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AN AUTHENTIC AND INTIMATE ACCOUNT OF THE PERSONALITY AND LIFE OF THE MOST TRAGIC FIGURE IN AMERICAN LITERARY HISTORY, WRITTEN BY A MEMBER OF HIS OWN FAMILY
By Elisabeth Ellicott Poe
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JANUARY 19, 1909, is the centenary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe. One hundred years have passed since that inauspicious advent of the literary wizard, the Poe cult is increasing, and scholars continue their study of his erratic life and his surpassing art. True, the Hall of Fame excluded him from its sacred walls. This action of the distinguished committee who selected the names is explained in the pithy verse of Father Tabb, the foremost Poe scholar of the country, who wrote,
Into the charnel Hall of Fame
Only the dead should go,
So write not there the living name
Of Edgar Allan Poe.
Destiny, the watcher and warder of human genius, was the tutelary angel through life of Edgar Allan Poe. Mercilessly decreed isolation fostered his genius while it made him miserably unhappy. Destiny went beyond
the grave and darkened his memory with the carpings and misrepresentations of envious contemporaries. Griswold, the traitor, stabbed the dead Poe, and all his biographers have woefully misunderstood his character, both as man and as poet. With “Bobbie” Burns, the noble minded feel that, notwithstanding “the rank is but the guinea's stamp,” “a man's a man for a’ that.” But a dissertation on Edgar Allan Poe's ancestry is permissible, because, to understand the man, account must be made of the romantic, the wild strains of race that made him genius mad and different from his fellows because greater than they.
The name Poe, an American corruption of De la Poer or Le Poer, is an old Italian one from which the river Po took its name. In the eleventh century an adventurous baron of the house left Italy and settled for a time in Normandy, whence he journeyed to England, through Wales, and into Ireland, where he established a branch of the Poer house.
Descendants of this wanderer were found in Ireland in 1327· The name was then Le Poer, the Gallic form. The great civil war of this period, which devastated all Ireland, was the outcome of a personal feud between Maurice of Desmond and Arnold Le Poer. Le Poer had offended Desmond by calling him a "rimester." In the fourteenth century, as well as in the twentieth, lesser poets wished to be called poets. Although the rough Celtic song was crude to the Italian's musical ear, Desmond deeply resented being told so. This is the first evidence of critical ability in the Poe family, an ability that was to flower in Edgar Allan Poe.
Arnold Le Poer was a hero as well as a critic. We next find him rescuing from impending execution as a witch the Lady Geraldine, who was a prisoner in a high tower. The lady's head was saved. To-day a facsimile of it adorns the Poe crest.
Through the medieval period the Le Poers lived the quiet life of Irish gentry. They rose into prominence as defenders of Ireland at the invasion of Cromwell. This defense·cost the house dear. Its fortunes and estates were relentlessly destroyed by the Protector and his followers.
David Le Poer came to America with his parents about the middle of the eighteenth century. Pennsylvania was his first stop, then Baltimore. There he became a first citizen and a prosperous merchant. His third child was David Poe, a flighty, bohemian law-student, who fell in love with and clandestinely married Elisabeth Arnold, an English actress of good family. For this act he was cast off, and he deserted Baltimore. A place was found for him in his wife's company, and he toured the country with it. Two children were born to the bohemian couple, and then 1809 drew near, the time when Edgar Allan Poe was to make his début. Where did this interesting event occur? A house in Norfolk, Virginia, is shown as his birthplace, Bostonians have assured me with awful emphasis that he was born in the Hub, but, as a matter of fact, Maryland, not Massachusetts or Virginia, justly claims the weird singer of the night as her own. To Baltimore belongs the right to call him son.
The thin tracery of Edgar Allan Poe's life is on many a street and house in Baltimore. It will not forget him. His mortal remains are cherished within its limits, his life story is a town legend and tradition. No monument to him, however, adorns any of its parks. In common with other American cities, Baltimore has too many soldiers to honor to remember monumentally her poet son.
