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Edgar Allan Poe’s Richmond

By Jean Nealon

In “To One in Paradise,” Edgar Allan Poe describes his longing for:

A green isle in the sea, love, A fountain and a shrine, All wreathed with fairy fruits and flowers, And all the flowers were mine.

The garden of the Poe Museum in Richmond creates just such a spot where visitors (and perhaps the poet’s spirit) can linger.

The Poe Shrine is an open brick shelter, constructed of materials salvaged from the Southern Literary Messenger building where Poe worked as an editor. A bust of the poet looks out on an island of green grass, a two-tiered fountain, and a stone planter overflowing with begonias.

It is a typical autumn day in Central Virginia, warm with the sun filtering through a gauzy haze, but cool in the shade of the shrine. I sit on a weathered wrought iron bench and watch sunlight and water play in the fountain. Six-packs of pansies mark the spot where the gardener’s fall planting was interrupted.

A plant stand, which I at first thought contained garden implements and sprays, holds a delightful surprise: a coffee urn and cookie jar! And on its shelves, inviting me to browse, the COMPLETE TALES AND POEMS, a book of Poe’s portraits, and several paperbacks. Soon, coffee in hand, I’m lost in a curious book (Burton R. Pollin’s POE, CREATOR OF WORDS) listing over a thousand words that Poe either coined himself or was the first to use in print (“auriculas,” “belauded,” “chasmal,” “donkey-dom”…)

Outside the garden wall, Richmond traffic rumbles along at 21st century speed. Here, it’s the 1800s, a green island of grass, a fountain, and a shrine.

The best place to start a literary tour of Poe’s Richmond is the Edgar Allan Poe Museum on East Main Street. The complex consists of the Old Stone House, the Elizabeth Arnold Poe Memorial Building, and the Exhibition Hall. Assembled here with great care and reverence are items Poe would have known or used: furnishings from houses he shared with his foster parents, personal and family artifacts, portraits, documents, first editions of his works, even a lock of his hair.

OLD STONE HOUSE

The Old Stone House (the oldest house in Richmond, built in 1737) contains a tiny gift shop and a room packed with Poe memorabilia. Poe would have passed the house daily on his way to school. Imagine his feelings if he could visit it today. The bittersweet memories evoked by his sister Rosalie’s sewing box and pianoforte (unlike her gifted brother, Rosalie’s intelligence never surpassed a twelve-year-old’s). The love mixed with loss summoned by the death bed portrait of his wife, Virginia Clemm, the only picture ever made of her.

The silver candlesticks on the pianoforte would stir a more pleasant memory. After Virginia’s death in the harsh winter of 1847, when Poe had no money to buy fuel, he visited the comfortable home of his good friend Mary Louise Shew. Mrs. Shew not only provided Poe with the light from these elegant candlesticks by which to compose his poem, “The Bells,” but she is also said to have offered what would become its first words:

Hear the sledges with the bells-

Silver bells!

Photographs of, or associated with, his mother, Elizabeth Arnold, his foster mother, Frances Valentine, his mentor, Jane Stanard, would remind him of “the most poetical topic in the world,” the death of a beautiful woman [THE PORTABLE POE, ed. Philip Van Doren Stern, p. 191]. It is thought that Poe’s overarching inspiration was his mother. Her death, before he was two years old, transformed her into what Poe scholar Philip Van Doren Stern calls the “mother-wife,” a powerful archetype who haunts his tales and poems in the guise of two feminine types: the pure ideal maiden and her alter ego, the horrific fleshly specter [Stern, p. xxxvi]. The early deaths of Poe’s “mother substitutes” and of his wife intensified the “mother-wife” image. The omnipresence of death and decaying flesh permeate many of his stories and poems.

The portrait of John Allan, Poe’s foster father, shows a stern, moralistic man who never officially adopted Poe. His parsimony allowed Poe enough money to pay for board and several classes at the University of Virginia, and nothing else. Edgar’s letters reveal he had to borrow money to pay for books and a bed and further “…to hire a servant, to pay for wood, for washing, and a thousand other necessaries.” [Letter to John Allan, West Point, Jan’y 3d, 1831 [misdated 1830], cited in Stern, p. 6].

