The Loves and Sorrows of Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe, 1809–1849
From Deep Within
One of the greatest poets was Edgar Allan Poe. His loves and his sorrows were deeply rooted in his poetry. His poems are timeless, for they touch a part of the human soul in each of us that is often hidden from others. He had the ability to open his heart and soul and share the torment and sufferings he himself had gone through. He was a master at reaching out to awaken the deepest emotions in others by shedding light on his own sorrows. Poe expressed the deepest love and deeper sorrows that was very much a part of himself.
Poe went deep within when writing -- he could portray in words the abstract taken from common feelings and turn them into intense emotions. He had the innate inclination to lean towards the stillness of the night in his themes. In most of what he wrote there were undertones of demoniac nature. He seemed possessed by his own demons, and it is almost as if he had to put them on paper in order to relieve them from his mind.
From childhood's hour I have not been
As others were; I have not seen
As others saw; I could not bring
My passions from a common spring.
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow; I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone;
And all I loved, I loved alone.— Edgar Allen Poe
Edgar Allan Poe was born in 1809, at a time when poetry was entering into Romanticism, or the Romantic Era. Romanticism went beyond the rational and classic ideal and reached out to revive the belief system characteristic of the Middle Ages. It was a time of devotion to Medievalism, that romantic era of deep emotional upheavals.
This Romanticism placed emphasis on strong emotions such as trepidation, horror,and terror. It confronted the awe inspiring spirituality of nature in it's untamed form.
Poe went beyond the norm and expressed his thoughts from inspiration. It was the inspiration of his own emotions that compelled him to write such dark poetry that struck a cord in the human soul -- yet it was beautiful in its darkness, for it was like a spark of light that exploded when his words were read.
Plaque Showing Birthplace of Poe
Abandoned and Orphaned
Poe was orphaned at an early age. He was born in Boston, Massachusetts and given the name Edgar Poe. His father abandoned him and his mother when Poe was quite young. Shortly after that his mother died. A family in Richmond, Virginia, John and Frances Allan, took the young boy and raised him. When older, Poe attended the University of Virginia for just one semester. There was not enough money to allow him to continue at the University.
He enlisted in the army, but failed as a cadet at West Point. It was then he left the Allan family and went his own way. Poe still had family on his father's side and lived with them off and on over the years.
In 1827 he had written some poems and published them as 'Tamerlane and Other Poems'. He did this anonymously, just signing as "A Bostonian". He then began to write prose and worked on literary journals and periodicals over the next several years. He became known for his own unique style of literary criticism. He moved around, working between several cities, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and others.
In 1833 Poe joined the household of his Aunt Maria in Baltimore. Maria's mother, Elizabeth, and two of her children, Virginia and Henry lived with her. Poe had first met Virginia in 1829 when she was just seven. Poe lived with them for about two years, leaving in 1835. During the time he was there, he had become smitten with Mary Devereaux, a neighbor. Little Virginia became their messenger and carried notes back and forth.
Virginia Eliza Clem
It was during these few years that Poe fell in love with Virginia and must have made it known to Maria. Neilson Poe, Maria's brother-in-law, had heard that Poe had been considering marrying Virginia. Neilson offered to take Virginia and have her educated. This suggestion was to prevent the marriage since Virginia was so young.
Maria's family became destitute after the death of her mother. It is possible that Neilson was also trying to help out financially by taking Virginia. Poe felt that Neilson was only trying to sever the connection between himself and Virginia. Poe left the family in August of 1835 and moved to Richmond, Virginia where he took a job at the Southern Literary Messenger.
Edgar was tormented with the thought of having Virginia torn from his life. He wrote a letter to Maria that expressed his deep emotions and declared he was "blinded with tears while writing". He was confident with his job and offered to provide for Maria, Virginia, and Henry, if they would come to Richmond and live with him.
On September 22, 1835, with Maria's consent, Edgar returned to Baltimore and filed for a marriage license. On May 16, 1836, Poe and Virginia Eliza Clemm were married. Poe was 27 and Virginia, 13. It was not unusual in those times for first cousins to marry, but it was most unusual that a thirteen year old girl was married. However, her age on the license was falsified as being older. Many say that Poe and Virginia lived like brother and sister for several years before the marriage was consummated. He often called Virginia, Sis, or Sissy.