Near the city's crowded center, the old Holliday Street Theater is a ghost of the past. Gone are the glories of the famous old playhouse. It is now the home of lurid melodrama. Inside the theater, through the tawdry trappings of to-day, remnants of grandeur tell of yesterday's spirit; for fifty years ago a noble player folk thronged its boards. The elder Booth, Edwin Forrest, Lucille Weston, and other famous Thespians held their magic sway. There, in the dim ago, stood young Elisabeth Arnold, afterward the mother of Edgar Allan Poe, bewitching Baltimore's bravest and best by her divine art and personal inimitable grace. It was in January, 1809, that, soul-sick with care and the approaching ordeal of motherhood, she acted there last. Only when the birth of Edgar was imminent, most imminent, did she retire to the Front Street house. In that refuge, January 19, was born Edgar Poe, a child destined to poetry and misery. Front Street was then a street of stately old homes; now it is as ruined as the families that once gathered beneath their sheltering eaves. Now the undercurrent of the great city has congregated there. Of the intimate incident of the birth no record remains, but memory treasures the virtues of good Mrs. Beard, the Irish landlady of the house, the good Samaritan who threw around the young mother her matronly protection. Edgar's advent was premature, and Mrs. Beard hastily made wee garments for him. The next day the father obtained funds from relatives. On the second morning Mrs. David Poe, Sr., paid a visit to her infant grandson. Her pity was aroused, and risking General Poe's displeasure she took care of the family for six weeks.
With swift touches here and there the childhood and boyhood of Edgar Allan Poe, in Richmond and in England, can be passed by. His mother died when he was not quite three years old, and he was adopted by Mr. John Allan, of Richmond, receiving the name Edgar Allan in baptism. They were happy, care-free years, for he was just an ordinary boy, dreaming the long, long dreams of youth, dreaming of days when, from out the sheltered haven of childhood, he was to journey "over the hills and far a way." College days at the University of Virginia, where he topped off his classics, and wanderings into Greece and Turkey, all the while martial instincts slumbering in his blood, led up to the West Point days, the crucial point of his early manhood. It was inevitable that, despite his inclination toward the army, the West Point career of Poe should be a failure. What! chain an eagle, the soaring soul of a poet, to the dull routine of a military school? Of course he broke all restraints, lampooned his teachers, and got expelled. He wanted to leave the army, and deliberately planned to bring about his expulsion.
After he was expelled from West Point, Edgar returned to Richmond. He found some changes. His good foster-mother had died and Mr. Allan had married again—a young wife. Edgar was no longer the prodigal son to be welcomed with the fatted calf. He was only an interloper. A little son had been born into the Allan household, and the poet foster-son was an alien.
When he learned of this Edgar was too proud to be a burden longer. He left his Richmond home forever. Drawn by the mystic call of his native spot he went to Baltimore. Penniless, friendless, his divine art his only asset, this petted, spoiled child of fortune was thrown on his own resources at last. Was there a good Samaritan in wait for him now, as Mrs. Beard had served him at his birth?
The “silent years,” the first three or four years that followed his estrangement from Mr. Allan have been called. If they were silent years their silence was of an eloquent nature. Never again did Poe know such peace and self-control as in those so-called “silent years.” They were spent in Baltimore and marked his first literary success, the coming of love, and his marriage. At last he knew his destiny. Through what misunderstandings and sorrows engulfed his life his forte was singing, his mission to sing those priceless paeans of exquisite sorrow in whose weird haunting music lingers immortality.
To his father's kinsfolk in Baltimore his thoughts had turned after the grudging welcome given him by the new mistress of the Allan home. Would they do anything for him, the son of the man they had disowned because he loved Edgar's gentle mother, that fair idol of his lonely, boyish dreams? No, he could not go to them. For her sake, he could not accept their reluctant charity. But one among those kinsfolk had been uniformly kind to the beautiful, stranger wife and kind to him as a little chap, and with her he had kept in touch. This was his aunt, Mrs. Maria Clemm, the half-sister of his father, herself estranged from her proud family through an unfortunate marriage. She lived humbly on Wilkes Street, now Eastern Avenue, in the upper portion of a frame dwelling, and there, by delicate needlework, she supported herself and a ten-year-old daughter, Virginia, a fragile, pretty child.
It was on this door that Edgar knocked. It opened gladly and with a warm welcome for the homeless boy. He was given a back attic room under the eaves, but near to the birds that caroled their matins and evensongs. A change this from the luxurious home of Mr. Allan. But the poetic spirit was unfettered there and free to do its best. His attic was a palace of liberty, while the Allan manor was a palace prison. Whosoever understands the poetic principle and temperament will know that Poe was much happier in his humble refuge than he was as the petted idol, the chained darling of his millionaire foster-father's household.
