her away from” him. Virginia died 30 January 1847; she was twenty-five. Afterwards Poe became “The Man of the Crowd,” searching for “the Lost One” and dreading to be alone. Following Virginia’s funeral, Poe himself collapsed into serious illness. The paramedic Mrs. Shew was called in; she remained, helping to care for him until he finally recovered in March. During the next two years, during which time Poe was alternately happy and optimistic or miserable and in despair, Mrs. Clemm did her best to care for her “Eddie” and to help him with his affairs, but she could not save him from himself, and their relationship was to terminate with his death in Baltimore on 7 October 1849.

Like Poe himself, Mrs. Clemm proved a controversial figure during her own time and after her death. Nevertheless, Mrs. Mary Gove Nichols, who visited the Poes in their Fordham cottage in 1846, has left a neat pen-portrait that closely resembles an actual drawing Arthur G. Learned made from a daguerreotype of Mrs. Clemm around 1849 (Quinn, facing 606). In the Six-Penny Magazine for February 1863, Mrs. Nichols described Mrs. Clemm as follows:

She was a tall, dignified old lady [Mrs. Clemm was fifty-six at this time.], with a most ladylike manner, and her black dress, though old and worn, looked really elegant on her. She wore a widow’s cap of the genuine pattern, and it suited her 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 almost petite daughter . . .(Quinn 508).

This favorable portrait does not necessarily contradict or mitigate James Russell Lowell’s snobbish opinion of Mrs. Clemm as “a rather ordinary uncultivated woman” (Quinn 461). Although this appraisal may accurately place her on the proper rung of the social hierarchy, it is a superficial diagnosis of human character that fails to consider a person’s inner strengths: intestinal fortitude, capacity to love, and capacity to serve another loyally. Mrs. Clemm demonstrated these qualities continually in respect to Poe and her daughter.

Of course Mrs. Clemm had limitations — as everyone has — and she no doubt had faults. She may have been thoughtless at times, even selfish. At times she no doubt created misunderstandings between Poe and someone else. Mrs. Osgood confided to Mrs. Whitman that Mrs. Clemm “had been a thorn in Poe’s side — always embroiling him in difficulties.” Yet Mrs. Whitman told Ingram: “Poe always spoke of her with grateful and affectionate consideration. I believe that she loved him devotedly” (Mabbott 1: 466). I find it impossible, however, to “fear,” as the late, great Professor did, that the nasty barb Griswold and English directed at Mrs. Clemm might be “true” (Mabbott 1: 456). Neither man was any friend of Poe’s. Further, Griswold is a convicted liar and forger and English a convicted liar and coward. Both ­[page 5:] were backbiters and scandalmongers. I certainly agree with Professor Mabbott, however, in his judgment that we ought to be grateful to Mrs. Clemm for the care she bestowed on Poe despite her limitations and her defects of character. But clearly Professor Mabbott did not like her. “Nothing is known to me,” he has written, “that belies the severe and masculine look revealed by her photograph. She was obviously a dragon, though often, no doubt, a protective one” (Mabbott 1: 466). Photographs are only recordings of light and shade; they show nothing in depth and nothing in the round.

Poe himself paid tribute to Mrs. Clemm in a remarkable poem entitled “Sonnet to My Mother.” It reveals his feelings not only regarding his mother-in-law but also those respecting both his natural mother and his wife. From a biographical point of view, this sonnet is certainly one of his most revealing literary works:

Because the angels in the Heaven above,

Devoutly singing unto one another,

Can find, amid their burning terms of love,

None so devotional as that of “mother,”

Therefore by that sweet name I long have called you:

In setting my Virginia’s spirit free.

My mother — my own mother, who died early,

Was but the mother of myself; but you

Are mother to the dead I loved so dearly,

Are thus more precious than the one I knew,

By that infinity with which my wife

Was dearer to my soul than its soul-life. (Mabbott 1: 467)

Bronson Howard thought this “the best tribute to a mother-in-law ever written.” Some critics have cynically questioned Poe’s sincerity in view of circumstances in composition and publication of the sonnet, but I think that their suspicions are groundless. Mrs. Clemm may have proved a trial to Poe on some occasions, but there is no reason to think his tribute to her was not close to his actual sentiments.

Another work of Poe’s in which Mrs. Clemm figures is his cryptic, dream-like fantasy, “Eleonora,” in which Virginia and Poe are also represented; in fact, they are the featured players and Mrs. Clemm, once represented, promptly disappears into the background. “Eleonora” was first published in an annual called The Gift for 1842, although publication occurred in Autumn 1841. The tale illustrates the role that love plays during the course of man’s life from childhood to adulthood. In method and form an allegorical arabesque, the story is told by Pyros (a name that suggests his passionate nature), who introduces the actors and sets the scene of their activities: “She whom I loved in my youth . . . was the sole daughter of the only sister of my mother long departed. Eleonora (variant of “Helen,” a name suggesting her ardent and illuminative nature) was the name of my cousin. We had always ­[page 6:] dwelled together beneath a tropical sun, in the Valley of the Many-Colored Grass” (Mabbott 2: 636). In this triad we have, no doubt, Mrs. Clemm, Virginia, and Poe himself.

These fancies amount to a series of archetypal images commonly associated with erotic and sexual life: the trees burst out into strange, brilliant, star-shaped flowers; the white daisies shrunk away and were replaced by ruby-red asphodels. Further, animal life sprung forth everywhere: a tall flamingo flaunted its scarlet plumage and gold and silver fish haunted the stream. Then melodious music was heard, and “a voluminous cloud . . . gorgeous in crimson and gold” settled “in peace above us . . . shutting us up,” says Pyros, “as if forever, within a magic prison-house of grandeur and glory.” Thus Pyros and Eleonora — or, if we please, Poe and Virginia — have experienced a rite of passage: sexual initiation. But having climbed the tree of knowledge and eaten of the forbidden fruit, their Age of Innocence is over. They have fallen into the Age of Experience.

The prescient Eleonora realized that she had, as it were, been bitten by the serpent and would soon die — experience poisons innocence, which then must perish. Eleonora was grieved to think, however, that, following her death, Pyros would quit the Valley of the Many-Colored Grass to bestow his love on “some maiden of the outer and everyday world.” Seeing how Eleonora felt, Pyros promised her faithfully that when he entered the outside world he would never marry “any daughter of Earth.” When Eleonora died, the Valley of the Many-Colored Grass died with her, undergoing a second change that reversed the first. The star-shaped flowers shrunk and disappeared, the green grass faded, the ruby-red asphodels withered away, the tall, scarlet flamingo flew off, the gold and silver fish departed, the melodious music ceased, and the gold and crimson cloud vanished. No life was left in the valley except some “dark eye-like violets” that “writhed uneasily and were ever encumbered with dew.” Now Pyros, his heart grieving and longing for the love he had lost, departed form [[from]] the precincts of the valley to seek his fortune in the outside world.

