- Historic Sites
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 a few days he moved to the Swan Tavern on Broad Street, in midtown, and a doctor next door attended him through the final stages to recovery. It was then clear that the cumulative ravages of malnutrition and alcohol had undermined his normally weak constitution to the ultimate breaking point, and a doctor warned him that one more bout would be fatal. In a sincere effort to abstain, “poor Eddie” took the pledge by joining a temperance society, and he had no serious lapses in Richmond.
From the time of his recovery in late fuly, Poe was on his best behavior in every way. The city seemed to have a soothing effect upon him, for on this occasion the people acted to make the wanderer feel that Richmond was indeed his home town.
In a small, provincial society such as Richmond’s, originally most people had supported the established Mr. Allan in his break with Edgar, whom they regarded as a dissolute ingrate; but with passing time and Poes growing name the old troubles with his foster father no longer colored the general attitude toward him. Of course, much is forgiven a celebrity in any case (at that time “The Raven” was at its height of literary fashion) and Poe’s notoriety had aroused considerable curiosity about him personally. When he was himself, Edgar Poe possessed the gentleness of manner and innate courtesy which have been historically endearing to Virginians. Since in that summer Richmonders saw him always when he was self-contained, his melancholy courtliness won their hearts and they saw him as a romantic figure.
Poe always had the looks for the role. At forty, the prettiness of his childhood had, through the mutations of time, grown into a tragic beauty. Always there were references to his “beautiful face” and to “its sadness.” The gray eyes were, as they said, “luminous and haunting,” and the dark hair and black mustache completed the portrait of the author of “nevermore.” His build was slight, and he carried himself well, dressed usually in the conventional black, though sometimes over his velvet waistcoat he wore the equally conventional white linen jacket.
As a real home town to him, Virginia’s capital was little changed and this held its own appeal to the poet in thrall to “the olden times,” an anachronism in the new industrial democracy that was surging toward its control of America. At that time, the forces that were to war as the Union and the Confederacy had drawn their lines, and dying Calhoun in Washington was trying to form a secession movement then. It was all as remote to Poe as the hydrogen age.
The area of Poe’s operations covered just about all the places of association with his childhood and later years in Richmond. Swan Tavern was some years past the days of its glory but a raffishness mingled with its faded grandeur to make it ideal headquarters for the poet who had to turn down evening soirees for lack of a dress coat. A short block from Broad Street he crossed Capitol Street, facing the Square, where he and his wife and aunt had boarded twelve years before. He crossed the sloping brick walks of the shaded Square, beside the capitol designed by Jefferson, where he and Virginia had strolled in those other, lost days. Below the Square the hilly streets sloped to the river through the commercial section where he had visited “Pa’s” offices as a boy.
The countinghouses were still there, the offices of British importers and the commission merchants who bartered with planters for tobacco in exchange for physical necessities. The four-mule wagons with their bells tinkling still brought in tobacco, the foreign voices of sailors still mingled on the streets with the thick drawl of planters, and over the whole area hung the sweetly rank smell of tobacco. In the region of his first memories, the fashionable Exchange Hotel had been erected at the impressive cost of $40,000, and Dickens had lectured there in 1842 shortly after its opening. Friends were arranging for Poe to lecture there in early August, half a block from Tobacco Alley, where the hook-nosed Allan used to remind the boy of his orphan’s estate.
Back where conscious memory began, ghosts walked with him when he frequented his old bookstore on Main Street, passed at night the saloons and variety houses, whose sounds of revelry floated through the dark streets where men and women, escaping the heat of their houses, sat on the brick sidewalk with their chairs propped against the red brick fronts of houses built flush on the street. In a wan recapture of the past, he took to using Thompson’s hospitably offered quarters at the Messenger , where he went about his interminable polishing of his verse. At the Examiner , the “electric” Mr. Daniel gave him the post of literary editor and he spent hours at those offices in the friendly company of the learned young men of the day. In the evenings he visited the Mackenzies, where he needed no dress coat, and most of all he visited the lost “Lenore.”
Poe had wasted no time in presenting himself to his old girl. As soon as he was fully recovered and his clothes presentable, he walked to Mrs. Shelton’s house one Sunday morning. She lived in the old, original part of the city, Church Hill, where her street and several others were still good addresses. Mrs. Shelton’s red brick house, set back from the sidewalk in a garden, faced the church from across the street, and in the back double balconies overlooked the river.
Poe, meticulously dressed, climbed the stairs of the “Greek revival” porch and gave his name to a colored servant. In a moment Mrs. Shelton came downstairs and entered the drawing room.