Nourished by love and appreciation, life in his second home began. Face to face with his ideals at last, Poe was free to work out his fancies, the music and the dreams of poetry. Poverty did not press him closely; it was kept at a distance by Mrs. Clemm, business manager and for a time the sole wageearner of the little home.
Mrs. Clemm, who died only a few years ago, an inmate of the Church Home in Baltimore, has testified of Edgar Poe at this period, that he was a lovable lad, sober, industrious, and homeloving. Virginia, her daughter, was regarded in a purely brotherly manner by Edgar, although she was fast maturing into Southern early womanhood. It was in Baltimore that Poe's first literary success came. In the fall of 1833 the Saturday Visitor, a weekly literary journal, announced that it would give a prize reward of $100 each for the best story and poem. John P. Kennedy, H. B. Latrobe, and Dr. James H. Miller were the judges of the contest. Edgar Poe determined to enter it, and submitted his “Tales of the Folio Club,” a series of fanciful imageries, for the prize prose story. He composed his noble “Coliseum” for the poetry entry.
Poe won the prose prize with “The MS. Found in a Bottle,” one of the “Tales of the Folio Club.” One can imagine how his dark eyes glowed with pride as he rushed home, boylike, to tell “Muddie Clemm” and Virginia the good news. And the caliber of the man shines out in the fact that "Muddie Clemm" has testified that he gave her the hundred dollars for necessities. None of that went for liquor, if he was a drunkard in his later years. It was only the recognition of his genius Poe craved. All else to him was mere dross and vainglory.
All was serene in the little household for a time. A friend had been won in John P. Kennedy, who afterward became postmaster-general under President Tyler. In many ways Kennedy, a bookworm and literary dilettante, assisted the struggling Poe.
Baltimore society now tried to lionize Poe, but he had no thirst for social successes. His poverty was his good angel, and we find him declining invitations to balls and dinners. The family now moved to Amity Street, a better locality, and there Poe spent fourteen or fifteen hours a day at his desk. Work chained him in Baltimore, and he was not eager to leave, for a stronger motive had crept into his life.
With the budding of beautiful Virginia, Poe's brotherly affection had ripened into passionate love. On account of her extreme youth, she was not yet fourteen, Mrs. Clemm objected to their immediate marriage. So did other members of her family, but it was in vain. The two finally persuaded Mrs. Clemm to give her consent, and on September 22, 1834, they were married in Saint Paul's Episcopal Church, Baltimore, by the Rev. John Johns, afterward Bishop of Virginia.
Soon after the marriage came an offer to be associate editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, a new literary venture just launched at Richmond. To Poe, the starveling of genius, the prospect of steady, remunerative work came as a godsend, and he eagerly accepted it. So the little family set out for Richmond. Baltimore, the city of birth, love, and first success, was left behind. It was a strange re-entrance to Richmond. There the dreamful hours of boyhood, a petted boyhood, had been spent; there the wild oats of youth had been sown, and now Poe was returning to it as a husband, a worker, one of the cogs in the great wheel of life. But there were no lamentations over his changed fortunes. Life-food was in Richmond in the chance to do his beloved poetry and earn a living at the same time.
Such were the “silent years” of Poe. When one remembers Tennyson's seven years in his cloister garden, meditating the immortal lyrics of “In Memoriam,” and Poe in his garret writing “The Coliseum” and “A. Gordon Pym,” how little does the strenuous priesthood of letters to-day accomplish!
The world, at least the book-world, knows the wonderful work Poe did in Richmond as editor of the Literary Messenger. The tiny Southern star grew into a constellation of first magnitude. A favorable review in the Messenger meant success for a new book, and reputations were lost and made by its biting satire. The tale of carousals in Richmond is manifestly untrue. Column after column of his personal writings in the Messenger disprove this calumny. His post was faithfully filled and copy turned out with tremendous rapidity. His erratic nature must have sorely tried kindly A. M. White, the chief editor. Finally the inevitable occurred, and Mr. White and he quarreled. Poe was hard to deal with, for few understood him.
