Virginia Clemm Poe
One hundred and eighty years ago Edgar Allan Poe married his cousin Virginia Clemm in a small ceremony in Richmond.
For a very awkward moment, try explaining to a group of thirteen-year-old middle school students that they are the same age Edgar Allan Poe’s wife was when he married her—and that her husband was twenty-seven at the time. (To learn more about the wedding ceremony, click here.) Even though Virginia Clemm Poe lived until the age of twenty-four, she is still frequently referred to as Poe’s “child-wife,” as if she were forever thirteen.
The nature of the relationship between Poe and his bride has long been a matter of speculation. To make matters more confusing, in the same August 1835 letter, he called her a sister, a cousin, and a “darling little wifey.” His nickname for her was Sissy (sister), and he called her mother, Maria Poe Clemm, Muddy (mother). Virginia sometimes referred to Edgar as Buddy (brother).
In letters to his mother-in-law, Poe speaks of Virginia in affectionate terms. During an 1844 trip to New York with Virginia, Edgar wrote Maria, “Sis is delighted, and we are both in excellent spirits. She has coughed hardly any and had no night sweat. She is now busy mending my pants which I tore against a nail…You can’t imagine how much we both to miss you. Sissy had a hearty cry last night, because you and Catterina [their cat] weren‘t here.”
Unfortunately, when she was nineteen, Virginia displayed symptoms of tuberculosis, a wasting disease that robbed her of her strength, her energy, and eventually her life. In a January 4, 1848 letter to G. W. Eveleth, Poe describes the agony of seeing her suffer and die from the disease.
Six years ago, a wife, whom I loved as no man ever laved 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 the 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. I had, indeed, nearly abandoned all hope of a permanent cure, when I found one in the death of my wife. This I can and do endure as becomes a man. 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 receive a new, but — Oh God! — how melancholy an existence.
Aside from his mentions of her in letters like these, scholars have also tried to find traces of Virginia in Poe’s literary productions. While it is tempting to learn about Poe’s feeling for Virginia in his poems like “Eulalie” and “Annabel Lee,” the poem in which he mentions her by name is “To My Mother,” which is addressed not to his mother but to his mother-in-law, Virginia’s mother. Written after Virginia’s death, the poem describes how much she meant to him in the lines,
You who are more than mother unto me,
Filling my heart of hearts, where God installed you,
In setting my Virginia’s spirit free.
My mother — my own mother, who died early,
Was but the mother of myself; but you
Are mother to the dead I loved so dearly,
Are thus more precious than the one I knew,
By that infinity with which my wife
Was dearer to my soul than its soul-life.
Of the relationship between Edgar and Virginia, one of their mutual acquaintances Frances Osgood wrote, “Of the charming love and confidence that existed between his wife and himself, always delightfully apparent to me, in spite of the many little poetical episodes, in which the impassioned romance of his temperament impelled him to indulge; of this I cannot speak too earnestly — too warmly. I believe she was the only woman whom he ever truly loved.”
Another of their friends, Lambert A. Wilmer, recalled,
I could mention several striking examples of Poe’s sensibility if my limits would permit. He was unquestionably of an affectionate disposition; of which he gave the best kind of proof when he labored cheerfully for the maintenance of his aunt and cousin, before his marriage with the latter. While he was editor of the Southern Literary Messenger he devoted a large part of his salary to Virginia’s education, and she was instructed in every elegant accomplishment at his expense. He himself became her tutor at another time, when his income was not sufficient to provide for a more regular course of instruction. I remember once finding him engaged, on a certain Sunday, in giving Virginia lessons in Algebra.
One of his severe chroniclers says: “It is believed by some that he really loved his wife; if he did, he had a strange way of showing his affection.” Now it appears to me that he showed his affection in the right way, by endeavoring to make his companion happy. According to the opportunities he possessed, he supplied her with the comforts and luxuries of life. He kept a piano to gratify her taste for music, at a time when his income could scarcely afford such an indulgence. I never knew him to give her an unkind word, and doubt if they ever had any disagreement. That Virginia loved him, I am quite certain, for she was by far too artless to assume the appearance of an affection which she did not feel.
Casting aside nineteenth century propriety, Virginia is said to have run to the sidewalk to embrace her husband when she saw him returning home from work. Other accounts tell of them playing music together or playing games in their yard. Witnesses describe their marriage as a cheerful one. Describing her love for her husband, the twenty-three year old Virginia wrote in 1846,
Ever with thee I wish to roam —
Dearest my life is thine.
Give me a cottage for my home
And a rich old cypress vine,
Removed from the world with its sin and care
And the tattling of many tongues.
Love alone shall guide us when we are there —
Love shall heal my weakened lungs;
And Oh, the tranquil hours we’ll spend,
Never wishing that others may see!
Perfect ease we’ll enjoy, without thinking to lend
Ourselves to the world and its glee —
Ever peaceful and blissful we’ll be.
In her short life, Virginia grew into a lovely young woman described by one of her houseguests Mary Gove Nichols as looking “very young” with “large black eyes, and a pearly whiteness of complexion, which was a perfect pallor. Her pale face, her brilliant eyes, and her raven hair gave her an unearthly look.” Nichols believed she looked “almost [like] a disrobed spirit, and when she coughed it was made certain that she was rapidly passing away.” By this time, Virginia had been suffering for the past few years from tuberculosis, which would have caused her to be very thin and pale—a look considered very attractive at the time. In the words of Poe’s friend Mayne Reid, “I well knew the rose tint upon her cheek was too bright, too pure to be of the earth. It was consumption’s color—that sadly beautiful light which beckons to an earth tomb.”
While most who knew her described Virginia, as Reid did, as “angelically beautiful in person and not less in spirit,” Susan Archer Talley Weiss, a Poe groupie who never actually met Virginia, thought she was “small for her age, but very plump; pretty, but not especially so…[with a] round, ever smiling face.”
There are no known photographs of Virginia to help us determine whether Reid or Weiss was closer to the truth, and the popular post mortem portrait of Virginia hardly gives us a sense of how this cheerful, loving woman must have looked in life.
Post Mortem Portrait of Virginia Poe
After Virginia succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four, her mother saved some of her cherished possessions. Among those items she felt worthy of saving, for their sentimental value or for some other reason, was a simple red trinket box covered in red leatherette with little brass flowers on top. Two years later, Edgar Poe also died, and Maria Clemm became dependent on the support of friends and relatives in New York, Alexandria, and Baltimore. In Baltimore, she found Poe relatives who offered some assistance before she ended up in one of the city’s charity homes.
Virginia Poe’s Trinket Box
One of the friendly relatives was Virginia’s half-sister, Josephine Clemm Poe. To her, Maria Clemm bequeathed some of Virginia’s possessions, including her little red trinket box. Josephine, in turn, left the items to her daughter, who gave some of them to her niece Josephine Poe January.
