Text: John H. Ingram, “Chapter 16,” Edgar Allan Poe: Life, Letters, and Opinions (1880), pp. 61-97


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[page 61:]

CHAPTER XVI.

THE LITERATI OF NEW YORK.

IT is time that a lady who exercised no slight influence over Edgar Poe, during one portion of his short career, should now be introduced to the reader. Frances Sargent Locke, afterwards Osgood, was one of a literary family, both her sisters and her brother having attained some celebrity, in their days, as authors. She was the daughter of a prosperous American merchant, who took a pride in encouraging the poetic efforts of his children. Whilst Frances was still a girl in years, but already noted for her beauty, Mr. S. Osgood, an artist of reputation, undertook to paint her portrait, and during the sittings is stated to have charmed the fair maiden — as Othello did Desdemona — by a recital of his adventures at home and abroad. As might be imagined, the result of these sittings was the formation of an attachment between the youthful poetess and her portrait painter, and, eventually, their marriage.

In 1834 the Osgoods visited Europe, and took up their residence in London, of the Royal Academy of which city the artist had formerly been a pupil. The [page 62:] talents of the husband, and the grace and beauty of the wife, appear to have interested the good people of the British metropolis in their favour. Portraits of the Hon. Mrs. Norton, the poet Rogers, and other persons of celebrity, were painted by Mr. Osgood, whilst his young bride earned her moiety of reputation by a graceful volume of verse, published as “A Wreath of Wild Flowers from New England.” A drama written by the fair authoress at the instigation of Sheridan Knowles, was accepted for representation at Drury Lane, but indefinitely postponed performance in consequence of the recall of the Osgoods to America, on account of the illness and death of the authoress’ father.

The gifted pair returned to their native land in 1840, and speedily took a foremost station in literary and artistic society, Mr. Osgood, however, occasionally going away on lengthy tours in search of that Beautiful which he might have found at home. Meanwhile, the poetess became a frequent contributor of graceful vers de société, and literary sketches, to the leading American magazines and annuals, and in this capacity attracted the notice of Edgar Poe. He reviewed her poems with that chivalrous rather than critical enthusiasm he reserved for female authors, and deemed for her “Not to write poetry, not to act it, think it, dream it, and be it, is entirely out of her power.” Upon the poet’s removal to New York he found the [page 63:] Osgoods already resident there. It was impossible for the two families to mix in the same circles, as they did, without meeting, and Poe’s first interview with the fair authoress has been thus described in Mrs. Osgood’s own words: —

“My first meeting with the poet was at the Astor House. A few days previous, Mr. Willis had handed me, at the table d‘hˆte, 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 dread I heard he desired an introduction. Yet I could not refuse without seeming ungrateful, because I had just heard of his enthusiastic and partial eulogy of my writings, in his lecture on American Literature. 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 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.”

The friendship thus inaugurated between the two poets exercised an undoubted influence upon both of them. In the sympathetic society of Frances Osgood the unfortunate and harassed editor found some nepenthe for his troubles, whilst under his skilful guidance the poetess learned how to produce “a [page 64:] bolder note” and a more impassioned song. If she now composed with less rapidity, than of heretofore, a deeper tone and a more profound pathos is beheld in her later writings, as if the “few additional years, with their inevitable sorrow,” which Poe considered ” to have stirred the depths of her heart,” were, indeed, no poetic fiction. But to the dominating influence of Edgar Poe himself, more than to anything else, must be ascribed the change in Frances Osgood’s feelings. In what light she now regarded her poetic Mentor may be best comprehended from these lines to him, published in his own periodical, the Broadway Journal:

To ———.

“In Heaven a spirit doth dwell

‘whose heart-strings are a lute.’ ” — EDGAR POE.

 

“I cannot tell the world how thrills my heart

To every touch that flies thy lyre along;

How the wild Nature and the wondrous Art,

Blend into Beauty in thy passionate song —

 

“But this I know — in thine enchanted slumbers,

Heaven’s poet, Israfel — with minstrel fire

Taught the music of his own sweet numbers,

And tuned — to chord with his — thy glorious lyre!”

Well known as is Poe’s exquisite response to these lines, it will still bear repetition here: — [page 65:]

To F———s S. O———d.

“Thou wouldst be loved? — then let thy heart

From its present pathway part not!

Being everything which now thou art,

Be nothing which thou art not.

So with the world thy gentle ways,

Thy grace — thy more than beauty —

Shall be an endless theme of praise,

And love — a simple duty.” — EDGAR POE.

Shortly after this reciprocation of sentiments, and the exchange of certain other poems and letters of a similar character, Poe was engaged to write a series of critiques on the “Literati of New York,” for Mr. Godey’s magazine, The Lady’s Book, and how Frances Osgood was interested in them will be best gathered from her own pleasant account: —

“It was in his own simple yet poetical home, that to me the character of Edgar Poe appeared in its most beautiful light. Playful, affectionate, witty, alternately docile and wayward as a petted child — for his young, gentle, and idolised wife, and for all who came, he bad, even in the midst of his most harassing literary duties, a kind word, a pleasant smile, a graceful and courteous attention. At his desk, beneath the romantic picture of his 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 [page 66:] gay and light-hearted. Virginia, his sweet wife, had written me a pressing invitation to come to them; and I, who never could resist her affectionate summons, and who enjoyed his society far more in his own home 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, ‘I am going to show you, by the difference in length of 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 fully discussed. Come, Virginia, help me?’ And one by one they unfolded them.. At last they came to one which seemed interminable Virginia laughingly 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!’ ”

Subsequently, when requested to furnish her reminiscences of the unfortunate poet, Mrs. Osgood replied: —

“For you, who knew and understood my affectionate interest in him, and my frank acknowledgment of that interest to all who had a claim upon my confidence, for you, I will willingly do so. I think no one could know him — no one has known him personally — certainly no woman — without feeling the same interest. I can sincerely say, that although I have frequently heard of aberrations on his part from I the straight and narrow path,’ I have never seen him otherwise than gentle, generous, well-bred, and fastidiously refined. To a sensitive and delicately nurtured woman, there was a peculiar and irresistible charm in the chivalric, [page 67:] graceful, and almost tender reverence with which he invariably approached all women who won his respect. It was this which first commanded and always retained my regard for him.

