Text: Lambert A. Wilmer, “Recollections of Edgar A. Poe,” Baltimore Daily Commercial, vol. I, no. 200, May 23, 1866, p. 1, col. 5


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RECOLLECTIONS OF EDGAR A. POE.

BY L. A. WILMER,

Author ofThe Life of Ferdinand De Soto.”

[The following sketch of Mr. Poe has never before appeared in print. It is the production of a gentleman who originated “The Baltimore Saturday Visitor [[Visiter]],” and for thirty years was employed as editor of various papers in this city. As the tribute of an intimate friend to the memory of a gifted writer, personally known for a long period of his life to many Baltimoreans, it cannot fail to prove highly acceptable. — Editors of Commercial.]

The character and habits of Edgar A. Poe have been fully and freely discussed in English and American periodicals, and the public is supposed to be well “posted up” in relation to the subject; nevertheless there is good reason to believe that some considerable mistakes have found their way into the account. With the hope of doing some justice to the memory of that unfortunate man, I propose to give the result of my own observations, made at a time when my opportunities for becoming familiar with the good and bad qualities of a poet were extremely favorable.

My acquaintance with Poe commenced in Baltimore, soon after his return from St. Petersburg, “covered with debt and infamy, and confirmed in habits of dissipation,” as one of his biographers represents. I can most conscientiously declare, however, that at the time referred to, and a long time afterwards, I heard nothing of his debts and infamy, and saw nothing of his dissipated habits. His time appeared to be constantly occupied by his literary labors; he had already published a volume of poems, and written several of those minor romances which afterwards appeared in the collection called “Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque.” He lived in a very retired way with his aunt, Mrs. Clemm, and his moral deportment, as far as my observation extended, was altogether correct. “Intemperance,” says the biographer quoted above, “was his master passion.” How then did it happen, that during an intimate acquaintance with him, which continued for more than twelve years, I never saw him intoxicated in a single instance. [[?]]

His personal appearance and equipments at the time I speak of, have been thus described: “He was thin and pale even to ghostliness; his whole appearance indicated sickness, and the utmost destitution. A well-worn frock coat concealed the absence of a shirt, and imperfect boots discovered the want of hose.” This description is wholly incorrect. In his youthful days, Poe’s personal appearance was delicate and effeminate, but never sickly or ghastly, and I never saw him in any dress which was not fashionably neat with some approximation to elegance. Indeed, I often wondered how he could contrive to equip himself so handsomely, considering that his pecuniary resources were generally scanty and precarious enough.

My intercourse with Poe was almost continuous for weeks together. Almost every day we took long walks in the rural districts near Baltimore, and had long conversations on a great variety of subjects. And however dry might be the subject of our discourse, and however dusty the road we traveled, we never stopped at any hotel for liquid refreshment, and I never observed any disposition on the part of my companion to avail himself of the liberal supplies of alcoholic beverage which were always to be had in the vicinity of Baltimore. In short, his general habits at that time were strictly temperate; and but for one or two incidents, I might have supposed him to be a member of the cold water army. On one occasion, when I visited him at his lodgings, he produced a decanter of Jamaica spirits, in conformity with a practice which was very common in those days, especially in the Southern and Middle States, where one gentleman could scarcely visit another without being invited to drink. On the occasion just referred to, Poe made a moderate use of the liquor; and this is the only time that ever I saw him drink ardent spirits. On another occasion I was present, when his aunt, Mrs. Clemm, scolded him with some severity for coming home intoxicated on the preceding evening. He excused himself by saying that he had met with some friends, who had persuaded him to take dinner with them at a tavern, where the whole party had become inebriated — a circumstance for which many a poetical gentleman’s experience might furnish a parallel. I judged from the conversation between Mrs. Clemm and Poe, that the fault for which she reproved him was of rare occurrence, and I never afterwards heard him charged with a repetition of the offence.

The purpose of these statements is merely to contradict the assertion that Poe was, at every period of his life, an habitual drunkard.

In conversation Poe was fluent, but not eloquent. He was seldom enthusiastic on any subject. He had none of the conversational fervor of Coleridge. He did not monopolize the discourse, but seemed to be quite as willing to listen as to talk. Though he seldom said anything very startling, his remarks were generally shrewd. On literary subjects Poe held some singularly heterodox opinions. As for Milton, Shakspeare, and the whole array of illustrious British poets, he professed to hold them in great contempt. I never knew him to speak in warm terms of admiration of any poetical writer, except Alfred Tennyson. Among prose authors, Ben. D’Israeli was his model.

Poe was an amiable colloquist. When his favorite opinions were assailed or even ridiculed, he showed uneasiness, but no resentment. I never knew him to exhibit any ill-temper in conversation. In the most exciting controversy he never became impatient or discourteous. In short, no person ever conducted a conversation with more strict attention to the rules of good breeding.

