Text: Augustus Van Cleef, “Poe’s Mary,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, March 1889, vol. LXXVIII, pp. 634-640


∞∞∞∞∞∞∞


[page 634:]

POE’S MARY.

BY AUGUSTUS VAN CLEEF.

[column 1:]

SHE was a lively, handsome old lady of seventy-one. I call her an old lady not because she looked one, but because she was. She looked rather sixty than seventy; and though her hair, once auburn, was white, her step was brisk, and her figure was as erect, round, and trim apparently as it was fifty years ago. Her bright dark brown eyes had a kindly sparkle, and her frequent laugh was contagious. She was charming still, and it is easy to believe that, when a young girl, she was loved by and loved a man so strange and fascinating in many ways as Edgar Allan Poe. That she knew the poet and that he had been in love with her had been in later years known only in a vague, general way among her family, of which I am fortunate to count myself one, and friends. During the life of Poe she naturally said little about his early love for her, and since its close she has said but little more, except in general terms. Though for a year, when he lived in Baltimore with Mrs. Clemm and Virginia, they were engaged in fact, if not in name, though she remained to the end his friend and the friend of his wife and Mrs. Clemm, she is mentioned in none of the biographies of the poet.*

Naturally I was curious to hear her [column 2:] story. Finding, after she had told it to me, during a number of conversations, that it gave an intimate insight on certain traits of his character, described him with the minuteness of observation of a loving woman, corrected some statements and threw new light on others, I told her that it ought to be published. I had also prefaced my original inquiries by stating my purpose in making them. She gave her consent, stipulating that her identity should not be revealed. And so the grandmother who was loved in many households in New York and other cities told rue the story of what was the chief romance of her life. On that of Poe, those who read it will see it cannot fail to have had a strong influence. If he had not been finally rejected by the heroine of the present story he would never have married Virginia, his child cousin, who acted as a go-between during what was probably the first robust passion of his manhood. It also interferes somewhat with the romantic story of the gradual growth of his love for Virginia, in Mr. Eugene L. Didier’s life of the poet.

Occasionally, as the old lady told her story, her eyes would become moistened aa she spoke of him she called “Eddie” with something of the tenderness of old days, read again, half to me and half to herself, [page 635:] some of her early lover’s poems, and lin- gered over the lines she thought referred to herself, or looked at the portrait reproduced with this article, which she declared was the best one she had ever seen, and had his expression. She recalled, as being, like, one which was in a volume of his poems Poe gave her in after-years. She pronounced those in later biographies caricatures, making an exception in favor of the steel-engraving which accompanies the life by Mr. George E. Woodberry, in the “American Men of Letters” series. I give her recollections as much in her own words as possible, as I took them down at the time, while she sat by my side, and occasionally remarked that I could put what she said in my own words. This I only did when I had to, for sometimes statements in one conversation were amplified in another. In all but dates the old lady’s memory was remarkably good, considering the lapse of years.

“When I first met Mr. Poe,” she said, “I was about seventeen, and lived in Essex Street, I think it was, in the ‘old town’ of Baltimore. It was about 1835 (1832?), I think. Our house adjoined that of a Mr. Newman, who was our landlord. He had a daughter about my own age, whose name was also Mary. Mr. Poe had at that time recently come to live with his aunt, Mrs. Clemm, after leaving West Point, and while his relations with Mr. Allan, whom he always called father, were not pleasant. Mrs. Clemm lived around the corner from us, in a street which crossed ours. She lived in the upper part of a house, and supported herself by sewing, dress-making, or some similar work. They were all very poor, but everything was wax neat. Mr. Poe was then quite a young man, and Virginia Clemm, who afterward became his wife, was a delicate school-girl of about ten years of age. Her sole beauty was in the expression of her face. Her disposition was lovely. She had violet eyes, dark brown hair, and a bad complexion that spoiled her looks. She had a brother, a dissipated young man, who went West; I never knew what became of him.”

When I asked if Virginia was fond of Poe, Mary answered: “Oh my, yes! She was fond of her cousin, as any child would be of anybody that paid her attention.”

