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Edgar Allan Poe: His Life, Character, and Art

by J. Montgomery Gambrill

Edgar Allan Poe is in many respects the most fascinating figure in American literature. His life, touched by the extremes of fortune, was on the whole more unhappy than that of any other of our prominent men of letters. His character was strangely complex, and was the subject of misunderstanding during his life and of heated dispute after his death; his writings were long neglected or disparaged at home, while accepted abroad as our greatest literary achievement. Now, after more than half a century has elapsed since his death, careful biographers have furnished a tolerably full account of the real facts about his life; a fairly accurate idea of his character is winning general acceptance; and the name of Edgar Allan Poe has been conceded a place among the two or three greatest in our literature.


In December, 1811, a well-known actress of the time died in Richmond, leaving destitute three little children, the eldest but four years of age. This mother, who was Elizabeth (Arnold) Poe, daughter of an English actress, had suffered from ill health for several years and had long found the struggle for existence difficult. Her husband, David Poe, probably died before her; he was a son of General David Poe, a Revolutionary veteran of Baltimore, and had left his home and law books for the stage several years before his marriage. The second of the three children, born January 19, 1809, in Boston, where his parents happened to be playing at the time, was Edgar Poe, the future poet and story-writer. The little Edgar was adopted by the wife of Mr. John Allan, a well-to-do Scotch merchant of the city, who later became wealthy, and the boy was thereafter known as Edgar Allan Poe. He was a beautiful and precocious child, who at six years of age could read, draw, dance, and declaim the best poetry with fine effect and appreciation; report says, also, that he had been taught to stand on a chair and pledge Mr. Allan's guests in a glass of wine with "roguish grace."

In 1815 Mr. Allan went to England, where he remained five years. Edgar was placed in an old English school in the suburbs of London, among historic, literary, and antiquarian associations, and possibly was taken to the Continent by his foster parents at vacation seasons. The English residence and the sea voyages left deep impressions on the boy's sensitive nature. Returning to Richmond, he was prepared in good schools for the University of Virginia, which he entered at the age of seventeen, pursuing studies in ancient and modern languages and literatures. During this youthful period he was already developing a striking and peculiar personality. He was brilliant, if not industrious, as a student, leaving the University with highest honors in Latin and French; he was quick and nervous in his movements and greatly excelled in athletics, especially in swimming; in character, he was reserved, solitary, sensitive, and given to lonely reverie. Some of his aristocratic playmates remembered to his discredit that he was the child of strolling players, and their attitude helped to add a strain of defiance to an already intensely proud nature. Though kindly treated by his foster parents, this strange boy longed for an understanding sympathy that was not his. Once he thought he had found it in Mrs. Jane Stannard, mother of a schoolmate; but the new friend soon died, and for months the grief-stricken boy, it is said, haunted the lonely grave at night and brooded over his loss and the mystery of death—a not very wholesome experience for a lonely and melancholy lad of fifteen years.

At the University he drank wine, though not intemperately, and played cards a great deal, the end of the term finding him with gambling debts of twenty-five hundred dollars. These habits were common at the time, and Edgar did not incur any censure from the faculty; but Mr. Allan declined to honor the gambling debt, removed Edgar, and placed him in his own counting room. Such a life was too dull for the high-spirited, poetic youth, and he promptly left his home.

Going to Boston, he published a thin volume of boyish verse, "Tamerlane, and Other Poems," but realizing nothing financially,[1] he enlisted in the United States Army as Edgar A. Perry. After two years of faithful and efficient service, he procured through Mr. Allan (who was temporarily reconciled to him) an appointment to the West Point Military Academy, entering in July, 1830. In the meantime, he had published in Baltimore a second small volume of poems. Fellow-students have described him as having a "worn, weary, discontented look"; usually kindly and courteous, but shy, reserved, and exceedingly sensitive; an extraordinary reader, but noted for carping criticism. Although a good student, he seemed galled beyond endurance by the monotonous routine of military duties, which he deliberately neglected and thus procured his dismissal from the Academy. He left, alone and penniless, in March, 1831.

[Footnote 1: In November, 1900, a single copy of this little volume sold in New York for $2550.]

Going to New York, Poe brought out another little volume of poems showing great improvement; then he went to Baltimore, and after a precarious struggle of a year or two, turned to prose, and, while in great poverty, won a prize of one hundred dollars from the Baltimore Saturday Visitor for his story, "The Manuscript Found in a Bottle." Through John P. Kennedy[1], one of the judges whose friendship the poverty-stricken author gained, he procured a good deal of hack work, and finally an editorial position on the Southern Literary Messenger, of Richmond. The salary was fair, and better was in sight; yet Poe was melancholy, dissatisfied, and miserable. He wrote a pitiable letter to Mr. Kennedy, asking to be convinced "that it is at all necessary to live."