Pyros journeyed until he came to a “strange city” where the king and his court were located. Pyros obtained a position of courtier at what, he found, was a “gay court.” There he was beset with “burning thoughts” and terrible temptations.” He met a beautiful maiden named Ermengarde (a variant of “Ermengarda,” meaning literally “The Domain of Armin,” suggesting the medieval Courts of Love associated with troubadours and trouvères and such glamorous women as Eleanore of Acquataine and Ermengarda of Narbonne) with whom he fell passionately in love. Worshipping and serving her, he obtained her consent to be his wife; impetuous, he married her without dreading Eleonora’s curse. To his pleasure, however, one silent night he heard her whisper to him: “‘sleep in peace! — for the spirit of Love reigneth and ruleth.”’ Understanding that she had absolved him of his vow, he did not understand her reasons for having done so, which she told him he would learn when he got to Heaven. ­[page 7:]

A story of “happiness lost and regained,” “Eleonora” is Poe’s only serious romance with a happy ending. Thematically, it not only depicts growth of love in the life of man but also suggests differences between “romantic” love (Pyros’s love for Eleonora) and “married” love (his love for Ermengarde). The importance of the tale for us here, however, is its autobiographical aspect. Thinking of his idyllic life with Mrs. Clemm and Virginia previous to his marriage — when they lived in the house on Amity Street, not far from the valley of Gwynn’s Falls in Baltimore County where he and Virginia used to walk hand-in-hand on hot summery Sunday afternoons — he imagined them inhabiting a Valley of the Many-Colored Grass, sealed off from the necessity of earning a living and competing in the outside world, a veritable Garden of Paradise and Bower of Bliss. Then, when he joined the Southern Literary Messenger and moved to Richmond, he began to think passionately of marrying Virginia. Mrs. Clemm and her daughter eventually joined Poe in Richmond, where Virginia did become his wife. Now “fallen” from the Garden of Paradise into earthly precincts of the Grubstreets of America, the triad entered a new world of experience where Poe was forced to earn their bread by the ink of his iron pen and the sweat of his brow. In his imagination, then, Virginia had been his honey girl and dream girl of the happy valley, i.e., Eleonora, but later she became his wife and “help meet,” i.e., Ermengarde. In short, Poe, Virginia, and Mrs. Clemm formed the original nucleus, as they played together in the valley of Gwynn’s Falls in Baltimore County and then as they worked together in the city of Richmond, around which Poe shaped his narrative, idealizing them and their respective situations by means of the magnificent creative power of his imagination.

Poe’s interest in Virginia was surely, at first, no more than cousinly. When she grew older, to ripen into a woman as she approached fourteen, his attitude changed. Although petite, she was attractively proportioned, limber, graceful, and playful. Her features were pretty, if they fell short of being beautiful. She had bright eyes that looked forth from under somewhat heavy lids; her sensuous lips formed a sort of pout; and her high, pale forehead was topped by straight, black hair parted in the middle. Her words were uttered with the suggestion of a lisp. She had no tendency towards intellectualism and little toward the literary, not caring much for poetry at all. She was mostly concerned with girlish fancies and playing with girl friends. She obviously adored her older, more mature and sophisticated cousin, “Eddy.” Eddy now began to feel physically attracted to her. Although he called her “Sissy,” he began to think of her as his “wifey.” In his emotionally distraught response to Mrs. Clemm regarding Neilson Poe’s offer, a rare letter is included — that is, one specifically directed to Virginia. He directed: “For Virginia,” and then: “My love, my own sweet Sissy, my darling little wifey, thi[nk w]ell before you break the heart of your cousin.” Signed: “Eddy” (Ostrom 71).

Poe’s marriage to Virginia — which, it appears, was promoted by her mother — nevertheless proved hardly ideal. Some authorities have made too much of Virginia’s status as a “child-bride,” forgetting that even child-brides grow up eventually. At the same time, despite Poe’s love for his wife — indeed ­[page 8:] even because of it — the marriage turned out to be a great burden and trial to him as a husband: “Poe told his best friend in Richmond, John Mackenzie (Rosalie Poe’s foster brother), that the marriage had not been congenial. And he told at least two people that he and his young wife lived together as brother and sister for two years after their wedding” (Mabbott 2: 523). The most painful and the most difficult aspect of Poe’s marriage, of course, was Virginia’s invalidism. Only six short years after the marriage, she was to become invalided by consumption. Her condition fluctuated for a few years until she became bedridden and steadily grew worse, to terminate, finally, with her death.

Poe could never forget the fatal day in January 1842 when Virginia burst a blood vessel while singing. Thence, Virginia became more or less an invalid, although when Poe began moving in New York literary society in the spring or early summer of 1845, attending such soirées in Greenwich Village as the famous ones held by Miss Anne Charlotte Lynch, Virginia sometimes accompanied her husband. By August 1845, however, her health became so precarious that Poe feared for her recovery, and by autumn 1846 he knew that she was going to die. Mrs. Mary Gove Nichols visited the Poes at their Fordham cottage at this time, and in 1863 she recalled:

The autumn came, and Mrs. Poe sank rapidly in consumption, and I saw her in her bedchamber. Everything . . . was so neat, so purely clean, so scant and poverty-stricken . . . There was no clothing on the bed, which was only straw, but a snow white spread and sheets. The weather was cold, and the sick lady had the dreadful chills that accompany there [[the]] hectic fever of consumption. She lay on the straw bed, wrapped in her husband’s great-coat, with a large tortoise-shell cat on her 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. (Quinn 524)

During the winter, Poe realized that Virginia’s death would not be far away. The day before she died, he wrote a hasty note to Mrs. Shew requesting her presence the next day: “Kindest — dearest friend —” he scribbled, “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! . . . But come — oh come to-morrow! . .” (Ostrom 340). The next day, Saturday, 30 January 1847, Virginia breathed her last. Grief-stricken, Poe never completely recovered from his loss.

Virginia had been a good wife to Poe in her own limited way. She had, in a sense, “mothered” him. There is no doubt that he loved her. When she died, he could not look upon her in death. R. D. Unger, who knew Poe in Baltimore before and after Virginia’s death, recalled the poet’s remark to him that marriage “‘has its joys, but its sorrows overbalance them’.” And Unger added that to Poe “the loss of his wife was a sad blow. He did not ­[page 9:] seem to care, after she was gone, whether he lived an hour, a day, a week or a year” (Mabbott 2: 524).

If all men have mothers and grandmothers, they also generally have sisters, aunts, female cousins, wives and mothers-in-law. They may have women friends, sweethearts, mistresses, fiancées, and colleagues. Poe was no exception to this general rule. The first important woman friend that Poe had — leaving aside his “foster-mother,” Frances Allan — was Mrs. Jane Stith Stanard, the mother of his friend and classmate, Robert Stanard. Both boys attended the Richmond school conducted by William Burke. Mrs. Stanard was a beautiful woman in her thirties who treated the fourteen-year-old Poe with kindness and sympathy. Deeply impressed by her beauty and charm, Poe fell passionately in love with the much older woman, visiting her home frequently. Indeed, in later years Mrs. Clemm told Mrs. Helen Whitman, in a letter of 10 March 1859, that “when Eddie was unhappy at home” — as, she observed, was often the case — “he went to [Mrs. Stanard] for sympathy, and she always consoled and comforted him . . .” (Quinn 86). Unfortunately Mrs. Stanard, despite her beauty of face and figure, was neither in good physical nor mental health, and by the spring of 1824 she suddenly fell very ill. On 28 April her mind totally deranged, she died. Young Edgar was deeply grieved.

