Text: C. Baudelaire [trans. H. Curwen], “Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Works,” The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, London: John Camden Hotten, 1873, pp. 1-21


­[page 1, unnumbered:]





“Unhappy Master, whom unmerciful Disaster

Followed fast, and followed faster, till his songs one burden bore —

Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore

Of Never — nevermore!”

The Raven.


NOT long ago, there was brought before one of our tribunals a criminal whose forehead was tattooed with the singularly strange device — Never a chance. Thus as a book bears its title, he carried above his eyes the etiquette-law of his life, and the cross-examination proved this curious writing to be cruelly veracious. There are, in the history of literature, many analogous destinies of actual damnation, — many men who bear the word Luckless written in mysterious characters in the sinuous folds of their foreheads. The blind angel of Expiation hovers for ever around them, punishing them with rods for the edification of others. It is in vain that their lives exhibit talents, virtues or graces. Society has for them a special anathema, accusing them even of those infirmities which its own persecutions have generated. What would Hoffmann not have done to disarm Destiny? what Balzac not attempted to compel Fortune? Does there, then, exist some diabolic Providence which prepares misery from the cradle; which throws, and throws with premeditation, these spiritual and angelic natures into hostile ranks, as martyrs were once hurled into the arena? Can there, then, be holy souls destined to the sacrificial altar, compelled to march to death and glory across the very ruins of their lives! Will the nightmare of gloom eternally besiege these chosen souls? Vainly they may ­[page 2:] struggle, vainly conform themselves to the world, to its foresight, to its cunning; let them grow perfect in prudence, batten up every entry, nail down every window, against the shafts of Fate; still the Demon will enter by a key-hole; some fault will arise from the very perfection of their breastplate; some superlative quality will be the germ of their damnation:

“L’aigle, pour le briser, du haut du firmament,

Sur leur front découvert lâchera la tortue,

Car ils doivent périr inévétablement.”

Their destiny is written in their very constitution; sparkling with a sinister brilliancy in their looks and in their gestures; circulating through their arteries in every globule of their blood.

A famous author of our time has written a book to prove that the poet can find a happy home neither in democratic nor aristocratic society — not a whit the more in a republic than in a monarchy, absolute or limited — and who was able peremptorily to reply to him? I bring to-day a new legend to support his theory; to-day, I add a new saint to the holy army of martyrs, for I have to write the history of one of those illustrious unfortunates, over- rich, with poetry and passion, who came after so many others, to serve in this dull world the rude apprenticeship of genius among inferior souls.

A lamentable tragedy this Life of Edgar Poe! His death a horrible unravelling of the drama, where horror is besmutched with trivialities! All the documents I have studied strengthen me in the conviction that the United States was for Poe only a vast prison through which he ran, hither and thither, with the feverish agitation of a being created to breathe in a purer world — only a wild barbarous country — barbarous and gas-lit — and that his interior life, spiritual as a poet, spiritual even as a drunkard, was but one perpetual effort to escape the influence of this anti pathetical atmosphere. There is no more pitiless dictator than that of “Public Opinion “in democratic societies; beseech it not for charity, nor indulgence, nor any elasticity whatsoever, in the application of its laws to the varied and complex cases of moral, life. We might say that from the impious love of liberty has been born a new tyranny — the tyranny of fools — which, in its insensible ferocity, resembles the idol of Juggernaut. One biographer tells us gravely, and with the best possible intention in the world, that ­[page 3:] Poe, if he had willed to regulate his genius, to apply his creative faculties in a manner more appropriate to the American soil, might have become a money-making author; another — an out spoken cynic — this that beautiful as Poe’s genius was, it would have been better for him to have possessed only talent, since talent can pile up a banker’s balance much more readily than genius; a third, a friend of the poet, a man who has edited many reviews and journals, confesses that it was difficult to employ Poe, and that he was compelled to pay him less than the others, because he wrote in a style too far removed from the vulgar. How this “savours of the shop,” as Joseph de Maistre would say.

Some have even dared more, and, uniting the dullest unintelligence of his genius to the ferocity of the hypocritical trading-class, insulted him to the uttermost, after his untimely end, rudely hectoring his poor speechless corpse; particularly Mr. Rufus Griswold, who, to quote here George Graham’s vengeful saying, then “committed an immortal infamy.” Poe, feeling, perhaps, the sinister foreboding of a sudden death, had nominated Griswold and Willis as his literary executors, to set his papers in order, to write his life and to restore his memory. The first — the pedagogue vampire — has defamed his friend at full length in an enormous article — wearisome and crammed with hatred — which was prefixed to the posthumous edition of Poe’s works; are there then no regulations in America to keep the curs out of the cemeteries? Mr. Willis, however, has proved, on the contrary, that kindliness and respect go hand in hand with true wit, and that charity, which is ever a moral duty, is also one of the dictates of good taste. Talk of Poe with an American — he will, perhaps, confess his genius, perhaps even show a personal pride in it; but, with that sardonic superiority which betokens your positive man, he will tell you of the poet’s disordered life; of his alcoholized breath, ready to have taken light at any candle-flame; of his vagabond habits; he will reiterate that the poet was an erratic and strange being, an orbit-less planet, rolling incessantly from Baltimore to New York, from New York to Philadelphia, from Philadelphia to Boston, from Boston to Baltimore, from Baltimore to Richmond; and, if deeply moved by these preludes of a grievous history, you try to make him understand that the individual was not alone blameworthy, that it must have been difficult to write or think at ease in a country where there are a million sovereigns, ­[page 4:] a country without, strictly speaking, a metropolis, and without an aristocracy, his eyes will open fiercely, and, sparkling with rage, drivel of suffering patriotism will foam to his lips, and America, by his mouth, will hurl curses at its old mother, Europe, and at the philosophy of ancient days.

