The Last Days of Edgar Allan Poe

by Edwin Watts Chubb

There has been great difference of opinion concerning the genius of Poe. His life also has been the subject of much controversy. By some Poe is painted as a fiend incarnate, by others as a man more sinned against than sinning. When Howells visited Emerson he was surprised to hear the Concord Sage refer to Poe as the "jingle man," but then Emerson himself had been treated rather contemptuously by Poe, and that, together with Emerson's lack of appreciation of melody, may account for the "jingle man" expression.

It is not strange that Poe has been the subject of bitter criticism. He himself was bitter and unjust in his criticisms of others. He once wrote: "Bryant is not all a fool. Mr. Willis is not quite an ass. Mr. Longfellow will steal, but, perhaps, he cannot help it." The man who will write like that must expect similar vituperation in return. To have friends, a man must be friendly. Poe was lacking in those warm human sympathies that attract our fellow-men. The human touch lacking in his art is also lacking in his life. "Except the wife who idolized him," writes Mr. Woodberry in his excellent Life of Poe, "and the mother who cared for him, no one touched his heart in the years of his manhood, and at no time was love so strong in him as to rule his life; as he was self-indulgent, he was self-absorbed, and outside of his family no kind act, no noble affection, no generous sacrifice is recorded of him."

In Scribner's Magazine, 1878, Mrs. Susan T. Weiss in writing of the Last Days of Edgar Allan Poe, one of the most accurate accounts of this period of the poet's life, gives us a more pleasing impression. We quote the following extracts:

It was a day or two after his arrival that Poe, accompanied by his sister, called on us.... The remembrance of that first meeting with the poet is still as vividly impressed upon my mind as though it had been but yesterday. A shy and dreamy girl, scarcely more than a child, I had all my life taken an interest in those strange stories and poems of Edgar Poe; and now, with my old childish impression of their author scarcely worn off, I regarded the meeting with an eager, yet shrinking anticipation. As I entered the parlor, Poe was seated near the window, quietly conversing. His attitude was easy and graceful, with one arm lightly resting on the back of his chair. His dark curling hair was thrown back from his broad forehead—a style in which he habitually wore it. At sight of him, the impression produced upon me was of a refined, highbred, and chivalrous gentleman. I use this word "chivalrous" as exactly descriptive of something in his whole personnel, distinct from either polish or high-breeding, and which, though instantly apparent, was yet an effect too subtle to be described. He rose on my entrance, and, other visitors being present, stood with one hand on the back of his chair, awaiting my greeting. So dignified was his manner, so reserved his expression, that I experienced an involuntary recoil, until I turned to him and saw his eyes suddenly brighten as I offered my hand; a barrier seemed to melt between us, and I felt that we were no longer strangers....

While upon this subject, I venture, though with great hesitation, to say a word in relation to Poe's own marriage with his cousin, Virginia Clemm. I am aware that there exists with the public but one view of this union, and that so lovely and touching in itself, that to mar the picture with even a shadow inspires almost a feeling of remorse. Yet since in the biography of a distinguished man of genius truth is above all things desirable, and since in this instance the facts do not redound to the discredit of any party concerned, I may be allowed to state what I have been assured is truth.