Virginia’s Half-Sister Josephine Clemm Poe
Josephine Poe January had grown up revering the memory of her great aunt Virginia Poe and, in 1909, wrote the article “Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Child Wife’” about her for the October 1909 issue of The Century. In the account, January describes Virginia’s “unchanging love” for Edgar. The article concludes with the lines, “One sees it now, and thinks of the poverty, the sorrow, the renunciation, of those two, and at first it seems so pitifully little that life gave to them. But is it little? To him the gift of song, to her the gift of love.”
Bottom of Virginia Poe’s Trinket Box
At some point, January met the Richmond-born diplomat Alexander W. Weddell whose wife was from Saint Louis, where January was living. Mr. Weddell had been born in St. John’s Church, a short distance from Poe’s mother’s grave in the adjoining cemetery. After passing his Foreign Service exam in 1909, he traveled on diplomatic assignments to Zanzibar, Catania, Sicily, Athens, Beirut, Cairo, Calcutta, Mexico City, and Montreal before returning to Richmond, where he used materials salvaged from an eleventh century English priory to build a grand mansion called Virginia House.
During a meeting with the Weddells, January must have told them about her relation to Edgar Allan Poe, and the Weddells informed her that they were supporters of the newly formed Edgar Allan Poe Shrine (now the Poe Museum) in Richmond. As a result of the conversation, January wrote Pultizer Prize-winning editor, historian, and Poe Shrine president Douglas Southall Freeman on September 5, 1927,
My Dear Dr. Freeman,
My friend and yours Alexander W. Weddell told me he thought you would be interested to have for the Poe Shrine in Richmond a little possession that was once Virginia Clemm Poe’s. My grandmother Josephine Clemm Poe was her sister and this little red box came with the other little relics of Virginia’s bitter-sweet life.
It is in the form of a little chest of red wood or hard card board perhaps with a brass ring on the lid and may well have held some of her own little trinkets in the Fordham days. At least it is completely authentic and has never been in any other than her family’s hands. We were brought up as children to share my grandmother’s sense of loyalty and to know the inside truth of their wishing to have Virginia go to school and live with them a little longer before marrying Edgar. So we loved everything about her and my aunt who became custodian after her parents’ death loved everything about E.A.P.
I hope very much to come to Richmond when the dear Weddells are in “Virginia House” and to see the Shrine. Meanwhile I feel that it is the place Virginia’s little box should go to as nobody after me would value it as much as I have. If you care to have it and will let me know here where I shall be until October I will post it to you when I return to St. Louis.
Josephine Poe January
Josephine Poe January’s Letter to the Poe Museum
The Poe Shrine jumped at the chance to accept the donation of this priceless relic of Poe’s wife. The chairman of the executive committee, museum co-founder Annie Boyd Jones wrote her, “As the children say, we just can’t wait to see the little red box.”
Decoration on Top of Trinket Box
Since 1927, Virginia Poe’s trinket box, one of her very few surviving possessions, has been on display at the museum for the public to study and appreciate, imagining how Virginia must have kept her few, modest trinkets in it and how she, Edgar, and Maria survived in genteel poverty while Edgar wrote for a succession of magazines in Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York. One wonders what miniature treasures Virginia kept in the box and what became of them. Maybe the box held the portrait of her husband she supposedly kissed and gave to her nurse Marie Louise Shew shortly before dying. Maybe it held a ring or a letter from Edgar. We may never know. Another question we may never answer is precisely why, out of all Virginia’s possessions, Maria Clemm chose to save this box. Maybe it had been a favorite of Virginia’s, a gift from a good friend, or just a reminder of happier times. Like most great artifacts, it makes us ask far more questions than it answers.
The Trinket Box Getting Scanned
Earlier this year, Virginia Commonwealth University’s Virtual Curation Laboratory visited the Poe Museum to make a 3D scan of the trinket box so that a three dimensional replica could be printed. Such a replica would allow museum visitors to see the actual trinket box locked safely in its case while handling the nearly identical replica. This new printing technology will offer new ways for the public to experience the museum’s collection, bringing us just a little closer to understanding what this box meant to the most important woman in Poe’s life.
Digital Image of the Trinket Box During Scanning
Now displayed alongside Virginia’s mirror in the Poe Museum’s Model Building, the box is a favorite among the museum’s many guests. Museum visitors this summer also have the rare opportunity to see two fragments of Virginia Poe’s trousseau (on loan from Dr. Richard Kopley) in the same exhibit case.
In honor of Poe’s 180th wedding anniversary, Virginia Poe’s trinket box is the Poe Museum Object of the Month. Click here to find out more about some of the other Objects of the Month.
How would you like to have your worst enemy’s portrait hanging in your living room? Although a few people half-jokingly advised us that Edgar Allan Poe would not approve of having a portrait of Rufus Griswold in the Poe Museum, we decided there was no better place for such an artifact than here in the center of the Poe-verse. Griswold, after all, is the one responsible for defaming Poe and creating the dark myth which far too many people have mistaken for fact. If it hadn’t been for Griswold, people wouldn’t still believe Poe was a drug addicted madman whose horror stories were merely based on his disturbed life.
Photograph of the Rufus Griswold portrait printed in the 1943 book Rufus Wilmot Griswold by Joy Bayless
Here is just a sample from Griswold’s obituary of Poe:
He walked the streets, in madness or melancholy, with lips moving in indistinct curses, or with eyes upturned in passionate prayers, (never for himself, for he felt, or professed to feel, that he was already damned), but for their happiness who at the moment were objects of his idolatry — or, with his glances introverted to a heart gnawed with anguish, and with a face shrouded in gloom, he would brave the wildest storms; and all night, with drenched garments and arms wildly beating the winds and rains, he would speak as if to spirits that at such times only could be evoked by him from the Aidenn close by whose portals his disturbed soul sought to forget the ills to which his constitution subjugated him — close by that Aidenn where were those he loved — the Aidenn which he might never see, but in fitful glimpses, as its gates opened to receive the less fiery and more happy natures whose destiny to sin did not involve the doom of death.
If that description sounds about right to you, it’s because of Griswold. This is the caricature of Poe he created, and, although it has long since been reputed, it is still the myth some of us learn in English class and from popular culture. It’s also the hopelessly drunk and depressed Poe portrayed by John Cusack in the 2012 film The Raven. When reading such a description it’s easy to see why most people think Poe only wrote horror stories when he actually wrote more comedies and science fiction tales.
This distorted view of Poe is so popular that a few people think we are either mistaken or lying when we at the Poe Museum tell them the true story of Poe’s life. That is when we have to inform them about Rufus Wilmot Griswold, the rival editor, anthologist, and failed poet who, to avenge some wrong Poe had done him, wrote such a libelous obituary of the author that, at first, he chose to sign it with a pseudonym. Published two days after Poe’s death, it begins, “EDGAR ALLAN POE is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.”