“The stoops of Mr. Newman’s house and ours,” she continued, “were adjoining, and each had an inner balustrade. One summer afternoon Miss Newman and [column 2:] I were seated, talking, each on her own stoop, when Mr. Poe passed, as usual, on the other side of the street, on his way home. We were neither of us acquainted with him, but I knew him very well by sight, as we had flirted with each other for some time from the garret windows of our houses. We used to wave handkerchiefs and throw kisses to each other. My mother used to ask me, ‘What takes you upstairs so much, Mary?’ Mr. Poe once during that time sent Virginia around for a lock of my hair, and I sent it to him. Well, in passing, on the afternoon I have just spoken of, Mr. Poe bowed. My companion asked me if I knew him. I said no. She said he was Edgar Poe, who had recently come from West Point. She also said he wrote poetry. After Mr. Poe bowed he started across the street, and Miss Newman said: ‘Why, I declare! there comes Mr. Poe across the street. Oh! isn’t he handsome? He is coming to see you, not me.’ He was handsome, but intellectually so, not a pretty man. He had the way and the power to draw any one to him. He was very fascinating, and any young girl would have fallen in love with him.

“Mr. Poe, having crossed the street,’ came up the Newmans’ stoop. As he did so, I turned my back, as I was then young and bashful. He said, ‘How do yo do, Miss Newman?’ She then turned and introduced him to me, and then happened to be called into the house. Mr. Poe immediately jumped across the balustrades separating the stoops, and sat down by me. He told me I had the most beautiful head of hair he ever saw, the hair that poets always raved about. It was auburn, and worn with frizzed puffs on the sides, as was then the style. From that time on he visited me every evening for a year, and during that time, until the night of our final lovers’ quarrel, he never drank a drop, as far as I knew.

“Mr. Poe was about five feet eight inches tall, and had dark, almost black hair, which he wore long and brushed back in student style over his ears. It was as fine as silk. His eyes were large and full, gray and piercing. He was then, I think, entirely clean-shaven. His nose was long and straight, and his features finely cut. The expression about his mouth was beautiful. He was pale, and had no color. His skin was of a clear, beautiful olive. He had a sad, melancholy [page 686:] look. He was very slender when I first knew him, but had a fine figure, an erect military carriage, and a quick step. But it was his manner that most charmed. It was elegant. When he looked at you it seemed as if he could read your very thoughts. His voice was pleasant and musical, but not deep.

He always wore a black frock-coat buttoned up, with a cadet or military collar, a low turned-over shirt collar, and a black cravat tied in a loose knot. He did not follow the fashions, but had a style of his own. His was a loose way of dressing, as if he didn’t care. You would know that he was very different from the ordinary run of young men. Affectionate! I should think he was; he was passionate in his love.

“My intimacy with Mr. Poe isolated me a good deal. In fact my girl friends were many of them afraid of him, and forsook me on that account. I knew none of his male friends. He despised ignorant people, and didn’t like trifling and small-talk. He didn’t like dark-skinned people. When he loved, he loved desperately. Though tender and very affectionate, he had a quick, passionate temper, and was very jealous. His feelings were intense, and he had but little control of them. He was not well balanced: he had too much brain. He scoffed at everything sacred, and never went to church. If he had had religion to guide him, he would have been a better man. He said often that there was a mystery hanging over him he never could fathom. He believed he was born to suffer, and this embittered his whole life. Mrs. Clemm also spoke vaguely of some family mystery, of some disgrace.

“Eddie’s life was embittered, and it was a great disappointment to him when Mr. Allan married again. He had no business to treat Eddie as he did, to educate him as he did, and then throw him over. Eddie was never educated to work. He was very proud and very sensitive. Mr. Poe once gave me a letter to read from Mr. Allan, in which the latter said, referring to me, that if he married any such person he would cut him off without a shilling. I think that Eddie told me that Mr. Allan’s second wife (Miss Patterson) had been his house-keeper. She said she could not take care of him unless she was his wife. He could do nothing afterward without her approval. [column 2:]

“Eddie and I never talked of his poetry then or in later years. He would not have done that; he would have considered it conceited. We were young, and only thought our love. Virginia always carried his notes to me. I never kept any of his letters. Do you suppose I would, after I had married? Eddie’s favorite name was Mary, he said. He used often to quote Burns, for whom he had a great admiration. We used to go out walking together in the evenings. We often walked out of the city and sat down on the hills.