I have been told that when his sorrows and pecuniary embarrassments had driven him to the use of stimulants, which a less delicate organisation might have borne without injury, be was in the habit of speaking disrespectfully of the ladies of his acquaintance. It is difficult for me to believe this; for to me, to whom he came during the year of our acquaintance for counsel and kindness in all his many anxieties and griefs, he never spoke irreverently of any woman save one, and then only in my defence; and though I rebuked him for his momentary forgetfulness of the respect due to himself and to me, I could not but forgive the offence for the sake of the generous impulse which prompted it. Yet, even were these sad rumours true of him, the wise and well informed knew how to regard, as they would the impetuous anger of a spoiled infant, baulked of its capricious will, the equally harmless and unmeaning phrenzy of that stray child of Poetry and Passion. For the few unwomanly and slander-loving gossips who have injured him and themselves only by repeating his ravings, when in such moods they have accepted his society, I have only to vouchsafe my wonder and my pity. They cannot surely harm the true and pure, who, reverencing his genius and pitying his misfortunes and his errors, endeavoured, by their timely kindness and sympathy, to soothe his sad career.”

Such were the impressions left upon Mrs. Osgood by Edgar Poe, and how she, in her turn, appeared to him is told in these words of the poet. “In character she is ardent, sensitive, impulsive. . . the very soul [page 68:] of truth and honour; a worshipper of the beautiful, with a heart so radically artless as to seem abundant in art; universally, admired, respected, and beloved. In person she is about the medium height, slender even to fragility, graceful whether in action or repose; complexion usually pale, hair black and glossy, eyes a clear, luminous grey, large, and with singular capacity for expression.”

Although the personal acquaintance of the two poets lasted only for one year, Mrs. Osgood having to travel for her health’s sake, “I maintained a correspondence with Mr. Poe,” says the lady,” in accordance with the earnest entreaties of his wife, who imagined that my influence over him had a restraining and beneficial effect. It had, as far as this — that having solemnly promised me to give up the use of stimulants, he so firmly respected his promise and me, as never once, during our whole acquaintance, to appear in my presence when in the slightest degree affected by them” “The charming love and confidence that existed between his wife and himself,” Mrs., Osgood’s testimony has already been cited in corroboration of. It was, she declares, “always delightfully apparent to me, in spite of the many little poetical episodes in which the impassioned romance of his temperament impelled him to indulge; of this I cannot speak too earnestly, too warmly.” [page 69:]

But an uncharitable and censorious public, fed by the jealous whisperings of envious men, and, sadder still, of jealous women, chose to regard these “poetical episodes” in another light. One of the victims of the scandals and calumnies accumulated upon the poet’s devoted head, was his warm friend and defender, Frances Osgood. Alluding to his epistolary and conversational powers, she had remarked to a correspondent, “His letters were divinely, beautiful, and for hours I have listened to hum, entranced by strains of pure and almost celestial eloquence such as I have never read or heard elsewhere.” By means of this correspondence it was sought to crush, or, at all events, inflict a cruel vengeance upon Poe, for. slighted advances and critical contempt. One implacable woman, whose name death and her sex forbid us to mention, chanced to see at Poe’s house an open note or letter from Mrs. Osgood, which she assumed to consider called for interference. This same woman, whose own advances to the poet were anything but pleasant, so busied herself that a committee of ladies was actually, appointed to call upon Mrs. Osgood, and remonstrate with her upon the imprudence of such a correspondence. In consequence of their representations, the poetess consented that they should act on her behalf and request the return of her letters. The late Margaret Fuller, afterwards Countess D‘Ossoli, was, it is understood, one of the ladies who acted upon [page 70:] this occasion, and a well-known literary lady of New York another, but the acknowledged instigator and “wire puller” of the movement was Mrs. E ——, the woman above referred to. The story has been told us thus: —

“The ladies repaired to Fordham, presented their credentials, and made their demand. The poor Raven, driven to desperation, ruffled his plumage, called the fair ambassadresses; busy-bodies,’ and added injury to insult by saying that ‘Mrs. E —— had better come and look after her own letters.’ Now this was very indiscreet of him, and very reprehensible, and no one knew this better than himself. But you shall hear what he himself says about it in a letter — ‘In the heat of passion, stung to madness by her inconceivable perfidy, and by the grossness of the injury which her jealousy prompted her to inflict upon all of us — upon both families — I permitted myself to say what I should not have said. I had no sooner uttered the words than I felt their dishonour. I felt, too, that although she must be damningly conscious of her own baseness, she would still have a right to reproach me for having betrayed, under any circumstances, her confidence.

“ ‘Full of these thoughts, and terrified almost to death lest I should again, in a moment of madness, be similarly tempted, I went immediately to my secretary — (when those two ladies went away), — made a package of her letters, addressed them to her, and with my own hands left them at her door. Now you cannot be prepared for the diabolical malignity which followed. Instead of feeling that I had done all I could to repair an unpremeditated wrong; instead of feeling that almost any other person would have retained the letters to [page 71:] make good (if occasion required), the assertion that I possessed them; instead of this, she urged her brothers and brother-in-law to demand of me the letters. The position in which she thus placed me you may imagine. Is it any wonder that I was driven mad by the intolerable sense of wrong? . . . You will now comprehend what I mean in saying that the only thing which I found it impossible to forgive Mrs. Osgood, was her reception of Mrs. E—.’ ”

Such is the account furnished by Poe himself of one of the most deplorable incidents in his life, and one which has been misrepresented, exaggerated, and distorted in a hundred different ways by foes and thoughtless retailers of scandal. The guileless nature of Mrs. Osgood, and the passionate, proud spirit of Poe, rendered both easy prey to craft and calculating cold duplicity. It is satisfactory to learn that, despite the intervention of “busybodies,” the two poets remained friendly to the close of their contemporaneously ended careers, and whilst Poe frequently alludes in his correspondence with affectionate interest to Mrs. Osgood, the final poem of that lady’s last volume, published just as she died — a few months after Poewas inscribed to him, and was of him, as “Israfel.”*

The poet’s literary labours during the early half of 1845, after his relinquishment of the Broadway Journal, do not appear to have been either voluminous or valuable. To Graham’s Magazine, and the Democratic Review, [page 72:] he contributed a certain quantum of “Marginalia,” but his own and his wife’s ill health rendered him little able to wield his pen with any of the readiness he had so lately displayed. The settlement of various matters connected with his defunct periodical occupied a considerable portion of his time, and as an example of the honourable manner in which he strove to perform the pecuniary engagements — despite the difficulties under which he laboured — that arose out of his recent publishership, this little note may be cited: —

“NEW YORK, April 16, ‘46.