As if that were not enough, Griswold continued his smear campaign with a biography of Poe that portrayed the dead man as a vile, despicable human being, a liar, a blackmailer, a madman and a womanizer. Griswold even implied Poe had made a pass at his foster father’s mother and forged some of Poe’s letters to quote in the memoir. While some of Poe’s friends came forward with articles defending Poe’s good name, many were afraid to speak out until after the influential anthologist Griswold was dead. Three years after Griswold’s death, Poe’s former fiancée Sarah Helen Whitman published her own biography of Poe, and several others followed. With a few notable exceptions, most of them portrayed Poe in a much better light. Now any objective biographer can safely dismiss the popular view of Poe as an insane opium addict.
When the Poe Museum tries to provide its visitors a fair and objective view of Poe’s life and work it is helpful to distinguish the facts from the fictions associated with his biography. A big part of this involves examining the man who started these myths and the reasons he did it. That’s why most Poe Museum tours end with at least some mention of Rufus Griswold’s infamous biography of Poe.
Rufus Griswold’s Wife Caroline
A few months ago, an antique dealer contacted the Poe Museum with an offer to sell a collection of Rufus Griswold artifacts including oil paintings of Rufus Griswold and his wife Caroline as well as about forty-five letters to and from Griswold, members of his family, and the poet (and enemy of both Poe and Griswold) Elizabeth Ellet. As soon as the collections committee heard about the opportunity, it voted to acquire the items. To raise the money, the museum launched a Gofundme campaign which quickly raised the money thanks to generous gifts from Susan Jaffe Tane, Stephan Loewentheil, Abbe Ancell, Michael Brazda, Teresa Carter, Christine Clements, Christopher Davalos, Escape Room Live DC, Katrina Fontenla, Mary Lee Haase, Sarah Huffman, Magdalena Karol, L. L. Leland, Aimée Mahathy, Lizzie O., Neca Rocco, Robert Rosen, Jennifer and Joe Rougeau, Justin and Elizabeth Schauer, Ernst Schnell, John Spitzer, Wayne and Pat Stith, Kurt Strom, Amy H. Sturgis, Sara Tantlinger, Patrick Tsao, Ashleigh Williams, and Seven Anonymous Donors.
Now, after years in the possession of descendants of Rufus Griswold’s daughter Emily, this collection is finally in a public collection where anyone can see and study it. Although the portraits were printed once in a 1943 biography of Rufus Griswold, the small black-and-white reproductions in that book only provided the slightest hint of the face of Griswold we will see when we have finished conserving the original paintings. For the first time ever, the public will be able to see Rufus and Caroline Griswold as they appeared when Griswold himself owned the paintings.
Portrait of Griswold printed in 1943 book by Joy Bayless
While seeing the portraits will be like traveling back in time to meet the man, reading his private letters in this collection will be like having a conversation with him. This will be our chance to learn about Griswold’s private struggles, his aspirations, and his motivations.
Griswold descendant Benjamin Wakeman Hartley with the portrait in background ca. 1960
The paintings’ trip to the Poe Museum is just one step on their decades-long journey. Painted in 1840, they went from Griswold (1815-1857) to his daughter Emily Griswold Hartley (1838-1906, a missionary) to her son Randolph Hartley (1870-1931, a librettist and theatrical agent) to Wakeman Hartley to a Massachusetts antique dealer. The next step is a visit to the conservator to repair the damage caused by decades of neglect. Now obscured by dark varnish, dust, smoke, and grime and covered with cracks, holes, and restorers’ over-painting, these 176 year old artifacts need to be cleaned and repaired in order for us to finally see them as they would have appeared in Griswold’s time. You will learn more about that in next week’s installment.
If you would like to help take care of the Poe Museum’s artifacts, please make a contribution here.
Many who have visited the museum may have recognized the striking portrait of a mysterious woman in the Memorial Building, just above Maria Clemm’s socks and cornered to Samuel Osgood’s Poe portrait. Her eyes follow no matter where you step in the room, her inquisitive gaze and smirk presenting an air of grace, affluence, intelligence, and perhaps suspicion. She was not unknowing when it came to her guests; Poe, a short-time regular guest, was no exception. This stark woman was Anne Charlotte Lynch Botta, hostess of one of New York’s prominent literary salons, and dictator of who was “in” and who was “out” of the literary scene.
According to Maggie MacLean, author of the Women History Blog, Lynch was a poet, sculptor, and teacher, who made her bearings in Philadelphia in the early 1840s. She was introduced to popular actress Fanny Kemble, who then opened Lynch to a world of artists and writers. In 1845, she moved to New York City, where she taught English composition at the Brooklyn Academy for Young Ladies. She also published poems, stories, and contributed to periodicals such as The Gift and the Democratic Review. (Source.)
It was this year, in 1845, when Edgar Allan Poe swept the nation with his popular poem, “The Raven.” In fact, most likely because of this he was given the privilege to attend Lynch’s events. According to Elizabeth Oakes Smith, a prominent literary figure, rights activist and Poe contemporary,
To be invited to the reception of Miss Lynch was an evidence of distinction, and one in itself, for she was strict in drawing the moral as well as the intellectual line. Perhaps no one received any more marked attention than Edgar A. Poe. His slender form, pale, intellectual face and weird expression of eye never failed to arrest the attention of even the least observant…women fell under his fascination and listened in silence (Elizabeth Oakes Smith, Wyman, 88).
Elizabeth Oakes Smith.
It is said that these women, including Frances Osgood, would sit at his feet to hear him speak his eloquent, poetical topics of various discussion. In this same memoir, Oakes Smith recalled,
At that time, at the houses of Rev. Orville Dewey, Miss Anna C. Lynch (now Mrs. Botta)…Edgar Poe was an accepted and honored guest. His manners were refined, and the scope of his conversation that of the gentleman and the scholar. His wife, being an invalid, dared not encounter the night air, but he spoke of her tenderly, and often (121).
Lynch seemed to be an intelligent, respected hostess, and Edgar was now up to celebrity standards amongst his peers. However, this would not last for long. Amidst the Frances Osgood scandal, in which he swapped numerous flirtatious poems with Frances Sargent Osgood, he found himself surrounded by other vindictive women, including Ann Stephens, Margaret Fuller, and Elizabeth Ellet. According to Frederick Frank and Anthony Magistrale, authors of The Poe Encyclopedia, Poe was “‘soon off her [Lynch’s] guest list because of her disapproval of Poe’s contemptuous treatment of Elizabeth Fries Ellet'” (214).
