April 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 3
Hunting an unattainable security, the poet sought his “lost Lenore” and then drifted into the shadows
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.
During tin’s stay, he apparently did not sec EI mil a Royster Shelton. Uc saw his moronic sister, Rosalie, and the gracious Macken/ie family who had adopted her, he saw a lew friends from the days of his precarious privilege, and he worked. Edgar Poe was a good editor. The circulation multiplied tinder him and the Messenger was founded in its ante-bellum position. Hut with his ambition goading him. Poe sought an authority which the publisher denied and, in January, iSi(J. he became the urst southerner of talent to begin what became the traditional pilgrimage to New York.
Poe also became the first professional writer in America. Without personal income or sinecure, this frail carrier of literary gifts set out to support his tubercular wife and mother-in-law by what he could earn from published words. To his poetry and stories he added criticisms and literary essays, along with editorial jobs, and much ol this writing—ground out under the ceaseless goad for submarginal survivaldegenerated into hack work, with its attendant depressions and drains on his limited energies.
When he abridged the reality with the bottle he was accused ol depravity in his day, and since then has been the subject ol many studies in abnormal behavior as related to genius. By the current symptoms associated with schizophrenia, he seems a schizoid type ol personality, irrespective of his talent. The schizoid features and the creative gifts each existed: the nature of his life as a creative man in juxtaposition with his emotional unbalance intensified his eye les of disorder.
With alcohol, he was strictly a spree drinker. Possessing no tolerance at all lor it, he underwent a complete personality transformation under the influence; locked demons seemed to escape and rage through his mind. More significant for the probability of the schizoid elements were his relations with women.
In the last three years of his life, during the acceleration of his decline, he began to seek an ethereal bosom —a mate of the soul in ffeshless passion. Alter his wife died, this search was broadened to include also the more earthly comfort of a financially well-endowed wife. Because these bizarre episodes were invariably accompanied by an alcoholic escape, the incidents added to his growing reputation for depravity. The least carnal of men, Mrs. Clemm’s “poor Eddie” was ill, caught in the final downward spiral ol his cycles.
It was alter his fortieth birthday, while he and “Muddie” (as he called Mrs. Clemm) were living in the Ford ha m cottage, that the last vital energies began to wane and “Lcnorc” began to beckon as a haven. She was then the wealthily widowed Mrs. Shelton. It would be too simple to attribute cold calculation to Poe’s breedings over Elniira Shelton.
During that winter and spring. 1819, he alternated between an afflatus over his financial future ( Graham’s had offered him $5 a page and he said that he could win AJuddie s security by turning out a page and a half a day) and the inability to apply himself further to the drudge work. At this time he was experiencing his final lever of pure creativity, writing among other verse “The Hells” and the finished version of “Annabel Lee.” Then, while listening receptively to his longsuttering mother-in-law’s hints about Mrs. Shelton, he completed the arrangements to edit a financially supported magazine, the Stylus , a dream of his whole life.
Essentially he was tired and wanted a home where he and Muddie could rest from the long, unequal struggle; only he was not clear about that either. So the dream of the Stylus , the sanctuary of Mrs. Shelton and rellcx habits of earning a hand-to-mouth existence all blended into one vague purpose, with Richmond as the center. There he could give lectures for day-to-day cash, there he could gather the necessary 500 subscribers for the Stylus , there he could court “Lenore”—and there was home, such as he had ever known. “I am a Virginian,” he said, and then added sadly, “at least I call myself one.”
Leaving Mrs. Clemm on the last day of June with assurances that their future would be secured, he set out with his skimpily packed, flowered handbag on $50 advanced him for the Stylus . By the time he reached Philadelphia, his aloneness began to depress him and he stepped into a saloon. When he staggered to friends later, he was dangerously ill and delirious, suffering delusions of persecution. He lost the better part of two weeks and all of his money in that bout. His friends straightened him out enough to proceed the rest of the way and raised the money to pay his fare with a few dollars over.
He was still sick and disreputable-looking when he arrived in Richmond, and walked unnoticed to the suburb west of the city where his sister lived with the friendly Mackenzies. They took him in without reproaches and ministered as best they could, while he suffered the inevitable siege of remorse. Uc had but two dollars, one of which he sent Mrs. Clemm, with a note, “Oh, God, my Mother, shall we ever meet again? If possible, oh, COME! My clothes are so horrible and I am so ill .…”
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.
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.
Dr. Snodgrass got the delirious man into a hospital late in the afternoon, and for four days, until Sunday morning, his slow dying was a concentration of all the agonies with which he had lived for forty years. The tranquil twilight in Richmond, with prospects for security, had not reached into the secret places of his soul. He showed no will to live. He screamed once, when assured of friends awaiting his return, that the best thing a friend could do would be to shoot him. “Lenore” remained lost, with all else that the image had symbolized. When in a final moment of clarity he murmured, “God have mercy on my poor soul,” his death epitomized his own lines—
”… unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster Followed fast and followed faster …”