Edgar Allan Poe

By Robert Chambers

On this day in 1849, Edgar Allan Poe died in Baltimore, Maryland.

This text is an excerpt from the entry for October 7th from Robert Chambers’ Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, including Anecdote, Blog, and History, Curiosities of Literature and Oddities of Human Life and Character. This book was first published in 1864 with additional editions published later. It is now in the public domain. Amos Staff has added images, links, and notes.

Edgar Allan Poe, an eccentric American poet, was born at Baltimore, January 1811. It may seem absurd to say that he belonged by birth to the aristocracy, in a country where no aristocracy is recognised. Still, it is a fact that Poe was an aristocrat, and it is also true, that no people are more proud of the advantages of birth and breeding than citizens of the United States, especially those who belong to the southern division of those states. Poe was a Southerner in manners and feelings, as well as by birth [1]; and there is little doubt, that the greater part of the infamy which was heaped upon him after his death, was owing to the fact that as a man of taste he despised, and, as an aristocrat treated with contempt a tradesman in literature, who lived by making books of biographies, generally laudatory of living literary persons. This man took his revenge when the opportunity came, as any one may kick a dead lion with impunity. [2] Many have echoed, no doubt honestly, the evil fame which was made for the poor poet by this man, whom he had despised and insulted during his life. [3]

Poe’s grandfather was a soldier in the war of the American revolution, and a friend of Lafayette. [4] His father was a student at law. He fell in love with an English actress, named Arnold, and married her. They both died young, and at nearly the same time, leaving three orphan children. Edgar was adopted and educated by John Allan, a wealthy merchant of Virginia. At the early age of five years he was brought to England, and was sent to school near London, till he was ten years old.

Poe’s life was a series of eccentric adventures. The reason of this is to be found in his temperament, or physical constitution. [5] He lived, from the cradle to the grave, on the verge of madness, when he was not absolutely mad. [6] A half-glass of wine intoxicated him to insanity. His brain was large, almost to deformity, in the region where phrenologists place the imaginative faculties [7]. Under the influence of slight stimulus, such as would have been inappreciable by a person otherwise constituted, Poe was led on to commit acts, the consequences of which were often distressing, and might at any moment have been fatal, as was finally the case.

At an early age he entered college at Charlottesville, Virginia, but he was expelled for dissipation. He also entered the military school at West Point, New York, but he left in a year. During the excitement in favour of the independence of Greece, he started for that country; but he was next found at St. Petersburg, where he fell into distress, as was his fortune almost everywhere, and some friends sent him home.

Soon after his return, he published a volume of poems, entitled Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems. [1829] These were written from the age of sixteen to eighteen years.

At one time he enlisted as a soldier, but he soon deserted. He had much partiality for active exercise, and very little for discipline, though he was exceedingly methodical and orderly in all the details of life. He was remarkable for aquatic and gymnastic performances. He was able to leap further than most men, and he once swam seven miles and a half against the tide.

In 1835, Poe was employed to write for the Southern Literary Messenger, and about this time he married his cousin, Virginia Clemm, who, at the time of their union, was about fourteen years old. After this, we find him engaged on Benton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, at two pounds a week. This engagement was of brief continuance, and he next was connected with Graham’s Magazine, and wrote Some Strange Stories, nearly all of which seem tinged with a sort of semi-insanity. [8] We next find him engaged with Mr. Briggs, in establishing the Broadway Journal. This was soon discontinued. About 1844, he wrote The Raven, which has enjoyed a more extended reputation than any other production of his pen.

After the appearance of the Raven in trans-atlantic periodicals, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote to Poe, that ‘The Raven had excited a fit horror in England.’ He was delighted with the compliment. Indeed this sort of impression appeared to be an object of ambition with him. Poe always seemed to consider The Raven as his master-piece, and he was fond of reciting it in company, in a sort of sing song tone, which was very unpleasant to some.

It would be difficult to calculate the amount of fame that Poe might have earned, if he could have lived, and written one year in undisturbed sanity. After the fame of The Raven had brought his name upon every lip, he was invited to lecture before the Boston Athenaeum—the highest honour the Athens of America could bestow on the poet. He went before an elegant and most intellectual Boston audience, and instead of giving a lecture, he repeated a juvenile poem that had been published! His friends had no doubt of the cause, or occasion of this strange proceeding, but the audience were indignant. Poe declared that ‘it was an intentional insult to the genius of the frog pond, a small pond on Boston Common ‘a further evidence of the madness that he often induced, by taking stimulants, though he knew his fearful liability. After this, his irregularities became so much the rule of his life, that Mrs. Clemm, who acted the part of a good genius to the poet and his young wife, her daughter, took a cottage at Fordham, near New York.