Nevertheless, he had faults, and very conspicuous ones too; — but strangely enough, his real faults have been overlooked by his censorious biographers in their anxiety to paint him blacker than he was. He was singularly effeminate in mind and person. His defects of character were such as Pope attributes to the female sex in general, when he makes the singular statement that “most women have no characters at all.” The conduct of Poe was often controlled by whims and impulses, and it was not easy to conjecture how he would act in any given case. He had no steadfast principles, for there was not substantially enough in his mental frame-work to support them, yet under the influence of correct feelings and a sense of propriety, his moral conduct was generally good.

I have seen an article in a British review in which a comparison was made between Poe and Swift, Savage, De Quincey, Coleridge and other celebrated delinquents of English literature. All the latter were admitted to have had some “redeeming qualities,” but Poe, said the reviewer, had none, he had no human sympathies, no amiable weaknesses, no vices of a specially human consistency, “in short, he was a demon and not a man.”

A trifling incident, which just now occurs to my remembrance, may properly be placed in juxtaposition with this Englishman’s Phillipic. One day, Poe, his cousin Virginia, who afterwards became his wife, and I were walking in the neighborhood of Baltimore when we happened to approach a graveyard, where a funeral was then in progress. Curiosity attracted us to the side of the grave, where we stood among a crowd of spectators who had accompanied the corpse to the place of interment. I do not remember that there was anything particularly touching in these obsequies, but Virginia became affected and shed more tears than the chief mourner. Her emotion communicated itself to Poe; and if an English reviewer could have seen him at that moment, weeping at the grave of a stranger, he might have given him credit for some “human sympathy.”

I could mention several striking examples of Poe’s sensibility if my limits would permit. He was unquestionably of an affectionate disposition; of which he gave the best kind of proof when he labored cheerfully for the maintenance of his aunt and cousin, before his marriage with the latter. While he was editor of the Southern Literary Messenger he devoted a large part of his salary to Virginia’s education, and she was instructed in every elegant accomplishment at his expense. He himself became her tutor at another time, when his income was not sufficient to provide for a more regular course of instruction. I remember once finding him engaged, on a certain Sunday, in giving Virginia lessons in Algebra.

One of his severe chroniclers says: “It is believed by some that he really loved his wife; if he did, he had a strange way of showing his affection.” Now it appears to me that he showed his affection in the right way, by endeavoring to make his companion happy. According to the opportunities he possessed, he supplied her with the comforts and luxuries of life. He kept a piano to gratify her taste for music, at a time when his income could scarcely afford such an indulgence. I never knew him to give her an unkind word, and doubt if they ever had any disagreement. That Virginia loved him, I am quite certain, for she was by far too artless to assume the appearance of an affection which she did not feel.

From the biographies we gather that Poe had many generous friends and patrons who were always willing to take him by the hand, to “lift him out of the gutter, &c., if his own gross and brutal conduct had not constantly expelled the kindness that was offered him.[[”]] It is never hinted that Poe could have found any difficulty in maintaining himself by his pen, if he had made a proper use of his opportunities. Now the truth is, that Poe’s writings during his lifetime, were not “marketable.” I was often surprised at the difficulty he met with in disposing of some of his best productions. Publishers generally declined them on the ground that they were not calculated to please readers in general.

At one time he informed me that he could not possibly live by literary labor, and that he would have to betake himself to some other pursuit. At length he actually endeavored to acquire the art of lithography under the tuition of Mr. Duval of Philadelphia. He labored long and painfully to make himself practically acquainted with this business. Confinement in a stooping position affected his health; decided symptoms of consumption made their appearance, and his wife and mother-in-law persuaded him to abandon an occupation which was hurrying him to the grave.

I have been giving an abstract of the history of many years, commencing in Baltimore and continuing in Philadelphia. During all this time I can most conscientiously declare that Poe was no drunkard. He appeared to me to be one of the most hard-working men in the world. I called to see him at all hours, and always found him employed.

Poe’s opportunities never were great. It is remarkable that the salaries he received for literary labor were generally less than others obtain for similar services. The only glimpses of prosperity that ever he experienced were when he was engaged in the editorial management of The Southern Literary Messenger and Burton’s and Graham’s Magazines. While he held these situations the circumstances of the family were quite comfortable. How he lost these situations is a curious subject of inquiry. It should be remembered that Poe had few literary friends and many enemies; the general severity of his criticisms led to these results. There were many influences brought to bear against him when he held the position of magazine critic. Efforts were made to put him down, to oust him from a position in which he had it in his power to annoy that class of literati whom he did not admire.