Poe never forgot the beautiful Mrs. Stanard and his pubescent romance with her. Her importance to us, though, lies in his later memory of her that inspired him to compose one of the greatest short lyric poems in the English language — the 1831-1843 “To Helen,” in which he celebrated the kind of ideal beauty he had seen in her:

Helen, thy beauty is to me

Like those Nicéan barks of yore,

That gently, o’er a perfumed sea,

The weary, way-worn wanderer bore

to his own native shore. (Mabbott 1: 165ff)

However much this opening stanza pertains to weariness and loneliness Poe felt after tossing on a sea of troubles in the Allan household and to relief and joy he experienced when he laid his head on Mrs. Stanard’s bosom, there is an impersonal and universal meaning here amounting to a philosophy of aesthetics: spiritual love pilots us through the difficult seas of life to far shores of the classical ideal of the good and the beautiful where we find rest and joy. Poe delineates the physical loveliness of Mrs. Stanard under the guise of the beautiful Helen of Troy, but this Earthly Love by the force and power of Heavenly Love transforms Helen into Psyche, who hails from “Holy-Land.” Poe confided to Mrs. Helen Whitman, 1 October 1848, that he wrote this poem in his “passionate boyhood, to the first, purely ideal love of my soul — to the Helen Stannard [sic] of whom I told you” (Mabbott 1: 164). ­[page 10:] He claimed to have written “To Helen” when he was fourteen — that is, immediately following Mrs. Stanard’s death. This claim, however, is simply one of his romantic exaggerations designed to hoax. As Mabbott observes, far from evidencing any puerility, the poem displays a “mature and masterly style” (1: 165). Poe himself was no doubt surprised that anyone was gullible enough to believe him.

With the first publication of “The Raven” (not the first printing in the American Review for February, where it appeared under the pseudonym “Quarles”) in the New York Evening Mirror, 29 January 1845, Poe became more of a celebrity or literary “lion” than he had ever been before, for his astonishing tour de force was printed and reprinted on every side. Jocularly, Poe wrote to Frederick Thomas, 4 May 1845: “‘The Raven’ has had a great ‘run’ . . . but I wrote it for the express purpose of running — just as I did the ‘Gold Bug’, you know. The bird beat the bug, though, all hollow” (Ostrom 287). By the spring or early summer, he was much in demand at the literary soirées and soon became a regular attendant, moving about much in literary society. Having made the acquaintance of Miss Anne Charlotte Lynch (later Mrs. Botta), an author and a hostess to the literati of New York, he was invited to one of her habitual affairs at 116 Waverly Place in Greenwich Village. At her request, on 19 July he read “The Raven.” He read the poem in a quiet manner but in such a way as to hold the audience spellbound to the extent that afterwards there was much talk of his “mesmeric powers.”

To these New York literary salons came most of the company Poe treated of in his “The Literati of New York City.” Although many prominent men attended, such as Bryant, Willis, Halleck, Morris, Griswold, and Duyckinck, most of the guests were literary ladies: Mrs. Anna Cora Mowatt, Mrs. Elizabeth Oakes Smith, Mrs. Mary E. Hewitt, Miss Margaret Fuller, Mrs. Elizabeth F. Ellet, and Mrs. Frances Sargent Osgood, and others. Several of the literary ladies — all with husbands — were sufficiently attracted to Poe to attempt the establishment of an intimate friendship with him.

From the time Poe had married Virginia, he had maintained no intimate relations with women outside the members of his family. Of course, he carried on friendly business relations with a few women who were authors and editors such as Mrs. Lydia H. Sigourney and Mrs[[.]] Joseph J. Hale. Now in 1845, and afterwards, he became involved on very personal terms with a number of literary ladies, or “bluestockings,” as they were sometimes called. This was a course which by early 1849 he was to regret bitterly. If, then, 1845 was his annus mirabilis from a literary point of view, from a personal point of view it was the prologue to misfortune and downfall.

Poe met “Fanny” Osgood (Mrs. Frances Sargent Osgood), estranged wife of portrait painter, Samuel S. Osgood, at Aster House in March 1845. She was an attractive[[,]] vivacious, clever, and sophisticated thirty-four year old author and a leading contributor to Graham’s Magazine — Poe described her in “The Literati”: “She is ardent, sensitive, impulsive . . . above medium height, slender to fragility, graceful . . . complexion usually pale; hair very black and glossy; eyes a clear, luminous grey, large, and with a singular capacity of ­[page 11:] expression . . . .” He added, in an equivocal way, that if she were not beautiful, she was provocatively attractive (Harrison 15: 104).

“Fanny” Osgood was not only attractive to men, she liked them. In short, she was a flirt, a coquette. She flirted with Poe as well as with Rufus W. Griswold, the anthologist and editor, and Edward J. Thomas, a merchant. At soirées she liked to play it cute. She would sit on a footstool at a man’s feet and then cast glances upward at his face. When she performed thus, her critics said she was doing her “infantile act.” As for her flirtation with the three men, it soon turned out that she preferred Poe to the others. Her choice particularly aroused ire and jealousy in Griswold, Poe’s future literary executor, who also became his literary executioner.

Poe had become an associate editor of the Broadway Journal in February 1845, and in March he became editor and part owner. On 5 April “Fanny” Osgood began her literary courtship of Poe by submitting a poem, “So Let It Be, To ——,” signed with a pseudonym, “Violet Vane,” which he published. Poe replied to “Violet Vane” on 26 April with “To ——,” a poem he had previously written and addressed to another person, showing that he did not take the matter seriously enough to compose a new poem specifically for “Violet Vane.” But in August, Mrs. Osgood published a romantic story entitled “Ida Grey,” under her own name, in Graham’s Magazine; heroine and hero of the tale were recognizable as representing her and Poe. Indeed, the story was written in such a tone as to suggest that she was actually in love with the poet, who was commonly known to the public as “The Raven.” Consequently, “Ida Grey” (Ida was the Norse goddess of youth and Grey was a pseudonym of Poe’s, who sometimes signed himself Edward “S. T. Grey”) started the tongues of many New York literati wagging with scandalous innuendos. In response, Mrs. Osgood, obviously disturbed, anonymously published a poem, “Slander,” in the Broadway Journal 30 August 1845. But on 6 September she resumed her courtship of Poe in the same magazine with another poem, “Echo-Song,” signed with her real name. Now it appeared to the public that Mrs. Osgood had become bold enough to confess her love for “The Raven” in open court. On 13 September Poe replied with a poem, this time addressed “To F ——”; actually he had previously composed and addressed it to someone else. The readership of the Broadway Journal, however, had no way of knowing about this method. Poe also almost openly acknowledged that he returned Fanny’s love, for “F,” readers assumed, could be none other than Fanny Osgood. Again scandalous rumors circulated in the streets and homes of New York town. Now genuinely alarmed, Mrs. Osgood attempted to squelch rumors with “To ——,” published in the Broadway Journal, 22 November, in which she declared that Poe had been completely innocent of any wrongdoing throughout their “romance.” Her poem began: “Oh! they never can know that heart of thine, / Who dare accuse thee of flirtation” (Moss, Poe’s Literary Battles 215)!