I repeat once more my firm conviction that Edgar Poe and his country were never upon a level. The United States is a gigantic and infantine country, not unnaturally jealous of the old continent. Proud of its material development, abnormal and almost monstrous, this new comer into history has a naive faith in the all- powerfulness of industry, being firmly convinced, moreover, like some unfortunates among ourselves, that it will finish by devouring the devil himself. Time and money are there held in such extraordinary esteem; material activity, exaggerated almost to the proportions of a national mania, leaves room in their minds for little that is not of the earth. Poe, who came of a good race, and who, moreover, declared the great misfortune of his country to be its lack of an aristocracy, expected, as he often argued, that in a nation without an aristocracy, the worship of the beautiful would but corrupt itself, lessen and disappear; who accused his fellow-citizens, in their emphatic and costly luxury, of all the symptoms of bad taste that characterize the parvenu; who considered Progress, the grand idea of modern times, as the ecstasy of silly idlers, and who styled the modern perfection of the human dwelling an eyesore and a rectangular abomination; — Poe, I say, was there a singularly solitary brain. Believing only in the immutable — in the eternity of nature, he enjoyed — a cruel privilege truly in a society amorous of itself — the grand common-sense of Machiavelli, who marches before the student like a column of fire across the deserts of history. What would he have written, what have thought, if he had heard the sentimental theologian, out of love for the human race, suppress hell itself; — the rag-shop philosopher propose an insurance company to put an end to wars by the subscription of a half-penny per head; — the abolition of capital punishment and orthography, those two correlative follies, and a host of sick persons writing, with the ear even close to the belly, fantastic grumblings as flatulent as the element which dictated them? If you add to this impeccable vision of the True, — an actual infirmity under certain circumstances, and exquisite delicacy of taste, revolting from everything out of exact proportion, ­[page 5:] an insatiate love for the beautiful, which had assumed the power of a morbid passion, you altogether cease to be astonished that to such a man life had become a hell, that such a life speedily arrived at an untimely end — nay, you will admire his enthusiasm for bearing with it for so long a time.


The family of Poe was one of the most respectable in Baltimore. His maternal grandfather had served as a quartermaster-general in the war of independence, and had gained the friendship and high esteem of La Fayette, who, during his last journey through the States, had specially sought out the general’s widow, to express his gratitude for the services her husband had rendered. His great grandfather had married the daughter of the English admiral, MacBride, who was allied with the noblest English houses. David Poe, the general’s son and Edgar’s father, falling violently in love with an English actress, Elizabeth Arnold, then famous for her beauty, ran away with her and married her, and, to bring their destinies still more intimately together, took to the stage, appearing with his wife on the boards of the different theatres in the chief towns of the Union. The young couple died at Richmond almost at the same time, leaving three little children, — the youngest of whom was Edgar, — in the most helpless and abandoned condition.

Edgar Poe was born at Baltimore, in the year 1813, — I give this date upon his own authority, for his writings protest against the statement of Griswold, who places the birth in 1811. If ever, to borrow an expression from our poet, the “Spirit of Romance,” — a spirit sinister and stormy — presided at a birth, it was certainly at his. Poe was the veritable offspring of passion and adventure. Mr. Allan, a wealthy merchant, took a great fancy to the unfortunate little lad, whom nature had dowered with a charming manner, and, being childless, adopted him as a son, to be henceforth known as Edgar Allan Poe. He was thus brought up in happy circumstances, and in the legitimate hope of succeeding to one of those fortunes which give a lofty altitude to the character. He accompanied his adopted parents upon a journey through England, Scotland and Ireland, but before returning to their native country, they entrusted him to the care of Dr. Bransby, who kept a school of some importance at Stoke-Newington, a northern suburb of London. Poe has himself, in William Wilson, described this ­[page 6:] quaint old house, with its Elizabethan gables, and all his schoolboy impressions.

He returned to Richmond in 1822, and continued his studies in America under the best masters of the neighbourhood. At the University of Charlottesville, which he entered in 1825, he distinguished himself, not only by an intelligence quasi-miraculous, but also by a sinister abundance of passions — a precocity truly American which was finally the cause of his expulsion. We must note in passing that Poe had aleady at Charlottesville manifested the most remarkable aptitude for the physical and mathematical sciences. Later on he made a frequent use of these in his strange stories, drawing from them resources altogether unexpected. But I have reason to believe that it was not to this order of compositions that he attached the most importance, and that — perhaps on account of this precocious aptitude — he was not far from considering them as facile juggleries, when compared with works of pure imagination. Some unfortunate gaming debts led to a temporary coolness on the part of his adopted father, and Edgar — a very curious fact, and one proving, say what they will, a strong dose of chivalry in his impressionable brain — conceived the project of aiding the Greeks in their struggle against the tyranny of the Turks. What became of him in the East, what he did there, whether he ever really had a chance of studying the classic borders of the Mediterranean, why he was found at St. Petersburgh, without a passport, and, politically comprised, compelled to appeal to the American ambassador to escape the penalty of the Russian laws, and for aid to return home — all this is still a mystery: we know nothing of it: this is a void which he alone could have filled up. Edgar Poe’s life, his youth, his adventures in Russia, and his correspondence have for long been announced in the American journals, but have not yet appeared.

