Poe was overcome by grief after the death of his beloved Virginia in 1847. While he continued to work, he suffered from poor health and struggled financially. His final days remain somewhat of a mystery. He left Richmond on September 27, 1849, and was supposedly on his way to Philadelphia. On October 3, Poe was found in Baltimore in great distress. He was taken to Washington College Hospital where he died on October 7. His last words were “Lord, help my poor soul”.
At the time, it was said that Poe died of “congestion of the brain”. But his actual cause of death has been the subject of endless speculation. Some experts believe that alcoholism led to his demise while others offer up alternative theories. Rabies, epilepsy, carbon monoxide poisoning are just some of the conditions thought to have led to the great writer’s death.
Shortly after his passing, Poe’s reputation was badly damaged by his literary adversary Rufus Griswold. Griswold, who had been sharply criticized by Poe, took his revenge in his obituary of Poe, portraying the gifted yet troubled writer as a mentally deranged drunkard and womanizer. He also penned the first biography of Poe, which helped cement some of these misconceptions in the public’s minds.
While he never had financial success in his lifetime, Poe has become one of America’s most enduring writers. His works are as compelling today as there were more than a century ago. A bright, imaginative thinker, Poe crafted stories and poems that still shock, surprise and move modern readers.
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?
“Seldom we find”, says Solomon Don Dunce,
“Half an idea in the profoundest sonnet.
Through all the flimsy things we see at once
As easily as through a Naples bonnet —
Trash of all trash! — how can a lady don it?
Yet heavier far than your Petrarchan stuff —
Owl–downy nonsense that the faintest puff
Twirls into trunk–paper the while you con it.”
And, veritably, Sol is right enough.
The general tuckermanities are arrant
Bubbles — ephemeral and so transparent —
But this is, now — you may depend upon it —
Stable, opaque, immortal— all by dint
Of the dear names that he concealed within it.
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“Tis some visitor”, I muttered, tapping at my chamber door.
“Only this, and nothing more.”
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow — vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow — sorrow for the lost Lenore —
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore —
Nameless here for evermore.
And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me — filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before,
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,
“Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door, —
This it is, and nothing more.”
Presently my soul grew stronger, hesitating then no longer,
“Sir”, said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore,
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you” — here I opened wide the door, —
Darkness there, and nothing more.
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before,
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, “Lenore!”
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, “Lenore!” —
Merely this, and nothing more.
Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
“Surely”, said I, “surely that is something at my window lattice:
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore —
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore, —
’Tis the wind and nothing more”.
Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore,
Not the least obeisance made he, not a minute stopped or stayed
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door —
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door —
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore.
“Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou”, I said, “art sure no
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the Nightly shore —
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore”.
Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning — little relevancy bore,
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blest with seeing bird above his chamber door —
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as “Nevermore”.
But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered — not a feather then he fluttered —
Till I scarcely more than muttered, “other friends have flown
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before.”
Then the bird said, “Nevermore”.
Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
“Doubtless”, said I, “what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore —
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of ‘Never — nevermore’.”
But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and
Then upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore —
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking “Nevermore”.
This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core,
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamplight gloated o’er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamplight gloating o’er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!
Then methought the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose footfalls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch”, I cried, “thy God hath lent thee — by these angels he
hath sent thee
Respite — respite and nepenthe, from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore”.
“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil! — prophet still, if bird or
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted —
On this home by horror haunted — tell me truly, I implore —
Is there — is there balm in Gilead? — tell me — tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore.”
“Prophet!” said I, “thing of evil — prophet still, if bird or
By that Heaven that bends above us — by that God we both adore —
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore —
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore.”
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore”.
“Be that word our sign in parting, bird or fiend”, I shrieked,
“Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! — quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my
Quoth the Raven, “Nevermore”.
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door,
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamplight o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted — nevermore!
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.