“MY DEAR SIR, — You seem to take matters very easily, and I really wonder at your patience under the circumstances. But the truth is, I am in no degree to blame. Your letters, one and all, reached me in due course of mail, and I attended to them as far as I could. The business, in fact, was none of mine, but of the person to whom I transferred the Journal, and in whose hands it perished.

“Of course, I feel no less in honour bound to refund you your money, and now do so, with many thanks for your promptness and courtesy. — Very cordially yours,

“EDGAR A. POE.”

During the months of February, March, and April, the poet contributed notices of leading American authors to the pages of Godey’s Lady’s Book, and in May commenced in the same magazine a series of critical studies on ” The Literati of New York.” These essays, which were continued from month to month [page 73:] until October, were immensely successful, so far as creating a sensation was concerned, but in some respects they greatly injured Poe’s prospects, both by enlarging still further the number of his foes, and even by causing the intimidation of the less courageous of his friends, who foresaw and dreaded the decrease of his popularity in many influential places. The causticity of these critiques, indeed, produced a terrible commotion in the ranks of mediocrity, and no effort was left untried to put a stop to their publication. Poe himself was alternately threatened and cajoled, but of course to no purpose; similar efforts were made with Mr. Godey, but with what little success this letter from the Philadelphian publisher will show: —

The Authors and Mr. Poe.

“June 1846.

“We have received several letters from New York, anonymous and from personal friends, requesting us to be careful what we allow Mr. Poe to say of the New York authors, many of whom are our personal friends. We reply to one and all, that we have nothing to do but publish Mr. Poe’s opinions, not our own. Whether we agree with Mr. Poe or not, is another matter. We are not to be intimidated by a threat of the loss of friends, or turned from our purpose by honeyed words. . . . Many attempts have been made, and are making, by various persons to forestall public opinion. We have the name of one person, — others are busy with reports of Mr. Poe’s illness. Mr. Poe has been ill, but we have letters from him of very recent dates, also a new batch [page 74:] of The Literati, which show anything but feebleness either of body or mind. Almost every paper that we exchange with has praised our new enterprise, and spoken in high terms of Mr. Poe’s opinion.”

Highly successful as Poe’s ” opinions ” may have been for the publisher’s pocket — and some of the Lady’s Book issues ran through three editions — the unfortunates of whom they were expressed were scarcely so contented. One of them, duplicately named “Thomas Dunn English” and “Thomas Dunn Brown,” dissatisfied with the manner in which his literary shortcomings had been dissected by the critic, or, as Poe suggests, hankering after wider notoriety, obtained the use of the Evening Mirror from its new proprietors, Fuller and Company, and inserted therein a grossly personal attack upon the poet, who thereupon instituted a libel suit against the newspaper, and recovered heavy damages for defamation of character. From the so-called “Reply of Mr. English,” some of the more relevant paragraphs may be cited, but the “card” is too lengthy and too indecent to be quoted in extenso. It was editorially introduced with the plea that “As Mr. Godey, ‘for a consideration,’ lends the use of his battery for an attack on the one side, it is but fair that we allow our friends an opportunity to exercise a little ’self-defence’ on the other.” As Poe’s critique was purely directed against the literary weaknesses [page 75:] of “English,” the personalities of the “Reply” were utterly uncalled for; it began thus: —

“As I have not, of late, replied to attacks made upon me through the public press, I can easily afford to make an exception, and still keep my rule a general one. A Mr. Edgar A. Poe has been engaged for some time past in giving to the public, through the medium of the Lady’s Book, sketches of what he facetiously calls the ‘Literati of New York.’ These he names, by way of distinction, I presume, from his ordinary writings, ‘honest opinions.’ He honours me by including me in the very numerous and remarkably august body he affects to describe. . . . As he seems to covet a notice from me, he shall be gratified.

“Mr. Poe states in his article, ‘I do not personally know Mr. English.’ . . . I know Mr. Poe by a succession of his acts — one of which is rather costly. I hold Mr. Poe’s acknowledgment for a sum of money which he obtained of me under false pretences. As I stand in need of it at this time, I am content he should forget to know me, provided he acquits himself of the money he owes me. I ask no interest, in lieu of which I am willing to credit him with the sound cuffing I gave him when I last saw him.

“Another act of his gave me some knowledge of him. A merchant of this city had accused him of committing forgery. He consulted me on the mode of punishing his accuser, and as he was afraid to challenge him to the field, or chastise him personally, I suggested a legal prosecution as his sole remedy. At his request I obtained a counsellor who was willing, as a compliment to me, to conduct his suit without the customary retaining fee. But, though so eager at first to commence proceedings, he dropped the matter altogether when the time [page 76:] came for him to act — thus virtually admitting the truth of the charge.

“Some time before this, if I mistake not, Mr. Poe accepted an invitation to deliver a poem before a society of the New York University. About a week before the time when this poem was to be pronounced, he called on me, appearing to be much troubled — said he could not write the poem, and begged me to help him out with some idea of the course to pursue. I suggested that he had better write a note to the society, and frankly state his inability to compose a poem on a stated subject, He did not do this, but — as he always does when troubled — drank until intoxicated; and remained in a state of intoxication during the week. When the night of exhibition came, it was gravely announced that Mr. Poe could not deliver his poem, on account of severe indisposition!