Returning to America in 1829 he expressed a wish to enter the military college at West Point; he was, in fact, admitted, and there, as elsewhere, he gave signs of an intelligence admirably endowed, but at the same time undisciplined: and, at the end of some few months, he was dismissed. At this moment an event occurred in his adopted family which had the gravest consequence upon the whole of his after life. Mrs. Allan, for whom he felt a truly filial affection, died, and Mr. Allan married a lady of extreme youth. A domestic quarrel thereupon took place, into which I cannot enter, ­[page 7:] since it has been clearly explained by no one of his biographers. There is, however, no ground for astonishment that he was hence forth definitely separated from Mr. Allan, who, having children by his second marriage, completely cut off all hopes of succeeding to his fortune.

Shortly after quitting Richmond Poe had published a small volume of poems; this was, indeed, a brilliant first attempt. For all who could feel and appreciate English poetry, there was already that extra-terrestrial accent, that calmness of melancholy, that delicious solemnity, which characterizes the master-singers.

Misery now for some time made him a soldier, and it is to be presumed that he employed the dull leisure of a garrison life in preparing materials for his future compositions — weird compositions they are, which seem to have been created to show that weirdness is an integral part of the beautiful. Soon embarking in a literary career, where alone beings of a certain order are able to breathe, Poe would have died of extreme misery, but for a lucky chance which gave him the opportunity of bread-earning. The proprietor of a small magazine announced two prizes — one for the best story, the other for the best poem, h singularly clear and beautiful handwriting attracted the attention of a Mr. Kennedy, who presided over the committee of selection, and inspired him with the desire of personally examining the manuscripts. He declared at once that Poe had gained both the prizes, but one only was allotted to him. The president was anxious to see the unknown author, and the editor of the magazine introduced him to a young man of striking beauty, dressed in rags and a tattered coat, but toned to the chin, possessing the air of a true gentleman, looking at once haughty, and very hungry. Kennedy kindly did what lay in his power, introducing him to the notice of Mr. Thomas White who had founded the Southern Literary Messenger at Richmond, White was a man of audacious literary enterprise, but without any literary talent whatever. Poe soon became essential as an assist ant, and, at the age of two-and-twenty, found himself the editor of a review, the entire destinies of which depended upon his personal efforts. He speedily established its prosperity, and many years afterwards the Southern Literary Messenger acknowledged that to this eccentric outcast, to this incorrigible drunkard, its numerous subscribers and its profitable notoriety were mainly due. In this journal many of the stones which are hereafter presented to our ­[page 8:] readers, made their first appearance. For nearly two years Poe, with a marvellous ardour, astonished his public by series of com positions of a kind altogether novel, and by critical articles, the vivacity, the terseness, the severe reasoning of which were admirably adapted to enforce attention. Other articles discussed literature in its every branch, and the young writer’s thorough and broad education now stood him in good stead. It is worth our while to learn, that for these important duties, this indefatigable labour, he received five hundred dollars, that is about one hundred and eight pounds sterling, per annum. “Immediately,” says Griswold, as if he meant to convey, “Believing himself now rich enough the young fool!” he married a young lady, beautiful, charming, and of an heroic nature, but without a farthing, adds this same Griswold with a sneer of disdain. The young lady was his cousin, Virginia Clernm.

In spite of the services rendered to his journal, White quarrelled with his editor before two years had elapsed. The reason of their separation is evidently to be found in the attacks of hypochondria, and the fitful outbursts of intoxication, to which the poet was subject — characteristic incidents which darkened his spiritual sky, like those gloomy clouds which suddenly give to the most romantic landscape an air of melancholy apparently irreparable. Henceforward we watch the unfortunate poet striking his tent, like a nomad of the desert, and, carrying his light penates hither and thither through the principal cities of the union. Everywhere, in a brilliant manner, he edited reviews, or contributed to them, scattering broadcast, with a miraculous rapidity, critical and philosophical articles, and stories teeming with a magic beauty, which appeared in a collected form, under the title of Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque — a remarkable and intentional title, for arabesque and grotesque ornamentation repulses the human figure; and we shall see that, in most respects, the works of Poe are extra, or superhuman. We learn next, by scandalous paragraphs cruelly inserted in the papers, that Poe and his wife, in a state of utter destitution, were taken dangerously ill at Fordham. Here his devoted wife died, and shortly after her death the poet experienced his first attack of delirium tremens. A new paragraph suddenly appeared in one of the papers — in that one which was bitterest against him — which, condemning his contempt of the world, and his disgust for it, made one of those sidling attacks upon his character ­[page 9:] on the part of public opinion, against which he had always to de fend himself — of all the sterilely fatiguing struggles the most sterile.