The winter weather had become too much for Mrs. Osgood’s delicate health (she was a consumptive), so she left New York for a time. During her absence, another literary lady, Mrs. Elizabeth Ellet, younger and more famous ­[page 12:] as an author, decided to take advantage of the opportunity to court Poe herself and further decided that she would confess her love for him in the Broadway Journal. Poe accepted her poem, “Coquette’s Song,” but before it was scheduled to appear, in the issue of 13 December, Mrs. Osgood returned to town to learn of Poe’s “new romance.” Dismayed, she immediately composed a lament entitled “A Shipwreck” and submitted it to Poe in time for inclusion in the same issue with Mrs. Ellet’s effusion, which he was unwise enough to do. Perhaps he failed to realize that the ladies in question were not simply playing a “literary game” but were taking their passion for him with undue seriousness. At any rate, Mrs. Osgood was not naïve, and she concluded that the calumnies about her and Poe must have been initiated by none other than Mrs. Ellet, whom she now saw as her rival. Consequently, Mrs. Osgood composed a poem, “To ‘The Lady Geraldine’,” aimed directly at Mrs. Ellet. Published 20 December in the Broadway Journal, it hit at her slanderous gossip (her figure of the Lady Geraldine was taken from Coleridge’s famous poem, “Christabel,” in which Lady Geraldine, the daughter of Lord Roland de Vaux, transformed into a female demon — a serpent-woman and vampire — attempts to seduce the good and innocent Christabel by casting a spell over her in order to suck her blood). Despite being characterized by Mrs. Osgood as a lamia and a monster, Mrs. Ellet rejected the casting. Assuming the role of good and innocent Christabel, as it were, she replied on 27 December. Her poem began: “I saw thee in thy tender, youthful bloom” and ended with “To keep thee safe for heaven.” Completely deceitful, she defended herself and her actions with a high moral tone and a noble goal. She implied that her imposition into the affair — thus acknowledging that she had indeed intervened in an attempt to halt it — resulted solely from a desire to save Mrs. Osgood’s chastity and prevent her soul from later burning in hell together with Poe’s. Actually, the literary courtship that Mrs. Osgood had begun in the Broadway Journal on 5 April had ended with her poem vindicating Poe of any wrongdoing on 29 November, and this joust between Mrs. Osgood and Mrs. Ellet was simply an aftermath of the romance. Nevertheless, another aftermath was that Poe and Mrs. Osgood did in fact privately form an ardent, close friendship.

Virginia was well aware of her husband’s strong affection for Mrs. Osgood. She did not disapprove of their friendship, however, because she thought that Mrs. Osgood was good for Poe, exercising a stabilizing influence on him. Poe and Mrs. Osgood corresponded regularly, and he allowed Virginia and Mrs. Clemm to read her letters. He also visited Mrs. Osgood at her home, openly and apparently, about an evening a week, usually with other guests present. He sometimes accompanied her when she gave a poetry reading or a lecture. Meanwhile, certain “dirty minds” began to speculate whether or not there might be more to Poe’s and Mrs. Osgood’s intimacy than intellectual companionship. Innuendos dropped from various lips and malicious fingers scribbled anonymous letters with “poison-pens” addressed to Virginia. Such letters came into her hands as early as August 1845. ­[page 13:] Naturally they upset the sensitive and delicate wife, even though she refused to believe them.

Poe had not help[[ed]] matters much when he journeyed to Providence to be with Mrs. Osgood in July 1845, where she was delivering a lecture. Furthermore, early in 1846 he composed “A Valentine” specifically for her, to be read at the home of Miss Anne Lynch on 14 February 1846. The poem contained an acrostic whose solution revealed Mrs. Osgood’s full name, Frances Sergeant [sic] Osgood, her middle name being misspelled, a mistake Poe corrected later. The recipient was evidently identified since the original MS. was retained by her for the rest of her life. Poe did not attend the gathering at which the poem was read (Mabbott 1: 386-390). The poem appeared in the New York Evening Mirror for 21 Feburary. Thus the public as well as the literati were appraised of how Poe felt about Mrs. Osgood.

When Mrs. Osgood learned that Mrs. Ellet had also been privately pursuing Poe and writing him love letters, her own letters must have become more urgent and intimate. On 28 June 1846 she gave birth to a daughter (she was already the mother of two others), Fanny Fay, who unfortunately died in October. After the birth of her baby, she apparently feared that if her letters to Poe were ever disclosed they might compromise her since she had been estranged from her husband for some time, and people might suppose that she had been so estranged at the time of her pregnancy. If so, might they not also suppose that Poe was the father of Fanny Fay? Sometime after the Poes had moved from Turtle Bay to their cottage at Fordham, Mrs. Osgood and Mrs. Ellet had separately visited to pay respects to the sick Virginia. Malicious Mrs. Ellet hinted strongly to the sick girl that her husband’s friendship with Mrs. Osgood had been far from innocent. When Virginia told Edgar of Mrs. Ellet’s insinuations, he became angry and annoyed. He had never really liked Mrs. Ellet, whom he was to describe in “The Literati of New York” later in the year as “short and much inclined to embonpoint.” When she pursued him and wrote him letters, he tried to reply and act in a chivalrous manner. But he knew that her principal motive was literary advancement, and eventually he rebuffed her, probably by simply ignoring her. Meanwhile, Mrs. Osgood had been persuaded by some literary ladies, apparently incited by Mrs. Ellet, to allow them to demand her letters from Poe.

How insulted Poe must have felt, how annoyed, and how angry, when Margaret Fuller and Anne C. Lynch appeared at his cottage door, announcing that they had come at Mrs. Ellet’s urging to fetch Mrs. Osgood’s letters to him because they might be used to compromise her. Their arrogance enraged him, and he blurted out that Mrs. Ellet had better look to her own compromising letters. With trembling hands, he handed Mrs. Osgood’s letters over to the female delegation. After the ladies left, Poe immediately felt ashamed of his revelation concerning Mrs. Ellet’s relationship with him. He had violated the strict code of a Southern gentleman. Quickly he personally carried Mrs. Ellet’s letters to her residence and left them on her doorstep.

Poe was now sure that Mrs. Ellet wrote the anonymous poison-pen etters that upset Virginia but never deceived her. But the Valentine verses she ­[page 14:] wrote to her husband on 14 February 1846 show clearly her keen awareness of “the tattling of many tongues,” and her wish for a little cottage “removed from the world with its sin and care.” Poe later said that Virginia “on her death-bed declared that Mrs. E[llet] had been her murderer” (Ostrom 408).

Poe could never understand how Mrs. Osgood had allowed Mrs. Ellet and her representatives to demand her letters. It was the only fault he ever attributed to her; he respected and liked her and never spoke ill of her. Indeed, her action was not at all typical. Its cause no doubt lies in Mrs. Ellet’s success in frightening her in some odd way — perhaps in respect to the birth of Fanny Fay. At any rate, the appearance of Mrs. Ellet’s committee broke up Poe’s close friendship with Mrs. Osgood. They apparently never met again after 1847. After Poe’s death, Mrs. Osgood defended his private character against attacks by others. A consumptive, she herself died in New York only a year later, 12 May 1850.

When Mrs. Ellet learned of Poe’s impulsive remark concerning her letters to him, she was furious. Although she now had the letters, she urged her brother, William M. Lummis, to demand that Poe to [[sic]] prove their existence or confess himself a slanderer. Her brother therefore armed himself with a pistol and sought Poe. Informed of Lummis’s intention, Poe became alarmed. Going to the residence of Thomas Dunn English, an author he had mistaken for a friend, Poe requested a pistol to defend himself. English refused, suggesting that he retract his charge against Mrs. Ellet. Poe declined and left.

Meantime, Mrs. Ellet’s scandalous denigrations of Mrs. Osgood had reached the ears of her husband-painter, Samuel S. Osgood, with whom She [[she]] had become reunited. He now threatened Mrs. Ellet with a libel suit if she did not cease her scandalmongering. Consequently, in an attempt to clear herself, Mrs. Ellet wrote a letter to Mrs. Osgood, 8 July 1846 in which she retracted her slanders against her by putting the entire blame for them upon Poe himself: “The letter shown me by Mrs. Poe [i.e., a letter from Mrs. Osgood to Poe] must have been a forgery.” Poe, she asserted, would not hesitate to commit such a crime. Then she exposed her own maliciousness by stating that if Mrs. Osgood herself had seen the letter, “you would not wonder I regarded you as I did” (Moss 217ff.). Expressing sorrow for causing Mrs. Osgood pain by peddling scandal, Mrs. Ellet trusted that any injury done her reputation would not be permanent. Actually, however, Mrs. Ellet did not cease scandalmongering, and a year before her death Mrs. Osgood had to enlist the aid of her admirer, Rufus Griswold, to stop Mrs. Ellet’s tongue-wagging. He accosted Mrs. Ellet and threatened to expose her by printing the letter of retraction she had written to Mrs. Osgood if she did not cease her slanders. Mrs. Ellet, however, pursued Poe with her scandalous tales for the rest of his life.

