Text: James A. Harrison, “Chapter 12,” Complete Works of E. A. Poe , Vol. 01: Biography (1902), 1:252-268


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[page 252:]

CHAPTER XII.

1846-1847.

FORDHAM: THE DEATH OF VIRGINIA POE.

THE sensation caused by the successive issues of “The Literati” was very great, and when the series reached “Thomas Dunn Brown” [English], a violent explosion ensued. English published in “The Evening Mirror” (then managed by Fuller & Co.) a libellous and slanderous article, full of filth and indecency, accusing Poe of forgery, theft, and drunkenness: “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,” etc., etc.

It is needless to say that Poe brought suit and recovered damages for defamation of character. The old gentleman (author of “Ben Bolt ” and ex-member of the United States Congress) died in Newark April 1, 1902.

The controversy,(1) coarse and abusive as it was on both sides, had one good consequence for Poe: it resulted in a verdict of $225 in his favor, the costs and all running up a bill of $492 for the other party. With this money, apparently, Poe furnished the little [page 253:] Dutch cottage at Fordham, Westchester Co., New York, a suburb of the city, whither he now moved from Amity Street.

Mr. F. M. Hopkins thus describes the little home in “The Review of Reviews” for April, 1996:

At the top of Fordham Hill, on the Kingsbridge Road, in the recently annexed or northern district of New York City, is a little old Dutch cottage known to fame as the home of Edgar Allan Poe during the last four [three?] years of his life. The building is a small one containing only three rooms, a porch extending along its entire front, and standing with its gable end to the street. Instead of being clapboarded, it was shingled, as was customary in the early days in which it was built, making a good specimen of the dignified little homes that dotted northern New York, but which have almost wholly disappeared before the march of modern improvements.

“In Poe’s time the cottage was pleasantly situated on a little elevation in a large open space, with cherry-trees about it. Many literary workers of his day visited him here, and mention was quite frequently made of the cosy home which Virginia Poe made, notwithstanding her limited means and contracted quarters. The surroundings have somewhat changed with passing years. The cherry-trees are gone, and neighboring houses elbow the cottage quite closely, but the poet’s old home remains the same as a half century ago, aside from the neglect of recent years.

“The hallway entrance leads directly to the main room of the house, — a good-sized, cheerful apartment with four windows, two opening on the porch. Between these stood the poet’s table, at which much of his reading and editorial work was done. In the little [page 254:] steeping-room facing towards the street, Virginia died.(1) At the left of the little hallway is an old-fashioned winding staircase to the attic above. In this lowroofed room Pot had a writing-table and his meagre library. Here in seclusion his more ambitious work was done. The musical ‘Bells,’ the pathetic ‘Annabel Lee,’ the weird ‘Ulalume,’ and the enigmatic ‘Eureka,’ as well as some of his bat fiction were written here.”

Hither, then, came the poet in the early summer of 1846, while the “Literati” excitement was raging, and here doubtless many of the articles were written.

Mrs. Whitman, in a few words describing these “lonesome latter years,” paints graphically the charm of the new residence

“It is well known to those acquainted with the parties, that the young wife of Edgar Poe [she was only twenty-four or five died of lingering consumption, which manifested itself even in her girlhood. All who have had opportunities for observation in the matter have noticed her husband’s tender devotion to her during her prolonged illness. . . . It is true that, notwithstanding her vivacity and cheerfulness at the time we have alluded to, her health was even then rapidly sinking; and it was 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 of 1846, when the fruit-trees were all in bloom and the grass in its [page 255:] freshest verdure, that he brought his Virginia to die. Here he watched her failing breath in loneliness and privation through many solitary moons, until, on a desolate, dreary day of the ensuing winter, he saw her remains borne from beneath its lowly roof to a neighboring cemetery. It was towards the close of the year following her death, his most “immemorial year,” that he wrote the strange threnody of “Ulalume.” This poem, perhaps the most original and weirdly suggestive of all his poems, resembles at first sight some of Turner’s landscapes, being apparently ‘without form and void, and having darkness on the face of it.’ It is, nevertheless, in its basis, although not in the precise correspondence of time, simply historical. Such was the poet’s lonely midnight walk; such, amid the desolate memories and sceneries of the hour, was the newborn hope enkindled within his heart at sight of the morning star —

“ ‘Astarte’s bediamonded crescent —’

coming up as the beautiful harbinger of love and happiness yet awaiting him in the untried future; and such the sudden transition of feeling, the boding dread, that supervened on discovering that which had at first been unnoted — that it shone, as if in mockery or in warning, directly over the sepulchre of the lost ‘Ulalume.’