Thus came Poe’s rise and fall with the prestigious literary scene led by the eminent Anne Lynch. As one views the portraits next to one another, they cannot help but wonder if Lynch is keeping an eye on Edgar’s antics indefinitely. What we do know is that her portrait deserves the prominence it has received hanging in the Poe Museum. To close, we will leave our readers with Poe’s own words regarding Lynch in his “Literati of New York City,”
In character Miss Lynch is enthusiastic, chivalric, self-sacrificing, “equal to any fate,” capable of even martyrdom in whatever should seem to her a holy cause-a most exemplary daughter…In person she is rather above the usual height, somewhat slender, with dark hair and eyes-the whole countenance at times full of intelligent expression. Her demeanor is dignified, graceful, and noticeable for repose.
The population of New York City was 515,547 at the beginning of 1849. When a cholera epidemic broke out that spring, about 100,000 people fled the city. Of those who remained, 5,071 succumbed to the disease. The July 8 issue of The Christian Intelligencer reported that 358 New Yorkers died of cholera in the week of June 30 through July 7. Also on July 7, Edgar Allan Poe wrote his mother-in-law, “I have been so ill — have had the cholera, or spasms quiet as bad, and can now hardly hold the pen…The very instant you get this, come to me. The joy of seeing you will almost compensate for our sorrows. We can but die together. It is no use to reason with me now; I must die…For your sake it would be sweet to live, but we must die together.” Poe wrote “New York” at the top of the page, but he probably wrote it in nearby Philadelphia, which was also suffering from a cholera epidemic. Twelve days later, he wrote his friend E.H.N. Patterson that he had “barely escaped with my life” from the cholera epidemic.
On August 7, Poe wrote Patterson that he had “suffered worse than death — not so much from the Cholera as from its long-continued consequences in debility and congestion of the brain — the latter, possibly, attributable to the calomel taken.” Calomel was a medicine derived from toxic mercury. One of many potentially dangerous “remedies” doctors of the time often prescribed to those suffering from a variety of maladies.
At a time before the acceptance of germ theory, doctors had little understanding of the causes of diseases and virtually no comprehension of how to cure them. Various quack remedies for cholera included prescribing opium, mercury pills, and oil of turpentine. If these failed to produce results, the doctor might perform tobacco smoke enemas or administer beeswax plugs to stop the diarrhea associated with the disease. The following article from the New York lists a few other proposed “cures.”
Unknown to North America before 1832, cholera tore a path of destruction across the continent that year as part of a worldwide pandemic that had begun in India and swept westward through Europe before crossing the Atlantic. In an April 9, 1832 letter, the German poet Henirich Heine described the arrival of cholera in Paris.
On March 29th, the night of mi-careme, a masked ball was in progress, the chabut in full swing. Suddenly, the gayest of the harlequins collapsed, cold in the limbs, and, underneath his mask, “violet-blue” in the face. Laughter died out, dancing ceased, and in a short while carriage-loads of people were hurried from the redoute to the Hotel Dieu to die, and to prevent a panic among the patients, were thrust into rude graves in their dominoes. Soon the public halls were filled with dead bodies, sewed in sacks for want of coffins. Long lines of hearses stood en queue outside Pere Lachaise. Everybody wore flannel bandages. The rich gathered up their belongings and fled the town. Over 120,000 passports were issued at the Hotel de Ville.
Out of a population of 650,000 Paris lost 20,000 of its citizens to cholera during the 1832 epidemic. In London, another 6,536 died. Cholera claimed 100,000 in France; 55,000 in the United Kingdom; 130,000 in Egypt; 100,000 in Hungary; and even more elsewhere during that pandemic. In New York City, which had a population of about 250,000 at the time, 3,000 people died, and an estimated 100,000 fled the city.
Poe was in Baltimore in 1832 and would have seen the panic brought about by the arrival of the disease. He also lost one of his closest friends Ebenezer Burling, who succumbed to cholera in Richmond. The best doctors of the time were unable to arrest the progress of the disease. It would be years before they would realize it was carried in the water. Unsuspecting victims contracted the germs from drinking water. Once they displayed symptoms, sufferers could expect about a fifty percent mortality rate.
Without a proper understanding of the causes of cholera, residents could do little to prepare for it. Writing twenty years later, Dr. George B. Wood seemed dumbfounded about how to stop it when he wrote, “No barriers are sufficient to obstruct its progress. It crosses mountains, deserts, and oceans. Opposing winds do not check it. All classes of persons, male and female, young and old, the robust and the feeble, are exposed to its assault; and even those whom it has once visited are not always subsequently exempt.”
Former New York mayor Phillip Horne was among many who thought they knew the real cause of the disease—the Irish. These immigrants, “filthy, intemperate, unused to the comforts of life and regardless of its proprieties…flock to the populous towns of the great West, with disease contracted on shipboard, and increased by bad habits on shore,” he wrote in his diary.
By the end of the 1849 epidemic, cholera had claimed 150,000 American lives. While this disease struck terror wherever it visited, cholera was not unique among the deadly pandemics that threatened Poe’s world. Yellow fever epidemics broke out multiple times in the early nineteenth century, forcing Poe’s mother to flee from an outbreak in New York and overtaking his grandmother in Charleston. His cousin George William Poe succumbed to yellow fever in Baltimore. Virginia experienced thirteen yellow fever epidemics in the 1800s. The worst of these took place in Norfolk in 1855, six years after Poe’s death. Of the city’s population of 16,000, about 6,000 fled the area, and 2,000 died.
Tuberculosis also claimed thousands of lives each year. Among those he knew, Poe’s mother, foster mother, brother, wife, and literary executor died from the extremely widespread and very contagious killer. He likely carried a latent form of the disease.
His first published short story “Metzengerstein” reflects the age’s tendency to romanticize the wasting disease, then called “consumption.” In the tale, the narrator says, “The beautiful Lady Mary! — how could she die? — and of consumption! But it is a path I have prayed to follow. I would wish all I love to perish of that gentle disease. How glorious! to depart in the hey-day of the young blood — the heart of all passion — the imagination all fire — amid the remembrances of happier days — in the fall of the year, and so be buried up forever in the gorgeous, autumnal leaves.”
Fifteen years later, Poe would watch his wife waste away from tuberculosis over the course of five agonizing years.
“King Pest” illustration by Harry Clarke
In the face of all these real-life terrors, Poe turned to his writing. The cholera pandemic of 1832 inspired his short stories “King Pest” and “The Masque of the Red Death” and provided a setting for his tale “The Sphinx.” The beautiful young women who succumb to wasting deaths in so many of his stories might be suffering from the same consumption that had claimed many of his loved ones.
Poe’s brother William Henry Leonard Poe, also wrote about yellow fever, setting his story “The Pirate” during an outbreak. Virginia Poe, Edgar’s wife, also wrote, in her only surviving poem, about the consumption that ravaged her lungs and how she wanted to move to a cottage in the country to “heal my weakened lungs.”