[Footnote 1: A well-known Marylander, author of "Horse-Shoe Robinson," "Swallow Barn," "Rob of the Bowl," and other popular novels of the day, and later Secretary of the Navy.]

For several years he had been making his home with an aunt, Mrs. Clemm, and her daughter, Virginia, a girl beautiful in character and person, but penniless and probably already a victim of the consumption that was eventually to cause her death. In 1836, when she was only fourteen years old, Poe married his cousin, to whom he was passionately attached. His devotion to her lasted through life, and the tenderest affection existed between him and Mrs. Clemm, who was all a mother could have been to him; so that the home life was always beautiful in spirit, however poor in material comfort.

In January, 1837, his connection with the Messenger was severed, probably because of his occasional lapses from sobriety; but his unfortunate temperament and his restless ambition were doubtless factors. With some reputation as poet, story-writer, critic, and editor, Poe removed to New York, and a year later to Philadelphia, where he remained until 1844. Here he found miscellaneous literary, editorial, and hack work, finally becoming editor of Graham's Magazine, which prospered greatly under his management, increasing its circulation from eight thousand to forty thousand within a year. But Poe's restless spirit was dissatisfied. He was intensely anxious to own a magazine for himself, and had already made several unsuccessful efforts to obtain one,—efforts which were to be repeated at intervals, and with as little success, until the day his death. He vainly sought a government position, that a livelihood might be assured while he carried out his literary plans. Finally he left Graham's, doubtless because of personal peculiarities, since his occasional inebriety did not interfere with his work; and there followed a period of wretched poverty, broken once by the winning of a prize of one hundred dollars for "The Gold Bug."

He continued to be known as a "reserved, isolated, dreamy man, of high-strung nerves, proud spirit, and fantastic moods," with a haunting sense of impending evil. His home was poor and simple, but impressed every visitor by its neatness and quiet refinement; Virginia, accomplished in music and languages, was as devoted to her husband as he was to her. Both were fond of flowers and plants, and of household pets. Mrs. Clemm gave herself completely to her "children" and was the business manager of the family.

In the spring of 1844 Poe went with Virginia to New York, practically penniless, and to Mrs. Clemm, who did not come at once, he wrote with pathetic enthusiasm of the generous meals served at their boarding house. He obtained a position on the Evening Mirror at small pay, but did his dull work faithfully and efficiently; later, he became editor of the Broadway Journal, in which he printed revisions of his best tales and poems. In 1845 appeared "The Raven," which created a profound sensation at home and abroad, and immediately won, and has since retained, an immense popularity. He was at the height of his fame, but poor, as always. In 1846 he published "The Literati," critical comments on the writers of the day, in which the literary small fry were mercilessly condemned and ridiculed. This naturally made Poe a host of enemies. One of these, Thomas Dunn English, published an abusive article attacking the author's character, whereupon Poe sued him for libel and obtained two hundred and twenty-five dollars damages.

The family now moved to a little three-room cottage at Fordham, a quiet country place with flowers and trees and pleasant vistas; but illness and poverty were soon there, too. In 1841 Virginia had burst a blood vessel while singing, and her life was despaired of; this had happened again and again, leaving her weaker each time. As the summer and fall of this year wore away, she grew worse and needed the tenderest care and attention. But winter drew on, and with it came cold and hunger; the sick girl lay in an unheated room on a straw bed, wrapped in her husband's coat, the husband and mother trying to chafe a little warmth into her hands and feet. Some kind-hearted women relieved the distress in a measure, but on January 30, 1847, Virginia died. The effect on Poe was terrible. It is easy to see how a very artist of death, who could study the dreadful stages of its slow approach and seek to penetrate the mystery of its ultimate nature with such intense interest and deep reflection as did Poe, must have brooded and suffered during the years of his wife's illness. His own health had long been poor; his brain was diseased and insanity seemed imminent. After intense grief came a period of settled gloom and haunting fear. The less than three years of life left for him was a period of decline in every respect. But he remained in the little cottage, finding some comfort in caring for his flowers and pets, and taking long solitary rambles. During this time he thought out and wrote "Eureka," a treatise on the structure, laws, and destiny of the universe, which he desired to have regarded as a poem.