“His next affair of a similar kind, was still more discreditable. Unmindful of his former act, he accepted an invitation to deliver a poem before a Boston institution — the Lyceum, I think. When I remonstrated with him on undertaking a task he could not perform, he alleged that he was in want of the money they would pay him, and would contrive to I cook up something.’ Want of ability prevented him from performing his intention, and he insulted his audience, and rendered himself a laughing-stock, by reciting a mass of ridiculous stuff, written by some one, and printed under his name when he was about eighteen years of age. It had a peculiar effect upon his audience, who dispersed under its infliction; and when he was rebuked for his fraud, he asserted that he had intended a hoax. . . . His lamentation over my lack of a common English education is heartrending to hear. I will acknowledge my deficiencies with pleasure. It is a great pity that he is not equally candid. [page 77:]

“He really does not possess one tithe of that greatness which he seems to regard as an uncomfortable burden. He mistakes coarse abuse for polished invective, and vulgar in sinuation for sly satire. He is not alone thoroughly unprincipled, base, and depraved, but silly, vain, and ignorant, — not alone an assassin in morals, but a quack in literature. His frequent quotations from languages of which he is entirely ignorant, and his consequent blunders, expose him to ridicule; while his cool plagiarisms, from known or forgotten writers, excite the public amazement. He is a complete evidence of his own assertion, that I no spectacle can be more pitiable than that of a man without the commonest school education, busying himself in attempts to instruct mankind on topics of polite literature.’ ”

Mr. English next proceeds to furnish his version of the Mrs. E —— ’s letters case — alleges a chastisement he had inflicted on Poe was so violent that it had caused the poet’s confinement to his bed for a day or two, and winds up his diatribe by declaring his reviewer “overrates his own powers.”

That any newspaper could be found to insert such a communication in its columns, appears extraordinary, even although the proprietors made no concealment of their hatred for the person attacked, but what was still more lamentable was the fact that Poe, not content to leave to public justice the exoneration of his character from all charges not self-evidentIy false, foolishly increased the importance of the attack by publishing a refutation of it. The slanders signed [page 78:] with the name of “English,” but generally believed to have been the joint composition of various persons, appeared in the Evening Mirror of the 23d of June, and on the 28th inst. Poe’s answer appeared in the Philadelphia Saturday Gazette. The editor of the latter paper, remarking tbat, at the “particular request of some of Mr. Poe’s friends in this city,” he publishes that gentleman’s reply to the attack made upon him in the Mirror, adding justly, “Mr. English’s letter was very severe upon the private character of Mr. Poe, and the latter retaliates in the same spirit. All this is, to our notion, in bad taste, yet we cannot well refuse the assailed an opportunity to exculpate himself.”

Of the poet’s voluminous Reply to Mr. English and Others, only a small portion can possibly be quoted, as the letter, which would fill a small volume, deals not only with “English,” but with the “Others.” It is dated New York, June 27th, and begins in this wise: —

To the Public. — A long and serious illness of such character as to render quiet and perfect seclusion in the country of vital importance, has hitherto prevented me from seeing an article headed ‘The War of the Literati,’ signed. ‘Thomas Dunn English.‘. . . This article I might, and should, indeed, never have seen, but for the kindness of Mr. Godey, who enclosed it to me with a suggestion that certain portions of it might be thought on my part to demand a reply.

“I had some difficulty in comprehending what that was, [page 79:] said or written by Mr. English, that could be deemed answerable by any human being; but I had not taken into consideration that I had been, for many months, absent and dangerously ill — that I had no longer a journal in which to defend myself — that these facts were well known to Mr. English — that he is a blackguard of the lowest order — that it would be a silly truism, if not unpardonable flattery, to term him either a coward or a liar — and, lastly, that the magnitude of a slander is usually in the direct ratio of the littleness of the slanderer, but, above all things, of the impunity with which he fancies it may be uttered.

“Of the series of papers which have called down upon me, while supposed defenceless, the animadversions of the pensive Fuller, the cultivated Clark, the ‘indignant Briggs,’* and the animalcula with moustaches for antennal, that is in the capital habit of signing itself in full ‘Thomas Dunn English’ — of this series of papers all have been long since written, and three have been already given to the public. The circulation of the Magazine in which they appear cannot be much less than 50,000, and, admitting but four readers to each copy, I may congratulate myself on a monthly audience of at least 200,000 from amongst the most refined and intellectual classes of American society. Of course, it will be difficult on the part of The Mirror (I am not sure whether five hundred or six hundred be the precise number of copies it now circulates) — difficult, I say, to convince the 200,000 readers in question that, individually and collectively, they are blockheads — that they do not rightly comprehend the unpretending words which I have addressed trs them in this series — and that, as for myself, I have no [page 80:] other design in the world than misrepresentation, scurrility, and the indulgence of personal spleen. What has been printed is before my readers; what I have written besides is in the hands of Mr. Godey, and shall remain unaltered. . . . In sketching individuals, every candid reader will admit that, while my general aim has been accuracy, I have yielded to delicacy even a little too much of verisimilitude. Indeed, on this score, should I not have credit for running my pen through certain sentences referring, for example, to the brandy nose of Mr. Briggs (since Mr. Briggs is only onethird described when this nose is omitted), and to the family resemblance between the whole visage of Mr. English and that of the best looking but most unprincipled of Mr. Barnum’s baboons?

“It will not be supposed, from anything here said, that I myself attach any importance to this series of papers. The public, however, is the best judge of its own taste; and that the spasms of one or two enemies have given the articles a notoriety far surpassing their merit or my expectation, is possibly no fault of mine. In a preface their very narrow scope is defined. They are loosely and inconsiderately written — aiming at nothing beyond the gossip of criticism — unless, indeed, at the relief of those ‘necessities’ which I have never blushed to admit, and which the editor of The Mirror — the quondam associate of gentlemen — has, in the same manner, never blushed publicly to insult and to record.