It was not until well after Poe’s death that doctors were finally able to effectively combat these illnesses. With greater understanding of the causes and cures of these diseases, the public gradually became less prone to live in fear of the next plague or to panic at the first sight of disease. That is why it is sometimes difficult to understand just how terrifying a story like “The Masque of the Red Death” might have been to the author’s contemporaries or to comprehend how deeply offensive Robert Louis Stevenson found Poe’s plague comedy “King Pest,” written just three years after the 1832 cholera pandemic. (Stevenson went so far as to write that the author of that story had “ceased to be a human being.”) This is why from June 23 through August 21, the Poe Museum will host the special exhibit Pandemics and Poe exploring the ways deadly diseases like yellow fever, cholera, and tuberculosis touched Edgar Allan Poe’s life and inspired some of his greatest work. The exhibit features rare first printings and original documents, including a Poe family bible, that trace the impact of disease and death on Poe’s world.
“The Masque of the Red Death” illustrated by Harry Clarke
British Broadsheet warning about Cholera
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Broadsheet warning about Indian cholera symptons and recommending remedies, issued in Clerkenwell, London, by Thos. Key and Geo. Tindall: Church wardens. London, 1831.
1831 Published: –
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
First, I am going to propose what a researcher might have to do to conduct a comprehensive study of Poe’s 1848 book, Eureka: A Prose Poem. Then, I am going to explain why I decided not to fall into the trap of attempting to evaluate Poe’s final work. As I noted in my previous Poe and Science Blogs, in 2012 and 2013 , I attempted to design a Prospectus on Eureka for my M.A. Thesis in English Literature at the Virginia Commonwealth University. To that end, I worked with Chris Semtner at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond and several professors at VCU putting together a few draft versions on a proposal to evaluate Eureka. I spent hours in libraries reviewing articles and even books that scholars had written about Eureka. I transcribed Moon-Notes, a scientific manuscript that Poe had written to assist him with several works he was writing. And finally, I took a trip to New York, to the noted collector, Susan Jaffe Tane’s home, to examine Poe’s personal copy of Eureka. This book is now the most valuable first-edition since it contains hand-edited notes by Poe indicating that he had intended to revise and expand his work in a later edition. It is hard to determine conclusively why Poe decided to attempt to write and publish this comprehensive poetic, historical, scientific, and metaphysical treatise after having established a highly recognizable career as a poet and fiction writer, but there are some clues.
In 1847, after recovering from a serious illness, the death of his wife, and facing the prospects of his own mortality, Poe decided to conduct research on astronomy and cosmology. Perhaps he hoped he might be able to unify the differing theories about the universe that were being advanced by competing disciplines and to publish his conclusions in a single book. By that period, astronomers had developed more powerful telescopes than had been available at any previous time. These instruments could discern details of celestial bodies which were at the far edges of the Solar System and beyond. Undoubtedly, Poe was attempting to gain a greater understanding of the most credible theories about the origins and operational details of the Universe. He was seeking answers to the mysteries surrounding the greater meaning of life and existence. As if those questions weren’t comprehensive and mysterious enough, he also decided to address what happens to humans after they died, a topic which he had often explored in great detail in his previous poetry and science fiction writing.
After he finally published Eureka: A Prose Poem in 1848, he suggested that his book should not be evaluated until after he died (Preface of Eureka). Prior to its publication, he informed his publisher, George P. Putnam, that Eureka would one day found to be “of greater importance than Newton’s discovery of gravitation.” He considered it the culmination of his life’s work” (Broussard 52). Once Eureka was published, Poe resumed a lecture tour and promoted his book until his death in 1849. In the Preface, he suggested that though his book is “True,” it should only be read for the “Beauty that abounds in Truth.”
Eureka remains for us as Poe’s most enigmatic work. Even the most ardent Poe experts are baffled when trying to read or understand the book. To this date, no one has been able to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of Poe’s most enigmatic work. Literary critic, Charles Baxter, in Burning Down The House, writes about a literary device that has often been employed by fiction writers, called defamiliarization. In this technique, everyday scenes take place in unexpected settings; or unfamiliar scenes takes place in everyday settings (21). Avid readers of Poe are very familiar with his writing style and literary themes but are often unfamiliar with the subject matter of Poe’s culminating poetic-science treatise. Some critics have noted that Eureka is too scientific for literature and too literary for science. Scientists who have considered Poe’s book have generally not considered him sufficiently qualified to write on complex scientific subjects and literary scholars are often too baffled to attempt to apply the tools of literary criticism on Poe’s science book. Prominent nineteenth-century scientist, Alexander von Humboldt (to whom Poe dedicated Eureka) wrote that “he enjoyed Poe’s latest satire on science” (Levine 118). Henry Lee (Hal) Poe a descendant of E.A. Poe’s cousin (William Poe) and a prominent E.A. Poe researcher stated that until the last quarter century many researchers were quick to dismiss Eureka as being too difficult to understand. As evidence to that assumption, they concluded that, in Eureka, Poe had “gone around the bend.” Hal Poe contends that the easiest course, both for Poe enthusiasts and detractors, has been to dismiss the work in its entirety. However, during the modern era, there has also been another growing group of literary, historical, and science researchers who have been willing to take a fresh look at the work (H.L. Poe, ix).
After more than a year of Eureka research, I concluded that to gain a fuller understanding of Poe’s culminating book, I would first need to determine whether Poe’s interest in science in Eureka was an anomaly or a continuation of his previous interest in that topic. Therefore, I shifted my research priority to trace the development of Poe’s science-based themes throughout his pre-Eureka, poetic, non-fiction, and fictional writing. I wondered if an understanding of Poe’s previous works might help me to better understand Eureka. Although I was still enthusiastic about conducting research on Poe and Science, I did not believe that I was ready or able to accept Poe’s challenge of evaluating Eureka almost 170 years after Poe published his book. Several previous researchers had attempted to use traditional methods of critiquing literary or scientific research with Eureka but had produced inconclusive results. Using the pitfalls of these previous research studies as cautionary guidelines, I decided, instead, to construct some questions that other scholars might need to consider before attempting to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of Eureka. I delineated these questions in 2013 both at the William & Mary Literature and History Conference and the Positively Poe Conference at the University of Virginia.
Research Questions about Eureka
- What are the major scientific themes embedded in Poe’s poetry, non-fiction, and fictional writing?
- Were Poe’s previous science themes continued in Eureka or was his book an anomalous work?
- Would an understanding the historical, cultural, and scientific contexts of the nineteenth-century to help modern researchers to better understand Eureka?
- How does Eureka help modern scholars to understand how the nineteenth-century public received and interpreted news about science and technology?
- What are the major scientific theories that informed Poe as he was writing Eureka?
- How did critics respond to Eureka in and after Poe’s lifetime, and what is the validity of their responses?