Poe had always felt a need for the companionship of sympathetic and affectionate women, for whom he entertained a chivalric regard amounting to reverence. After the shock of his wife's death had somewhat worn away, he began to depend for sympathy upon various women with whom he maintained romantic friendships. Judged by ordinary standards, his conduct became at times little short of maudlin; his correspondence showed a sort of gasping, frantic dependence upon the sympathy and consolation of these women friends, and exhibited a painful picture of a broken man. Mrs. Shew, one of the kind women who had relieved the family at the time of Virginia's last illness, strongly advised him to marry, and he did propose marriage to Mrs. Sara Helen Whitman, a verse writer of some note in her day. After a wild and exhausting wooing, begun in an extravagantly romantic manner, the match was broken off through the influence of the lady's friends. When it was all over Poe seemed very little disturbed. The truth is, he was a wreck, and feeling utterly dependent, clutched frantically at every hope of sympathy and consolation. His only real love was for his dead wife, which he recorded shortly before his death in the exquisite lyric, "Annabel Lee."

In July, 1849, full of the darkest forebodings, and predicting that he should never return, Poe went to Richmond. Here he spent a few quiet months, part of the time fairly cheerful, but twice yielding to the temptation to drink, and each time suffering, in consequence, a dangerous illness. On September 30 he left Richmond for New York with fifteen hundred dollars, the product of a recent lecture arranged by kind Richmond friends. What happened during the next three days is an impenetrable mystery, but on October 3 (Wednesday) he was found in an election booth in Baltimore, desperately ill, his money and baggage gone. The most probable story is that he had been drugged by political workers, imprisoned in a "coop" with similar victims, and used as a repeater [1], this procedure being a common one at the time. Whether he was also intoxicated is a matter of doubt. There could be but one effect on his delicate and already diseased brain. He was taken to a hospital unconscious, lingered several days in the delirium of a violent brain fever, and in the early dawn of Sunday, October 7, breathed his last.

[Footnote 1: Repeater, a person who illegally votes more than once]

The dead author's character immediately became the subject of violent controversy. His severe critical strictures had made him many enemies among the minor writers of the day and their friends. One of the men who had suffered from Poe's too caustic pen was Rufus W. Griswold, but friendly relations had been nominally established and Poe had authorized Griswold to edit his works. This Griswold did, including a biography which Poe's friends declared a masterpiece of malicious distortion and misrepresentation; it certainly was grossly unfair and inaccurate. Poe's friends retorted, and a long war of words followed, in which hatred or prejudice on the one side and wholesale, undiscriminating laudation on the other, alike tended to obscure the truth. It is now almost impossible to see the real Poe, just as he appeared to an ordinary, unprejudiced observer of his own time. Only by the most careful, thoughtful, and sympathetic study can we hope to approximate such an acquaintance.

The fundamental fact about Poe is a very peculiar and unhappy temperament, certain characteristic qualities of which began to disclose themselves in early boyhood and, fostered by the vicissitudes of his career, developed throughout his life.

In youth he was nervous, sensitive, morbid, proud, solitary, and wayward; and as the years went by, bringing poverty, illness, and the bitterness of failure, often through his own faults, the man became irritable, impatient, often morose. He had always suffered from fits of depression,—"blue devils," Mr. Kennedy called them,—and though he was extravagantly sanguine at times, melancholy was his usual mood, often manifesting itself in a haunting fear of evil to come. The peculiar character of his wonderful imagination made actual life less real to him than his own land of dreams: the "distant Aidenn," the "dim lake of Auber," the "kingdom by the sea," seemed more genuine than the landscapes of earth; the lurid "city in the sea" more substantial than the streets he daily walked.

Because of this intensely subjective and self-absorbed character of mind, he had no understanding of human nature, no insight into character with its marvelous complexities and contradictions. With these limitations Poe, as might be expected, had a very defective sense of humor, lacked true sympathy, was tactless, possessed little business ability, and was excessively annoyed by the dull routine and rude frictions of ordinary life. He was always touched by kindness, but was quick to resent an injury, and even as a boy could not endure a jest at his expense. He had many warm and devoted friends whom he loved in return, but the limitations of his own nature probably made a really frank, unreserved friendship impossible; and when a break occurred, he was apt to assume that his former friend was an utter villain. These personal characteristics, in conjunction with a goading ambition which took form in the idea of an independent journal of his own in which he might find untrammeled expression, added uneasiness and restlessness to a constantly discontented nature. To some extent, at least, Poe realized the curse of such a temperament, but he strove vainly against its impulses.

The one genuine human happiness of this sad life was found in a singularly beautiful home atmosphere. Husband and wife were passionately devoted to each other, and Mrs. Clemm was more than a mother to both. She says of her son-in-law: "At home, he was simple and affectionate as a child, and during all the years he lived with me, I do not remember a single night that he failed to come and kiss his 'mother,' as he called me, before going to bed." This faithful woman remained devoted to him after Virginia's death, and to his memory, when calumny assailed it, after his own.