Regardless of what their marital status was during the first few years, the two were very devoted to each other and quite happy with their life.
George Rex Graham, one of Poe's employers, had written of the couple, "His love for his wife was a sort of rapturous worship of the spirit of beauty." In a letter to a friend of his, Poe had written, "I see no one among the living as beautiful as my little wife." It seemed by those who knew them that Virginia idolized her husband. She was rarely far from his side at home. She loved to sit near him as he wrote. Virginia wrote an acrostic poem on February 14, 1876. It is as beautiful in its loving devotion and simplicity as Edgar's poems were in sorrowful and intense emotion.
It is believed by some that the line "And the tattling of many tongues" in Virginia's poem was in reference to flirtations between a married woman, Frances Osgood, and Poe. This did not seem to mar their marriage.
Virginia seemed to have even encouraged the friendship between Poe and Osgood. She often invited Frances Osgood to their home. It seems that Edgar drank quite a lot, but was never intoxicated in the presence of Osgood. Virginia may have believed that Osgood had a calming effect on Edgar and this would help him to give up any overindulgence in alcohol.
Many embellished rumors floated around about Poe and Osgood and the effect on Virginia was very disturbing. The rumors eventually faded away when Frances Osgood and her husband reunited.
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— Virginia Eliza Poe
Francis Sargent Osgood, 1811–1850
Cottage in the Bronx
Illness and Agony
It was around this time that Virginia became ill. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis in January of 1842. Her health declined rapidly and she soon became an invalid. Sometimes there was hope, because Virginia would show signs of improvement, but then slipped back down. Edgar was suffering from deep depression over this.
Poe, in a letter to a friend, John Ingram, wrote:
Each time I felt all the agonies of her death --and at each accession of the disorder I loved her more dearly & 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.— Edgar Allan Poe
Forgetfulness With Insanity
The periods of insanity were a place where Poe could forget, or at least deny. It was much too difficult for him to face reality -- insanity was his only escape and maybe he found some peace there.
Hoping to find an environment that would improve Virginia's health, Poe and Maria decided to take Virginia and move outside the city to Fordham, just fourteen miles away. They moved into a small cottage. In a letter dated June 12, 1846, Edgar wrote to Virginia, "Keep up your heart in all hopelessness, and trust yet a little longer." Referring to his loss of the Broadway Journal, the only magazine he ever owned, he wrote "I should have lost my courage but for you, my darling little wife, you are my greatest and only stimulus now to battle with this uncongenial, unsatisfactory and ungrateful life."
Virginia continued to decline and by November of that year her condition was termed hopeless.
A friend of Poe's, Nathaniel Parker Willis, an influential editor, published an announcement of the Poe family sufferings and asked the public for help in donations. His December 30, 1846 publication read:
Illness of Edgar A. Poe. We regret to learn that this gentleman and his wife are both dangerously ill with the consumption, and that the hand of misfortune lies heavily on their temporal affairs. We are sorry to mention the fact that they are so far reduced as to be barely able to obtain the necessaries of life. That is, indeed, a hard lot, and we do hope that the friends and admirers of Mr. Poe will come promptly to his assistance in his bitterest hour of need.— Nathaniel Parker Willis
Console Poor Eddy
Although he did not have all the facts straight, he did have compassion for the family. He was one of Poe's greatest supporters during this time. Poe was bereft and needed such friends.
As Virginia lay dying, she asked her mother,
"Darling... will you console and take care of my poor Eddy. You will never never leave him?"
Poe sent a letter to Marie Louise Shew, a close friend of the family, on January 29, 1847. He wrote, "My poor Virginia still lives, although failing fast and now suffering much pain." Virginia died the next day. She had been suffering from the illness for five years. Knowing how destitute the family was, Marie Shew bought a casket for Virginia.
Virginia Eliza Clem Poe, 1822–1847
Portrait of Beauty in Death
Just a few hours after Virginia's spirit had departed, Edgar realized he had no image of his beloved wife. He commissioned an artist to paint her portrait in watercolor. Marie Shew dressed Virginia in a beautiful fine linen robe and it was from this lifeless body of a model that the portrait was painted. It is believed that Marie Shew may have painted the portrait herself.
Virginia was buried in the vault of the Valentine family, landlord of the Poe's.