“But let me return to Mr. English’s attack — and, in so returning, let me not permit any profundity of disgust to induce, even for an instant, a violation of the dignity of truth. What is not false amid the scurrility of this man’s statements, it is not in my nature to brand as false. . . . The errors and frailties which I deplore, it cannot at least be [page 81:] asserted that I have been the coward to deny. Never, even, have I made attempt at extenuating a weakness which is (or, by the blessing of God, was) a calamity, although those who did not know me intimately had little reason to regard it otherwise than as a crime. For, indeed, had my pride, or that of my family, permitted, there was much — very much — there was everything — to be offered in extenuation. Perhaps, even, there was an epoch of which it might not have been wrong in me to hint — what by the testimony of Dr. Francis and other medical men, I might have demonstrated, had the public, indeed, cared for the demonstration — that the irregularities so profoundly lamented were the effect of a terrible evil rather than its cause. . . .

“It is not, then, my purpose to deny any part of the conversation represented to have been held privately between this person and myself. . . . The details of the ‘conversation,’ as asserted, I shall not busy myself in attempting to understand. . . .

“I shall not think it necessary to maintain that I am no ‘coward.’ On a point such as this a man should speak only through the acts, moral and physical, of his whole public career. But it is a matter of common observation that your real coward never fails to make it a primary point to accuse all his enemies of cowardice. . . . Now, the origin of the nickname, ‘Thomas Done Brown,’ is, in Philadelphia, quite as thoroughly understood as Mr. English could desire. With even the inconceivable amount of brass in his possession, I doubt if he could, in that city, pronounce aloud that simple word I coward,’ if his most saintly soul depended upon the issue. . . .

“His primary thrashing, of any note, was bestowed upon him, I believe, by Mr. John S. Du Solle, the editor of the [page 82:] Spirit of the Times, who could not. very well get over acting with this indecorum, on account of Mr. E.’s amiable weakness — a propensity for violating the privacy of a publisher’s, MSS. I have not heard that there was any resentment on the part of Mr. English.”

A record of several other chastisements inflicted by various known and named individuals on Mr. English’s person follows, and then the poet proceeds to deal seriatim with the charges against himself: —

“About the one or two other unimportant points in this gentleman’s attack upon myself, there is, I believe, very little to be said. He asserts that I have complimented his literary performances. . . . I solemnly say that in no paper of mine did there ever appear one word about this gentleman — unless of the broadest and most unmistakable irony — that was not printed from the MS. of the gentleman himself. The last number of the Broadway Journal (the work having been turned over by me to another publisher) was edited by Mr. English. The editorial portion was wholly his, and was one interminable pæan of his own praises. The truth of all this — if any one is weak enough to care a penny about who praises or who damns Mr. English — will no doubt be corroborated by Mr. Jennings, the printer.

“I am charged, too, unspecifically, with being a plagiarist on a very extensive scale. He who accuses another of what all the world knows to be especially false, is merely rendering the accused a service by calling attention to the converse of the fact, and should never be helped out of his ridiculous position by any denial on the part of the accused. We want a magazine paper on ‘The Philosophy of Billingsgate.’ But [page 83:] I am really ashamed of indulging even in a sneer at this poor miserable fool, on any mere topic of literature alone.

“As a matter of course I should have been satisfied to follow the good example of Mr. Wise,* when insulted by Mr. English (if this be, indeed, the person’s name), had there been nothing more serious in the blatherskite’s attack than the particulars to which I have hitherto alluded. — The two passages which follow, however, are to be found in the article referred to:

I hold Mr. Poe’s acknowledgment for a sum of money which he obtained from me under false pretences.’ And again: —

‘A merchant of this city,’ &c. (vide paragraph ending, ‘thus virtually admitting the truth of the charge,’ page 75).

It will be admitted by the most patient that these accusations are of such a character as to justify me in rebutting them in the most public manner possible, even when they are found to be urged by a Thomas Dunn English. The charges are criminal, and, with the aid of the Mirror, I can have them investigated before a criminal tribunal. In the meantime, I must not he under these imputations a moment longer than necessary. To the first charge I reply, then, simply that Mr. English is indebted to me in what (to me) is a considerable sum — that I owe him nothing — that in the assertion that he holds my acknowledgment for a sum of money under any pretence obtained, he lies — and that I defy him to produce such acknowledgment.

“In regard to the second charge, I must necessarily be a little more explicit. ‘The merchant of New York’ alluded to, is a gentleman of high respectability — Mr. Edward J. [page 84:] Thomas, of Broad Street. I have now the honour of his acquaintance, but some time previous to this acquaintance, he had remarked to a common friend that he had heard whispered against me an accusation of forgery. The friend, as in duty bound, reported this matter to me. I called at once on Mr. Thomas, who gave me no very thorough explanation, but promised to make inquiry, and confer with me hereafter. Not hearing from him in what I thought due time, however, I sent him (unfortunately by Mr. English, who was always in my office for the purpose of doing bimself honour in running my errands) a note, of which the following is a copy: —

‘OFFICE OF THE Broadway Journal, &c.

‘EDWARD J. THOMAS, ESQ.

’SIR, — As I have not had the pleasure of hearing from you since our interview at your office, may I ask of you to state to me distinctly, whether I am to consider the charge of forgery urged by you against myself, in the presence of a common friend, as originating with yourself or Mr. Benjamin? — Your obedient servant,

‘(Signed) EDGAR A. POE.’

“The reply brought me was verbal and somewhat vague. As usual. my messenger had played the bully, and, as very usual, had been treated with contempt. The idea of challenging a man for a charge of forgery could only have entered the head of an owl or an English: of course I had no resource but in a suit which one of Mr. E.’s friends offered to conduct for me. I left town to procure evidence, and on my return found at my house a letter from Mr. Thomas. It ran thus: — [page 85:]

‘NEW YORK, July 5, 1845.

‘E. A. POE, ESQ., NEW YORK.

