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Death of Edgar A. Poe

BY N. P. WILLIS


THE ancient fable of two antagonistic spirits imprisoned in one body,
equally powerful and having the complete mastery by turns-of one man,
that is to say, inhabited by both a devil and an angel seems to have
been realized, if all we hear is true, in the character of the
extraordinary man whose name we have written above. Our own
impression of the nature of Edgar A. Poe, differs in some important
degree, however, from that which has been generally conveyed in the
notices of his death. Let us, before telling what we personally know
of him, copy a graphic and highly finished portraiture, from the pen
of Dr. Rufus W. Griswold, which appeared in a recent number of the
"Tribune:"{*1}

"Edgar Allen Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore on Sunday, October
7th. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by
it. The poet was known, personally or by reputation, in all this
country; he had readers in England and in several of the states of
Continental Europe; but he had few or no friends; and the regrets for
his death will be suggested principally by the consideration that in
him literary art has lost one of its most brilliant but erratic stars.

"His conversation was at times almost supramortal in its eloquence.
His voice was modulated with astonishing skill, and his large and
variably expressive eyes looked repose or shot fiery tumult into
theirs who listened, while his own face glowed, or was changeless in
pallor, as his imagination quickened his blood or drew it back frozen
to his heart. His imagery was from the worlds which no mortals can
see but with the vision of genius. Suddenly starting from a
proposition, exactly and sharply defined, in terms of utmost
simplicity and clearness, he rejected the forms of customary logic,
and by a crystalline process of accretion, built up his ocular
demonstrations in forms of gloomiest and ghastliest grandeur, or in
those of the most airy and delicious beauty, so minutely and
distinctly, yet so rapidly, that the attention which was yielded to
him was chained till it stood among his wonderful creations, till he
himself dissolved the spell, and brought his hearers back to common
and base existence, by vulgar fancies or exhibitions of the ignoblest
passion.

"He was at all times a dreamer-dwelling in ideal realms-in heaven or
hell-peopled with the creatures and the accidents of his brain. He
walked-the streets, in madness or melancholy, with lips moving in
indistinct curses, or with eyes upturned in passionate prayer (never
for himself, for he felt, or professed to feel, that he was already
damned, but) for their happiness who at the moment were objects of
his idolatry; or with his glances introverted to a heart gnawed with
anguish, and with a face shrouded in gloom, he would brave the
wildest storms, and all night, with drenched garments and arms
beating the winds and rains, would speak as if the spirits that at
such times only could be evoked by him from the Aidenn, close by
whose portals his disturbed soul sought to forget the ills to which
his constitution subjected him---close by the Aidenn where were those
he loved-the Aidenn which he might never see, but in fitful glimpses,
as its gates opened to receive the less fiery and more happy natures
whose destiny to sin did not involve the doom of death.

"He seemed, except when some fitful pursuit subjugated his will and
engrossed his faculties, always to bear the memory of some
controlling sorrow. The remarkable poem of 'The Raven' was probably
much more nearly than has been supposed, even by those who were very
intimate with him, a reflection and an echo of his own history. _He_
was that bird's

" ' unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore--
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of 'Never-never more.'


"Every genuine author in a greater or less degree leaves in his
works, whatever their design, traces of his personal character:
elements of his immortal being, in which the individual survives the
person. While we read the pages of the 'Fall of the House of Usher,'
or of 'Mesmeric Revelations,' we see in the solemn and stately gloom
which invests one, and in the subtle metaphysical analysis of both,
indications of the idiosyncrasies of what was most remarkable and
peculiar in the author's intellectual nature. But we see here only
the better phases of his nature, only the symbols of his juster
action, for his harsh experience had deprived him of all faith in man
or woman. He had made up his mind upon the numberless complexities of
the social world, and the whole system with him was an imposture.
This conviction gave a direction to his shrewd and naturally
unamiable character. Still, though he regarded society as composed
altogether of villains, the sharpness of his intellect was not of
that kind which enabled him to cope with villany, while it
continually caused him by overshots to fail of the success of
honesty. He was in many respects like Francis Vivian in Bulwer's
novel of 'The Caxtons.' Passion, in him, comprehended -many of the
worst emotions which militate against human happiness. You could not
contradict him, but you raised quick choler; you could not speak of
wealth, but his cheek paled with gnawing envy. The astonishing
natural advantages of this poor boy--his beauty, his readiness, the
daring spirit that breathed around him like a fiery atmosphere--had
raised his constitutional self-confidence into an arrogance that
turned his very claims to admiration into prejudices against him.
Irascible, envious--bad enough, but not the worst, for these salient
angles were all varnished over with a cold, repellant cynicism, his
passions vented themselves in sneers. There seemed to him no moral
susceptibility; and, what was more remarkable in a proud nature,
little or nothing of the true point of honor. He had, to a morbid
excess, that, desire to rise which is vulgarly called ambition, but
no wish for the esteem or the love of his species; only the hard wish
to succeed-not shine, not serve -succeed, that he might have the
right to despise a world which galled his self-conceit.