But Poe was not dismissed from the Literary Messenger. He left entirely of his own volition, driven from his haven of peace by the insistent call of fate and the murmuring ethereal voices that sang in his brain until they maddened him, until the fair temple of his senses was given over to them. On he wandered, an exile from his kind, the pariah of letters, the stone which the builders refused, but which has become the cornerstone of American literature.
New York was the next way station in the poet's mad career. Thither his reputation had already preceded him, and he was made assistant editor of the New York Review. It was a new publication, and under the direction of Poe it shone brightly in the galaxy of literary stars. Reviews, relentless and unsparing, discovered the real literati of the day. Enemies flourished about him. Poe did not notice them; he had his work to do, and he did it. The truth was to be told, and he fearlessly portrayed the type of literary timber prevalent at that day in New York.
The Poe home in New York was on Carmine Street. Those early New York days were happy ones, but happiness is ever a transient guest, and clouds soon arose. Writers, inferior to Poe, and yet with more business acumen, secured the literary plums and left him to do the hack work. It was but fate, for history shows that the mediocre do the work of the gifted while they disdainfully do mediocre work. Poe chafed under this rule. A hearing was what he wanted. He yearned to give of his best. The injustice burned into his soul. Tuned to the sweetest and the eternal songs, was he to be driven to hack work, as a slave to his galley? No wonder it maddened him, sensitive as he was; that it tortured his delicate nature, which was diseased with its own glory, poisoned with hatred of evil and the ugly, mad, too, with the drear, the beautiful, the aweosome pathos and the mysterious attraction of death, with the grave and this world of shadows, this dreamland of children. He knew that men are but play-things of fate, children, mere chessmen on the board of eternity, to be pushed here and there, or taken off, as the fanciful will of the Master-Player directs.
So Philadelphia was the next step in 1838. Poe had heard that literary work was at a premium there. Driven by the irresistible Wanderlust, on he marched with wife, mother-in-law, and baggage. He soon found work on Graham's Magazine, a stilted periodical of the Godey's Lady's Book type. It was the way of manhood Poe was traveling then. God help him, for he still had the heart of a child, and the world does not easily forgive that. It is the crime unpardonable. The Master said, "Become as little children," and by this sweet theology the transgressions of Poe were partially redeemed, because he kept to the last a child's heart, kept the child-wonder of the why and wherefore of life.
Almost six years were passed in the City of Brotherly Love, and then New York again drew the poet. For a short time he lived on Eighty-fourth Street, and then moved to Fordham. The cottage was small, but flowers grew about it, and birds and the music of wild things, with domestic peace and happiness where there. What more could a poet want. In 1845 “The Raven” began its immortal plaint, its eternal song of “Nevermore." It was signed with a pseudonym, but gradually its author became known.
Then floods of praise swept over the deserts of unappreciation. Byron-like, Poe awoke from oblivion to find himself famous. The world repeated the questions Poe’s “Raven” asked and questioned, “Who is this Poe, a new prophet of the world of poesy?”
Meanwhile Poe knelt by a dying wife. His ears were sealed to the cheering multitudes outside, he heard only the death-rattle in Virginia's throat. What were the praises of wolves who yesterday had clamored to devour him? What the smiles of friends too shortsighted to see he needed bread rather than praises? She was dying, his Annabel Lee, his child-love, his Virginia. The world was forgotten as he knelt there. How the memory of his own words stung him—“The most exquisite theme of poesy is a beautiful woman in death!”. In his life-tragedy this master poem was to be sung.
Poe rebelled. It was oversweet. He longed for the husks of life with her, not the death-poem of love and beauty without her. Life to him then was only Virginia, but the fates, who make men mad to stamp them great, were inexorable. She died. Fate ordained for Poe that all he loved should leave him, that by his art he should lift himself to the heights of heaven where they were. Her death was on January 30, 1847, and her last smile was for Edgar, her poet and prince.