He now, doubtless, did gain money, almost enough to support life; but I have proofs that he had always the most discouraging difficulties to surmount. At this time he dreamt, like so many other writers, of starting a review for himself of being, as it were, at home; and indeed he had suffered sufficiently to justify an ardent desire for a definite haven for his thoughts. To arrive at this end, to procure a sufficient sum of money, he had recourse to lecturing — a branch of speculation which the college of France has put in the power of all literary men, the author publishing his lecture only after he has first derived all possible prior benefits. Poe had already given at New York a lecture called Eureka — his cosmogenic poem, which had even originated a stormy discussion. He now determined to lecture in his own country — Virginia, expecting, as he wrote Willis, to make a circuit in the east and south, where he trusted to the support of his literary friends, and of his old fellow-students at Charlottesville and West Point. He visited in turn the principal towns of Virginia; and the people of Richmond again saw him whom they had known formerly as so young, so poor, so forlorn. Now he appeared handsome, elegant, correct as genius itself. I even believe that for some time he had pushed his condescension so far as to join a temperance society. He chose a theme as large as it was elevated — The Principles of Poetry, and he developed it with that lucidity which was one of his privileges. He believed — the true poet that he was — that the aim of poetry is of the same nature as its principle — that it ought never to have in view anything but itself.

The happy reception with which he was welcomed, flooded his poor heart with pride and joy; he showed himself so enchanted with it that he even talked of definitely establishing himself at Richmond, and ending his days in the spot which childhood had rendered dear to him. However, he had business at New York, and he started on the 4th October, complaining of weakness and shiverings. Feeling himself worse on arriving at Baltimore at six in the evening, he caused his luggage to be moved to the station from which he meant to leave for Philadelphia, and then entered a tavern to take some exciting stimulant. There, unfortunately, he came across old acquaintances, and stopped late. On the following morning in the pale shadows of the early day, a corpse was found, ­[page 10:] upon the high-way — a corpse with life still stirring within it, but marked already with the royal stamp of death. On this body, which was recognized by none, were found neither papers nor money. They bore it straightway to the hospital, and there died Edgar Poe, on the evening of Sunday, the 7th October, 1849, at the age of thirty-seven, conquered by delirium tremens, the terrible guest who had haunted his brain once or twice previously. Thus disappeared from this world one of our greatest literary heroes, the man of genius who in the Black Cat had written these prophetic words: — “What disease is like Alcohol!”

This death was almost a suicide a suicide prepared from an early period; at all events it caused all the scandal of one. The clamour of the public was deafening, and virtue gave full utterance to her emphatic cant, freely and voluptuously. The more indulgent funeral orations could only give way to that inevitable trades folk morality, which was careful not to neglect so admirable an opportunity. Mr. Griswold defamed sternly; Mr. Willis, sincerely afflicted, was more than befitted the occasion. Alas, and alas! he who had stormed the most arduous heights of the aesthetic, who had plunged into the least explored depths of the human intellect, who, across a life resembling a tempest where no hopes of calm came ever, had discovered new means and ways unknown to dazzle the imagination, to charm all minds thirsting for the beautiful, bad just a few hours since died in the wards of a hospital — what a destiny! So much grandeur, so great a misery, to raise a whirlwind of commonplace moralities, to become the food and the theme of virtuous journalists: —

Ut dedamatio fias.

These spectacles are in no wise novel; rarely, indeed, is the funeral of a young and illustrious artist aught else than a meeting-ground for scandals. Society, moreover, bears no love to their despairing unfortunates, and whether it be that they trouble her feast-days, or that she innocently looks upon them as so many remorses, society is incontestably right. Who cannot recall the declamations of all Paris at the death of Balzac, who nevertheless died with due propriety. And more recently still — just one year back from the day I pen these lines — when a writer virtuous above suspicion, endowed with the loftiest intelligence, and unlike this other, always admirably lucid, went discreetly without disturbing a single being — so discreetly, indeed, that his discretion resembled ­[page 11:] contempt — to set his soul free in the blackest alley he could find what nauseous homilies were there — what refined assassinations! One celebrated journalist, to whom Jesus shall never teach a generous manner, found the adventure lively enough to be celebrated in the grossest jest. Among the many enumerations of the Rights of Man that the wisdom, of the nineteenth century has recommended so complacently and so often, two most important ones have been forgotten, these two are the right of contradicting oneself, and the right of going hence. But society looks upon him who goes as an insolent fellow; she would willingly chastise the sorry human remains, just as that hapless soldier, stricken with vampirism, whom the sight of a corpse exasperated to madness, and yet we might say that, under the pressure of certain circum stances, after a serious examination of certain incompatibilities, with a firm belief in certain dogmas and metempsychoses, we might say without emphasis or word-play that a suicide is some times the most reasonable action in a life. Thus, a company of phantoms have banded themselves together, numerous already, each member of which comes back to us boasting of his actual repose, converting us to his own persuasion!

Once for all let us avow that the melancholy end of the author of Eureka excited some exceptional pity, without which the world would be no longer tenable. Mr. Willis, as I have said, spoke honestly and even with emotion, of the good relations there had always existed between Poe and himself. John Neal and George Graham endeavoured to call Griswold to some sense of shame. Mr. Longfellow — all honour to him, since Poe had cruelly maltreated him — knew how, in a manner worthy of a poet, to praise Poe’s great powers as a poet and a prose writer. An unknown pen declared that American literature had lost its strongest head.