Then — in my childhood, in the dawn
Of a most stormy life — was drawn
From every depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still:
From the torrent, or the fountain,
From the red cliff of the mountain,
From the sun that round me rolled
In its autumn tint of gold,
From the lightning in the sky
As it passed me flying by,
From the thunder and the storm,
And the cloud that took the form
[When the rest of Heaven was blue]
Of a demon in my view.
Thy soul shall find itself alone
’Mid dark thoughts of the grey tomb–stone,
Not one, of all the crowd, to pry
Into thine hour of secrecy.
Be silent in that solitude,
Which is not loneliness — for then
The spirits of the dead, who stood
In life before thee, are again
In death around thee, and their will
Shall overshadow thee, be still.
The night, though clear, shall frown,
And the stars shall not look down
From their high thrones in the Heaven
With light like hope to mortals given,
But their red orbs, without beam,
To thy weariness shall seem
As a burning and a fever
Which would cling to thee for ever.
Now are thoughts thou shalt not banish,
Now are visions ne’er to vanish,
From thy spirit shall they pass
No more, like dew–drop from the grass.
The breeze, the breath of God, is still,
And the mist upon the hill
Shadowy, shadowy, yet unbroken,
Is a symbol and a token.
How it hangs upon the trees,
A mystery of mysteries!
Poe died in Baltimore on Sunday last. His was one of the very few original minds that this country has produced. In the history of literature, he will hold a certain position and a high place. By the public of the day he is regarded rather with curiosity than with admiration. Many will be startled, but few will be grieved by the news. He had very few friends, and he was the friend of very few — if any. But his character and adventures were too remarkable, and his literary merits too indubitable, to pass from the stage with the simple announcement already given.
His family was a very respectable one in Baltimore. His grandfather was a Quartermaster General in the Revolution, and the esteemed friend of Lafayette. During the last visit of that personage to this country, he called upon the widow to tender her his acknowledgments for services rendered him by her husband. His great–grandfather married a daughter of the celebrated Admiral McBride. Through him they are related to many of the most illustrious families in England. Edgar Poe’s father was reputably brought up and educated. Becoming enamored with a beautiful young actress, he made up a runaway match with her, and was disowned by his friends thereafter. He or his wife possessed mimetic genius, and they lived precariously. They came to Richmond in pursuit of their profession. She was somewhat of a favorite on our boards — but more on account of her beauty than her acting. They both died in Richmond — both of consumption, and within a few weeks of each other, and left here without a house or home their gifted but most miserable and unfortunate son. Mr. John Allan, a wealthy and kind hearted merchant of this place, having no children of his own, taking a natural fancy to the handsome, clever child, adopted him as son and heir. He was consequently brought up amidst luxury, and received the advantages of education to their fullest extent. In 1816 he accompanied his adopted parents in a tour through England, Scotland and Ireland. They returned to this country, leaving him at Dr. Brandsby’s High School, Stoke Newington, near London, where he continued five years. He returned in 1822, and continued about Richmond for two or three years. He was then remarkable for his general cleverness, his feats of activity, his wayward temper, extreme personal beauty, his musical recitations of verse, and power of extemporaneous tale–telling. In 1825 he went to the University of Virginia. The University was then a most dissolute place, and Mr. Edgar A. Poe was remarked as the most dissolute and dissipated youth in the University. He was already a great classical scholar, and he made huge strides in mathematics, botany, and other branches of natural science. But at the same time he drank, gambled, and indulged in other vices until he was expelled from the place. On Mr. Allan’s refusal to pay some of his gambling debts, he broke with him and went off at a tangent to join the Greeks — those being the times of Bozzaris and the Greek Revolution. When he reached St. Petersburg, however, he found both money and enthusiasm exhausted, and he got into a quarrel with the Russian authorities — whether about liberty or lucre is not known. At any rate he found himself nearly adding some knowledge of the knout and Siberia to his already extensive knowledge of men and manners, and was glad enough to accept the intervention of the American consul, Henry Middleton, and his aid to get home. In 1829 he entered the Military Academy of West Point. In the meantime, Mr. Allan had lost his first wife, and married a lady his junior by a very great number of years — he being sixty–five. Mr. Poe is said to have behaved uncivilly to the lady and to have ridiculed the match. The old gentleman wrote him an angry letter, and Mr. Poe answered it with a very bitter one. The breach was never healed. Mr. Allan died a short time afterwards, and left Poe nothing.