After her death the drinking so widely published began. To drown grief in wine, writing poetry madly the while, was his one aim. Again and again, in the two short years of life left to him, Edgar Poe returned to Baltimore. The city had a mystic attraction, and for days he would wander about it, hoping there to find renewed peace and joy. On one of these Baltimore visits he wrote the world-famous poem, “The Bells.” Perhaps Mrs. Houghten had inspired him with the germ of the poem in New York, but the house where it was written in Baltimore still stands, a mute testimony of its Baltimore birth. Tradition treasures this story of “The Bells”: One winter night Poe had been to the public library and was walking home down Saint Paul's Street. It was snowy, and sleigh-bells made merry music. Their lilt and swing got into his brain, and he searched his pockets for pencil and paper. He had none. Stores were closed, and meanwhile exquisite phrases were being lost. He rushed up the steps of Judge A. E. Giles's residence, and rang the bell.
The judge himself opened the door, and Poe requested paper and ink. The judge saw that he was a gentleman, invited him into the library, and courteously withdrew. After a time he looked in after his strange guest, only to find him gone; but there, lying on the table, were the first three stanzas of “The Bells,” which the judge afterward had framed and hung in his office.
Another Baltimore haunt of Poe's was the oyster-shop of “Mother” Meagher's on Pratt Street near Hollingsford, where the prize-story, “The Gold Bug,” was written on top of an oyster-barrel, with the noise of the shop about him. Poe was a favorite of the old Irishwoman's, and he would often compose sonnets and couplets for her, mostly on topical subjects. Never poet, unless it was François Villon, had stranger writing-table or office. It is to be feared that some of his sublime work was lost in the quaint shop of the gay Irish widow, who was kind to the poet in her rough, ignorant way.
The last scene of Poe's life, as well as the first, was set in Baltimore. It is a scene of mystery, and few real authentic details of itare known. This much is clear, however: On the night of October 4, 1849, Edgar Allan Poe arrived in Baltimore from Richmond. He was going North to be married, and was last seen to alight from the Richmond train in Baltimore and go into a near-by saloon. What happened after that, in brief, was this: His drink was drugged under direction of a gang of plug-uglies and he was voted about the city next day in the elections as a repeater while still drugged. The plug-uglies were members of a secret political organization, and their lips were sealed. But a certain Passano of that society, in after years said that Edgar Poe was kept in his coop that night.
After the plug-uglies had finished with the unfortunate man he was thrown carelessly into the street, left to die if he willed. There, as it chanced, one of Poe's own relatives found him lying under the steps of the old Baltimore Museum, at the corner of Baltimore and Calvert streets, in what appeared to be a drunken stupor. It was election night, and his first thought was that the indulgence of the day had overcome the man. Pity for his condition caused him to look closer when, to his horror, he saw it was his cousin Edgar. A carriage was summoned, and Edgar was taken to the Washington University Hospital, now the Church Home on North Broadway. For three days the doctors worked over him, but he never recovered sufficiently to give the details of his dreadful plight.
The case was diagnosed as blood poisoning and exposure, combined with a weak heart. It proved fatal. On Sunday morning, October 7, 1849, as the Angelus was ringing over the city, the soul of Edgar Poe passed, with the music of the bells, out into the surging sea of death. Followed to the end by attendant destiny, his last words have been reported as, “Would to God some one would blow my damned brains out,” to be followed a moment later by the prayer, “Lord, have mercy on my poor soul.”
The following day a little funeral train went through the city of Baltimore. Few turned to gaze, yet it was the Monument City's most gifted son going to a long rest. Not a bell tolled for him, except perhaps those bells of fancy he had immortalized. Reaching Westminster Churchyard, where his ancestors were buried, he was placed in an open grave by the side of David Poe, his grandfather. The committal service was read by Rev. William Clemm, a distant relative of Virginia's. He was followed to the grave by Mrs. Clemm and a few classmates, who in sorrow left him to his poet’s rest.
What more is there to be said? Death has rung down the curtain and closed the book. When the Poe monument, the funds for which were raised by a band of Baltimore women, was dedicated in 1875, the poet's remains, with those of his wife and Mrs. Clemm, were reinterred beneath it. His monument stands in Westminster Churchyard. This is well. He sleeps better with those who loved him, in the city of his birth.
The words Tennyson said of Poe are worthy to be repeated: “How can so strange and fine a genius and so sad a life be expressed and compressed into one line? Would it not be better to say of him simply, ‘Requiescat in pace’?”
Well said, sweet English song-bird. That is all that does remain for us, to pray that he may rest in peace in Baltimore, the city of his heart.