The capital charge against Poe's character has been intemperance, and although the matter has been grossly exaggerated and misrepresented, the charge is true. Except for short periods, he was never what is known as dissipated, and he struggled desperately against his weakness,—an unequal struggle, since the craving was inherited, and fostered by environment, circumstances, and temperament. One of his biographers tells of bread soaked in gin being fed to the little Poe children by an old nurse during the illness of their mother; and there is another story, already mentioned, of the little Edgar, in his adoptive home, taught to pledge the guests as a social grace. Drinking was common at the time, wine was offered in every home and at every social function, and in the South, where Poe spent his youth and early manhood, the spirit of hospitality and conviviality held out constant temptation. To his delicate organization strong drink early became a veritable poison, and indulgence that would have been a small matter to another man was ruinous to him; indeed, a single glass of wine drove him practically insane, and a debauch was sure to follow. Indulgence was stimulated, also, by the nervous strain and worry induced by uncertain livelihood and privation, the frequent fits of depression, and by constant brooding. Sometimes he fought his weakness successfully for several years, but always it conquered in the end.

Moreover, he speaks of a very special cause in the latter part of his life, which in fairness should be heard in his own written words to a friend: "Six years ago a wife, whom I loved as no man ever loved before, ruptured a blood vessel in singing. Her life was despaired of. I took leave of her forever and underwent all the agonies of her death. She recovered partially and I again hoped. At the end of a year the vessel broke again. I went through precisely the same scene…. Then again—again—and even once again, at varying intervals. Each time I felt all the agonies of her death—and at each accession of her disorder I loved her more dearly and clung to her life with more desperate pertinacity. But I am constitutionally sensitive—nervous in a very unusual degree. I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity. During these fits of absolute unconsciousness, I drank—God only knows how often or how much. As a matter of course, my enemies referred the insanity to the drink, rather than the drink to the insanity…. It was the horrible never-ending oscillation between hope and despair, which I could not longer have endured without total loss of reason. In the death of what was my life, then, I received a new, but—O God!—how melancholy an existence!"

This statement, and the other facts mentioned, are not offered as wholly excusing Poe. Doubtless a stronger man would have resisted, doubtless a less self-absorbed man would have thought of his wife's happiness as well as of his own relief from torture. Yet the fair-minded person, familiar with Poe's unhappy life, and keeping in mind the influences of heredity, temperament, and environment, will hesitate to pronounce a severe judgment.

Poe was also accused of untruthfulness, and this accusation likewise has a basis of fact. He repeatedly furnished or approved statements regarding his life and work that were incorrect, he often made a disingenuous show of pretended learning, and he sometimes misstated facts to avoid wounding his own vanity. This ugly fault seems to have resulted from a fondness for romantic posing, and is doubtless related to the peculiar character of imagination already mentioned. Perhaps, too, he inherited from his actor parents a love of applause, and if so, the trait was certainly encouraged in early childhood. There is no evidence that he was ever guilty of malicious or mercenary falsehood.

Another of his bad habits was borrowing, but it must be remembered that his life was one long struggle with grinding poverty, that he and those dear to him sometimes suffered actual hunger and cold. Many who knew him testified to his anxiety to pay all his debts, Mr. Graham referring to him in this particular as "the soul of honor."

In a letter to Lowell, Poe has well described himself in a sentence: "My life has been whim—impulse—passion—a longing for solitude—a scorn of all things present in an earnest desire for the future." Interpreted, this means that in a sense he never really reached maturity, that he remained a slave to his impulses and emotions, that he detested the ordinary business of life and could not adapt himself to it, that his mind was full of dreams of ideal beauty and perfection, that his whole soul yearned to attain the highest pleasures of artistic creation. His was perpetually a deeply agitated soul; as such, it was natural he should outwardly seem irritable, impatient, restless, discontented, and solitary. It is impossible to believe that there was any strain of real evil in Poe. A man who could inspire such devotion as he had from such a woman as Mrs. Clemm, a man who loved flowers and children and animal pets, who could be so devoted a husband, who could so consecrate himself to art, was not a bad man. Yet his acts were often, as we have seen, most reprehensible. Frequently the subject of slander, he was not a victim of conspiracy to defame. Although circumstances were many times against him, he was his own worst enemy. He was cursed with a temperament. His mind was analytical and imaginative, and gave no thought to the ethical. He remained wayward as a child. The man, like his art, was not immoral, but simply unmoral. Whatever his faults, he suffered frightfully for them, and his fame suffered after him.