“One moonlight summer night we were walking across the bridge, which was not far from our house. At the other end of the bridge was a minister’s house. Eddie took my arm and pulled me, saying, ‘Come, Mary, let us go and get married; we might as well get married now as any other time.’ We were then but two blocks from borne. I was taken by surprise and frightened, and ran from him toward home. He followed, and came in after me.

“We had no definite engagement, but we understood each other. He was then not in circumstances to marry. When my brother found that Mr. Poe was coming so often, he said to me: ‘You are not going to marry that man, Mary? — I would rather see you in your grave than that man’s wife. He can’t support himself, let alone you.’ I replied, being as romantic as Eddie was, that ‘I would sooner live on a crust of bread with him than in a palace with any other man.’

“The only thing I had against him,” she continued, “was that he held his head so high. He was proud, and looked down on my uncle, whose business did not suit him. He always liked my father, and talked with him a good deal.

“The following little story will show you how much Mr. Poe was a creature of sudden impulse: One day in Baltimore, after some very heavy rains, the streets were flooded and almost impassable. A young lady stood at a corner wondering how she should get across. The first thing she knew, Eddie came up behind her, picked her up in his arms, and carried her across the street. His feet were wet when he came to our house and told me about it. The young lady was the daughter of a rich man living ‘on the Point.’ She asked Mr. Poe to whom she was indebted. He took out his card and [page 637:] gave it to her, and she fell in love with him, though she had never seen him before. He said she was a beautiful girl, ‘and ‘I guess I will have to go and see her.’

“To show you how jealous he was, I will tell you of the cause of one of our quarrels. One evening a friend of my brother’s, a Mr. Morris, was visiting us. He knew that Mr. Poe’s favorite song, which I often sang him, was ‘Come rest in this bosom.’ He asked me to sing it, in order to tease Mr. Poe. I went to the piano and began to sing. Mr. Morris stood by me and turned the leaves. Mr. Poe walked, with one hand behind his back, up and down the room, biting the nails of the other hand to the quick, as he always [column 2:] did when excited. He then walked over to the piano, and snatched the music and threw it on the floor. I said that it made no matter, that I could sing the song without the music, and did so. Mr. Morris, knowing me well, called me always ‘Mary.’ That also made Eddie jealous. He stayed after Mr. Morris left, and we had a little quarrel.

“Our final lovers’ quarrel came about in this way: One night I was waiting in the parlor for Eddie, and he didn’t come. My mother came into the room about ten o’clock and said, ‘Come, Mary; it’s bedtime.’ The parlor windows were open, and I lay with my head on my arms on one of the window-sills. I had been crying. Eddie arrived shortly after my mother spoke to me, and had been drinking. It was the only time during that year that I ever knew him to take anything. He found the front door locked. He then came to the window where I was, and opened the shutters, which were nearly closed. He raised my head, and told me where he had been. He said he had met some cadets from West Point when on his way across the bridge. They were old friends, and took him to Barnum’s Hotel, where they had a supper and champagne. He had gotten away as quickly as possible to come and explain matters to me. A glass made him tipsy. He had more than a glass that night. As to his being a habitual drunkard, he never was as long as I knew him.

“I went and opened the door and sat on the stoop with him in the moonlight. We then had a quarrel, about whose cause I do not care to speak. The result was that I jumped past him off the stoop, ran around through an alleyway to the back of the house, and into the room where my mother was.

“She said, ‘Mary! Mary! what’s the matter?’

“Mr. Poe had followed me, and came into the room. I was much frightened, and my mother told me to go upstairs. I did so.

“Mr. Poe said: ‘I want to talk to your daughter. If you don’t tell her to come down-stairs, I ‘will go after her. I have a right to.”

“My mother was a tall woman, and she placed her back against the door of the stairs, and said, “You have no right to; you cannot go upstairs.’

“Mr. Poe answered: ‘I have a right. She is my wife now in the sight of Heaven.’ “My mother then told him he had better go home and to bed, and he went away.*

“He didn’t value the laws of God or man. He was an atheist. He would just as hief have lived  with a woman without being married to her as not. Well, I made a narrow escape in not  marrying him. I don’t think he was a man of much principle.

