- 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
Elmira had never been a beauty and in middle life, having borne three children (all of whom died), she was quite definitely a matron of little flair though a poised and agreeable lady. There was no foolishness about her; she knew the way of the world; and the center of her interests was the church (needless to say, in Virginia, Episcopal).
Showing some perturbation, Poe arose and said, “Oh, Elmira, is it you!”
The good woman, giving no signs of being deeply stirred, greeted him graciously, as she would have any old friend, and said something like “I would have recognized you anywhere.” Then she told him that she was on her way to church and courteously invited him to call again.
This Poe did, at once. It seems doubtful that between them they generated any charged atmosphere, or that any romantic aura was evoked from the past. Elmira seemed pleased at his attentions, perhaps flattered, for after all she was a somewhat dull lady of position and Poe told her that she was the “lost Lenore” of “The Raven.” She must have been moved to be the image that had haunted a great poet all his life, for when he suggested that they marry, Elmira agreed.
All the confusions of the tired man then clouded his motivations. Having done nothing to gain subscribers for the Stylus , he approached his fiancée with the idea of her becoming its backer. This frightened her. She immediately went to a lawyer friend and had her financial affairs arranged so that a husband could get no access to her money. At this turn, Poe’s pride was hurt and they had an angry exchange. Though this contretemps was straightened out, by then “poor Eddie” was drifting into a shadow world in the illusion of the home he had found in Richmond.
Forgetting the Stylus , he continued on with the literary pos,t on the Examiner , which used his name and the periphery of his failing energies, while his announced marriage to Elmira became the solution to all woes. He wrote his mother-in-law that all would be well, for Elmira “loves me more devotedly than anyone I ever knew and I cannot help loving her in return.”
However, he wrote again that the one trouble with settling in Richmond was that he would not be near Annie. Mrs. Annie Richmond, the last of Poe’s spiritual Isoldes, was a respectably married woman of Lowell, Massachusetts, who understood the platonic nature of Poe’s abnormal need to give her love, as he wrote, “so pure—so unworldly.” That even this sympathetic lady offered her moral support only at a distance seems to have been forgotten by Poe when he made the curious reservation about his coming marriage.
In this emotional confusion, Poe gave his second lecture at the Exchange Hotel for the purpose of raising funds for a trip to New York where he would close up the Fordham cottage and bring Muddie to a haven in Richmond. His first lecture, made less than three weeks after he came, had not been well attended, though it was well received. But for Monday the twenty-fourth of September Poe drew a large as well as enthusiastic crowd. By then he had stayed in Richmond long enough to become “one of them,” his social acceptance had been made official by his engagement to Mrs. Shelton, and his friends sensed that he could use some money. The lecturer had no guarantee; he was paid purely by patrons.
The very real support that Richmonders gave him on that late summer night was the biggest socialliterary event of his life in his home town. He gave his favorite lecture on “The Poetic Principle,” read from “The Raven” in his soft, distinct voice, and the prophet was honored in his own country. He had come home again, where the elusive sanctuary was found at last.
Finding a haven at the end of the journey did not bring inner peace. For the next two days he walked about the city, saying good-bye to his friends and to his sister’s guardians, and there was an aura of finality about the farewells. The Mackenzies observed his depression and to young John Thompson, for his kindnesses, Poe gave his final draft of “Annabel Lee.”
Late on the last afternoon he called on Elmira. He told her that he did not feel well and she, thinking his pulse feverish, suggested that he put off his early morning trip. He left her at the pleasant house with the impression that he would postpone his traveling.
Poe dined with friends at a public place. While on the surface he seemed cheerful enough, he gave two signs of inner distraction. In visiting a doctor friend, Poe took the doctor’s cane and left his own; and, though sober, he forgot the little ironbound trunk which contained his manuscripts. Several members of the restaurant party walked with him to the open-shedded wharf where he boarded the 4 A.M. boat for Baltimore.
Later that morning, Mrs. Shelton came uptown to inquire after the state of her sick fiancé. No one else seemed surprised that he had gone, for significantly he had complained to no one else of feeling badly. He had left with all his affairs in order, having made his manners to everyone who befriended him, and his last impression was the best he ever made.
From the time he boarded the boat on September 27 until the afternoon of October 3, the poet vanished into his own private torments. Then, in Baltimore, a compositor on the Sun , recognizing a gentleman in bad shape amongst the wrong companions, sent a note to a nearby doctor whom Poe knew and whose name he had managed to mutter along with his own.