“A writer in the ‘London Critic,’ after quoting the opening stanzas of ‘Ulalume,’ says: ‘These to many will appear only words. But what wondrous words! What a spell they wield! What a withered unity there is in them! The instant they are uttered, a misty picture, with a tarn dark as a murderer’s eye below, and the thin yellow leaves of October fluttering [page 256:] above, — exponents of a misery which scorns the name of sorrow, — is hung up in the chambers of your soul forever.’

“An English writer, now living in Paris [1860], the author of some valuable contributions to our American periodicals, passed several weeks at the little cottage in Fordham in the early autumn of‘ 1847, and described to us, with a truly English appreciativeness, its unrivalled neatness, and the quaint simplicity of its interior and surroundings. It was at the time bordered by a flower-garden, whose clumps of rare dahlias and brilliant beds of fall flowers showed, in the careful culture bestowed upon them, the fine floral taste of the inmates.

“An American writer who visited the cottage during the summer of the same year [1847], described it as half buried in fruit-trees, and having a thick grove of pines in its immediate neighborhood. The proximity of the railroad, and the increasing population of the little village, have since wrought great changes in the place. Round an old cherry-tree, near the door, was a broad bank of greenest turf. The neighboring beds of mignonette and heliotrope, and the pleasant shade above, made this a favorite seat. Rising at four o‘clock in the morning for a walk to the magnificent Aqueduct bridge over Harlem River, our informant found the poet, with his mother, standing on the turf beneath the cherry-tree, eagerly watching the movements of two beautiful birds that seemed contemplating a settlement in its branches. He had some rare tropical birds in cages, which he cherished and petted with assiduous care. Our English friend described him as giving to his birds and his flowers a delighted attention that seemed quite inconsistent with the gloomy [page 257:] and grotesque character of his writings. A favorite cat, too, enjoyed his friendly patronage; and often, when he was engaged in composition, it seated itself on his shoulder, purring as in complacent approval of the work proceeding under its supervision.

“During Mr. Poe’s residence at Fordham, a walk to High Bridge was one of his favorite and habitual recreations. The water of the Aqueduct is conveyed across the river on a range of lofty granite arches, which rise to the height of 145 feet above high-water level. On the top a turfed and grassy road, used only by foot-passengers and flanked on either side by a low parapet of granite, makes one of the finest promenades imaginable.

“The winding river, and the high, rocky shores at the western extremity of the bridge, are seen to great advantage from this lofty avenue. In the last melancholy years of his life — ‘the lonesome latter years’ — Poe was accustomed to walk there at all times of the day and night, often pacing the then solitary pathway for hours without meeting a human being. A little to the east of the cottage rises a ledge of rocky ground, partly covered with pines and cedars, commanding a fine view of the surrounding country, and of the picturesque college of St. John’s, which had at that time in its neighborhood venerable old trees. This rocky ledge was also one of the poet’s favorite resorts. Here through the long summer days, and through solitary, star-lit nights, he loved to sit, dreaming has gorgeous waking dreams, or pondering the deep problems of ‘The Universe,’ — that grand ‘prose poem’ to which he devoted the last and maturest energies of his wonderful intellect.”

Along with the “Literati” sketches of this summer [page 258:] went “The Philosophy of Composition,” and instalments of “Marginalia” to “Graham’s” and “The Democratic Review,” for collecting and publishing which Poe has been taunted by a recent biographer, because some of them consisted of paragraphs already used in his printed reviews of this or that notability — or nonentity. The fact is, that the “Marginalia” and the neglected “Pinakidia” of the early “Southern Literary Messenger” are among the most interesting products of Poe’s mind, giving his most intimate thoughts about men and things, treasuring his favorite quotations from a wide world of reading, and singling out remarkable sayings such as one finds imbedded in the prose of Pascal or the maxims of La Rochefoucauld. In them Poe often strikingly exemplifies his powers of sarcasm, satire, pith and epigram, not to speak of his sardonic humor — a mental feature altogether denied Poe by one of his most sympathetic critics — James Hannay.(1) — He has, for instance, no Humor — had. little sympathy with the various forms of human life. But he is perfectly poetic in his own province. If his circle was a narrow, it was a magic one. His poetry is sheer poetry, and borrows nothing from without, as Didactic Poetry does. For Didactic Poetry he had a very strong and very justifiable dislike.”

