Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. T. O. Mabbott), “To My Mother,” The Collected Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. I: Poems (1969), pp. 465-468 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 465:]


This is a difficult poem to discuss justly. For the man in the street it has been called, “the best tribute to a mother-in-law ever written.”(1) But its sincerity has been questioned in view of the long lapse of time between Poe's loss of Virginia and the composition of the poem and in view of its publication at a time when Poe was about to court Elmira Shelton. It must be remembered, however, that the embarrassingly late publication was the result of the publisher's delay. Poe had composed the piece after what he may have regarded as a providential escape from Helen Whitman and when he felt the comfort of the protection of his faithful aunt. The poem I think is heartfelt, though it perhaps shows but one side of the medal.(2) [page 466:]

On February 8, 1849, Poe told Mrs. Richmond in a letter that the Flag of Our Union offered to pay five dollars for a sonnet, and the form he so rarely used may have been chosen for the known market. It is unlikely that the Flag bought anything from Poe after April 28 (see the notes on “For Annie); at some time about mid-May Poe said the paper had two of his compositions still unprinted, this sonnet and the tale “Landor's Cottage,” which appeared in the issue for that date. “Sonnet — To My Mother” was published in the Flag for July 7.


(A) Boston Flag of Our Union for July 7, 1849; (B) Works (1850), II, 28; (C) Leaflets of Memory for 1850, p. 48.

Texts B and C are given in full; it is not absolutely certain which should be considered the final version; that in the Works is the one long generally known to the world. Griswold, who shortened the original title, probably used a revised clipping; the single internal change from A, “dear” for “sweet” in the fifth line, is obviously auctorial, but it was not made in C, which does have changes in lines 1, 2, 3, 7, 11, and 12. Presumably Poe gave the manuscript for C to Dr. Reynell Coates, who edited the Leaflets, in Philadelphia, about July 1849, but just possibly it was sent earlier. The texts in the Richmond Examiner, October 29, 1849, in Sartain's Union Magazine for December 1849, and in the Southern Literary Messenger of the same date are without independent authority, being merely reprinted from the Leaflets — the last two in reviews of that volume.

[page 467, continued:]


5  Compare a phrase in Poe's letter of October 18, 1848, to Helen Whitman: “let me call you ... by that sweet name.”

8  An account of Virginia Poe is given below at p. 522 in the discussion of her only surviving composition, the valentine she wrote for her husband. Poe addressed no poems to her during her lifetime (perhaps because she did not care much for poetry), although “Eulalie” may concern her. The tiny poem, “Deep in Earth,” was obviously written after her death. That Poe's [page 468:] marriage was not an ideal one seems to me indubitable, but what he says about Virginia in the present sonnet is surely in earnest. Dr. R. D. Unger, who met Poe in Baltimore during the years 1846 to 1849, wrote to Chevalier Reynolds on October 29, 1899, that “the loss of his wife was a sad blow” to Poe and that “he did not seem to care, after she was gone, whether he lived an hour, a day, a week or a year.” (I quote from the letter, not yet completely published, no. 402 in the Ingram Collection.)

9  Poe's real mother, who died when he was less than three years old, was Elizabeth Arnold Poe, the actress, about whom the little we know is synopsized in the Annals. The poet privately resented the poor opinion held by his Baltimore relatives of his real mother because of her profession, and once told Mrs. Shew that he thought he owed his abilities to Elizabeth Arnold Poe. (See letter of May 16, 1875, from Marie Louise Shew Houghton to Ingram, described in the Ingram List, no. 266.) Poe may have been delirious when he made his remarks, and also may have feared that Mrs. Clemm had overheard something of this kind. His sonnet may have been meant as a disclaimer.

14  The reference is to the devotion of Ulysses to Penelope; compare “that long wand’ring Greek / That for his love refused deity” in Spenser's Faerie Queene, I, III, xxi, 5-6.


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 465:]

1  This remark is attributed to Bronson Howard (Phillips, II, 1400). The poem was addressed to Maria Poe Clemm, Poe's aunt and mother-in-law, born in Baltimore on March 12, 1790. She became the second wife of William Clemm, Jr., on July 13, 1817. She bore three children: Henry, Virginia Marie (who died as a small child), and Virginia Eliza, who became Edgar Poe's wife. Mrs. Clemm became a widow on February 8, 1826. The poet made his home with her from sometime in 1833, or perhaps earlier, until his death. After 1849 and until 1858, Mrs. Clemm lived much of the time with Mr. and Mrs. Sylvanus Lewis in Brooklyn, but from time to time with other friends. She entered the Church Home Infirmary on Broadway, Baltimore, in 1863, and died there on February 16, 1871. She is buried beside the poet and her daughter in Westminster Churchyard in Baltimore.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 465, running to the bottom of page 466:]

2  It has been customary for recent biographers to sing the praises of “Muddie.” But there is a great deal on the record to give us pause. Griswold and Dr. English said unpleasant things of her, which I fear are true. The bad opinions held of her by Mrs. Shew and Mrs. Richmond are revealed in letters decribed in the Ingram List (passim, but especially items 79 and 213). Helen Whitman, who sometimes contributed to the old lady's comfort, wrote to an unidentified correspondent: “You ask what I think of Mrs. Clemm. I have never seen her ... Mrs. Osgood told [page 466:] me that she had been a thorn in Poe's side — always embroiling him in difficulties ... Mr. Wyatt [a clergyman instrumental in obtaining Mrs. Clemm's admission to the Church Home] thought that she was very impulsive and indiscreet and exasperating.” But Mrs. Whitman continued: “Poe always spoke of her with grateful and affectionate consideration. I believe that she loved him devotedly” (Ticknor, Poe's Helen, p. 171). It must be acknowledged that Mrs. Clemm did take care of the poet, and the world must be grateful to her for that. But her capacities were limited by her selfish character. Her conduct toward the poet's sister was particularly ungenerous. Nothing is known to me that belies the severe and masculine look revealed by her photograph. She was obviously a dragon, though often, no doubt, a protective one.




[page 466] about mid-May / before June 9 [changed to agree with the reference on p. 455, and in light of the dating of the letter in the revised edition of The Collected Letters of Edgar Allan Poe (2008), 2:796.]


[S:1 - TOM1P, 1969] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions-The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (T. O. Mabbott) (To My Mother)