Here she devoted herself to the care of both with tender and unceasing assiduity. Mrs. Poe was dying of consumption. Poe was plunged in a deep melancholy, which did not admit of his writing anything. They were in a state of almost utter destitution, and the malady of the poet was constantly aggravated by witnessing the suffering of his fading, lily-like wife, to whom he was tenderly attached. Friends came to their help the moment their condition was known, and it was subsequently brought against Poe, that he took a bribe at this time for a favourable review, which he afterwards wrote of a miserable book of poems. In speaking of this violation of his literary conscience, after he had somewhat recovered the tone of his mind, he said, ‘ The author gave me a hundred dollars, when my poor Virginia was dying, and we were starving, and required me to write a review of that book. What could I do?’

Written by Virginia Clemm Poe to her husband, Edgar Allan. Virginia was a writer as well. (Image: Wikimedia)

Let those who have judged him harshly for this, and other sins of his life, place themselves in his condition. When sober and sane, Poe was a gentleman of pure taste and elegant manners, whose conversation was always interesting, and often instructive. He had great personal beauty, and the aristocratic manner and bearing of a southern gentleman, and a descendant of the Cavaliers. In 1848, Poe published Eureka, which he first gave as a lecture. It is impossible to give a characteristic description of this and other literary performances by Poe. The same sort of extravagance pervades all, and those who knew him most intimately, and were best qualified to judge, believed that he lived and wrote with a shade of madness in all that he did—and yet few men were more methodical and orderly in their habits than Poe. His handwriting was delicately beautiful, and at the same time clear and plain. His study was the perfection of order and neatness. But his fearful proclivities might change all this in a moment. The world cannot believe that half a glass of wine could make a man lose all self-control, and hurry him on to madness, and its fearful consequences. But there is abundant proof that this was true of Poe.

After the death of his wife [9], Poe gradually recovered from the deep melancholy which had palsied all his mental power during the last portion of her life, and engaged again in literary occupation. Subsequently, he entered into correspondence with a lady of fine genius and high position, with a view to marriage. [10] But here, again, his destiny was against him. The marriage was broken off, and soon after Poe died of delirium tremens, [11] at the age of thirty-eight; that critical period at which it seems natural for an irregular life, combined with excessive brain-work, to bring its victims to an end.

Notes:

(1) Poe was actually born in Boston but often declared himself a “Virginia gentleman.” He claimed Baltimore, Maryland as his birthplace.

(2) In general, yes, one may kick a dead lion with impunity. Um, from the lion. We do not recommend doing this.

(3) Poe’s work as a literary critic is well-known. He was acerbic, unrelenting, astute, unforgiving. Many of his works as a critic are available for free online. A visit to a local library can grant further copies.

(4) David Poe, Senior (1743-1816), Quartermaster and sponsor of clothing and supplies during the American Revolutionary War. The Marquis de Lafayette called him “General.” Poe paid $500 to clothe Lafayette’s troops.

(5) His “physical constitution” as an adult included probable bipolar-manic depressive disorder and addiction to alcohol. Poe was an orphan with literary leanings, living with a wealthy merchant, and then trying to find his way in the world. It seems, uh, a gross exaggeration to pin Poe’s life and problems all on his “physical constitution.”

(6) The National Institutes of Health, quoting the DSM-V, Table 11, notes many things about manic phases in a patient with a bipolar disorder. While manic phases can be volatile, they are not generally hallucinogenic, paranoid, delusional, or “mad.”

(7) Poe himself categorized his forehead as “broad” and was concerned with phrenology in both his fiction and his literary criticism. See Carroll Laverty, Chapter 4, Science and Pseudo-Science in the Writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Phrenology was mostly discredited, scientifically, by the 1840s. Its legacy lasted a bit longer.

(8) In the eye of the beholder, man.

(9) 1847.

(10) Sarah Helen Whitman. See also: The Women Who (Riverdale Press)

(11) About Poe’s death: Smithsonian and Poe Museum.

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