Sick at heart, and unutterably wretched was Mrs. Clemm, for Edgar was at once to her as son and daughter. A terrible destiny, says Willis, from whom I borrow these details, almost word for word, a terrible destiny was that one she watched over and protected; for Edgar Poe was an embarrassing being, besides the fact that he wrote with a fastidious difficulty, and in a style too much above the common intellectual level to be highly paid, he was always plunged in monetary distresses, and often he and his sick wife stood in urgent need of the common necessaries of life. Willis saw one day a lady, old, sweet-countenanced, and grave, ­[page 12:] enter his office. It was Mrs. Clemm in search of work for her dear Edgar. The biographer tells us that he was sincerely struck, not only at the exact appreciation she displayed of the talent of her son, but also by her whole appearance — her voice, low and sad, her manners, maybe of the past, but beautiful and commanding. During several years, he adds, we watched this indefatigable servitor to genius, poorly and insufficiently clad, going from journal to journal, to sell now a poem, now an article, saying some times that he was ill — the only explanation, the only reason, the invariable excuse that she gave when her son was momentarily struck with one of those attacks of literary sterility so common to nervous writers; and never allowing her lips to breathe a syllable that could be interpreted as a doubt, as a lessening of confidence in the genius and the will of her well-beloved. When her daughter died she attached herself to the survivor with a maternal ardour doubly strengthened; living with him, taking tender care of him, watching over him, defending him against life and against himself. If ever, concludes Willis, with just and lofty reason, “if ever woman’s devotion, born with a first love, and fed with human passion, hallow its object, as it is allowed to do, what does not a devotion like this pure, disinterested, and holy as the watch of an invisible spirit — say for him who inspired it?” Other detractors of Poe have in effect remarked that he possessed seductions so powerful that they could only be virtues.

We may divine how terrible the news was to this unfortunate mother. She wrote to Willis a letter of which we quote a few lines:

“I have this morning heard of the death of my darling Eddie. . . . Can you give me any circumstances or particulars? . . . Oh! do not desert your friend in this bitter affliction. . . . Ask Mr. —— to come, as I must deliver a message to him from my poor Eddie. . . . I need not ask you to notice his death, and to speak well of him. I know you will. But say what an affectionate son he was to me his poor desolate mother. . . .”

This woman appears to me grand and more than antique. Stricken with an irreparable blow, she thinks only of the reputation of him who was all in all to her, arid it does not sufficiently content her to say that he was a genius, but all the world must know that he was a man dutiful and affectionate. It is evident that this mother — torch and hearth-side lightened by a ray from the highest heavens — has been sent as an example to our ­[page 13:] race, too little careful of heroism and devotion, of all that is noblest in duty. Were it not a justice to inscribe before the poet’s works the name of her who was the moral sun of his life? — to embalm in his glory the name of that woman whose tenderness knew how to soothe his wounds, and whose image will incessantly hover above the martyrology of literature?


The life of Poe, his morals, his manners, his physical being, all that constituted his personal surroundings, appear as at once gloomy and brilliant. His person, singularly entrancing, was like his works, marked with an indefinable stamp of melancholy. Moreover he was remarkably well endowed in all respects. As a youth he had displayed a rare aptitude for all physical exercises, and though made with the feet and hands of a woman, bearing throughout indeed this character of feminine delicacy, he was more than robust, and capable of marvellous feats of strength. He had in early youth gained a swimming wager for a distance surpassing the ordinary measurement of the possible. We might say that Nature endows those of whom she expects great things with an energetic temperament, just as she gives a strong vitality to the trees which stand as symbols of grief and mourning. These men, with an outward appearance sometimes almost pitiable, are built as athletes, good for orgie or for toil, quick to excess and capable of astonishing sobriety.

There are some points relative to Poe upon which there is a unanimous agreement, for example his high natural distinction, his eloquence and his beauty, of which, as they say, he was perhaps a little vain. His manner, a strange blending of haughtiness and sweetness, was full of firmness. Physiognomy, walk, gestures, every motion of his head, declared him, especially in his happiest days, as a chosen creature. All his being breathed a penetrating solemnity. He was really marked by nature like those figures of chance by-passers, which at once attract the eye of an observer, and preoccupy his memory. Even the pedantic and sour Griswold avows that when he went to pay Poe a visit, and when he found him pale and still stricken with the death and illness of his wife, he was struck beyond measure, not only at the perfection of his man ners, but still more with his aristocratic physiognomy, and the ­[page 14:] perfumed atmosphere of his chamber, in other respects modestly enough furnished. Griswold ignores that the poet, more than other men, possesses that marvellous privilege attributed to the women of France and Spain, of knowing how to deck themselves with a mere nothing, and that Poe, amorous of beauty in all things, would have found a means to transform a thatched cottage into a palace of a novel kind. Has he not written, in a spirit most original and most curious, of designs for furniture, of plans of country houses and gardens, and of remodelled landscapes?

There still exists a charming letter from Mrs. Frances Osgood, who was one of Poe’s friends, giving us the most curious details upon his manners, his person, and his home-life. This lady — who was herself a distinguished writer — courageously denies all personal knowledge of the vices and the faults cast up at the poet’s memory.