This same critic singularly errs when he says (in the first of the following sentences): “Traces of spiritual emotion are not to be found there [in his youthful poems]. Sorrow there is, but not divine sorrow. There is not any approach to the Holy — to the Holiness which mingles with all Tennyson’s [page 259:] poetry — as the Presence with the Wine. And yet, when you view his poems simply as poems, this characteristic does not make itself felt as a Want. It would seem as if he had only to deal with the Beautiful as a human aspirant. His soul thirsted for the supernal loveliness.’ That thirst was to him Religion — all the Religion you discover in him. But if we cannot call him religious, we may say that he supplies the materials to worship. You want bowers and fruit for your altar; and wherever Poe’s muse has passed, flowers and fruits are fairer and brighter.

“With all this passion for the Beautiful, no poet was ever less voluptuous. He never profaned his genius whatever else he profaned. ‘Irene,’ ‘Ulalume,’ ‘Lenore,’ ‘Annabel Lee,’ ‘Annie,’ are all gentle, and innocent, and fairy-like. A sound of music — rising as from an unseen Ariel — brings in a most pure and lovely figure, — sad, usually; so delicate and dreamy are these conceptions, that, indeed, they hint only of some transcendent beauty — some region where passion has no place, where

“ ‘Music, and moonlight, and feeling are one,’

as Shelley says.

“Poe loved splendour — he delighted in the gorgeous — in ancient birth — in tropical flowers — in southern birds — in castellated dwellings. The hero of his ‘Raven’ sits on a ‘violet velvet lining‘; they have ‘crested palls.’ He delighted, as Johnson said of Collins, ‘to gaze on the magnificence of golden palaces, to repose by the waterfalls of Elysian gardens.’ His scenery is everywhere magnificent. His Genius is always waited upon with the splendour of an Oriental monarch.” [page 260:]

The “Marginalia” of which we have been speaking were in all likelihood paragraphs originally transferred from Poe’s note-books to this or that review as occasion called for them, and then reclaimed from these reviews for an independent purpose, later.

“We know now that the charge,” says Mr. Appleton Morgan, “that Poe resold his manuscripts is a lie, circumstantially nailed by the publisher, still fortunately living, from whose reminiscences the allegation originated. This publisher did, it seems, pay Poe three times for three versions of ‘The Bells,’ himself insisting on so doing, because the poems were substantially distinct pieces. The. statement that Poe stole the theme, metre, rhythm, and technique of — The Raven’ from a certain lunatic in a certain madhouse has also fallen to the ground, it having been ascertained that there never was either such a lunatic or such a madhouse.

“The truth is, perhaps, that Poe’s greatest crime was his poverty — often abject, and always extreme.”

Echoes of this misery reverberated pathetically through the Griswold correspondence. “I know nothing of the Poe family,” writes Miss M. L. Seward to Mrs. Osgood, New York, November 23d, 1846, “except that they are in great poverty.”

The Poes are in the same state of physical and pecuniary suffering — indeed worse, than they were last summer,” writes Mrs. M. E. Hewitt to the same correspondent, under date of December 20, 1846; ” for now the cold weather is added to their accumulation of ills. I went to inquire of Mr. Post [publisher of the “Columbian Magazine“] about them. He confirmed all that I had previously heard of their condition. Although he says Mrs. Clemm has never [page 261:] told him they were in want, yet she borrows a shilling often, to get a letter from the office — but Mrs. Gove has been to see the Poet and found them living in the greatest wretchedness. I am endeavoring to get up a contribution for them among the editors, — and the matter has got into print — very much to my regret, as I fear it will hurt Poe’s pride to have his affairs made so public.”

Almost the last day of this distressful year (December 29th), Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote to Griswold: —

“I hope you will do whatever you can to favor Mr. Poe in the matter of which he spoke to you in his letter. . . . I have always thought Mr. Poe entertained a favorable opinion of me since he taught me how to scan one of my own poems. And I am not ashamed, though it may be very unphilosophical, to be grateful for his good opinion, and even venture to hope that he may find something to approve in one or two of my last poems.”