The effect of Virginia's death was devastating for Poe. He no longer seemed to care if he lived or died. For several months he was deeply depressed. One year after her death Poe wrote to a friend that he had experienced the greatest evil a man can suffer when, he said,
"...a wife, whom I loved as no man ever loved before, had fallen ill."
Poe referred to his emotional response to his wife's sickness as his own illness, and that he found the cure to it
"...in the death of my wife. This I can & do endure as becomes a man -- it was the horrible never-ending oscillation between hope & despair which I could not longer have endured without the total loss of reason."
Edgar would visit Virginia's grave often. As his friend Charles Chauncey Burr wrote, "Many times, after the death of his beloved wife, was he found at the dead hour of a winter night, sitting beside her tomb almost frozen in the snow".
Poe eventually began seeing other women, but as his old friend, Frances Osgood believed, Virginia was the only woman he ever loved. He continued writing and Virginia was often portrayed in his prose and poetry. The beautiful yet sorrowful poem, Annabel Lee, is a heart-rending example of Poe's suffering for his lost love. Many scholars believe that Virginia and their deep love for each other was an inspiration for many of Edgar's poems.
Sarah Elmira Royster was another love of Poe's in his earlier life. They were sweethearts in 1825, she was 15 and Poe was 16 at the time. Sarah's father did not approve of the relationship and put a stop to it when Poe was attending the University of Virginia. Royston intercepted Poe's letters to Sarah and destroyed them. Sarah married Alexander Shelton, a wealthy man, when she was 17. Sarah and Alexander had four children -- only two survived.
In 1848, when Poe began to come out of the depression after Virginia died, he and Sarah came back into each other's life and once again became close. Poe wanted to marry her, but, Sarah's children disapproved, just as her father had, because of Poe's financial status and orphaned childhood. Once again, Sarah listened to her family, not her heart, and rejected Poe.
It is believed that Sarah may also have been an inspiration for Poe's poetry expressing the pain of lost love.
There was one other love after Virginia’s death -- possibly only a sweet diversion for Poe as a way to find some sense of happiness. Poe had a brief courtship with Sarah Helen Whitman of Providence, Rhode Island. Sarah was also a poet. She had become fascinated with Poe’s darkness which at first filled her with horror. However, Sarah’s mother intervened and prevented any further relationship between Sarah and Poe.
Edgar Allan Poe Grave
Lost and Alone in the Final Hour
Virginia's mother, Maria, kept her promise to her daughter and stayed with Poe until his own death in 1849.
Edgar Allan Poe died on October 7, 1849. He was 40 years old. In his short life, he penned the beauty and tragedy of love that still pulls at the heart and emotions of all who appreciate poetry.
The causes of his death and the circumstances leading up to it have remained mysterious and suspicious. On October 3, Poe was found delirious on the streets of Baltimore, Maryland, "in great distress, and ... in need of immediate assistance", according to the man who found him, Joseph W. Walker. He was taken to the Washington College Hospital, where he died at 5 a.m. on Sunday, October 7. Poe was never coherent enough to explain how he came to be in this condition.
One theory is that Poe was a victim of cooping. He was at the time wearing clothes that did not belong to him. The night before he died he kept repeating the name "Reynolds". Poe was found on an election day. Cooping was a practice by which unwilling participants were forced to vote, often several times over, for a particular candidate in an election by means of changing clothes each time that person is taken to a different voting booth. Copious amounts of alcohol consumption was often involved.
Poe was lost and alone in his final hour. But, do not grieve -- Poe lies by his beloved Virginia and Virginia's mother, Maria. In spirit they are together again at last -- Poe and his beautiful darling, his life, his bride, are once again side by side.
Note From Author
A Dream Within A Dream
Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow—
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.
I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand—
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep --while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?
- Edgar Allan Poe
Did Poe live within a dream?
My personal view of Poe is that he did live within a dream, for it was in his deep darkness where he could, for awhile, find solace and peace from the torment of sorrow. His poetry came from that part of himself that was a dream-like state. The poem above, like much of Poe's poetry, may be hard to fully understand -- it takes the ability to see without eyes, to hear without ears and feel in the depths of the soul.
Spend an Evening With Poe
Edgar Allan Poe
Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe
Frances Sargent Osgood
Questions & Answers
© 2010 Phyllis Doyle Burns