Poe’s intimacy with Mrs. Osgood, although now at an end, was to have repercussions that combined with other factors to bring about his ruin. “The Literati of New York,” literary sketches in three installments, May-October 1846, for Godey’s Lady’s Book, immediately drew an editorial attack from Hiram Fuller (no kin to Margaret Fuller but a friend of hers), new editor ­[page 15:] of the New York Evening Mirror following the departure of Willis and Morris, both of whom had been firm friends to Poe. Hiram Fuller, however, was close to Mrs. Ellet and Thomas Dunn English. Poe’s sketch of English in the July number of Godey’s (actually out by 20 June) drew a vicious attack from English in the 23 June Mirror. English repeated all the unsavory details of scandal circulated about the Mrs. Ellet affair. A close friend of Mrs. Ellet, he also charged Poe with forgery. As a result of English’s attack, Poe instituted a libel suit for damages against Hiram Fuller and Augustus W. Clason, Jr. in the New York Superior Court. Clason was part owner with Fuller in the firm that published the Mirror. Since they had lent their journal, through the admission of English’s “card” attacking Poe, for a libelous purpose, they were the ones to be sued. Poe particularly blasted Fuller who he charged “prostituted his filthy sheet to the circulation of this calumny . . .” (Moss 233). Poe’s attorney, Enoch L. Fancher, filed the suit for libel on 23 July and declared before the court that “the said defendants . . . contriving and wickedly and maliciously intending to injure the . . . plaintiff, in his good name . . . did print . . . a certain false, scandalous, malicious and defamatory libel over the name of one Thomas Dunn English . . .” (Moss 234). Fearing involvement in the criminal charges, English fled to Washington. Poe was exonerated of forgery, however, won the suit, and was awarded damages of $255.06. It was, nevertheless, a Pyrrhic victory.

As Mabbott believed, the affair with Mrs. Osgood — which Poe himself had termed an “amour” — was “the most serious in Poe’s life” (Mabbott 1: 557). Certainly, his relationship with Mrs. Osgood was the most normal one he ever had with a woman on an intimate basis, whether or not it remained wholly Platonic friendship and intellectual companionship, which, however, I think it probably did. We do not actually know that it did not. John E. Walsh in 1980 published Plumes in the Dust: The Love Affair of Edgar Allan Poe and Fanny Osgood, arguing that Poe fathered Fanny Fay Osgood, the short-lived daughter of Mrs. Osgood, conceived while her mother was apparently estranged from her husband. Walsh contended that this birth explained why Poe became persona non grata with the New York literati. It particularly explained, according to Walsh, why Mrs. Osgood’s admirer, Rufus Griswold, hated Poe and went to such malicious lengths to damage his reputation after the poet’s death. Although Mr. Walsh’s book failed to convince reviewers, who contended that his speculative argument lacked sufficient documentation, if the New York literati believed the scandalous rumors about the Poe-Osgood affair, that belief would explain a good deal. As for Griswold, who was ready to believe anything damaging to Poe’s moral character, such a belief certainly might account for his vengefulness towards Poe. Guilty or not of the fatherhood charge, Poe did much to offend some members of the New York literati. But if Griswold believed that Poe was the seducer of the woman with whom he himself was infatuated, that thinking could account for a malice otherwise unaccountable. It must be remembered that after Poe’s death, Griswold, in a letter to W. J. Pabodie in 1852, went so far in malicious invention as to allege that Poe had engaged in sexual relations ­[page 16:] with Mrs. Clemm as well as with “Annie” Richmond, who, according to Griswold, had been Poe’s mistress. He also asserted that on the subject of Poe, and perhaps on others, Mrs. Whitman was insane. He even hinted that he had documents which, if published, could be “infinitely painful to Mrs. Whitman and all those concerned” (Quinn 680). Although in this amazing letter Griswold submitted no interpretation of the Poe-Osgood association — to damage Poe he would hardly have made any remark that might also have reflected adversely on Mrs. Osgood’s reputation — who knows what such a mind might have thought and believed?

At any rate, I think that Poe’s 1849 tale, “Hop-Frog,” is a revenge fantasy in which, recalling his enemies of the 1845-49 period, he did to them in his imagination what he felt they richly deserved. Prior to completion of this tale by February, he had engaged in romances with Mrs. Whitman and with Mrs. Richmond. His enemies, however, had desired to break up these relationships by peddling scandal to each woman. In a letter, 18 October 1848, Poe warned to Mrs. Whitman that scandalous tales she had heard about him came from certain sources, and he named them. He explained: “Ah, Helen, I have a hundred friends for every individual enemy — but has it never occurred to you that you do not live among my friends? Miss Lynch, Miss Fuller, Miss Blackwell, Mrs. Ellet — neither these nor any within their influence, are my friends” (Ostrom 394). Further, he referred to Hiram Fuller and Thomas Dunn English as “tools” of Mrs. Ellet (Ostrom 393). About four months later, 18 February 1849 (a little over a week after he had completed “Hop-Frog”), he warned Mrs. Richmond against his enemies, the Lockes — that is, Mrs. Ermina Jane Locke and her husband — who had been trying to break up his relationship with her: “In the name of God, what else had I to anticipate in return for the offense which I offered to Mrs. Locke’s insane vanity and self-esteem, that she should spend the rest of her days in ransacking the world for scandal . . .” (Ostrom 430). “It is true,” he continued, “that ‘Hell has no fury like a woman scorned’ . . . I scorned Mrs. Ellet simply because she revolted me . . . .” Then he referred to Dr. and Mrs. Locke as “nobodies & blackguards” (431).

I submit, therefore, that “Hop-Frog,” published 17 March 1849, is a fantasy of Poe’s revenge upon these scandalmongers. In his fantasizing Poe was particularly troubled by recollection of Mrs. Ellet’s torture of the dying Virginia. So the king’s jester, dwarf-cripple Hop-Frog, represents Poe himself. Tripetta, the midget dancer whom Hop-Frog loves, whom the king insults and abuses, is Virginia. The King, who “uses” and abuses them both, is Mrs. Ellet, monarch of Scandalmongers among the New York literati. The King’s seven councillors are Mrs. Ellet’s “tools” — Hiram Fuller, Thomas Dunn English, Anne C. Lynch, Margaret Fuller (no kin of Hiram’s, but a close friend of his), Anna Blackwell, and Ermina Jane Locke and her husband. Prompted by burning indignation toward his persecutors, Poe imaginatively set the entire group on fire in an ingenious but horrible fashion. Regardless of those other sources Poe drew upon in constructing his narrative, his thirst for revenge, I submit, provided the genesis of “Hop-Frog.” ­[page 17:]