"We have suggested the influence of his aims and vicissitudes upon
his literature. It was more conspicuous in his later than in his
earlier writings. Nearly all that he wrote in the last two or three
years-including much of his best poetry-was in some sense
biographical; in draperies of his imagination, those who had taken
the trouble to trace his steps, could perceive, but slightly
concealed, the figure of himself."

Apropos of the disparaging portion of the above well-written sketch,
let us truthfully say:

Some four or five years since, when editing a daily paper in this
city, Mr. Poe was employed by us, for several months, as critic and
sub-editor. This was our first personal acquaintance with him. He
resided with his wife and mother at Fordham, a few miles out of town,
but was at his desk in the office, from nine in the morning till the
evening paper went to press. With the highest admiration for his
genius, and a willingness to let it atone for more than ordinary
irregularity, we were led by common report to expect a very
capricious attention to his duties, and occasionally a scene of
violence and difficulty. Time went on, however, and he was invariably
punctual and industrious. With his pale, beautiful, and intellectual
face, as a reminder of what genius was in him, it was impossible, of
course, not to treat him always with deferential courtesy, and, to
our occasional request that he would not probe too deep in a
criticism, or that he would erase a passage colored too highly with
his resentments against society and mankind, he readily and
courteously assented-far more yielding than most men, we thought, on
points so excusably sensitive. With a prospect of taking the lead in
another periodical, he, at last, voluntarily gave up his employment
with us, and, through all this considerable period, we had seen but
one presentment of the man-a quiet, patient, industrious, and most
gentlemanly person, commanding the utmost respect and good feeling by
his unvarying deportment and ability.

Residing as he did in the country, we never met Mr. Poe in hours of
leisure; but he frequently called on us afterward at our place of
business, and we met him often in the street-invariably the same sad
mannered, winning and refined gentleman, such as we had always known
him. It was by rumor only, up to the day of his death, that we knew
of any other development of manner or character. We heard, from one
who knew him well (what should be stated in all mention of his
lamentable irregularities), that, with a single glass of wine, his
whole nature was reversed, the demon became uppermost, and, though
none of the usual signs of intoxication were visible, his will was
palpably insane. Possessing his reasoning faculties in excited
activity, at such times, and seeking his acquaintances with his
wonted look and memory, he easily seemed personating only another
phase of his natural character, and was accused, accordingly, of
insulting arrogance and bad-heartedness. In this reversed character,
we repeat, it was never our chance to see him. We know it from
hearsay, and we mention it in connection with this sad infirmity of
physical constitution; which puts it upon very nearly the ground of a
temporary and almost irresponsible insanity.

The arrogance, vanity, and depravity of heart, of which Mr. Poe was
generally accused, seem to us referable altogether to this reversed
phase of his character. Under that degree of intoxication which only
acted upon him by demonizing his sense of truth and right, he
doubtless said and did much that was wholly irreconcilable with his
better nature; but, when himself, and as we knew him only, his
modesty and unaffected humility, as to his own deservings, were a
constant charm to his character. His letters, of which the constant
application for autographs has taken from us, we are sorry to
confess, the greater portion, exhibited this quality very strongly.
In one of the carelessly written notes of which we chance still to
retain possession, for instance, he speaks of "The Raven"--that
extraordinary poem which electrified the world of imaginative
readers, and has become the type of a school of poetry of its
own-and, in evident earnest, attributes its success to the few words
of commendation with which we had prefaced it in this paper. -It will
throw light on his sane character to give a literal copy of the note:

"FORDHAM, April 20, 1849


"My DEAR WILLIS--The poem which I inclose, and which I am so vain as
to hope you will like, in some respects, has been just published in a
paper for which sheer necessity compels me to write, now and then. It
pays well as times go-but unquestionably it ought to pay ten prices;
for whatever I send it I feel I am consigning to the tomb of the
Capulets. The verses accompanying this, may I beg you to take out of
the tomb, and bring them to light in the 'Home journal?' If you can
oblige me so far as to copy them, I do not think it will be necessary
to say 'From the ----, that would be too bad; and, perhaps, 'From a
late ---- paper,' would do.

"I have not forgotten how a 'good word in season' from you made 'The
Raven,' and made 'Ulalume' (which by-the-way, people have done me the
honor of attributing to you), therefore, I would ask you (if I dared)
to say something of these lines if they please you.

"Truly yours ever,

"EDGAR A. POE."


In double proof of his earnest disposition to do the best for
himself, and of the trustful and grateful nature which has been
denied him, we give another of the only three of his notes which we
chance to retain :

"FORDHAM, January 22, 1848.


"My DEAR MR. WILLIS-I am about to make an effort at re-establishing
myself in the literary world, and _feel _that I may depend upon your
aid.