‘DEAR SIR: — I had hoped ere this to have seen you, but as you have not called, and as I may soon be out of the city, I desire to say to you that, after repeated efforts, I saw the person, on Friday evening last, from whom the report originated to which you referred in your call at my office. He denies it in toto — says he does not know it and never said so — and it undoubtedly arose from the misunderstanding of some word used. It gives me pleasure thus to trace it, and still more to find it destitute of foundation in truth, as I thought would be the case. I have told Mr. Benjamin the result of my inquiries, and shall do so to ——— * by a very early opportunity — the only two persons who know anything of the matter, as far as I know. — I am, Sir, very truly your friend and obedient servant,

(Signed) EDWARD J. THOMAS.’

“Now, as this note was most satisfactory and most kind — as I neither wished nor could have accepted Mr. Thomas’ money — as the motives which had actuated him did not seem to me malevolent — as I had heard him spoken of in the most flattering manner by one whom, above all others, I most profoundly respect and esteem — it does really appear to me hard to comprehend how even so malignant a villain as this English could have wished me to proceed with the suit.

“In the presence of witnesses I handed him the letter, and requested his opinion In lieu of it he gave me his advice: it was that I should deny having rweived such a letter and urge the prosecution to extremity. I promptly ordered him to quit the house. In his capacity of hound, he obeyed. [page 86:]

“These are the facts which, in a court of justice, I propose to demonstrate; and, having demonstrated them, shall I not have a right to demand of a generous public that it brand with eternal infamy that wretch, who, with a full knowledge of my exculpation from so heinous a charge, has not been ashamed to take advantage of my supposed inability to defend myself, for the purpose of stigmatising me as a felon

“And of the gentleman who (also with a thorough knowledge of the facts, as I can and will show) prostituted his sheets to the circulation of this calumny — of him what is it necessary to say? At present — nothing. . . . Not even in taking vengeance on a Fuller can I stoop to become a Fuller myself. . . . EDGAR A. POE.”

This rejoinder appears to have been the most foolish act of Poe’s life; for it was as difficult for him, as for any one else, to descend into the arena and combat blackguards with any other than their own weapons. To a friend who remonstrated with him, however, on the manner of the above communication, he wrote: —

“I do not well see how I could have otherwise replied to English. You must know him (English) before you can well estimate my reply, He is so thorough a ‘blatherskite’ that to have replied to him with dignity would have been the extreme of the ludicrous. The only true plan — not to have answered him at all — was precluded on account of the nature of some of his accusations — forgery, for instance. To such charges, even from the Autocrat of all the Asses, a man is compelled to answer. There he had me. Answer him I must. But how? Believe me, there exists no such dilemma [page 87:] as that in which a gentleman is placed when he is forced to reply to a blackguard. If he have any genius, then is the time for its display. I confess to you that I rather like that reply of mine, in a literary sense; and so do a great many of my friends. It fully answered its purpose, beyond a doubt, Would to Heaven every work of Art did as much! You err in supposing me to have been I peevish’ when I wrote the reply. The peevishness was all I put on’ as a part of my argument — of my plan; so was the I indignation’ with which I wound up. How could I be either peevish or indignant about a matter so well adapted to further my purposes I Were I able to afford so expensive a luxury as personal — especially, as refutable — abuse, I would willingly pay any man $2000 per annum to hammer away at me all the year round.”

And, in another letter to the same correspondent, Poe, referriner to the action for libel he had successfully carried out against the New York publisher of the slanders, says of English: —

“The vagabond, at the period of the suit’s coming on, ran off to Washington, for fear of being criminally prosecuted. The I acknowledgment’ referred to was not forthcoming, and the Mirror could not get a single witness to testify one word against my character. . . . My suit against the Mirror was terminated by a verdict of $225 in my favour. The costs and all will make them a bill of $492. Pretty well-considering that there was no actual ‘damage’ done to me.”

Early in the summer of 1846 Poe removed from Amity Street, New York, to Fordham, Westchester County, at that time quite out in the country, but [page 88:] now become almost a suburb of the city. His darling wife’s health was rapidly failing, and it was, Mrs. Whitman remarks, ” for her dear sake, and for the recovery, of that peace which had been so fatally perilled amid the irritations and anxieties of his New York life, that Poe left the city and removed to the little Dutch cottage in Fordham, where he passed the three remaining years of his life. It was to this quiet haven in the beautiful spring or early summer of 1846, when the fruit-trees were all in bloom and the grass in its freshest verdure, that he brought his Virginia to die.”

His literary engagements occasionally called the poet to New York, but in such cases it was usual for his mother-in-law, Mrs. Clemm, to accompany him. Once, soon after the removal to Fordham, being detained all night in town, he sent the following tender lines to his wife, to reassure her. As the note written on a rough page of his pocket-book-is the only one known to have been addressed by Poe to his wife, it is deserving citation: —

June 12, 1846.

“MY DEAR HEART — MY DEAR VIRGINIA — Our mother will explain to you why I stay away from you this night. I trust the interview I am promised will result in some substantial good for me — for your dear sake and here — keep up your heart in all hopefulness, and trust yet a little longer. On my last great disappointment I should have lost my [page 89:] courage but for you — my little darling wife. You are my greatest and only stimulus now, to battle with this uncongenial, unsatisfactory, and ungrateful life.

“I shall be with you to-morrow (illegible) P.M., and be assured until I see you I will keep in loving remembrance your last words, and your fervent prayer!

“Sleep well, and may God grant you a peaceful summer with your devoted EDGAR.”