- What are the literary techniques Poe used in writing Eureka and does he follow his own standards?
- What are the theories and conclusions that Poe reached in his treatise?
- What is the significance of Eureka in Poe’s Canon, in English Literature, and in science history?
Re-Assessment of Eureka Needed?
The conclusion I reached after considering these research questions is that for me to complete a comprehensive evaluation of Eureka, I would need to conduct a multi-perspective study, requiring a combination of literary analysis, historical, and scientific research. I concluded that I would not be able to complete such a study within the time that I had left in my M.A. program. Anyone conducting such a study would need to employ the ingenious inductive, deductive, and ratiocinative methods of Poe’s Detective C. Auguste Dupin to unravel the many seemingly unsolvable puzzles of Eureka. Poe defines ratiocination as the process of reasoning or forming accurate conclusions from known and observed premises as a method of solving complex and seemingly irresolvable mysteries. Ratiocination combines the use of considerable intellect, intuition, and creative imagination. Poe’s previous detective writing and columns on cryptography demonstrate that he was interested in posing and resolving complex problems. He created Dupin as a literary figure to solve the most complex enigmas and conundrums by using the highest form of human discovery available to the human mind. It is possible, then, that Poe wrote Eureka as a puzzle, and left obscure clues for his readers to solve like he done in his earlier cryptography newspaper columns. However, solutions to the puzzles and mysteries Poe posed in Eureka have evaded researchers and readers for almost one hundred and seventy years. In my next Poe and Science column, I will explain why I decided not to focus my M.A. Thesis research on evaluating Eureka but, instead, on the general topic of Poe and Science.
Baxter, Charles. Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2008.
Broussard, Louis. The Measure of Poe. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969.
Daniels, George. American Science in the Age of Jackson. NY: Columbia UP, 1968.
Levine, Stuart and Susan F. Levine. Eureka. Eds. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.
Ostram, John, Ed. The Notes of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Guardian Press, 1966.
Poe, Edgar Allan. Eureka A Prose Poem. New York: George P. Putnam, 1848.
____ “Moon Notes,” Scanned copy of eight un-numbered and unordered pages handwritten by Edgar Allan Poe Museum, Richmond, VA: MS (Museum Catalogue # 2012.2.44). Manuscript
Poe, Henry Lee. Evermore: Edgar Allan Poe and the Mystery of the Universe. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2012.
Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: A Biography. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.
Thomas, Dwight and David Jackson. Eds. The Poe Log- A Documentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe 1809 – 1849. Boston: G.B. Hall and Company, 1987.
Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education at Temple University (1973), a Master’s of Arts in English Literature at VCU (2015), and a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech in 1987. He is married and has three adult employed daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. Currently, he serves as a literature teacher, board member, and curriculum advisor for the Lifelong Learning Institute in Chesterfield, Virginia, and is the founder and chief editor of the literary blog, www.LitChatte.com. He is an editor for the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and editing a book of poetry written by an Indian mystic. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and all-around helper at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. You can write to Murray by leaving a Comment or at [email protected]
Murray at the Richmond Poe Museum
May 11 marks the 112th birthday of one of the twentieth century’s most important artists, Salvador Dalí. What does the great Spanish Surrealist painter Dalí have to do with Edgar Allan Poe? More than you might think.
Dalí mentions Poe at the beginning and the end of his autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí. In the first anecdote, Dalí describes the cultural climate in Paris in the 1930s and how everyone was reading Poe and Marie Bonaparte’s new psychoanalytical take of Poe’s work. Bonaparte’s search for hidden Freudian meanings in Poe’s work appealed to Dalí and the Surrealists, who were trying to tap into the powers of the subconscious.
Dali painting in Virginia
At the end of Dalí’s autobiography, he describes the process of writing the book. By that time he has fled the war in Europe and is living with friends in Virginia, about an hour north of Richmond. While there, he began Daddy Long Legs of Evening—Hope! (1940), his first picture painted entirely in America, and Slave Market with Disappearing Bust of Voltaire (1940).
During his stay, newspaper accounts say Dalí visited Richmond movie theaters and museums. One of his housemates, the author Henry Miller, signed the Poe Museum’s guest book. Dalí likely also visited the Poe Museum at that time, but his signature has not been located in the guest book. After either hearing Miller’s description of the Poe Museum’s Enchanted Garden or after seeing it for himself, Dalí decorated the garden at the house at which he was staying and entitled his work “The Enchanted Garden.”
Dali’s Enchanted Garden in Bowling Green, Virginia
Whether or not Poe influenced Dalí’s landscaping, he apparently inspired the painter’s writing. In fact, Dalí claimed Poe helped him write his autobiography. According to Dalí, “on certain nights the spectre of Edgar Allan Poe would come from Richmond to see me, in a very pretty convertible car all spattered with ink. One night he made me a present of a black telephone truffled with black pieces of black noses of black dogs, inside which he had fastened with black strings a dead black rat and a black sock, the whole soaked in India ink.”
After leaving Virginia, Dalí took America by storm, producing some of his best paintings, painting celebrity portraits, and collaborating with Hollywood directors Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney. Click here to read more about Dalí’s stay in Virginia.
Dali’s painting Soft Construction in Boiled Beans (1936)
Mystery, madness, and flowers?
While most might associate Edgar Allan Poe with horror and mysteries, the nineteenth century author loved and wrote about gardens. In fact, the centerpiece of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond is an Enchanted Garden based on his poem “To One in Paradise.” The garden, in turn, has inspired the Poe Museum to invite artists to sketch, paint, or photograph the site for its upcoming exhibit Painting the Enchanted Garden 3, which will run from May 26 until July 24, 2016. Artists from Atlanta to Richmond have accepted the challenge to visit the Poe Museum’s garden over the past few months to begin their work, which must be complete in time for the May 26 opening of this popular annual show. The exhibit opening will take place at the May 26 Unhappy Hour which features live music by Margot MacDonald, performances, and refreshments provided by The Luncheonette.
Participating artists include Lisa Mistry, Taylor Wilson, Chris Ludke, Amelia Blair Langford, Anne Argenzio, Hanna Bechtle, Mary Pedini, Mary Beth Johnson, David Bromley, Julie Burleigh, Mike Steele, Jan Priddy, Kenner Fortner, Agnes Grochulska, Renee Gleason, Alyson Parsons, Susie Melton, and Dwight Paulett.
Artwork by Chris Ludke
Editor Nathaniel Parker Willis once burned a manuscript of Poe’s “Fairy-Land.” That seems like pretty harsh treatment from a literary editor; and we wonder why such atmospheric lines as “Dim vales-and shadowy floods- / And cloudy-looking woods” might receive such severe critical feedback? The answer lies in comparing the poem we commonly know with its alternative publishing in Poe’s anthology of poems in 1831.