Poe’s rebellion against Allan and subsequent disinheritance spurred his career and life in the world: his nomadic quest from city to city, employer to employer, the dream of owning his own magazine perpetually eluding him. Poe’s desperate drive to earn a living stimulated his critical theories as he wrote brilliant analyses of whatever mediocre works came across his desk.

ELIZABETH ARNOLD POE MEMORIAL BUILDING

Built in 1927 (of much older materials), the Elizabeth Poe Building houses a wealth of documents, manuscripts, and first editions. Two items dominate the room physically: the staircase from the Allan house on 14th Street, and the Richard H. Park memorial sculpture honoring Poe and his actor parents. Personal items include Poe’s chair (it’s incredibly small, has a tin seat, and no back to speak of) from the Messenger’s offices, his embroidered silk vest, and a lock of hair taken from his death bed (the dark-brown strands have turned reddish over time).

Photographs of two women Poe hoped to marry toward the end of his life, Sarah Helen Whitman and Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton, hang over the staircase. Marriage to Mrs. Whitman, a poet and the subject of his second “To Helen” poem, was thwarted by her family and by Poe’s reputation. The respected critic, author, and gentleman came face to face with the disreputable drinker and debtor and went down in defeat.

Poe’s lonely, ignominious death is made even more tragic by the fact that right before his final trip to Baltimore, he seemed on the verge of success. A year after the Whitman affair, Elmira Shelton (his teenage sweetheart), a widow with her own income, accepted Poe’s marriage proposal. Writing to his aunt, Maria Clemm, he happily asserts, “I think she [Elmira] loves me more devotedly than anyone I ever knew and I cannot help loving her in return.” Poe was in Richmond lecturing to appreciative audiences on “The Poetic Principle” and clearing enough money to cover expenses. Love, a home, financial security, even his life-long dream of editing and publishing his own magazine were within his grasp. He urges Mrs. Clemm to “…keep up heart. I hope that our troubles are nearly over.” [Letter to Mrs. Maria Clemm, Richmond, Va., Tuesday – Sep. [1849], Stern, pp. 53-54].

Two and a half weeks later, he was discovered gravely ill in Baltimore, unconscious and wearing someone else’s clothes. He clung to life for four days, suffering periods of delirium. His last words at 5:00 a.m. on October 7th were, “God help my poor soul!” [Stern, p. xxxiii]

EXHIBITION HALL

One-hundred-fifty years after his death from “inflammation of the brain” (a catchall phrase of the time), no definitive cause is accepted. Poe left Richmond on September 27, bound for New York via the boat to Baltimore. No one knows what happened from then until he was found October 3rd. The facts are spare; the theories are not. Twenty-three of them are mounted in the Exhibition Hall, including epilepsy, dipsomania, hypoglycemia, diabetes, and delirium tremens. In the absence of an autopsy, none can be proved.

What seems certain is that Poe’s self-destructive bent, aggravated by his extreme sensitivity to alcohol and just plain bad luck, played itself out near a Baltimore polling place on an election day. The internal battle he waged with himself and out of which sprang his poems and stories ended four days later.

OTHER POE SITES IN RICHMOND

None of the homes Poe lived in in Richmond are still standing, neither the great house, Moldavia, nor the boarding houses and taverns. A house Poe visited, Talavara, privately owned and unmarked, still stands on a quiet block of West Grace Street. Poe gave his last reading of “The Raven” at Talavara on September 25, 1849. Another privately owned house that Poe visited is the clearly marked Elmira Shelton house at 2407 East Grace Street. The Craig (Stith) house on the corner of 19th and East Grace Streets, currently undergoing renovation, is the girlhood home of Jane Stanard, who inspired Poe’s first “To Helen” lyric.

Two sites open to the public and well worth visiting are Monumental Episcopal Church and St. John’s Episcopal Church, both on East Broad Street. Monumental Church is built on the site of the Richmond Theatre where Poe’s mother acted. Poe attended services there as a child, sitting with his foster parents in the Allan’s pew (No. 80). St. John’s, the oldest church in Richmond, witnessed one of the pivotal events in American history, Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. The historical marker at the entrance to the churchyard claims only two famous gravesites: patriot George Wythe’s and actress Elizabeth Arnold Poe’s.