“After the quarrel I have just told you about I broke off all intercourse with Mr. Poe, and returned his letters unopened. My mother also forbade him the house. He sent me a letter by Virginia. I sent it back unopened. He wrote again, and I opened the letter. He addressed me formally as Miss ———— , and upbraided me in satiric terms for my heartless, unforgiving disposition. I showed the letter to my mother, and she in turn showed it to my grandmother, who was then visiting us. My grandmother read it, and took it to my uncle James. My uncle was very indignant, and resented Mr. Poe’s letter so much that he wrote him a very severe, cutting letter, without my knowledge. Mr. Poe also published at the same time in a Baltimore paper a poem of six or eight verses, addressed ‘To Mary ———.’ There was an initial for my last name. The poem was very severe, and spoke of fickleness and inconstancy. All my friends and his knew whom he meant. This also added to my uncle’s indignation. Mr. Poe was so incensed at the letter he received that he bought a cowhide, and went to my uncle’s store one afternoon and cowhided him. My uncle was a man of over fifty at the time. My aunt and her two sons rushed into the store, and in the struggle to defend my uncle tore his assailant’s black frock-coat at the back from the skirts to the collar. Mr. Poe then put the cowhide up his sleeve and went up the street to our house as he was, with his torn coat, and followed by a crowd of boys. When he arrived at our house he asked to see my father. He told him he had been up to see his brother, pulled out my uncle’s letter, said he resented the insult, and had cowhided him. I had been called down-stairs, and when Mr. Poe saw me he pulled the cowhide out of his sleeve and threw it down at my feet. saying, ‘There, I make you a present of that!’

“He then asked to see me alone, and upbraided me for telling about his letter, and being the cause of all the trouble. I told him I would have nothing to say to him, and did not wish to see him again. At the same time it was breaking my heart. My uncle had no business to take it up. I could have done so myself. We soon after this moved from Baltimore and back to Philadelphia, where I was born. I was so much disturbed by the quarrel with Mr. Poe that I was sick for a long [page 639:] time. I never saw him again until after he was married to Virginia. I married, and settled in New York city. When on a visit to Philadelphia, several years after, I met Mr. Poe on the street with his wife and Mrs. Clemm. I stopped and talked with them. They asked me to come to see them. I went, with a young lady cousin of mine. They lived in Seventh Street, in the back part of a little house. Eddie asked me to sing one of my old songs. I asked him what song. He said, ‘Come rest in this bosom.’ I sang it, and he thanked me. We spent a pleasant evening, and Mr. Poe accompanied my cousin and myself back to her house.

“A few years afterward, when living in Jersey City, I saw Mr. Poe again. He was still living in Philadelphia. He came to New York, and went to my husband’s place of business to find out where we lived. He was on a spree, however, and forgot the address before he got across the river. He made several trips backward and forward on the ferry-boat. He asked different people on board if they knew where I lived, and finally found a deck hand who happened to know, and told him. Mr. Poe said he was determined to find me, if he ‘had to go to hell’ to do it. When my husband returned home he was told on the boat that a crazy man had been looking for his wife!

“When Mr. Poe reached our house I was out with my sister, and he opened the door for us when we got back. We saw he was on one of his sprees, and he had been away from home for several days. He said to me: ‘So you have married that cursed ——— [referring to her husband’s business]. Do you love him truly? Did you marry him for love?’ I answered, ‘That’s nobody’s business; that is between my husband and myself.’ He then said: ‘You don’t love him. You do love me. You know you do.’

“Mr. Poe staid to tea with us, but ate nothing; only drank a cup of tea. He got excited in conversation, and taking up a table-knife, began to chop at some radishes on a dish in front of him. He cut them all up, and the pieces flew over the table, to everybody’s amusement. After tea he asked me if I would not play and sing for him, and I sang his favorite song again. He then went away. A few days afterward Mrs. Clemm came to see me, much worried about ‘Eddie dear,’ as she always addressed him. She did not [column 2:] know where he was, and his wife was almost crazy with anxiety. I told Mrs. Clemm that he had been to see me. A search was made, and he was finally found in the woods on the outskirts of Jersey City, wandering about like a crazy man. Mrs. Clemm took him back with her to Philadelphia.* This was in the spring of 1842.