“With men,” she said to Griswold, “your views may be perfectly just, but to women he was different. . . I think no one can know him no one has known him personally — certainly no woman — without feeling a deep interest in him. I have never seen him otherwise than gentle, generous, well-bred and fastidiously refined. . . .

“My first meeting with the poet was at Aston-House. A few days previous Mr. Willis had handed me at the table d’hôte, that strange and thrilling poem entitled the Raven, saying that the author wanted my opinion of it. Its effect upon me was so singular, so like that of weird unearthly music that it was with a feeling almost of shame that I heard he desired an introduction. . . I shall never forget the morning when I was summoned to the drawing-room by Mr. Willis to receive him. With his proud and beautiful head erect, his dark eyes flashing with the electric light of feeling and of thought, a peculiar, an inimitable blending of sweetness and hauteur in his expression and manner, he greeted me calmly, gravely, almost coldly, yet with so marked an earnestness that I could not help being deeply impressed by it. From that moment until his death we were friends. . . . And in his last words, ere reason had for ever left her imperial throne in that overtaxed brain, I have a touching memento of his undying faith and friendship.

“It was in his own simple yet poetical home that to me the character of Edgar Poe appeared in its most beautiful light. Playful, ­[page 15:] affectionate, witty, alternately docile and wayward as a petted child — for his young, gentle and idolized wife and for all who came, he had, even in the midst of his most harassing literary duties, a kind word, a pleasant smile, a graceful arid courteous attention. At his desk beneath the romantic picture of the loved and lost Lenore, he would sit, hour after hour, patient, assiduous and uncomplaining, tracing in an exquisitely clear chirography, and with almost superhuman swiftness, the lightning thoughts — the ‘rare and radiant’ fancies, as they flashed through his wonderful and ever wakeful brain. I recollect one morning towards the close of his residence in this city, when he seemed unusually gay and light- hearted. Virginia, his sweet wife, had written me a pressing invitation to come to them; and I who could never resist her affectionate summons, and who enjoyed his society far more in his own house than elsewhere, hastened to Amity Street. I found him just completing his series of papers entitled the ‘Literati of New York.’’see,’ said he, displaying in laughing triumph several little rolls of narrow paper (he always wrote thus for the press,) ‘I am going to show you, by the difference of length in these, the different degrees of estimation in which I hold all you literary people. In each of these one of you is rolled up and dis cussed. Come, Virginia, and help me!’ And, one by one, they unfolded them. At last they came to one which seemed interminable. Virginia, laughing, ran to one corner of the room with one end, and her husband to the opposite with the other. And whose lengthened sweetness long drawn out is that?’ said I. ‘Hear her,’ he cried, just as if her little vain heart didn’t tell her it’s herself!’

“During that year, while travelling for my health, I maintained a correspondence with Mr. Poe, in accordance with the earnest en treaties of his wife, who imagined that my influence over him had a restraining and beneficial effect. . . . Of the charming love and confidence that existed between his wife and himself, always delight fully apparent to me, in spite of the many little poetical episodes, in which the impassioned romance of his temperament compelled him to indulge; of this I cannot speak too earnestly — too warmly. I believe she was the only woman he ever truly loved.”

In Poe’s Tales there is no mention of love; at least Ligeia, Eleonora are not, properly speaking, love-stories; the principal idea upon which they hinge being quite other. Perhaps he believed that prose is not a language lofty enough for that strange and ­[page 16:] almost untranslatable sentiment; for his poems, on the other hand, are strongly saturated with it. There the divine passion appears magnificent, — of the stars, yet always veiled with a mist of unchangeable melancholy. In his articles he speaks sometimes of love, as of a thing at which his pen should tremble. In the Domain of Arnheim he affirms that the four elementary conditions of happiness are, life in the open air, the love of a woman, forgetfulness of all ambition, and the creation of a new ideal of beauty. What corroborates the idea of Mrs. Osgood in regard to Poe’s chivalrous respect for women is, that in spite of his prodigious talent for the grotesque and horrible, there is throughout his works not a single passage which treats of wantonness, or even of sensual enjoyment. His portraits of women are, so to speak, crowned with aureoles, they daze us from the midst of a supernatural mist, and are limned in the emphatic manner of a worshipper. As to the little romantic episodes, can there be any room for astonishment that a being so nervous, in whom the yearning for the beautiful was ever the chief characteristic, should, with a passionate ardour, have cultivated gallantry, that volcanic and musk-scented flower, for which the feverish brain of a poet has always been the chosen soil?

Of his singular personal beauty, of which so many biographers speak, the mind can, I think, form an approximate idea, in summoning to its. aid all the vague notions, vague yet characteristic, contained in the word romantic, which serves generally to render the shades of beauty that consist above all in expression. Poe had a grand forehead, where certain bumps “betrayed the overflow of the faculties which they are supposed to represent — such as construction, comparison, causality — and where the sense of ideality, par excellence the aesthetic sense, lorded it in haughty calmness. Yet in spite of these gifts, perhaps even on account of their exorbitant privileges, his profile was not exactly pleasant. As whenever one sense is excessive, a deficit could but result from the abundance, a poverty from the usurpation. He had large eyes, at once sombre and full of light, of an indecisive and gloomy colour approaching violet; his nose was noble and solidly cut; his mouth fine and sad, though slightly smiling; his skin a clear brown; the face generally pale; the physiognomy a trifle distracted, and imperceptibly tinged with melancholy.