Elizabeth’s grave perches on the eastern verge of the grounds, for a reason. The congregation in 1811, incensed at allowing an actress burial in hallowed ground, placed her remains as far from the church as possible. The grave is lonely, with only a sprawling yew tree for company. It was finally marked in 1927, thanks to the Raven Society of the University of Virginia, Actor’s Equity of New York, and the Poe Shrine.

Elizabeth Poe’s death from tuberculosis at twenty-four cast a lifelong shadow over her son. Poe’s primary literary inspiration was Romanticism, and he made its themes: death, the night, art as beauty his own. For Poe, the beautiful in art became the death of a beautiful woman (the “mother-wife”), what he called “the most poetical topic in the world.” Ever sensitive about his origins and determined to characterize himself as an aristocrat, Poe defended his descent “…from a woman, who although well born, hesitated not to consecrate to the drama her brief career of genius and of beauty” in THE BROADWAY JOURNAL. An excerpt from the July 19, 1845 article appears on the reverse of Elizabeth’s monument.

Of all the Poe sites in Richmond, I suspect the Museum garden would be Poe’s favorite. In this “green isle” he would find respite from the discordant sea that has surged around his memory since his literary executor and enemy, Rufus W. Griswold, published a libelous obituary and memoir posing questions such as: was he an alcoholic, sexual deviant, plagiarist, egotist, psychotic? Did he die rabid (or was it murder)? Here in this peaceful shrine he might reflect on his well-deserved place in literature.

Arguably the only writer in English to achieve greatness simultaneously in poetry, fiction, and criticism, he was one of the first to build the dark tradition in American literature. Master of the lyric, unsurpassed virtuoso of onomatopoeic poetry, he transformed the short story from anecdote to literary art, created the detective story, refined the psychological thriller and the horror genre. A brilliant critic, his theories on poetry and short fiction have helped shape world literature. His major works have never gone out of print. Translated into many languages, they have inspired a symphony and two operas. A few of his literary descendants are Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner, and Stephen King.

As for his enduring popular appeal, I think he would know it goes deeper than the horror movies, the “Edgar” awards for mystery writers, the Baltimore Ravens football team. The meeting of his seminal imaginative genius with the deep soul concerns we all share (love, hate, fear, death, the afterlife, the ever- changing, fleeting human condition) secures his place in our psyches. Poe faced primal realities and transformed them into art we’d rather not think about: the grave, premature burial, decay of the flesh, the inevitable death nascent in the deepest love. He lived universals–mother loss, generational war with the father, addiction to pain killers, exorcism of demons through work–that we can relate to because we, too, live them or know someone who does. Poe’s willingness to penetrate the darkness lightens it for the rest of us.

For the first time, I notice the broken glass embedded on top of the garden wall. Modeled on a wall at the English school Poe attended, which he describes as a “prison-like rampart” in his tale, “William Wilson,” [“William Wilson,” in Stern, p. 59] it seems out of place in this serene garden. Yet even here amid the fairy fruits and flowers, I imagine Poe’s dark, imprisoning fantasies would still pursue him. In a sense, he has become one with them, a devotee of the night, questioning the dark, plumbing the unknown, demanding the grave give up its secrets.

The Edgar Allan Poe Museum is located at 1914 East Main Street between 19th and 20th Streets. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 to 5:00, Sunday, 11:00 to 5:00, with guided tours beginning on the hour. For more information, see http://www.poemuseum.org.
[NOTE: Excerpts from “To One in Paradise” and “The Bells” are from THE COMPLETE TALES AND POEMS OF EDGAR ALLAN POE, Vintage Books, 1975.]

Jean Nealon is a travel writer based in Virginia. She first heard Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry recited by her grandmother, Lenna Foster.

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Poe at the University of Virginia

Poe on Sullivan’s Island

Times of Toil, Tales of Terror: Poe’s Philadelphia

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