Edgar Allan Poe was born just over 200 years ago, and he died in 1849. The writer & poet, is known worldwide for his surprise-ending horror mysteries & macabre poetry. Poe was one of the earliest American short story writers of both crime & science fiction. His most recurring gothic themes deal with women & death.
Beyond horror, Poe also wrote both merciless & seductive literary criticism; satires from the dark corners of his mind; humorous intrigues; & outright hoaxes. For comic effect, he used irony & outrageous extravagance to lure the reader away from the cultural conformity of the era, while maintaining a fairly conservative view of the proper role of women in 19th century America.
1802 Unknown Artist. Eliza Arnold Hopkins Poe (Edgar Allan Poe's mother) (1787-1811).
Both of Poe's parents were professional actors, who died when Poe was just turning 3. Poe was with his mother, who was performing in Richmond, Virginia, when she died. Of his mother, Poe wrote in 1835, "In speaking of my mother you have touched a string to which my heart fully responds. To have known her is to be the object of great interest in my eyes. I myself never knew her — and never knew the affection of a father. Both died . . . within a few weeks of each other. I have many occasional dealings with Adversity — but the want of parental affection has been the heaviest of my trials"
Taking pity on the orphaned toddler and having no children of their own, wealthy tobacco exporter John Allan & his wife Frances raised Poe as a foster child in Richmond. The Allans took Poe to England for 5 years, where he attended the best boarding schools. But they did not adopt the young boy, who would always be known as the poor orphan of an itinerant actress.
Sarah Elmira Royster (Mrs Alexander Shelton) (1810-1888). Childhood sweetheart of Edgar Allan Poe. I doubt that this is a period depiction of Poe's childhood & later sweetheart.
After they returned to Richmond, the Allans sent him to the University of Virginia, where Poe excelled academically. Less than a year at the university however, he was forced to leave, when the Allans refused to pay his mounting gambling debts. In 1828, Poe wrote of his worry about losing his foster mother's love, "My dearest love to Ma — it is only when absent that we can tell the value of such a friend — I hope she will not let my wayward disposition wear away the love she used to have for me"
He returned to Richmond to find that his longtime childhood sweetheart had married another in his absence. Now his foster parents & his first love had abandoned him; just as his parents had, when they died. Poe's fears & anxieties about his relationships with women provided inspiration for some of the most darkly romantic poems & wrenching short stories of the early 19th century.
John Sartain (1808-1897) Edgar Allen Poe
In 1835, the 27-year-old Poe married Virginia Clemm, his 13-year-old cousin from Baltimore. Feeling alone in the world since the death of his parents, when he was only a toddler; Poe was devoted to his child bride.
Thomas Sully (1783-1872) . Virginia Clemm Poe
Her new husband guided her education, personally tutoring her in the classics & math. She excelled during singing & piano lessons, developing a beautiful voice.
Thomas Sully (1783-1872) . Portrait of a Girl Reading. This may or may not be Virginia Clemm Poe.
In Philadelphia on January 20, 1842, Virginia, when playing the piano & singing, began to cough & blood poured from her mouth. This pulmonary hemorrhaging was a symtom of tuberculosis, a disease which had already killed so many of Edgar's loved ones.
1837 Unknown Artist. Virginia Clemm Poe. Westminister Burying Ground, Baltimore, Maryland.
"My dear little wife has been dangerously ill. About a fortnight since, in singing, she ruptured a blood vessel, and it was only on yesterday that the physicians gave me any hope of her recovery. You might imagine the agony I have suffered, for you know how devotedly I love her." Edgar Allan Poe to Frederick William Thomas, February 3, 1842
Edgar Allan Poe daguerreotype painted by John M. Fasano.
Virginia's diminishing health drove Edgar into deep depression, to heavy drinking, & into loving friendships with other women. Some of his female companions helped him deal with Virginia's approaching death, while others angrily turned on him.
Poe became an associate editor of the New York based Broadway Journal in February of 1845, and in March he became editor & part owner. Here Poe met "Fanny" Osgood (Mrs. Frances Sargent Osgood), estranged wife of portrait painter, Samuel S. Osgood, in March of 1845. Poe fell in some sort of love with the woman he described, "She is ardent, sensitive, impulsive...above medium height, slender to fragility, graceful...complexion usually pale; hair very black and glossy; eyes a clear, luminous grey, large, and with a singular capacity of expression."
1848 Frances "Fanny" Sargent Locke Osgood (1811-1850). In Female American Poets
When the New York weather became too much for the frail Mrs. Osgood's health, she left New York for a season. Taking advantage of her absence, the younger author, Mrs. Elizabeth Ellet, began a relationship with the ever lonely, ever searching Poe. The jealousy between the two women led to Poe's dying wife Virginia finding out about his possible romantic entanglements.
Elizabeth Fries Lummis Ellet (1812-1877). Godey's Lady's Book # 34, 1847.