Poets are proverbial for uncongenial marriages, and to this Poe can scarcely be classed as an exception. From the time when as a youth of nineteen he became a tutor to his sweet and gentle little cousin of six years old, he loved her with the protective tenderness of an elder brother. As years passed he became the subject of successive fancies or passions for various charming women; but she gradually budding into early womanhood experienced but one attachment—an absorbing devotion to her handsome, talented, and fascinating cousin. So intense was this passion that her health and spirits became seriously affected, and her mother, aroused to painful solicitude, spoke to Edgar about it. This was just as he was preparing to leave her house, which had been for some years his home, and enter the world of business. The idea of this separation was insupportable to Virginia. The result was that Poe, at that time a young man of twenty-eight, married his little, penniless, and delicate child-cousin of fourteen or fifteen, and thus unselfishly secured her own and her mother's happiness. In his wife he had ever the most tender and devoted of companions; but it was his own declaration that he ever missed in her a certain intellectual and spiritual sympathy necessary to perfect happiness in such an union.... He was never a deliberately unkind husband, and toward the close of Mrs. Poe's life he was assiduous in his tender care and attention. Yet his own declaration to an intimate friend of his youth was that his marriage "had not been a congenial one;" and I repeatedly heard the match ascribed to Mrs. Clemm, by those who were well acquainted with the family and the circumstances. In thus alluding to a subject so delicate, I have not lightly done so, or unadvisedly made a statement which seems refuted by the testimony of so many who have written of the "passionate idolatry" with which the poet regarded his wife. I have heard the subject often and freely discussed by Poe's most intimate friends, including his sisters, and upon this authority I speak. Lovely in person, sweet and gentle in disposition, his young wife deserved, doubtless, all the love that it was in his nature to bestow. Of his unvarying filial affection for Mrs. Clemm, and of her almost angelic devotion to himself and his interests, there can be no question.

Once in discussing The Raven, Poe observed that he had never heard it correctly delivered by even the best readers—that is, not as he desired that it should be read. That evening, a number of visitors being present, he was requested to recite the poem, and complied. His impressive delivery held the company spell-bound, but in the midst of it, I, happening to glance toward the open window above the level roof of the greenhouse, beheld a group of sable faces the whites of whose eyes shone in strong relief against the surrounding darkness. These were a number of our family servants, who having heard much talk about "Mr. Poe, the poet," and having but an imperfect idea of what a poet was, had requested permission of my brother to witness the recital. As the speaker became more impassioned and excited, more conspicuous grew the circle of white eyes, until when at length he turned suddenly toward the window, and, extending his arm, cried, with awful vehemence, "Get thee back into the tempest, and the night's Plutonian shore!" there was a sudden disappearance of the sable visages, a scuttling of feet, and the gallery audience was gone. Ludicrous as was the incident, the final touch was given when at that moment Miss Poe, who was an extraordinary character in her way, sleepily entered the room, and with a dull and drowsy deliberation seated herself on her brother's knee. He had subsided from his excitement into a gloomy despair, and now, fixing his eyes upon his sister, he concluded:

And the raven never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting,
 On the pallid bust of Pallas, just above my chamber door;
And its eyes have all the seeming of a demon that is dreaming—

The effect was irresistible; and as the final "nevermore" was solemnly uttered the half-suppressed titter of two very young persons in a corner was responded to by a general laugh. Poe remarked quietly that on his next delivery of a public lecture "he would take Rose along, to act the part of the raven, in which she seemed born to excel." ...

It is with feelings of deep sadness, even after the lapse of so many years, that I approach the close of these reminiscences.

Poe one day told me that it was necessary that he should go to New York. He must make certain preparations for establishing his magazine, the Stylus, but he should in less than two weeks return to Richmond, where he proposed henceforth to reside. He looked forward to this arrangement with great pleasure. "I mean to turn over a new leaf; I shall begin to lead a new life," he said, confidently. He had often spoken to me of his books,—"few, but recherché,"—and he now proposed to send certain of these by express, for my perusal. "You must annotate them extensively," he said. "A book wherein the minds of the author and the reader are thus brought in contact is to me a hundredfold increased in interest. It is like flint and steel." One of the books which he desired me to read was Mrs. Browning's poems, and another one of Hawthorne's works. I remember his saying of the latter that he was "indisputably the best prose writer in America;" that "Irving and the rest were mere commonplace beside him;" and that "there was more inspiration of true genius in Hawthorne's prose than in all Longfellow's poetry." This may serve to give an idea of his own opinion of what constitutes genius, though some of Longfellow's poems he pronounced "perfect of their kind."

The evening of the day previous to that appointed for his departure from Richmond, Poe spent at my mother's. He declined to enter the parlors, where a number of visitors were assembled, saying he preferred the more quiet sitting-room; and here I had a long and almost uninterrupted conversation with him. He spoke of his future, seeming to anticipate it with an eager delight, like that of youth. He declared that the last few weeks in the society of his old and new friends had been the happiest that he had known for many years, and that when he again left New York he should there leave behind all the trouble and vexation of his past life....