Poe was only too eager to welcome young talent like that of Holmes, Bayard Taylor, the Davidson sisters, and other’s; even from the depths of his blackest misery he had evidently written for a copy of Holmes’s poems with a view to a notice of them.

Mrs. Gove-Nichols (whom, as Mrs. Gove, Poe had reviewed sympathetically in “The Literati“) gives us a pathetic glimpse of Poe and of Virginia’s last month about this time

“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 philosophy, or his weird imaginings. These last usually flowed from his pen, seldom from his tongue. [page 261:]

“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 to her strange children.

“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, R 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-packet a letter he had recently received from Elizabeth Barrett (Browning). He read it to us. It was very flattering. She [page 263:] told Poe that his ” poem of the Raven had awakened a fit (of ] horror in England. This was what he loved to do.”(1) . . .

“The autumn came, and Mrs. Poe sank rapidly in consumption,” continues Mrs. Gove-Nichols. “I saw her in her bed-chamber. Everything here was so neat, so purely clean, so scant and poverty-stricken, that I saw the poor sufferer with such a heart-ache. . . . 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 her husband’s great-coat, with a large tortoise-shell 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 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 $60 the next week. From the day this kind lady 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.”(2) [page 264:]

This angel of mercy was Marie Louise Shew (afterwards Mrs. Houghton), to whom Poe addressed the beautiful tines in “The Home Journal ” for March 13, 1847

TO M. L. S ——

Of all who hail thy presence as the morning;

Of all to whom thy absence is the night,

The blotting utterly from out high heaven

The sacred sun; of all who, weeping, bless thee

Hourly for hope, for life, ah! above all,

For the resurrection of deep-buried faith

In truth, in virtue, in humanity;

Of all who, on despair’s unhallowed bed

Lying down to die, have suddenly arisen

At thy soft-murmured words, “Let there be light!”

At the soft-murmured words that were fulfilled

In the seraphic glancing of thine eyes;

Of all who owe thee most, whose gratitude

Nearest resembles worship, oh, remember,

The truest, the most fervently devoted,

And think that these weak lines are written by him

By him, who, as he pens them, thrills to think

His spirit is communing with an angel’s.

In March, 1848, Poe again addressed the passionate lines “To —— ——,” beginning:

“Not long ago the writer of there lines,

In the mad pride of intellectuality,

Maintained ‘the power of words’ ——”

to this same lady, thus evincing his eternal gratitude for her goodness to his dying wife. It is to her that we owe the first suggestion of “The Bells.” [page 265:]

The pitiable condition of the family got into print the ever-ready Willis heard of it and printed an appeal in “The Home Journal” for help; which brought forth a painful protest from Poe at thus having his private affairs thrust upon the public. He might die of starvation, like atway and Spenser, but he did not wish the public to know anything about it. Thirty days after his letter of protest was written Virginia actually did die, January 30, 1847.

The day before the sad event he wrote as follows to Mrs. Shew

FORDHAM, JAN. 29,’47

KINDEST — DEAREST FRIEND — My poor Virginia yet lives, although failing fist and now suffering much pain. May God grant her life until she sees you and thanks you once again! Her bosom is full to overflowing — like my own — with a boundless — inexpressible gratitude to you. Lest she may never see you more — she bids me say that she sends you her sweetest kiss of love and will die blessing you. But come — oh, come to-morrow! Yes! I ,will be calm — everything you so nobly wish to see me. My mother sends you, also, her “warmest love and thanks.” She begs me to ask you, if possible, to make arrangements at home so that you may stay with us tomorrow night. I enclose the order to the Postmaster.

Heaven bless you and farewell,  
EDGAR A. POE.(1)

Mrs. Shew attended to the last sad rites of the dead, and Virginia was temporarily placed in the family vault of the Valentines, in the Reformed Church at Fordham.