It was no secret that Poe was always at work altering lines and switching words-“Fairy-Land” was no exception.
Our readers may be familiar with the classic verse, which reads,
Dim vales—and shadowy floods—
And cloudy-looking woods,
Whose forms we can’t discover
For the tears that drip all over:
Huge moons there wax and wane—
Every moment of the night—
Forever changing places—
And they put out the star-light
With the breath from their pale faces.
About twelve by the moon-dial,
One more filmy than the rest
(A kind which, upon trial,
They have found to be the best)
Comes down—still down—and down
With its centre on the crown
Of a mountain’s eminence,
While its wide circumference
In easy drapery falls
Over hamlets, over halls,
Wherever they may be—
O’er the strange woods—o’er the sea—
Over spirits on the wing—
Over every drowsy thing—
And buries them up quite
In a labyrinth of light—
And then, how, deep! —O, deep,
Is the passion of their sleep.
In the morning they arise,
And their moony covering
Is soaring in the skies,
With the tempests as they toss,
Like—almost any thing—
Or a yellow Albatross.
They use that moon no more
For the same end as before,
Videlicet, a tent—
Which I think extravagant:
Its atomies, however,
Into a shower dissever,
Of which those butterflies
Of Earth, who seek the skies,
And so come down again
Have brought a specimen
Upon their quivering wings.
The following is what N. P. Willis had to say about this version of the poem:
It is quite exciting to lean over eagerly as the flame eats in upon the letters, and make out the imperfect sentences and trace the faint strokes in the tinder as it trembles in the ascending air of the chimney. There, for instance, goes a gilt-edged sheet which we remember was covered with some sickly rhymes on Fairy-land….Now it [the flame] flashes up in a broad blaze, and now it reaches a marked verse-let us see-the fire devours as we read:
“They use that moon no more,
For the same end as before-
Videlicet, a tent,
Which I think extravagant.”
Burn on, good fire! (From The Editor’s Table’ of the American Monthly for November, here found in The Poe Log, 99).
Critic Nathaniel Parker Willis
Whether Willis truly burned the manuscript the twenty-year-old Poe poured his heart into, or whether he figuratively made this claim to prove a striking point, we may infer that the notice may have burned Poe so severely that it caused him to turn the memorable piece into a less than memorable one. Here is the following revised version found in his 1831, Poems, just two years after Willis’ scathing review,
Sit down beside me, Isabel,
Here, dearest, where the moonbeam fell
Just now so fairy-like and well.
Now thou art dress’d for paradise!
I am star-stricken with thine eyes!
My soul is lolling on thy sighs!
Thy hair is lifted by the moon
Like flowers by the low breath of June!
Sit down, sit down — how came we here?
Or is it all but a dream, my dear?
You know that most enormous flower —
That rose — that what d’ye call it — that hung
Up like a dog-star in this bower —
To-day (the wind blew, and) it swung
So impudently in my face,
So like a thing alive you know,
I tore it from its pride of place
And shook it into pieces — so
Be all ingratitude requited.
The winds ran off with it delighted,
And, thro’ the opening left, as soon
As she threw off her cloak, yon moon
Has sent a ray down with a tune.
And this ray is a fairy ray —
Did you not say so, Isabel?
How fantastically it fell
With a spiral twist and a swell,
And over the wet grass rippled away
With a tinkling like a bell!
In my own country all the way
We can discover a moon ray
Which thro’ some tatter’d curtain pries
Into the darkness of a room,
Is by (the very source of gloom)
The motes, and dust, and flies,
On which it trembles and lies
Like joy upon sorrow!
O, when will come the morrow?
Isabel! do you not fear
The night and the wonders here?
Dim vales! and shadowy floods!
And cloudy-looking woods
Whose forms we can’t discover
For the tears that drip all over!
Huge moons — see! wax and wane
Again — again — again —
Every moment of the night —
Forever changing places!
How they put out the starlight
With the breath from their pale faces!
Lo! one is coming down
With its centre on the crown
Of a mountain’s eminence!
Down — still down — and down —
Now deep shall be — O deep!
The passion of our sleep!
For that wide circumference
In easy drapery falls
Drowsily over halls —
Over ruin’d walls —
O’re the strange woods — o’er the sea —
Alas! over the sea! (Taken from here).
We question Poe’s motives in changing the poem, causing it to become so lengthy and awkward; even a fellow Poe enthusiast was left shaking their head in confusion, stating, “I don’t even recognize that poem. Isabel-?!” Perhaps this alternate “Fairy Land” is truly that-an alternate “Fairy Land.” Thus, shouldn’t it be treated as its own poem and published, perhaps, alongside our final version of “Fairy-Land?” It is noted in Mabbott’s Complete Poems that Poe never republished “Fairy Land” (which is noted here as “Fairy Land [II]”). He may have been ashamed of his lengthy alternative and thus stuck with his original, scathed “Fairy-Land,” pushing its popularity and thus allowing it to be the one contemporary audiences may be more familiar with. This is not to say that both poems have not been published side-by-side, in some cases, since; however, the author of this post would like to point out that two of her own Poe volumes do not contain “Fairy Land” from 1831 Poems.
What do you think about the alternate piece? Do you think both versions should be, or continue to be, published in future Poe anthologies? Which version do you prefer?
As m Blog on Poe and Science advance, I will be documenting the process I undertook and my findings on Poe and Science, which led to my Master’s Thesis in English Literature in December 2015, at Virginia Commonwealth University. After regular visits to the Poe Museum in early 2013 to conduct research on Eureka: A Prose Poem, the final work that the Poe published under his own supervision, I started reading what other scholars had to say about Eureka: A Prose Poem. I will be discussing their conclusions in detail in a future blog. As my reading advanced, I conceived of the idea of writing a thesis which would propose to evaluate Poe’s scientific treatise, even though Poe had warned critics not to try to evaluate his book in his lifetime. I wondered why he would issue such a disclaimer. Perhaps, he thought that if he warned critics not to evaluate it, they would take it as a challenge and pay closer attention to his book than they might have done otherwise.