In speaking of his own writings Poe expressed his conviction that he had written his best poems, but that in prose he might yet surpass what he had already accomplished....

He was the last of the party to leave the house. We were standing on the portico, and after going a few steps he paused, turned, and again lifted his hat, in a last adieu. At the moment, a brilliant meteor appeared in the sky directly over his head, and vanished in the east. We commented laughingly upon the incident; but I remembered it sadly afterward.

That night he spent at Duncan's lodge; and as his friend said, sat late at his window, meditatively smoking, and seemingly disinclined for conversation. On the following morning he went into the city, accompanied by his friends Dr. Gibbon Carter and Dr. Mackenzie. The day was passed with them and others of his intimate friends. Late in the evening he entered the office of Dr. John Carter, and spent an hour in looking over the day's papers; then taking Dr. Carter's cane he went out, remarking that he would step across to Saddler's (a fashionable restaurant) and get supper. From the circumstance of his taking the cane, leaving his own in its place, it is probable that he had intended to return; but at the restaurant he met with some acquaintances who detained him until late, and then accompanied him to the Baltimore boat. According to their account he was quite sober and cheerful to the last, remarking, as he took leave of them, that he would soon be in Richmond again.

... Three days after, a friend came to me with the day's issue of the Richmond Dispatch. Without a word she pointed to a particular paragraph, where I read,—"Death of Edgar A. Poe, in Baltimore."

Poe had made himself popular in Richmond, people had become interested in him, and his death cast a universal gloom over the city. His old friends, and even those more recently formed, and whom he had strangely attached to himself, deeply regretted him. Mr. Sully came to consult with me about a picture of The Raven which he intended to make; and in the course of the conversation expressed himself in regard to his lost friend with a warmth of feeling and appreciation not usual to him. The two had been schoolmates; and the artist said: "Poe was one of the most warm-hearted and generous of men. In his youth and prosperity, when admired and looked up to by all his companions, he invariably stood by me and took my part. I was a dull boy at learning, and Edgar never grudged time or pains in assisting me." In further speaking, he said, with a decision and earnestness which impressed me, "It was Mr. Allan's cruelty in casting him upon the world, a beggar, which ruined Poe. Some who had envied him took advantage of his change of fortune to slight and insult him. He was sensitive and proud, and felt the change keenly. It was this which embittered him. By nature no person was less inclined to reserve or bitterness, and as a boy he was frank and generous to a fault." In speaking of his poems, Mr. Sully remarked: "He has an eye for dramatic, but not for scenic or artistic effect. Except in The Raven, I can nowhere in his poems find a subject for a picture."

In closing these reminiscences, I may be allowed to make a few remarks founded upon my actual personal knowledge of Poe, in at least the phase of character in which he appeared to me. What he may have been to his ordinary associates, or to the world at large, I do not know; and in the picture presented to us by Dr. Griswold,—half maniac, half demon,—I confess, I cannot recognize a trait of the gentle, grateful, warm-hearted man whom I saw amid his friends,—his careworn face all aglow with generous feeling in the kindness and appreciation to which he was so little accustomed. His faults were sufficiently apparent; but for these a more than ordinary allowance should be made, in consideration of the unfavorable influences surrounding him from his very birth. He was ever the sport of an adverse fortune. Born in penury, reared in affluence, treated at one time with pernicious indulgence and then literally turned into the streets, a beggar and an outcast, deserted by those who had formerly courted him, maliciously calumniated, smarting always under a sense of wrong and injustice,—what wonder that his bright, warm, and naturally generous and genial nature should have become embittered? What wonder that his keenly sensitive and susceptible poetic temperament should have become jarred, out of tune, and into harsh discord with himself and mankind? Let the just and the generous pause before they judge; and upon their lips the breath of condemnation will soften into a sigh of sympathy and regret.