Mr. Poe left West Point without graduating, and here commenced his disastrous battle of life, in 1831, he printed a small volume of poems, his first brochure. They were favorably received by the reviewers, and well spoken of by their few readers. But they did not sell — at which we have never wondered. He wrote for newspapers, compiled and translated for booksellers, made up brilliant articles for reviews, and spun tales for magazines. But although publishers willingly put forth, they paid the young man so little, that in poverty and despair he got abundantly near enough to death’s door to “hear the hinges creak”. At last a newspaper in Baltimore offered two premiums — for the best poem and the best prose tale. A committee of distinguished literateurs — John P. Kennedy at their head — was appointed to judge the productions. Of course they did not read them — the sanction of their names being all that was wanted by the publishers. But while chatting over the wine at the meeting, one of them was attracted by a bundle among the papers written in the most exquisitely beautiful caligraphy ever seen. To the end of his life Poe wrote this surpassingly perfect hand. He read a page solely on that account, and being impressed with the power of the style, he proceeded to read aloud. The committee voted the premiums by acclamation “to the first of the geniuses that has written a legible hand”. The confidential envelop being broken, within it was found the then unknown name of Poe.
The publisher gave Mr. Kennedy an account of the author, which induced him to see Mr. Poe. He describes him at that day as a young man thin as a skeleton from evident starvation, dressed in a seedy frock coat, buttoned up to his chin to conceal the want of a shirt, with tattered trousers, and a pair of torn old boots, beneath which were evidently neither drawers nor socks. But his manners were those of a gentleman, and his eyes full of intelligence. Kennedy spoke in a friendly manner to him, and he opened his heart — told him all his story, his ambition and his great designs. Kennedy took him to a clothing store, gave him a good suit, and introduced him into society.
These were the days in which Thomas W. White was building up the Messenger. He got Mr. Poe to edit it, giving him $500 per annum. On this income, he immediately married himself to a girl without a cent. We regret to hear that he was generally intemperate, but he certainly found time to write many great articles and brilliant criticisms for the Messenger. It was Poe who first gave the periodical its standing.
After editing the Messenger a year and a half, he removed to Philadelphia, and edited the Gentleman’s Magazine. For this last he always continued to write, and to be well paid therefor. In 1840, he published his Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. In 1844, we find him in New York editing the Broadway Journal. In 1845, the well known volumes by Wiley and Putnam made their appearance. He continued to issue many things — which we shall notice more fully hereafter, until 1847. We then hear of his wife dying in a state of great destitution at a place called Fordham near New York A subscription was gotten up to relieve him by the literateurs of New York, and was easily raised. We next hear of him through the newspapers as again at death’s door — but this time with delirium tremens. A bitter note through the same vehicles of intelligence in answer to the various enquiries made about him, announced his contempt for all who professed themselves his friends, and his general disgust with the world. But he seems to have suffered nothing farther from destitution, his literary labors bringing him enough. For the last two years he has been seen now and then about Richmond, generally in a state very unbecoming to a man of genius. But during his last visit, for nearly two months’ duration, he has been perfectly himself, neatly dressed, and exceedingly agreeable in his deportment. He delivered two lectures — worthy of his genius in its best moods. It was universally reported that he was engaged to be married. The lady was a widow, of wealth and beauty, who was an old flame of his, and whom he declared to be the ideal and original of his Lenore. When we last saw him, he was just starting for New York, to publish a new collection of his tales. He had another errand. Some rich woman, named Mrs. St. Leon Loud, had died, leaving verses. Her husband, Mr. St. Leon Loud, wanted Poe to prepare them for the press, make a memoir, &c. He knew nothing about them save their good price, and he was going on for the job. Death cut him short at Baltimore. The newspapers say he died of congestion of the brain.
Of Mr. Poe’s genius and personal characteristics we shall treat fully in our next.