After about two decades of his poetry, newspaper reporting, essays, fictional works, and journalistic hoaxes, most people who were paying attention to Poe could not even begin to anticipate what he might do next or understand his ulterior motives. After Eureka was released in 1848, he proved, again, that he was correct. Responses to his book came in from many major newspapers and literary journals in the United States and Europe. Early reviews, before most critics had a chance to study the book in full, were mostly positive. After Eureka had been out for several months, critics were all over the map with their opinions. I will also discuss these reviews in a future blog. Suffice it to say that some critics thought it was brilliant and others ridiculed both Poe and his scientific treatise. During my spring, 2013 Semester as a Master’s student at VCU, I began to formulate some proposals on what type of research on Poe and Science to conduct. Within the next two semesters, I had put some of my ideas and gave workshops at the VCU Graduate Writers Workshop, The William and Mary Humanities, History, and Literature Symposium, the Positively Poe Society Workshop in Charlottesville, and the Young Poe Writers Workshop. The last major workshop I delivered was to the members of the International History of Science in Society (HSS) Annual Conference in Boston, Massachusetts. It was fully funded by the VCU English Department and HSS. I feel very appreciative that VCU professors Karen Rader (History and Science) and Joshua Eckhardt (English Literature) made the funding support possible. I felt excited that Poe was finally being recognized as an important figure in the early history of science in the United States. I was even more encouraged by the enthusiastic report that I received after I delivered my talk. One history professor from Oklahoma showed me positive remarks and comments he had posted on Twitter during my talk. Also, Bernard Lightman, one of the top authorities in the history of science during the Victorian Era, was in my audience. It is a good thing that I did not know this or it would have made me extremely nervous. When he came up to me after my presentation and gave me affirming feedback, I was thrilled. I asked him if I had quoted and interpreted his writing properly. He said, “Absolutely!” I talked again to the Oklahoma professor (I wish I could remember his name) and Bernard Lightman several times during the conference. Both agreed that Edgar Allan Poe needed to be given more credit for being an important early contributor to the History of Science in the Nineteenth Century. The conclusion I reached after my preliminary studies is that we can learn more about the history of nineteenth-century science and about how people received science information from Poe than we can from professional science writers who wrote during that period. This idea is also supported by newer writing that has been coming out in the field of the history of science, which offers four major conclusions about early to mid-nineteenth-century science:
- Science was branching off into many new and highly specialized fields.
- There was much disagreement among scientists about which fields were and were not legitimate.
- The public was amazed at the emerging nineteenth-century technologies but often couldn’t differentiate between the legitimate sciences and the mysterious pseudo-sciences.
- “Popularizers,” like Poe, wrote about how science affected people in ways that the public understood.
My research after the first year and my experiences giving presentations at the above conferences influenced my decision to shift the focus of my thesis away from evaluating Eureka (which I had determined was an almost impossible task) and towards studying how the public’s interest in science influenced Poe’s decision to concentrate on writing about this topic. Conversely, I also decided that, as Poe got more popular, his decision to incorporate scientific topics in his writings further inspired the public’s interest in science. In my next Poe and Science Blogs, I will discuss the conclusions I presented at the Positively Poe Conference about why evaluating Eureka has been, and will continue to be such a difficult challenge.
Levine, Stuart and Susan F. Edgar Allan Poe: Eureka. Eds. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2004.
Limon, John. The Place of Fiction in the Time of Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Lightman, Bernard. Victorian Science in Context. Ed. University of Chicago Press, 1997.
Thomas, Dwight and David Jackson, Ed. The Poe Log- A Documentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe 1809-1849. Boston: G.B. Hall and Company, 1987.
Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education (1973) and in English Literature (2015). He earned a Doctorate in Education in 1987. He is married and has three adult employed daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. Currently, he serves as a literature teacher, board member, and curriculum advisor for the Lifelong Learning Institute in Chesterfield, Virginia, and the founder and chief editor of the literary blog, www.LitChatte.com. He is an editor for the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and editing a book of poetry written by an Indian mystic. He also serves as a board member and occasional volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and all-around helper at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. You can write to Murray by leaving a Comment on this Blog, or at [email protected]. You can also receive automatic postings from www.Litchatte.com by submitting your email in the tab to the right of this blog.
Murray at the Richmond Poe Museum
April is National Poetry Month and the perfect time to celebrate all the poetry in the world around us. Whether we read it in a book or listen to it on the radio, we enjoy poetry in countless forms. In Edgar Allan Poe’s time, when poetry was far more popular than it is today, people experienced poetry in a number of different ways. Much like today, poets gave public readings for their work or published it in books or magazines. Poe and his contemporaries also wrote their poems in ladies’ albums.
Ladies’ albums were popular gifts for girls throughout much of the nineteenth century. The owner would send her album to her friends and relatives who would fill them with poetry and drawings in much the same way today’s high school students sign each other’s yearbooks. In the nineteenth century, however, people put a lot more effort into signing their friends’ albums. Here are three good examples from the collection of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum.
The first belonged to Lucy Dorothea Henry (1822-1898), the granddaughter of Revolutionary War orator Patrick Henry. In spite of living on a rural Virginia plantation, she befriended some of the leading authors of her day by writing them to request their autographs for her collection. In the process, she befriended New York editor and autograph collector John Keese who gave her this album.
This is Keese’s inscription.
This page contains a poem by American poet Charles Fenno Hoffman.
Here is poem by Elizabeth Oakes Smith that shows off the poet’s beautiful handwriting.
Henry’s daughters donated both her autograph collection and her album to the Poe Museum in 1928.
The next album belonged to Louisa Anna Lynch (1825-1891), who grew up in Petersburg, Virginia. When she was a girl, Edgar Allan Poe gave her a copy of a book and autographed it for her. Read all about it here. When her descendants donated that book to the Poe Museum, they also donated her autograph album, which is full of poems dating to the early 1840s.
Somebody wrote these unsigned captions for the book’s few illustrations. The captions are quotes from various books and periodicals.
The anonymous writer of this Shakespeare quote has given Louisa the nickname Annie.
One suitor thought he could impress Louisa by writing this essay on friendship in her album.
Here are the closing lines of a poem signed “CMF” and the opening verses of a poem signed “Amicus.”
The third album belonged to Amelia Poe, the twin sister of Neilson Poe, the husband of Josephine Emily Clemm Poe Poe, half-sister of Edgar Poe’s wife Virginia Clemm Poe, who was also Edgar’s first cousin. (If that is confusing, you can read about the Poe family genealogy here.) This album is a treasure trove of poetry, artworks, and pressed flowers.
The person who wrote this poem also decorated the page with drawings.
Here is another elaborate decoration.
When writing in a lady’s album, one could either compose an original poem or quote an appropriate poem by a popular author. In the sample below, someone has quoted a couple verses of Scottish poet Thomas Campbell’s 1799 poem “The Pleasure of Hope” and signed it with a dotted line. If you look very closely, someone wrote some initials in pencil on that dotted line. They appear to be “EAP.”
In either 1829 or 1832-1836, Edgar Allan Poe wrote the first stanza of his poem “To Helen” in the album. Today this is thought to be the only surviving copy of that poem in Poe’s handwriting.
Amelia Poe’s granddaughter donated this album and other Poe family items to the Poe Museum in 1930.
This has been only a small sample of the many poems written throughout each of these albums. At a time when writing in cursive is a dying art and when writing poetry in albums has long-since gone out of fashion, we can read through the poetry in the Poe Museum’s albums to get a sense of the role poetry played in people’s daily lives back in Poe’s time.