His conversation was very remarkable, and essentially full of interest. He was not what we term a good talker — a horrible thing ­[page 17:] indeed — besides, his speech, like his pen, detested coventionalities [[conventionalities]]; but a vast knowledge, an acquaintance with many tongues, deep studies, and impressions garnered in numerous countries, made this speech a powerful teacher. His eloquence, essentially poetic, full of method, yet soaring above every known method, an arsenal of images chosen from a world but little frequented by common minds, a prodigious art in drawing secret and novel deductions from an evident and absolutely acceptable proposition, in opening out astonishing perspectives, and, in a word, the art of ravishing, of causing his listeners to think, to dream, snatching them from the trammels of routine — such were the dazzling powers of which many men have kept the memory. But sometimes it would happen — at all events, they say so — that the poet, indulging himself in a caprice, would brusquely recall his friends to earth again by some painful cynicism, brutally demolishing his spiritual fancy. It is, moreover, to be noted that he showed little difficulty in the choice of his listeners, and I think the reader will, without trouble, re collect many other grand and original intelligences to whom all company seemed good; — certain minds, alone in the midst of a crowd, and who, scattering their thoughts in a monologue, have little delicacy in the matter of their public. It is, in fact, a kind of brotherhood founded on contempt.

Of his drunkenness — celebrated and cast up at him with a persistence which might make one believe that all the authors of the United States, Foe alone excepted, are angels of sobriety, — it is still necessary to speak. Several versions are plausible: none exclude the others. Above all, I am obliged to remark that Willis and Mrs. Osgood both affirm that a minimum quantity of wine or spirit sufficed to completely perturb his organization. It is easy, too, to suppose that a man so really solitary, so profoundly unfortunate, who had often declared our social system a paradox and an imposture, — a man who, tormented by a pitiless destiny, repeated often that society was but a rabble of miserable wretches — (this saying is reported by Griswold, as scandalized as a man can be, who thinks the same thing, but dares not speak it) — it is natural, say I, to suppose that this poet, thrown as a child into the hazards of free life, his brain circled tightly round with a toil bitter and continuous, should have occasionally sought the delight of forgetfulness in the flagon. Literary rancours, vertigoes from the crushing marvels of infinity, troubles of household poverty, ­[page 18:] insults to his misery, all, all were forgotten in the depths of intoxication as in a preparatory tomb. But, just as this explanation may appear, I still mistrust it from the fact of its deplorable simplicity.

I am told that he drank, not as a gourmand, but as a savage — with that activity and time-economy altogether American, as if accomplishing a homicidal function, as if he had within himself something that must be killed — a worm that would not die. They say, too, that one day, when he was on the point of marrying a second time (the banns were published, but as he was being congratulated upon a union that was to prove in his hands the highest convictions of happiness and assured existence, he had said: “It is possible that you may have heard the banns; but note this — I shall never marry!”) he went hopelessly drunk to scandalize the neighbourhood of her who should have been his wife, having this recourse to his vice to disembarrass himself of a perjury towards that poor dead spouse whose image always haunted his mind, and whom he had sung so Admirably in his Annabel Lee. I consider then, that, in a great number of cases, the infinitely important fact of premeditation is proved and established.

On the other hand, I read in a long article in the Southern Literary Messenger — the same review whose fortunes he had founded — that the purity and the finish of his style, the firmness and severity of his thought, the ardour of his labour, were never in the slightest degree altered by this terrible habit; that the production of the greater part of his excellent short pieces preceded, or followed, one of his drunken crises; that, after the publication of Eureka, he sacrificed deplorably to his longing; and that at New York, on the very morning on which the Raven appeared, while the poet’s name was on every lip, he crossed Broadway, stumbling outrageously, You must remark that the words preceded, or followed, imply that drunkenness could serve as a stimulant as well as a soothing draught.

Now, it is incontestable that, like those fugitive and striking impressions — most striking in their repetition when they have been most fugitive — which sometimes follow an exterior symptom, such at [[as]] the striking of a clock, a note of music, or a forgotten perfume and which are themselves followed by an event similar to the event already known, and which occupy the same place in a chain previously revealed — like those singular periodical dreams which frequent our slumbers — there exist in drunkenness not only the ­[page 19:] entanglements of dreams, but whole series of reasonings, which have need to reproduce themselves, of the medium which has given them birth. If the reader has followed me without repugnance, he has already divined my conclusion. I believe that, in many cases, not certainly in all, the intoxication of Poe was a mnemonic means, a method of work, a method energetic and fatal, but appropriate to his passionate nature. The poet had learned to drink as a laborious author exercises himself in filling note-books. He could not resist the desire of finding again those visions, marvellous or awful — those subtle conceptions which he had met before in a pre ceding tempest; they were old acquaintances which imperatively attracted him, and to renew his knowledge of them, he took a road most dangerous, but most direct. The works that give us so much pleasure to-day were, in reality, the cause of his death.