“I visited them afterward in New York city, in Amity Street, and at the cottage at Fordham. The cottage was very humble, you know — you wouldn’t have thought decent people could have lived in it; but there was an air of refinement about everything. There were vines growing all over the house, which had been fixed up for them by the owner; and Virginia loved flowers. So there was a bed in front of the porch. Over a door in the parlor stood on a bracket a plaster cast of a bird. I suppose it was a raven, but it might have been a parrot. It was the only piece of sculpture in the room.

“When Eddie was composing a poem he walked up and down the floor of the little parlor, with one hand behind his back in his usual ways biting the finger-nails of his other hand till the blood came. When he got what he wanted he would sit down and write die lines, and then begin walking again. I have heard it said that at times, after Virginia’s death, when he could not sell a poem, he would say to the person to whom he offered it, ‘Then give me a glass of brandy, and take it.’

“The day before Virginia died I found her in the parlor. I said to her, ‘Do you feel any better to-day?’ and sat down by the big arm-chair in which she was placed. Mr. Poe sat on the other side of her. I had my hand in hers, and she took it and placed it in Mr. Poe’s, saying, ‘Mary, be a friend to Eddie, and don’t forsake him; he always loved you — didn’t you, Eddie?’ We three were alone, Mrs. Clemm being in the kitchen. On the day Virginia died I came down from the cottage to the city in the same stage with Mrs. Dr. Shew. She was a great friend of theirs, and we talked about Virginia. On the day of the funeral I remember meeting at the cottage Mrs. Ann S. Stephens, Mrs. Shew, N. P. Willis and his partner. [page 640:] It was very cold, and I did not go to the grave, but staid at the house.

“They were so very poor that Mrs. Clemm told me that, in order to get money to live, she picked manuscripts out of Mr. Poe’s wastepaper basket which he had rejected, and sold them without his knowledge. When my daughter was to be married I wanted Eddie and Mrs. Clemm to come to the wedding. She said they could not, as neither she nor he had any clothes. She wanted me to buy Virginia’s gold thimble for ten dollars for a wedding present, but I could not afford it, as I had many things to buy. Mrs. Clemm, however, did sell the thimble.”

In talking of Poe’s intended marriage to Mrs. Shelton, whom he had known as a young man while she was Miss Sarah Elmira Royster, Mary said that Mr. Allan had originally intended them for each other, and spoke of the lady as being a protege or adopted daughter of that gentleman. As Mr. Woodberry speaks of this affair as coming to naught on account of Mr. Allan’s opposition, and Mr. Gill says it was strongly opposed by that gentleman, [column 2:] and the cause of a violent quarrel between him and his adopted son, perhaps the statement of the lady who followed Miss Royster in Poe’s affections should have some weight. It is evident that with the natural disposition of a man to make light of a previous affair he intimated to his new love that it was Mr. Allan who wanted the match, and not he. In this there was, it is likely, also considerable truth. My informant having been perhaps naturally inclined to laugh at much of the story of the love of Poe for his child cousin Virginia, which his biographers speak of as if it made up, with the motherly love of Mrs. Clemm, the whole sum of his experience in female affection during his stay at the latter’s home in Baltimore, was also at variance with these gentlemen on another point. She insisted, contrary to all accounts, that Mrs. Shelton, who was the widow, she said, of a rich Southerner, old enough to have been her father, sent first for Mrs. Clemm, and that the latter then sent for Poe. There were some details given about this matter which gave the statement a strong air of probability, but are not worth relating here.


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 634, column 1.]]

*  The lady died in the West in 1887.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 638, column 1.]

*  This is evidently the second of the occasions which Poe’s friend Mr. L. A. Wilmer spoke of in his recollections published on May 28, 1866, in the Baltimore Daily Commercial, as when Mrs. Clemm scolded her hephew “for coming home intoxicated the night before from a tavern, but as if it were a rare occurrence.”

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 639, column 2.]

*  This was evidently the time that he was away for a short time from his desk as editor of Graham’s Magazine, and on coming back found Dr. Griswold temporarily in his place, and left the office with wounded feelings, not to return again.


∞∞∞∞∞∞∞


Notes:

Although she seems to have used the name Mary Deveraux in Baltimore, her real name was Mary Starr.

∞∞∞∞∞∞∞

[S:0 - HM, 1889] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Edgar Allan Poe (R. H. Stoddard, 1889)