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Edgar Allan Poe's Child Wife

by Sherwin Cody

While Poe was in Baltimore, after he had begun to earn something by his pen, he went to live with his aunt, Mrs. Clemm. She was very poor, and whatever Poe earned went toward the support of the whole family, which included not only Poe and his aunt, but her young daughter Virginia, at this time only eleven years of age.

Virginia was an exceedingly delicate and beautiful girl. She had dark hair and eyes, and a fine, transparent complexion. She was very modest and quiet; but she had a fine mind, and a very sweet and winning manner. She had also a poetic nature, and became an accomplished musician.

Mrs. Clemm, on the other hand, was a large, coarsely formed woman, and it seemed impossible that she could be the mother of so delicate and graceful a girl. She was very faithful and hardworking, however, and sincerely devoted to Poe as well as to her daughter. She had the business ability to manage Poe's small income in the best way, and made for him a home that would have been extremely happy had it not been for poverty and other misfortunes.

While Poe lived in Baltimore he would go out to walk nearly every day with the editor of the Saturday Visiter; but he sometimes walked alone or with Virginia.

After a time the young poet and story-writer decided to go to Richmond, his early home. He had many friends there, who welcomed him back, and a good position was offered him. The Southern Literary Messenger had been started by a Mr. White, and Poe was made assistant editor.

He had become very much attached to Mrs. Clemm and Virginia while in Baltimore, and now wished to marry Virginia. She was but fourteen years of age,—indeed, not quite fourteen,—and Mrs. Clemm's friends thought the girl too young to marry. But Poe gained the mother's consent, and he and Virginia were united in May, 1836.

Virginia was Poe's ideal of womanhood, and we find her figuring as the model for nearly all the heroines of his poems. In a letter after the death of both Virginia and her poet husband, Mrs. Clemm wrote, "She was an excellent linguist and a perfect musician, and she was very beautiful. How often has Eddie said, 'I see no one so beautiful as my sweet little wife.'" Poe undertook her education as soon as they were married, and was very proud of her brilliant accomplishments.

As she was the source of his greatest happiness, her loss was the occasion of his greatest sorrow. A year after their marriage she burst a blood vessel while singing. The following extract from a letter of Poe's to a friend will explain how this misfortune affected him.

"You say," he writes, "'Can you hint to me what was the terrible evil which caused the irregularities so profoundly lamented?' Yes, I can do more than hint. This 'evil' was the greatest which can befall a man. 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 blood 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."

Virginia gradually grew worse and finally died at their home at Fordham, near New York. After this sad event Poe wrote a poem which is a sort of requiem for her death. It was not published during his life, but after his death it appeared in the New York Tribune. Immediately it took rank as one of the three greatest poems Poe ever wrote. It is long enough to be complete, it has none of those metrical imperfections found in his earlier poems, and it possesses in a wonderful degree that haunting thrill so characteristic of all the best things Poe wrote. Moreover, it has a musical flow surpassing any other of Poe's poems except "The Bells," and in some respects it is even more pleasing to the ear when read aloud than is "The Bells."


  It was many and many a year ago,
    In a kingdom by the sea,
  That a maiden there lived whom you may know
    By the name of Annabel Lee;
  And this maiden she lived with no other thought
    Than to love and be loved by me.

  I was a child and she was a child,
    In this kingdom by the sea:
  But we loved with a love that was more than love,—
    I and my Annabel Lee;
  With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
    Coveted her and me.

  And this was the reason that, long ago,
    In this kingdom by the sea,
  A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
    My beautiful Annabel Lee;
  So that her highborn kinsmen came
    And bore her away from me,
  To shut her up in a sepulcher
    In this kingdom by the sea.

  The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
    Went envying her and me,—
  Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,
    In this kingdom by the sea)
  That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
    Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

  But our love it was stronger by far than the love
    Of those who were older than we,—
  Of many far wiser than we;
    And neither the angels in heaven above,
    Nor the demons down under the sea,
  Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
    Of the beautiful Annabel Lee:

  For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
    Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
  And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes
    Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
  And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
  Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
    In the sepulcher there by the sea,
    In her tomb by the sounding sea.

Book: Shattered Sighs