Poe first saw the distinguished poet and critic, Sarah Helen Power Whitman, when he joined Mrs. Osgood in Providence early in July 1845 to attend a lecture which Mrs. Osgood was to deliver there. They walked past the widow’s house at 76 (now 88) Benefit Street. Mrs. Osgood identified Mrs. Whitman to Poe when they observed her standing on the front steps. Although Mrs. Osgood urged him to make Mrs. Whitman’s acquaintance, Poe declined and did not attempt to meet the lady whom he later so zealously courted. Two years later, she made the first overture to him. Miss Anne C. Lynch had requested her to submit Valentine verses directed to a prominent person who would number among guests at a Valentine party at Miss Lynch’s home in Greenwich Village, 14 February 1848. Miss Lynch had suggested several prominent names without mentioning Poe. Nevertheless, Mrs. Whitman had chosen Poe for her subject and had written “To Edgar Allan Poe” (later entitled “The Raven” in her 1853 collection, for which it was drastically revised). Although the poem was read at the party, Poe was evidently not present; and it was later given him by Miss Lynch and Mrs. Osgood. It appeared in Willis’s Home Journal, 18 March 1848. In response, Poe sent Mrs. Whitman, anonymously, his 1831 lyric, “To Helen,” in the form of a leaf torn from a volume of his printed poems. Then, on 1 June — again not revealing his identity — he sent her another “To Helen,” which he had specifically written for her, in which he told her that her eyes filled his soul “with Beauty” (which is Hope). Mrs. Whitman did not reply. The poem appeared in the Union Magazine, November 1848. Meantime, on 5 September, he requested her autograph. Using the pseudonym, Edward S. T. Grey — made up apparently from names of some of Poe’s favorite authors: Edward [Bulwer-Lytton], S[amuel] T[aylor Coleridge], and [Thomas] Gray. Mrs. Whitman apparently saw through the spurious name but did not at once reply, perhaps owing to a caution she had received from Mrs. Osgood: “I see by the Home Journal that your beautiful evocation has reached ‘The Raven’ in his eyrie and I suppose ere this he has swooped down upon your dove-cot in Providence. May Providence protect you if he has! He is in truth, ‘A glorious devil, with large heart and brain”’ (Quinn 574). Then Poe inquired of Anna Blackwell, a British poet visiting America, whom he had met at Fordham, about Mrs. Whitman. This inquiry soon found its way into the hands of Mrs. Whitman. She promptly composed a poem for Poe entitled “A Night in August” and sent it to him.

Then, on 21 September, “The Raven” did indeed swoop down on Mrs. Whitman. Armed with a letter of introduction from Miss M. J. McIntosh, he came to her home and spent three successive evenings with her, one in a cemetery. On the third evening he begged her to marry him. She declined to answer him and sent him home, promising, however, to write to him. In 1848 Mrs. Whitman was an attractive widow of forty-five, six years Poe’s senior. She was a refined, sensitive, intellectual woman, somewhat eccentric in dress. She like to drape herself in flowing garments, with a filmy scarf around her neck to float behind her in a breeze. She wore a memento mori suspended from her throat — a tiny wooden coffin. A mystic, she was ­[page 18:] much taken with spiritualism and practiced mediumship. Typical Sunday evenings in her home saw a group of hushed women sitting in a circle in her parlor while Mrs. Whitman, dressed in black silk and a black veil, played medium and brought them messages from the dead. Nevertheless, she was not unrealistic either about herself or about everyday affairs, but a thinking woman who wrote quite estimable poetry. Her critical keenness is attested by staunch defense of Poe after his death, in Edgar Poe and His Critics.

The Poe-Whitman connection was doomed from the start. Each entered the relationship for a different reason and a different wrong motive. Both were attracted by the idea of love rather than by any sincere affection. Their only shared sincere feelings were mutual respect and admiration. From a distance each had developed respect and admiration for the other’s heart and mind as they were disclosed in his or her poetry. Neither knew much about the other as a man or woman. Poe disclosed to her later that he had refrained from meeting her because he had presumed that she was happily married and had feared that she might be rich. When Mrs. Whitman had made her overtures to him, he had acted cautiously by inquiring about her. Not until he discovered that she was a widow did he arrange to make her acquaintance. He also learned that she was attractive, pleasant, and companionable. He therefore promptly entered into courtship, for he desperately wanted a wife.

The loss of Virginia had dealt Poe a severe blow. Whatever the drawbacks of his marriage, he had grown emotionally dependent on her. Now, emotionally, he was like a Pym shipwrecked on stormy seas, seeking rescue by a substitute Virginia, whom, he thought, he had found in this “Helen.” But Mrs. Whitman had no idea of marriage when she entered into her romance with poet Poe. She considered it a harmless but exciting poetic game, whether conducted by means of poems or acted out in a poetry of life. In fact, at forty-five, frail and afflicted with heart disease, she at first firmly resisted his insistent pleas that she explicitly declare her love and marry him. When she saw his emotional range and the intensity of his personality, she actually feared that marriage to the younger man would bring about her own destruction. Furthermore, not greatly taken with herself, especially her own appearance at her age, she could hardly believe that Poe was sincere, or, if he was, that he was not self-deceived. Finally, she did not at all like his confessed dependency upon her; it placed a responsibility on her which she was completely reluctant to assume.

Nevertheless, Poe persisted. Finally, he simply wore down her resistance. She reluctantly agreed to marry him on one condition — that he would faithfully promise her never to drink again. She made him understand that if he broke his promise the marriage was off. Of course he agreed; there was nothing else to do. He needed her — at least he needed someone like her — and he was desperate. Had he not investigated her personal position in life and her personal predilections before making his assault on her? Had he not used every rhetorical weapon including “white lies” and overstatement, sometimes indulging in the worst writing he was every guilty of, to move her in his direction? Now that he had won her over, he had to promise her ­[page 19:] anything. It was a promise, however, that despite its probable sincerity, he could not keep. Moreover, other problems immediately arose. Mrs. Whitman’s mother opposed her daughter’s marriage to Poe. And as early as October scandalous rumors concerning him had begun to drift into New England from New York like puffs of poisonous gas. In a letter of 10 October, Mrs. Whitman revealed to Poe that someone had disparaged him to her, and she asked him to explain. He had replied on 18 October, denying the accusations and defending himself as best he could.

In Lowell in late October to deliver a lecture, which had been postponed because of election-day excitement, he saw Mrs. Whitman and arranged to see her again on 4 November. About 2 November he started for Providence. Arriving there, he spent a terrible night, apparently distraught over his relations with her. The next morning he purchased two ounces of laudanum at an apothecary shop. Then, aboard the train for Boston, he swallowed the opium. When he arrived in the city, he was terribly ill. Only the intervention of some friend saved his life. Consequently, he did not keep his appointment. On 7 November he sent Mrs. Whitman a note apologizing for his absence and informing her that he had been ill. On 8 November the two met at the Boston Atheneum, where she showed him a letter warning her against him. After Poe returned to Fordham, he apparently wrote her a recriminating letter that has been lost.

On 14 November Poe wrote Mrs. Whitman, warning her against Mrs. Ellet: “No sooner will Mrs. E. hear of my proposals to yourself, than she will set in operation every conceivable chicanery to frustrate me: — and, if you are not prepared for her acts, she will infallibly succeed . . .” (Ostrom 407). Mrs. Whitman never did get prepared.

Then, adding insult to injury, Mrs. Whitman’s mother demanded that her daughter’s property would have to be turned over for her consent to the marriage. On 22 December Poe, Mrs. Whitman, and her sister signed such an agreement. Mrs. Whitman’s mother then reluctantly yielded, and the wedding was set for 24 December. This was a wedding that was never to take place

On the 23rd, while Poe and Mrs. Whitman were together at a city library, at a moment when they were separated, someone handed her a letter warning against “imprudent marriage” and stating that Poe had already violated his solemn promise to her. When they returned home, she confronted him. Without further ado, she countermanded his instructions to the minister about their intention to be married. Recriminations on both sides apparently followed until Poe must have exclaimed that because of her family’s insults to him he declined to marry her. Mrs. Whitman is said to have thrown a handkerchief soaked in ether over her face which rendered her unconscious. Her mother ordered Poe to leave the premises, and he promptly complied (Quinn 584-585).