"My general aim is to start a Magazine, to be called 'The Stylus,'
but it would be useless to me, even when established, if not entirely
out of the control of a publisher. I mean, therefore, to get up a
journal which shall be _my own_ at all points. With this end in view,
I must get a list of at least five hundred subscribers to begin with;
nearly two hundred I have already. I propose, however, to go South
and West, among my personal and literary friends--old college and
West Point acquaintances -and see what I can do. In order to get the
means of taking the first step, I propose to lecture at the Society
Library, on Thursday, the 3d of February, and, that there may be no
cause of _squabbling_, my subject shall _not be literary _at all. I
have chosen a broad text: 'The Universe.'

"Having thus given you _the facts_ of the case, I leave all the rest
to the suggestions of your own tact and generosity. Gratefully, _most
gratefully,_

_"Your friend always,

"EDGAR A. POE._"


Brief and chance-taken as these letters are, we think they
sufficiently prove the existence of the very qualities denied to Mr.
Poe-humility, willingness to persevere, belief in another's
friendship, and capability of cordial and grateful friendship! Such
he assuredly was when sane. Such only he has invariably seemed to us,
in all we have happened personally to know of him, through a
friendship of five or six years. And so much easier is it to believe
what we have seen and known, than what we hear of only, that we
remember him but with admiration and respect; these descriptions of
him, when morally insane, seeming to us like portraits, painted in
sickness, of a man we have only known in health.

But there is another, more touching, and far more forcible evidence
that there was _goodness _in Edgar A. Poe. To reveal it we are
obliged to venture upon the lifting of the veil which sacredly covers
grief and refinement in poverty; but we think it may be excused, if
so we can brighten the memory of the poet, even were there not a more
needed and immediate service which it may render to the nearest link
broken by his death.

Our first knowledge of Mr. Poe's removal to this city was by a call
which we received from a lady who introduced herself to us as the
mother of his wife. She was in search of employment for him, and she
excused her errand by mentioning that he was ill, that her daughter
was a confirmed invalid, and that their circumstances were such as
compelled her taking it upon herself. The countenance of this lady,
made beautiful and saintly with an evidently complete giving up of
her life to privation and sorrowful tenderness, her gentle and
mournful voice urging its plea, her long-forgotten but habitually and
unconsciously refined manners, and her appealing and yet appreciative
mention of the claims and abilities of her son, disclosed at once the
presence of one of those angels upon earth that women in adversity
can be. It was a hard fate that she was watching over. Mr. Poe wrote
with fastidious difficulty, and in a style too much above the popular
level to be well paid. He was always in pecuniary difficulty, and,
with his sick wife, frequently in want of the merest necessaries of
life. Winter after winter, for years, the most touching sight to us,
in this whole city, has been that tireless minister to genius, thinly
and insufficiently clad, going from office to office with a poem, or
an article on some literary subject, to sell, sometimes simply
pleading in a broken voice that he was ill, and begging for him,
mentioning nothing but that "he was ill," whatever might be the
reason for his writing nothing, and never, amid all her tears and
recitals of distress, suffering one syllable to escape her lips that
could convey a doubt of him, or a complaint, or a lessening of pride
in his genius and good intentions. Her daughter died a year and a
half since, but she did not desert him. She continued his ministering
angel--living with him, caring for him, guarding him against
exposure, and when he was carried away by temptation, amid grief and
the loneliness of feelings unreplied to, and awoke from his self
abandonment prostrated in destitution and suffering, _begging _for
him still. If woman's devotion, born with a first love, and fed with
human passion, hallow its object, as it is allowed to do, what does
not a devotion like this-pure, disinterested and holy as the watch of
an invisible spirit-say for him who inspired it?

We have a letter before us, written by this lady, Mrs. Clemm, on the
morning in which she heard of the death of this object of her
untiring care. It is merely a request that we would call upon her,
but we will copy a few of its words--sacred as its privacy is--to
warrant the truth of the picture we have drawn above, and add force
to the appeal we wish to make for her:

"I have this morning heard of the death of my darling Eddie. . . .
Can you give me any circumstances or particulars? . . . Oh! do not
desert your poor friend in his bitter affliction! . . . Ask -Mr. --
to come, as I must deliver a message to him from my poor Eddie. . . .
I need not ask you to notice his death and to speak well of him. I
know you will. But say what an affectionate son he was to me, his
poor desolate mother. . ."

To hedge round a grave with respect, what choice is there, between
the relinquished wealth and honors of the world, and the story of
such a woman's unrewarded devotion! Risking what we do, in delicacy,
by making it public, we feel--other reasons aside--that it betters
the world to make known that there are such ministrations to its
erring and gifted. What we have said will speak to some hearts. There
are those who will be glad to know how the lamp, whose light of
poetry has beamed on their far-away recognition, was watched over
with care and pain, that they may send to her, who is more darkened
than they by its extinction, some token of their sympathy. She is
destitute and alone. If any, far or near, will send to us what may
aid and cheer her through the remainder of her life, we will joyfully
place it in her bands.

Edgar Allan Poe