Any one who remembers the awful vividness with which Poe has depicted the slow consuming away of [page 266:] a beloved one through a lingering illness, in the illuminated pages of “Ligeia,” “Morella” and “Eleonora” lit by sepulchral lamps, wherein every, footfall of the approach of “The Conqueror Worm” is delineated with muffled yet magical detail; every one to whose soul have penetrated the melodious dirges of “Ulalume,” “Lenore,” and “The Raven,” which assume in their writhings almost the agonizing grace of the Laocoön, must realize, faintly indeed yet sympathetically, the abysmal grief into which this death must have plunged the greatest Artist of Death whom the world has ever seen, the man who most keenly and most wonderfully has conjured up its horrors before the quailing imagination and made them stand, instinct with their own quivering and hideous life, before the recoiling eye of the mind. The half frantic mood of the time may be read in the mystic interlineations of “Ulalume,” peeping between the lines of this mad yet most musical autobiographic poem that is wreathed with the opiate vapors of frenzy.

“Deprived of the companionship and sympathy of his child-wife,” writes a friendly biographer,(1) “the poet suffered what to him was the exquisite agony of utter loneliness. Night after night he would arise from his sleepless pillow, and, dressing himself, wander to the grave of his lost one, and throwing himself down upon the cold ground, weep bitterly for hours at a time.

“The same haunting dread which we have ventured to ascribe to him at the time of his writing ‘The Raven,’ possessed him now, and to such a degree that he found it impossible to sleep without the presence of some friend by his bedside. Mrs. Clemm, his ever [page 267:] devoted friend and comforter, more frequently fulfilled the office of watcher. The poet, after retiring, would summon her, and while she stroked his broad brow, he would indulge his wild flights of fancy to the Aidenn of his dreams. He never spoke nor moved in these moments, unless the hand was withdrawn from his forehead; then he would say, with childish na├»veté, ‘No, no, not yet!’ — while he lay with half-closed eyes.

“The mother, or friend, would stay by him until he was fairly asleep, then gently leave him.”

The excesses to which the ruptured throat of his wife had impelled him in Philadelphia, and all through the five years preceding her death, with their alternations of hope and despair, now ended in a settled gloom that threatened his reason: henceforth Poe was a broken man, an unstrung harp wildly and wistfully singing of things long gone by, a “seraph-harper Israfel” that had lost his harp or sat discrowned and disconsolate among the asphodels. A few uneven things, a few weird and beautiful threnodies, and the great prose-poem “Eureka,” were practically all that Death and Grief had left him to utter, now that the inspiration of his life had gone and the home of his heart was built up against her tomb. A radiant joy indeed broke fitfully on the poet late in these latter years, but this, too, was doomed to extinction, and soon hung, like his trembling Astarte, directly over a grave. The excesses, brought on by extreme anguish and straitened circumstances, were only too real though never habitual, never bacchanalia of mere maudlin sensuality such as one reads of in the annals of drunken Elizabethans: they were the ups and downs, the uneven tight-rope walking of a nature trying to balance [page 268:] itself amid impossible conditions and morbid neurotic states, wrung from its natural rectitude by overpowering temptation to seek relief in stimulants — coffee, wine, drugs, opium, anything that would soothe the intense malaise. Alas, how full of Verlaines and de Mussets and Baudelaires the world has been — men like Poe, endowed with preternaturally sensitive nerves, unable to grapple with the coarse flesh-and-blood around them, pierced on all sides by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and succumbing at last to the superincumbent mass of misery.

Poor little Virginia lay for many years in the borrowed tomb, but now at last rests beside her husband in Westminster Church grave-yard, Baltimore, underneath the Poe monument.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 252:]

1.  English’s letter appeared in the New York Mirror of June 23 - July 13, 18461, and Poe’ reply in the Philadelphia Spirit of the Times July, 20, 1846. See Vol. II. p. 233.

[[In the version of this biography that accompanied the 17-volume set, the reference to Vol. II was given as “See Vol. XVII. p. 233.”]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 254:]

1.  She died, according to all descriptions, upstairs, in a room where the ceiling sloped.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 258:]

1.  The Poetical Works of Edgar Allan Poe, by James Hannay: London, 1863.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 263:]

1.  Ingram, II., p. 91.

2.  Ibid., p. 97.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 265:]

1.  Ingram, II, p. 107.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 266:]

1.  W. F. Gill, Chatto and Windus, London, 1878.


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - CWEAP, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - Complete Works of E. A. Poe (Vol. 01 - Biography) (J. A. Harrison) (Chapter 12)