What was the promised good, and whether the promise was fulfilled, are unknown. During the sad summer months the poet alternately occupied his time, when anxiety about his wife permitted him to work, in writing out his pithy “Marginalia” for Graham’s Magazine and the Democratic Review, and the “Literati” for the Lady’s Book, and in beautifying the green sward about his little cottage — “the sweetest little cottage imaginable,” says Mrs. Clemm; adding: —

“Oh, hove supremely happy we were in our dear cottage home! We three lived only for each other. Eddie rarely left his beautiful home. I attended to his literary business, for he, poor fellow, knew nothing about money transactions. How should he, brought up in luxury and extravagance I

“He passed the greater part of the morning in his study, and, after he had finished his task for the day, he worked in our beautiful flower garden, or read and recited poetry to us. Every one who knew him intimately loved him. Judges pronounced him the best conversationalist living. We had very little society except among the literati, but this was exceedingly pleasant.”* [page 90:]

Among the literary friends who visited the Poes at their pleasant country, home was Mrs. Gove-Nichols. Of her first excursion to Fordham, she records: —

“I found the poet, and his wife, and his wife’s mother — who was his aunt — living in a little cottage at the top of a hill. There was an acre or two of green sward, fenced in about the house, as smooth as velvet and as clean as the best kept carpet.* There were some grand old cherry-trees in the yard, that threw a massive shade around them. The house had three rooms — a kitchen, a sitting-room, and “a bedchamber over the sitting-room.† There was a piazza in front of the house that was a lovely place to sit in in summer, with the shade of cherry-trees before it. There was no cultivation, no flowers — nothing but the smooth green sward and the majestic trees.

“On the occasion of this, my first, visit to the poet, I was a good deal plagued — Poe had somehow caught a full-grown bob-o’-link. He had put him in a cage, which he had hung on a nail driven into the trunk of a cherry-tree. The poor bird was as unfit to live in a cage as his captor was to live in the world. He was as restless as his jailer, and sprang continually, in a fierce, frightened way, from one side of the cage to the other. I pitied him, but Poe was bent on taming hire. There he stood with his arms crossed before the imprisoned bird, his sublime trust in attaining the impossible apparent in his whole self. So handsome, so impassive in his wonderful intellectual beauty, so proud and so reserved, and yet so confidentially communicative, so entirely a gentleman [page 91:] upon all occasions that I ever saw him — so tasteful, so good a talker was Poe, that he impressed himself and his wishes, even without words, upon those with whom he spoke. However, I remonstrated against the imprisonment of Robert of Lincoln Green’

“ ‘You are wrong,’ said he quietly, ‘in wishing me to free the bird. He is a splendid songster, and as soon as he is tamed he will delight our home with his musical gifts. You should hear him ring out like a chime of joy-bells his wonderful song.’

“Poe’s voice was melody itself. He always spoke low, when in a violent discussion, compelling his hearers to listen if they would know his opinion, his facts, fancies, or philo sophy, or his weird imaginings. These last usually flowed from his pen, seldom from his tongue.

“On this occasion I was introduced to the young wife of the poet, and to the mother, then more than sixty years of age. She was a tall, dignified old lady, with’ a most lady like manner, and her black dress, though old and much worn, looked really elegant on her. She wore a widow’s cap, of the genuine pattern, and it suited excellently with her snow-white hair: Her features were large, and corresponded with her stature, and it seemed strange how such a stalwart and queenly woman could be the mother of her petite daughter. Mrs. Poe looked very young; she had large black eyes, and a pearly whiteness of complexion, which was a perfect pallor. Her pale face, her brilliant eyes, and her raven hair, gave her an unearthly look. One felt that she was almost a dissolved spirit, and when she coughed it was made certain that she was rapidly passing away.

“The mother seemed hale and strong, and appeared to be a sort of universal Providence for her strange children. [page 92:]

“The cottage had an air of taste and gentility that must have been lent to it by the presence of its inmates. So neat, so poor, so unfurnished, and yet so charming, a dwelling I never saw. The floor of the kitchen was white as wheaten flour. A table, a chair, and a little stove that it contained, seemed to furnish it completely. The sitting-room floor was laid with check matting; four chairs, a light stand, and a hanging book-shelf, composed its furniture. There were pretty presentation copies of books on the little shelves, and the Brownings had posts of honour on the stand. With quiet exultation Poe drew from his side-pocket a letter he had recently received from Elizabeth Barrett Browning). He read it to us. It was very flattering. She told Poe that his ‘poem of the Raven had awakened a fit of horror in England.’* This was what he loved to do. To make the flesh creep, to make one shudder and freeze with horror, was more to his relish (I cannot say more to his mind or heart) than to touch the tenderest chords of sympathy or sadness.

“On the book-shelf there lay a volume of Poe’s poems. He took it down, wrote my name in it, and gave it to me. I think he did this from a feeling of sympathy, for I could not be of advantage to him, as my two companions could,† I had sent him an article when he edited the Broadway Journal, which had pleased him. It was a sort of wonder article, and he published it without knowing the authorship, and he was pleased to find his anonymous contributor in me, He was at this time greatly depressed. Their extreme [page 93:] poverty, the sickness of his wife, and his own inability to write, sufficiently accounted for this. We spent half an hour in the house, when some more company came, which included ladies, and then we all went out for a walk.

“ ‘We strolled away into the woods, and had a very cheerful time, till some one proposed a game at leaping I think it must have been Poe, as he was expert in the exercise. Two or three gentlemen agreed to leap with him, and although one of them was tall, and had been a hunter in times past, Poe still distanced them all. Buts alas! his gaiters (i.e., gaiter-shoes), long worn and carefully kept, were both burst in the grand leap that made him victor. I had pitied the poor bob-o’link in his hard and hopeless imprisonment, but I pitied poor Poe more now. I was certain he had no other shoes, boots, or gaiters. Who among us could offer him money to buy another pair? If any one had money, who had the effrontery to offer it to the poet? When we reached the cottage, I think all felt that we must not go in, to see the shoeless unfortunate sitting or standing in our midst. I had an errand, however; I had left the volume of Poe’s poems, and I entered the house to get it. The poor old mother looked at his feet with a dismay that I shall never forget’

“ ‘O Eddie!’ said she, ‘how did you burst your gaiters?’

“Poe seemed to have fallen into a semi-torpid state as soon as he saw his mother. . . .

“I related the cause of the mishap, and she drew me into the kitchen.

“ ‘Will you speak to Mr. ——’ (the reviewer), she said, about Eddie’s last poem? ’

“ ‘If he will only take the poem, Eddie can have a pair [page 94:] of shoes. He has it — I carried it last week, and Eddie says it is his best. You will speak to him about it, won‘t you?