"Kindest--dearest friend--My poor Virginia still lives, although failing fast and now suffering much pain. May God grant her life until she sees you and thanks you once again! Her bosom is full to overflowing--like my own--with a boundless--inexpressible gratitude to you. Lest she may never see you more--she bids me say that she sends you her sweetest kiss of love and will die blessing you. But come--oh come tomorrow!" Edgar Allan Poe to Marie Louise Shew, January 29, 1847
1848 Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe.
"She called me to her bedside, took a picture of her husband from under her pillow, kissed it, and gave it to me. She took from her portfolio a worn letter and showed it to her husband, he read it and weeping heavy tears gave it to me to read. It was a letter from Mr. Allan's wife after his death. It expressed a desire to see him, acknowledged that she alone had been the cause of his adopted Father's neglect." Marie Louise Shew, March 28, 1875
"She (Mrs. Shew) tendered her while she lived, as if she had been her dear sister, and when she was dead she dressed her for the grave in beautiful linen. If it had not been for her, my darling Virginia would have been laid in her grave in cotton." Mary Gove quoting Maria Clemm, 1863
Virginia Clemm Poe on her deathbed.
On January 30, 1847, Virginia died.
"I bought her coffin, her grave clothes, and Edgar's mourning, except the little help Mary Starr gave me." Marie Louis Shew, January 23, 1875
Her obituary was printed in both the Daily Tribune and the New York Herald on February 1, 1847: "On Saturday, the 30th ult, of pulmonary consumption, in the 25th year of her age, VIRGINIA ELIZA, wife of EDGAR A. POE. Her friends are invited to attend her funeral at Fordham, Westchester county, on Tuesday next, (tomorrow,) at 2 P.M. The cars leave New-York for Fordham, from the City Hall, at 12 P.M., returning at 4 P.M."
Almost a year later, Edgar wrote George W. Eveleth, describing how Virginia's illness and death had affected him. "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. Again in about a year afterward. Then again--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 leash 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 with the total loss of reason. In the death of what was my life, then, I receive a new but--oh God! how melancholy an existence." Edgar Allan Poe to George W. Eveleth, January 4, 1848
Last known daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe.
Poe continued drinking excessively, and he continued searching for a woman to love who would not die or leave him. He wrote this letter to writer & poet Sarah Helen Whitman, on October 1, 1848,
1865 Detail. C. Giovanni Thompson. Sarah Helen Power Whitman (1803-1878).
I cannot better explain to you what I felt than by saying that your unknown heart seemed to pass into my bosom – there to dwell forever – while mine, I thought, was translated into your own.
From that hour I loved you. Yes, I now feel that it was then – on that evening of sweet dreams – that the very first dawn of human love burst upon the icy night of my spirit. Since that period I have never seen nor heard your name without a shiver half of delight, half of anxiety… for years your name never past my lips, while my soul drank in, with a delirious thirst, all that was uttered in my presence respecting you.
The merest whisper that concerned you awoke in me a shuddering sixth sense, vaguely compounded of fear, ecstatic happiness, and a wild, inexplicable sentiment that resembled nothing so nearly as the consciousness of guilt.
Shortly after Miss Whitman rejected him, mostly because of his excessive drinking & pressure from her mother, Poe met & fell in love with Mrs. Annie Richmond. Mrs. Richmond, wife of paper manufacturer Charles Richmond of Lowell, Massachusettes, lovingly consoled Poe after his heartbreaking separation from Whitman.
On November 16, 1848, he wrote to Annie,
Ah beloved, think—think for me & for yourself—do I not love you Annie? do you not love me? Is not this all?...Can you, my Annie, bear to think I am another’s? It would give me supreme—infinite bliss to hear you say that you could not bear it.
Three months later on January 11, 1849, Poe declared,
...I am so—so happy to think that you really love me...Indeed, indeed, Annie, there is nothing in this world worth living for except love...
And only days later, on January 21, 1849, he wrote:
...as long as you and yours love me, my true and beautiful Annie, what need I care for this cruel, unjust, calculating world? Oh, Annie, there are no human words that can express my devotion to you and yours. My love for you has given me renewed life.
After being rejected by Whitman & finally realizing that the married Annie was unattainable, Poe sought out his first young love, Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton, now a widow in Richmond, and asked her to marry him. She, too, demanded sobriety.
On September, 1849, Poe wrote his last letter to his mother-in-law, "Elmira has just got home from the country. I spent last evening with her. I think she loves me more devotedly than any one I ever knew & I cannot help loving her in return. Nothing is definitely settled..if possible I will get married before I start — but there is no telling."
But, on October 7, 1849, at age 40, Poe died alone after collapsing at a tavern in Baltimore, without ever achieving an ongoing, loving connection with a woman; just as the married narrators of his tales never are able to attain lasting relationships with their brides.
Edgar Allan Poe wrote, “Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem... Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all poetical tones...The death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world—-and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”