Poe and Mrs. Whitman never met again, but as soon as he returned to New York he mailed his last communication to her, addressing her as “Dear Madam.” He blamed no one for their break but her mother, and he assured her that regardless of what had happened he would never speak ill of her — not ­[page 20:] even in his own defense. He added his trust that she would practice similar forbearance. Apparently she did not reply and never again communicated with him.

The whole romance had been a terrible mistake. Having begun it simply for sentimental excitement, Mrs. Whitman found herself reluctantly pressured into a marriage she never contemplated, to take on a responsibiliity [[responsibility]] she did not want. After Poe had determined that she was an attractive widow of modest means, he leaped at the opportunity to acquire a wife he felt he desperately needed. He soon discovered that he faced dismayingly far greater odds than Mrs. Whitman’s own reluctance — her mother’s opposition, Mrs. Ellet’s intelligence agents, and his own emotional instability. In his desperation, however, he refused to acknowledge defeat until confronted by it. Mrs. Whitman reported later that after their break she felt an immense relief. Poe must have felt likewise. There were no recriminations on either side. After Poe’s death, Mrs. Whitman remained his chief admirer and staunchest defender.

When Poe had lectured at Lowell, 10 July 1848, he met Mrs. Charles Richmond of “Westford,” wife of a local paper manufacturer, who was proud of her and catered to her interests. She was a pretty, vivacious, enthusiastic, and intelligent woman of twenty-eight, medium in height and slender of figure. She immediately took an interest in Poe and he in her. By October he was writing to her and in love with her in a purely intellectual way. Mr. Richmond had no objections to their friendship, which Poe, from beginning to end, strove to keep, and did keep, purely on an ideal plane. When he was in the throes of his romance with Mrs. Whitman, he fled to “Annie” Richmond for sympathy. Indeed, on the occasion of his attempted suicide by means of opium — if attempted suicide it was and not simply a desperate effort to suppress his mental and emotional anguish — he cried out to “Annie” to attend his sick bed and solace him after his brush with death — not in reality, however, but simply in imagination. The result was his great “For Annie,” a poem that shows his pure and deep love (for a woman whom he knew he could never have for his own, a happy wife, whom he would never permit himself to covet), and yet discloses that as a man he was not proof against this young woman’s physical beauty, however much he appreciated her soul. After stating his condition:

The sickness — the nausea —

The pitiless pain —

Have ceased, with the fever

That maddened my brain —

With the fever called “Living”

That burned in my brain.

* * * * *

­ [page 21:]

My tantalized spirit

Here blandly reposes,

Forgetting, or never

Regretting its roses —

Its old agitations

Of myrtle and roses:

Poe imagines that Annie Richmond is tending him at his bedside, that his spirit

. . . . fancies

A holier odor

About it, of pansies —

A rosemary odor,

Commingled with pansies —

With rue and the beautiful

Puritan pansies.

Then dreaming “of the truth / And the beauty of Annie,” he is “Drowned in a bath / Of the tresses of Annie,” who kisses and caresses him until he “fell gently / To sleep on her breast,” and she extinguished the light:

When the light was extinguished,

She covered me warm,

And she prayed to the angels

To keep me from harm —

To the queen of the angels

To shield me from harm.

The presence of Annie in his imagination has brightened Poe’s spirit, and he concludes his paean with the stanza:

But my heart it is brighter

Than all of the many

Stars in the sky,

For it sparkles with Annie —

It glows with the light

Of the love of my Annie —

With the thought of the light

Of the eyes of my Annie.

(Mabbott 1: 457ff) ­[page 22:]

As scandalmongers attempted to rupture Poe’s relationship with Mrs. Whitman and succeeded, so did they try to do likewise with his relationship with Annie Richmond. In this regard, Dr. and Mrs. Locke were principal agents. They even succeeded in making Mr. Richmond entertain doubts regarding Poe’s intentions toward his wife. When the scandalmongering reached Poe’s ears, he told Annie, 25 January 1849, that he saw the Lockes behind the attempt to corrupt Mr. Richmond. He feared that Mr. Richmond might have come to doubt the purity of his love for his wife, and he requested Annie to try to disabuse her husband of any idea that their love was at anytime other than Platonic. He affirmed: “Oh, Annie, there are no human words that can express my devotion to and yours. My love for you has given me renewed life.” Then, the bitterness of the past and the present converged to burst into flame, and he remarked: “But of one thing rest assured, Annie — from this day forth I shun the pestilential society of literary women. They are a heartless, unnatural, venomous, dishonorable set, with no guiding principle but inordinate self-esteem. Mrs. [Osgood] is the only exception I know” (Ostrom 418-419). Poe had sent a Ms. copy of “To Annie,” 23 March 1849, and the poem was published in the Boston Flag of Our Union, 28 April. In a letter of 16 June to Annie, he told her that he had found Dr. Locke to be a “consummate scoundrel and no friend either to you or me.” He advised: “for my sake & your own, have as little to say to him as possible. If I were you I would not speak to him at all” (Ostrom 447).

During spring 1849, Poe became hopeful of starting a quality literary magazine of his own, and he believed that he could raise sufficient capital for his venture if he traveled south. Before he started, on 29 June 1849, he went on 23 May to spend a week in Boston and Lowell. He saw Mrs. Richmond for the last time. Back in Fordham, on 16 June, he addressed his final letter to her — unemotional and matter-of-fact, mostly about his literary activities; he enclosed some literary materials of interest to her, together with some literary chitchat. Mrs. Locke had threatened to visit him, and he told Annie that if she did he would refuse to see her. He concluded: “Remember me to your parents, Mr. R[ichmond], & c. — And now Heaven for ever bless you, my darling —” It was signed “Your own Eddie” (Ostrom 446ff).