Nevertheless, as I am disposed to deal fairly in this matter, I will admit that Poe’s loss of employment was in some measure the result of his own delinquency. From what has been said, the reader must be satisfied that he was not an habitual drunkard. It appears, however, that on some rare occasions, he was led astray by jovial companions and induced to join in their revels; and from the best information I can obtain, I judge that the use of intoxicating liquor had a maddening effect on him, inciting him to the most terrific acts of frenzy. Whoever could succeed in leading Poe into a drinking frolic, was certainly his evil genius, making him the instrument of his own ruin. It was one of his unfortunate tricks, when intoxicated, to insult his employer; or rather to make a statement of his grievances, which the employer was apt to think insulting. All of his employments were lost in this manner; a terribly calamitous affair for him; and yet, when the truth comes to be understood, it may be judged that less than half a dozen drunken frolics led to all these disasters. Perhaps he did not transgress in this way more than four times within fifteen years, and yet those incidents furnish the material for a large part of his life, being amplified and displayed to the best advantage, while his years of patient toil and heroic effort are passed over without the slightest notice.

After Poe’s removal from Philadelphia to New York, I lost sight of him and do not know what changes may have taken place in his habits. The loss of his wife, about this time, was an overwhelming calamity, and his intellect was crushed under the blow. During the remainder of his life, his mind appears to have been in a state of lunacy, with a few lucid intervals.

On glancing over the record of Poe’s life, we find that the principal offences with which he is chargeable, are acts of phrenzy, committed sometimes under the temporary delirium of intoxication, and sometimes from more deeply-seated mania — but always characterized by the absence of any rational purpose. When this fact shall obtain the consideration it deserves, the attempt to represent Poe to the world as a “moral monster,” will justly be regarded as an absurdity.

 


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Notes:

The name of the newspaper, as given in its own masthead, was the Baltimore Saturday Visiter, using the old-fashioned spelling of “Visiter” rather than “Visitor.” Wilmer’s contention that Poe lost all of his editorial jobs due to drinking is not clearly true based on other sources. It is certainly true for the Southern Literary Messenger, and a William E. Burton ciruclated a similar claim when Poe left Burton”s Gentleman”s Magazine, although Poe himself claimed that he was dismissed because he objected to Burton’s dubious scheme for inflating the number of subscribers in a bid to sell off the magazine to another publisher at a higher value. Poe appears to have left Graham’s Magazine of his own accord. He also left the New-York Mirror voluntarily, to assume the role of an editor of the Broadway Journal, which ultimately failed for financial reasons.

The claim of a trip to St. Petersburg was a biographical detail that Poe almost certainly made up, but apparently repeated a number of times. It first appears in print in the biographical sketch of Poe written by Henry B. Hirst in the Philadephia Saturday Museum of February 25, 1843 (reprinted in the issue of March 4, 1843). The information there almost certainly came from Poe himself. The quotation in the same paragraph about “covered with debt and infany . . . is from an anonymous article “Edgar Allan Poe,” New York Illustrated Journal, August 5, 1854, p. 116, although without the “and confirmed in habits of dissipation.” Although Mabbott states that the quotations in the third paragraph are from Griswold’s infamous obituary and memoir of Poe, the exact phrasing does not appear in either text, and Griswold gives “ghastliness” instead of “ghostliness.” It may be presumed that all of these quotations are taken from an unidentified secondary article on Poe, using Griswold as a source, and these statements are certainly typical of those made in many of these articles. (Many such articles were printed following the publication of both the obituary and the memoir.) It is possible that Wilmer is paraphrasing one or more of these articles and that an exact correlation will never be discovered.

The last sentence of the third paragraph is, technically, a question, even if it is a rhetorical one. The rules of grammar suggest that it should, therefore, end with a question mark rather than a period.

“Shakspeare” was a common spelling of the name well into the latter half of the nineteenth century.

“Frenzy” is inconsistently spelled in the original printing of this article as both “frenzy” and “phrenzy.” These spellings were both tolerated at the time, and have been allowed to stand in the present text.

In the paragraph beginning “Poe’s opportunities were never great . . .” the names of the periodicals noted are not italicized inthe original printing, and this anomaly is allowed to remain in the present text without further comment.

A substantial portion of the present article was quoted by George E. Woodberry in “Poe’s Legendary Years,” Atlantic Monthly, vol. LIV, December 1884, pp. 814-828, with the quotation appearing specifically on pp. 826-827. It was first printed in full, lacking only the introductory statement by the editors, by Thomas Ollive Mabbott in Merlin

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[S:1 - BDC, May 23, 1866] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Recollections of Edgar A. Poe (L. A. Wilmer, May 23, 1866)