Of the works of this singular genius I have very little to say; the public will soon prove what it thinks of them. It would to me be difficult, but not impossible, to unravel his method, to explain his process, especially in that part of his works whose effect principally lies in a skilfully-managed analysis. I could introduce the reader into the mystery of his fabrication, paying a special attention to that portion of American genius which caused him to rejoice over a conquered difficulty, a resolved enigma, a successful effort of strength, which urged him on to delight himself with a childish and almost perverse enjoyment in the world of probabilities and conjectures, to create canards to which his subtle aid gave all the appearances of reality. No one can deny that Poe was a marvellous juggler; and I know that he gave his esteem especially to another portion of his works. I have a few, and very brief, important remarks to make.

It was not by his material miracles, however they may have made his renown, that he won the admiration of thinkers, but by his love of the beautiful, by his knowledge of the harmonical conditions of beauty, by his profound and plaintive poetry, carefully wrought, nevertheless, and correct and transparent as a crystal jewel — by his admirable style, pure and strange — compact as the joints of a coat of mail — complacent and minute, and the slightest turn of which served to push his reader towards the desired end — and, above all, by that quite special genius, by that unique temperament ­[page 20:] which permitted him to paint and explain, in a manner, impeccable, entrancing, terrible, the exception in moral order. Diderot, to take one example of a hundred, is a blood-red author; Poe is a writer of the nerves even something more — and the best I know.

With him every entry into a subject is attractive, without violence, like a whirlwind. His solemnity surprises the mind, and keeps it on the watch. We feel at once that something grave is at stake; and slowly, little by little, a history is unfurled the interest of which rests upon some imperceptible deviation of the -intellect, upon an audacious hypothesis, upon an imprudent dose of nature in the amalgam of the faculties. The reader, thralled as if by vertigo, is constrained to follow the author in his entangling deductions.

No man, I repeat, has told, with greater magic the exceptions of human life and nature, the ardours of the curiosities of convalescence, the close of seasons charged with enervating splendours, sultry weather, humid and misty, where the south wind softens and distends the nerves, like the chords of an instrument; where the eyes are filled with tsars that come not from the heart; hallucination at first giving place to doubt, soon convinced and full of reasons as a book; absurdity installing itself in the intellect, and governing it with a crushing logic; hysteria usurping the place of will, a contradiction established between the nerves and the mind, and mien out of all accord expressing grief by laughter. He analyses them where they are most fugitive; he poises the imponderable, and describes in that minute and scientific manner, whose effects are terrible, all that imaginary world which floats around the nervous man, and conducts him on to evil.

The very ardour with which he threw himself into the grotesque, out of love for the grotesque, and into the horrible, out of love for the horrible, seems to verify the sincerity of his work, and the accord of the poet with the man. I have already remarked that in many men this ardour was often the result of a vast unoccupied vital energy, sometimes of a self-promoted chastity, and also of a profound back-driven sensibility. The supernatural delight that a man can experience in watching his own blood flow — sudden, violent, useless movements, loud cries thrown into the air, without any mental will — are phenomena of the same order.

Upon the heart of this literature where the air is rarified, the mind can feel that vague anguish, that fear prompt to tears, that ­[page 21:] sickness of the heart, which dwells in places vast and strange. But the admiration is stronger; and, then, art is so great! all the accessories are there thoroughly appropriate to the characters. The silent solitude of nature, the bustling agitation of the city, are all described there, nervously and fantastically. Like our Eugene Delacroix, who has elevated his art to the height of grand poetry, Edgar Poe loves to move his figures upon a ground of green or violet, where the phosphorescence of putrefaction, and the odour of the hurricane, reveal themselves. Nature inanimate, so styled, participates of the nature of living beings, and, like it, trembles with a shiver, supernatural and galvanic. Space is fathomed by opium; for opium gives a magic tinge to all the hues, and causes every noise to vibrate with the most sonorous magnificence. Some times glorious visions, full of light and colour, suddenly unroll themselves in its landscape; and on the furthest horizon-line we see oriental cities and palaces, mist covered, in the distance, which the sun floods with golden showers.

The characters of Poe, or rather the character of Poe, the man with sharpened faculties, the man with nerves relaxed, the man whose ardent and patient will bids a defiance to difficulties, whose glance is steadfastly fixed, with the rigidness of a sword, upon objects that increase the more, the more he gazes — this man is Poe himself; and his women, all luminous and sickly, dying of a thou sand unknown ills, and speaking with a voice resembling music, are still himself; or, at least, by their strange aspirations, by their knowledge, by their incurable melancholy, they participate strongly in the nature of their creator. As to his ideal woman — his Titanide, she reveals herself under different names, scattering in his, alas! too scanty poems, portraits, or rather modes of feeling beauty, which the temperament of the author brings together, and con founds in a unity, vague but sensible, and where, more delicately, perhaps, than elsewhere, glows that insatiable passion for the beautiful which forms his greatest claim, that is to say, the essence of all his claims, to the affection and the respect of poets.


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 1:]

*  Translated by H. Curwen.



Baudelaire’s memoir of Poe was originally published in 1852, in French. It is largely taken from Griswold’s memoir of Poe, John R. Thompson’s obituary for Poe in the Southern Literary Messenger, and a review of the Griswold edition by John M. Daniel. It was translated by Henry Curwen, who later wrote Sorrow and Song, which includes his own interpretation of Poe’s life.


[S:0 - WEAPICHCE, 1873] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Works of Edgar Allan Poe [E. A. Poe: His Life and Works] (C. Baudelaire, trans. H. Curwen, 1873)