Having started south at the end of June, Poe stopped in Philadelphia, where he “drank a great deal too much, and for the first time had delirium tremens” (Mabbott 1: 567). On 7 July he informed Mrs. Clemm from Philadelphia that he had been very ill — he thought with the cholera — and that he had been “taken to prison . . . for getting drunk; but then then I was not. It was about Virginia” (Ostrom 452). From Richmond on 14 July he wrote again, informing her that he was still ill and that he had lost his valise for ten days. When he finally located it in the depot in Philadelphia, he found that thieves had stolen both of the lectures which he had planned for his southern tour, a discovery that came as a terrible blow to him. In near despair: “All my object here is over unless I can recover or re-write one of them” (Ostrom 543ff.). But by 19 July, as shown by another communication to Mrs. Clemm ­[page 23:] from Richmond, he had recovered and hoped to extricate himself from all his difficulties. Fortunately, the rest of his approximately two-and-a-half-month stay in Richmond was unusually happy for him. The citizens honored him, and he was invited into society. He lectured and read his poems to appreciative audiences. He visited the Mackenzies, where he saw his sister Rosalie. He saw Robert Stanard and other friends. And he called often on his early fiancée, Mrs. Elmira Royster Shelton, now a widow. The two had been engaged, with parental consent, when Poe went off to the University of Virginia, 14 February 1826, aged seventeen. Elmira Royster, pretty and vivacious, was fifteen or sixteen. When Poe had returned to Richmond just before Christmas — after a disastrous year which produced a serious quarrel with John Allan and resulted in Poe’s leaving home for Boston — to his dismay he had found Elmira Royster engaged to another man, Alexander B. Shelton. Although Poe had written to Elmira while he was in Charlottesville, her father planned a different future for her than marriage to Poe, whom he apparently had come to view as having no sound future. He intercepted and confiscated Poe’s letters and cancelled the engagement, re-engaging Elmira to a man he considered preferable. Now, after several visits to his old sweetheart, Poe proposed marriage to her and she accepted. Mrs. Shelton’s children, a son and daughter who were schoolchildren, disapproved of their mother’s decision as did some of her adult relatives. Nevertheless, plans for the wedding of Poe and Mrs. Shelton went forward, but with no definiteness. Although critics, including Mabbott, have pointed to Poe’s tale, “Three Sundays in a Week” (first published under the title of “A Succession of Sundays” in the Saturday evening Post [[Saturday Evening Post]], 27 November 1841), as no doubt concerning Poe’s marriage to Virginia Clemm, with Rumgudgeon representing John Allan, Kate representing Virginia, and the narrator, Robert (Bobby) representing Poe, I think them mistaken. I believe that Poe had in mind Mr. Royster and his objections to his marrying his daughter. In Poe’s tale, Kate (dim. of Katherine, “pure”) is Elmira, her father is Rumgudgeon (“odd fish” or “a man who drinks liquor like a stupid fish”), and Robert (“bright with fame”), the narrator, is Poe. Virginia was practically pennyless when she married Poe, but Rumgudgeon, “a very ‘fine old English gentleman’,” speaks of “Kate’s plum,” English slang for the sum of £100,000 sterling, which will be the patrimony she will bring to her marriage, which then will become Robert’s, i.e., Poe’s. The Roysters of Richmond were a well-to-do family, unlike the Baltimore family of Maria Clemm.

About the first week of September Poe wrote to Mrs. Clemm disclosing his recent activities and new hopes, revealing that his lecturing was received enthusiastically, and that newspapers had consistently praised him. He was often invited out, but seldom went because he lacked a dress coat. “To-night,” he wrote, “Rose [his sister Rosalie] & I are to spend the evening at Elmira’s.” He told Mrs. Clemm: “Since the report of my intended marriage, the McKenzies have overwhelmed me with attentions,” adding: “Elmira talks about visiting Fordham — but I do not know whether that would do.” Then he suggested: “I think, perhaps, it would be best for you to give ­[page 24:] up everything & come on here . . . .” Now Poe made an astonishing disclosure: “Could we be happier in Richmond or Lowell? — for I suppose we could never be happy at Fordham — and, Muddy, I must be somewhere where I can see Annie.” Again, as in the case of Mrs. Whitman, Poe was willing to marry one woman when he could not have the woman he preferred above all! Mrs. Whitman had extracted one promise from him: not to drink; but Mrs. Richmond had extracted two: not to drink and to settle down by marrying again. And finally, in this same letter to Mrs. Clemm, he blurted out a terrible and heretofore secret wish: “Do not tell me anything about Annie — I cannot bear to hear it now — unless you can tell me that Mr. R. is dead — I have got the wedding ring — and shall have no difficulty, I think, in getting a dress-coat” (Ostrom 458).

On 17 September Poe wrote his last letter to his mother-in-law: “May God forever bless you, my dear dear Muddy — Elmira has just got home from the country. I spent last evening with her. I think she loves me more devotedly than any one I ever knew & I cannot help loving her in return. Nothing is definitely settled,” he told her, but “if possible I will get married before I start — but there is no telling” (Ostrom 461). But the marriage had not taken place when Poe left on 27 September by “the Baltimore boat.” His journey homeward was to terminate in Baltimore. There in Washington College Hospital he was to breathe his last around five o’clock on Sunday afternoon, 7 October 1849.

Some cynics have proposed that Poe wanted to marry Mrs. Shelton to use her property in publishing his proposed magazine, The Stylus. Quinn remarks, however: “As human motives are rarely unmixed, he probably had some idea of profiting by the marriage. But there had been real if not undying affection between them, and on both sides there was a clutching at the memories of youth, as youth was slipping away from them. After all, each woman who has known a man intimately, keeps her own place in his heart, or at least in the chambers of his vanity” (629). At the same time, we must not forget how strongly Poe had felt the need for a female companion and wife since the death of Virginia. If he loved Mrs. Whitman as a poet loves a poetess, he also wanted her for his wife. If he loved Mrs. Richmond as a man loves a woman, he knew that he could not have her for his wife as long as Mr. Richmond lived. Although in an unwary moment, when his primitive unconscious overcame his civilized moral sensibility, he wished Mr. Richmond dead, he used the word “love” in respect to her in an indefinite sense. He acted to make her his confidant or bosom friend, neither his mistress nor his future wife. Respecting Mrs. Shelton, he loved her in that nostalgic and sentimental way a man can remain attached to the memory of his first real sweetheart. He discovered that the fiancée of his youth, who had been denied to him as a wife, was again available and was again willing to marry him. Does opportunity knock so often? Is Poe to be blamed for not wanting to miss this opportunity, even if he loved another woman more strongly? Although his love for Annie was deep and heartfelt — and maybe not so pure as he tried to convince himself — he knew she was a self-respecting ­[page 25:] woman and a faithful wife — that she was simply not “available.” He knew too, that he himself was an honorable man and no reckless seducer of women.

In looking back over Poe’s tempestuous life, it must be said that on the whole his experience with those women with whom he was on intimate terms, either by birth, “adoption,” and marriage or by ties of friendship and love, was most unfortunate. Attractive in appearance rather than handsome, “he had dark brown curly hair . . . luminously hazel eyes, a very high forehead, and a somewhat weak chin.” About five feet eight inches in height, he had a military bearing, and “always walked like a soldier.” He dressed “plainly but neatly,” and “in later years . . . usually wore a stock.” People thought his conversation “fascinating,” and his voice normally was “low and musical,” his speech uttered with “a slight Southern drawl.” He was extremely chivalrous to women and normally polite and courteous to all (Mabbott 1: 570). Generally, women found him fascinating, but those who wished found it easy to take advantage of him. If he had been asked near the end of his life to sum up his experience with women, I think he might have replied: “It was my luck to fall in love only with women from whom age, death, and marriage to others separated me.” These words are actually Professor Mabbott’s own paraphrase of some lines of Poe’s, which served as his introduction to his 1831 volume of poems (Mabbott 1: 157-158). If I believed in prophecy, I would certainly contend that these words were indeed prophetic.



This publication is based on lectures delivered at the rededication of the Sir Moses Ezekiel statue of Poe at the Univeristy of Baltimore in 1983.

© 1987 and 1998, by the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, Inc.

The implication that David Poe began acting to be with Elizabeth Poe has already been demonstrated by A. H. Quinn as wrong. David Poe had already started acting before he met Elizabeth Poe. What Benton states as if with certainty, that David Poe had quarrelled with Elizabeth and deserted her, is a matter of speculation, based chiefly on gossip and his otherwise unexplained absence. Mrs. Weiss, for example, follows another old tradition in suggesting that David Poe was already ill with the tuberculosis that would also take the life of Elizabeth, and that he died in Norfolk just a few weeks before Elizabeth’s death in Richmond.

Henry was apparently left in Baltimore with his grandparents before Poe‘s mother went on her Southern tour, so that she only had the two younger children with her at the time of her death.


[S:1 - MAR, 1987] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Myths and Reality - Friends and Enemies (R. P. Benton, 1987)