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Poe’s Last Visit To Richmond
Hunting an unattainable security, the poet sought his “lost Lenore” and then drifted into the shadows
April 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 3
After the death of Edgar Allan Poe in 1849, 1819 his mother-in-law, Mrs. Clemm, turned to the sale of romance by trying to convince certain ladies that they were the inspirations for Poe’s poems. In actual fact, she knew that “Annabel Lee” had been inspired by her own daughter Virginia, Poe’s wife, and that “To Helen” honored two other people—Poe’s foster mother, Mrs. Frances Allan, and the mother of a boyhood playmate. All three of these women, by now, were dead.
But Mrs. Clemm never nerved herself to brace the woman depicted in “Lenore”—Mrs. Elmira Royster Shelton, who was Poe’s first sweetheart when he was a boy and who represented the final haven when he returned to Richmond at the end of his tormented mortal journey.
For months before he made this final trip back to Richmond, Poe had turned desperately in his thoughts to his “lost Lenore.” This was not entirely a sentimental turning. An exhausted man and the loneliest of earth’s mortals, Poe was groping for security and a home. And the Richmond to which he returned just before his death was the scene of the first psychic disasters of his early, formative years.
At the beginning, Richmond was the environment a dramatist would have chosen to highlight the adventures of a sensitive orphan, different from his fellows and yet longing to belong. It was a society of families; the individual was always subordinate—first to the clan, then to the class. And John Allan, who adopted Poe when Poe became an orphan at three, was a coldly ambitious social climber, who accepted this offspring of theatrical people only to please his childless wife.
Allan had come to Richmond from Scotland in 1811. His successful uncle had already established himself in the community, but despite his uncle’s help and his own shrewdness, Allan never did too well as a merchant, and his finances were fairly well involved until he inherited the bulk of his uncle’s fat estate in 1825. He was a flinty man, lustful and self-righteous.
Mrs. Allan was of softer fiber. Born of gentle people in the Virginia plantation country, she was delicate and warmhearted, and she was among the ladies who charitably administered to Mrs. Poe when the young actress lay dying in a theatrical rooming house in the old Bird-in-Hand section of Richmond. In that. December, Poe was not quite three and, while he could not have remembered his mother physically, he was definitely affected by her loss. Since his father had decamped earlier and Mrs. Poe’s travels as an actress removed her little family from kinspeople, the affectionate child was very close to her.
The orphan transferred this love to the gentle Mrs. Allan, who took him to her home the day after his mother died, and he showed a deep need to regard the Allans as his parents—“Ma” and “Pa,” as he called them. Frances Allan certainly lavished affection on the sweet-natured child as if indeed he were her own son, but it was the man of the house Poe had to please, and in this he failed.
Edgar Poe was, with all the old-fashioned implications of the word, a poet, and very precocious. As throughout his life he had something of the fakir in him, it was his conceit to use unrelated facets of knowledge for purposes of display. This could scarcely have endeared him to the practical-minded merchant. Then, the adolescent Poe let his heart rule when he supported his foster mother during domestic difficulties arising over Allan’s infidelity. Again at seventeen, letting his pride rule, the young poet gave the reluctant “Pa” weapons to use against him when he tried to keep up with the hedonistic pleasures of planters’ sons in Jefferson’s new university, and incurred gambling debts.
Cut off from his foster family’s support and in local disgrace, eighteen-year-old Poe joined the army as a refuge. Two years later, with Mrs. Allan dying, Poe’s piteous letters finally caused Allan to facilitate what amounted to his transfer from an enlisted man’s status to a cadet at West Point. When his foredoomed stay in the military academy ended (Mrs. Allan was dead), Allan refused even to answer Poe’s letters. Poe’s determination to be a son brought on the final act when he visited the home in which he had grown up and was ejected. Shortly afterwards John Allan died, leaving money to his illegitimate children, and that phase of rejection ended for Poe.
It was during this period that he lost “Lenore.” Poe and Elmira Royster had lived near each other in their teens, when they spent the idle afternoons in her parlor with Poe drawing a charming sketch of her while she played the pianoforte and they talked of his poetry. They were secretly engaged when he made his abortive effort at being a college boy. When Elmira Royster’s family discovered that Allan had disinherited the dark, dreamy boy, they maneuvered to end the romance. It was so simple to intercept letters and cause each to believe that the other had broken off without the courtesy of a repudiation. In rebound, Elmira married the well-to-do Mr. Barren Shelton, and Poe wrote the poem “Lenore.” He used the name again in “The Raven,” as the “lost Lenore.”
He was to live in Richmond only once more, for a year and a half, from the middle of his twenty-sixth year until around his twenty-eighth birthday. Lie had some literary reputation when he returned to edit the new Southern Literary Messenger , and his experience and ability outran his reputation. He also had a non-Richmond wife, his fourteen-year-old cousin Virginia Clemm, whose mother (Poe’s lather’s sister) became a stand-in lor his own lost mother and lor Mrs. Allan and for all the home images that haunted him.