“We had already read the poem in conclave, and, Heaven forgive us, we could not make head or tail of it, It might as well have been in any of the lost languages, for any meaning we could extract from its melodious numbers. I remember saying that I believed it was only a hoax that Poe was passing off for poetry, to see how far his name would go in imposing upon people. But here was a situation. The reviewer had been actively instrumental in the demolition of the gaiters.

“Of course they will publish the poem,’ said I, ‘and I will ask C —— to be quick about it.’

“The poem was paid for at once, and published soon after. I presume it is regarded as genuine poetry in the collected poems of its author, but then it brought the poet a pair of gaiters and twelve shillings over.”

Upon Mrs. Gove-Nichols’ next visit to Fordham, the poet became very confidential with her: —

“ ‘I write,’ he said, ‘from a mental necessity — to satisfy my taste and my love of art. Fame forms no motive power with me. What can I care for the judgment of a multitude, every individual of which I despise?’

“ ‘But, Mr. Poe,’ said I, ‘there are individuals whose judgment you respect.’

‘“Certainly, and I would choose to have their esteem unmixed with the mean adulation of the mob.’

“ ‘But the multitude may be honestly and legitimately pleased,’ said I.

“ ‘That may be possible,’ said Poe, musingly, ‘because [page 95:] they may have an honest and legitimate leader, and not a poor man who has been paid a hundred dollars to manufacture opinions for them and fame for an author.’

“ ‘Do reviewers sell their literary conscience thus unconscionably?’ said I.

“ ‘A literary critic must be loth to violate his taste, his sense of the fit and the beautiful. To sin against these and praise an unworthy author, is to him an unpardonable sin. But if he were placed on the rack, or if one he loved better than his own life were writhing there, I can conceive of his forging a note against the Bank of Fame, in favour of some would-be poet, who is able and willing to buy his poeme and his opinions.’

“ ‘He turned almost fiercely upon me, his fine eyes piercing me. ‘Would you blame a man for not allowing his sick wife to starve?’ said he.

“I changed the subject, and he became quiet, and we walked along, noting beauties of flowers and foliage, of hill and dale, ‘till we reached the cottage.’

“At my next visit,” resumes Mrs. Gove-Nichols, “Poe said, as we walked along the brow of the hill, ‘I can‘t look out on this loveliness till I have made a confession to you.

I said to you, when you were last here, that I despised Fame.’ I remember,’ said I.

“ ‘It was false,’ said he; ‘I love Fame. I dote on it; I idolise it; I would drink to the very dregs the glorious intoxication. I would have incense ascend in my honour from every hill and hamlet, from every town and city on this earth. Fame! glory 1 they are life-giving breath and living blood. No man lives unless he is famous! How bitterly I belied my nature, and my aspirations, when I said I did not desire fame, and that I despised it.’ [page 96:]

“I suggested that the utterance on both occasions might be true to the mood that suggested them. But he declared that there was no truth in his first assertion. I was not as severe with him as he was with himself.”

The summer months flew by, taking with them the strength of his beloved young wife, and unnerving and unfitting the poet for all literary exertion. He was unable to work, and, even if he had been able, the but too successful career of his “Literati” sketches had caused many magazines, edited by the reviewed or their allies, to close their pages to him. The dangerous censorship he had assumed in this series, says Mrs. Whitman, ” exposed him to frequent indignant criticism, while, by his personal errors and indiscretions, he drew upon himself much social censure and espionage, and became the victim of dishonouring accusations from which honour itself had forbidden him to exculpate himself.” The worse his wife became, the less able became the poet to labour with his pen, so that the situation of the family grew more deplorable daily. The dreary months dragged along, and no help appeared. “The autumn came, and Mrs. Poe sank rapidly in consumption,” resumes the narrative of Mrs. Gove-Nichols.

“I saw her in her bed chamber,” she relates. “Everything here was so neat, so purely clean, so scant and poverty-stricken, that I saw the poor sufferer with such a heart-ache [page 97:] . . . There was no clothing on the bed, which was only straw, but a snow-white counterpane and sheets. The weather was cold, and the sick lady had the dreadful chills that accompany the hectic fever of consumption. She lay on the straw bed, wrapped in hair husband’s greatcoat, with a large tortoiseshell cat in her bosom. The wonderful cat seemed conscious of her great usefulness. The coat and the cat were the sufferer’s only means of warmth, except as her husband held her hands, and her mother her feet.

“Mrs. Clemm was passionately fond of her daughter, and her distress on account of her illness and poverty and misery was dreadful to see.

“As soon as I was made aware of these painful facts, I came to New York and enlisted the sympathies and services of a lady, whose heart and hand were ever open to the poor and miserable. A feather bed and abundance of bed clothing and other comforts were the first-fruits of my labour of love. The lady headed a private subscription, and carried them sixty dollars the next week. From the day this kind lady first saw the suffering family of the poet, she watched over them as a mother watches over her babe. She saw them often, and ministered to the comfort of the dying and the living.”

Mrs. Shew (afterwards Houghton), the lady whose unostentatious sympathy Mrs. Nichols had so happily invoked, knew nothing of the poet or his family, save that they were helpless and needed aid; but that was all that was necessary to call forth her friendly services.


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 71:]

* Vide Appendix D.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 79:]

* Proprietors of the New York Evening Mirror, in which the libel appeared. — J. H. I.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 83:]

* The Hon. Henry A. Wise, then United States Minister to France, who entirely ignored his libeller. — J. H. I.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 85:]

* The person referred to here was Mrs. Osgood. — J. H. I.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 89:]

* To Judge Neilson Poe. August 19th, 1850.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 90:]

* Compare with description of grass in “Domain of Arnheim” and “Landor’s Cottage.” — J. H. I.

† This is a mistake; there were, and still are, two rooms on each floor. — J. H. I.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 92:]

* “A fit horror,” vide vol. I, p. 274.

† A reviewer one; “the other, a person who wrote laudatory notices of books, and borrowed money or favours from their flattered authors afterwards.” — J. H. I.


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - EAP:HLLO, 1880] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - E. A. P.: His Life, Letters and Opinions (J. H. Ingram) (Chapter 16)