January 30, 2010

Death of Virginia Clemm Poe

It's no secret that Edgar Poe married his 13-year old first-cousin, Virginia Clemm. The pairing was not particularly unusual for the time period, though her age was a little on the young side (tradition aimed for the woman to be closer to age 15). Perhaps, what was unusual was the true love they shared throughout their 10+ years of blissful marriage.

She referred to him as "Eddy" and he often called her "Sissy." They struggled together as Poe did his best to make a living as a writer (at a time when it was nearly impossible to do so) and she faithfully followed him from Baltimore to Virginia to New York to Philadelphia back to New York as he sought work. It was in Philadelphia that Mrs. Poe first displayed symptoms of "consumption," today called tuberculosis. She died five years after that incident, in New York, on January 30, 1847. She was 24 years old (her corpse is pictured here).

Poe was devastated by her death, though he knew it was coming. Rumors today abound that Poe was so despondent after her death, that he turned to drinking and wrote macabre pieces about the death of beautiful women.

In fact, Poe's first macabre work was published before he ever even married Virginia. His treatise exploring his theory that "the death of a beautiful woman" was the "most poetical topic in the world" was written two years before her death as a companion piece to his most famous poem, "The Raven" — Virginia was very much alive and is not the "lost Lenore" in the poem.

Poe's drinking is legendary, particularly after his wife's death. However, as most legends, the stories are based only partly on fact then exaggerated to massive proportions. Many report that he turned to alcohol after the loss of his wife. In fact, it was after Virginia's death that Poe sought help for his drinking problem, culminating in his public vow of sobriety and membership in the Sons of Temperance (an anti-alcohol union) — in other words, after his wife's death, he stopped drinking. Romantically, he had since moved on and found at least two potential second wives.

Ultimately, few of Poe's works are directly related to his wife or her illness. The clearest example of a Poe work "inspired by a true story" is not the fictitious Lenore nor the equally fictitious "Annabel Lee" but the romantic short story "Eleonora" — a relatively obscure sketch written while Virginia was still relatively healthy.

A few hours after her death, Poe had someone make a watercolor image of her; it is pictured on this page. For a time, it was considered the only portrait of Virginia Clemm Poe taken from "life."

12 comments:

  1. I wonder why they didn't have children together.

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  2. Oh, the debate on that one has been raging for years! Some of it is mentioned in the Wikipedia article on Virginia, particularly under the "Marriage" subsection. Most question the kind of relationship they shared, if it was sexual, etc. I guess we'll never know what (if anything) happened in the bedroom...

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  3. i never thought of that

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  4. So the Poe Toaster of Baltimore was leaving brandy for a teetotaler?

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  5. Cognac, actually... Although I'm a teetotaler myself so maybe cognac and brandy are the same thing?

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  6. "Virginia was very much alive and is not the "lost Lenore" in the poem."
    When Poe wrote The Raven, Virginia was ill, and tuberculosis was pretty much a death sentence back then. I always assumed Poe didn't see much hope of Virginia's survival, and that he wrote Virgina as the soon to be "lost Lenore".


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  7. Well, if you read Poe's letters and accounts of his wife's illness, there was frequent hope because she recovered in bursts, which is what made it most difficult to deal with. Still, what a horrible and insensitive thing it would be to write about your wife's inevitable death when she is still alive.

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  8. The 3 year old Poe watched as his mother lay dying of consumption. The experience of losing his mother was burned into Poe's soul long before Virginias death, which accounts for his theme of the death of a beautiful woman as the most poetic and may prevelantbin his work. Then his adoptive mother and his childhood friend also died of consumption, as Virginia did. When Virgina coughed up a blood while singing one evening, Poe knew she was doomed to the disease (which gave him inspiration for the disease in The Masque of the Red Death.. "The redness and horror of blood..") that stole all thise he loved from life. As Virginia lay dying in the next room, Poe relived his bone deep memories of losing his mother, and attempted to wrestle with them again in the inevitable future death of his beloved Virginia in "The Raven". It must've been the only way he could attempt to emotionally deal with her fate. But as the soul of the narrator of The Raven succumbs to the telling that he will see his love, the lost Lenore "Nevermore," Poe died not long after Virginias death. I agree that "Eleanora" is the most faithful and beautiful depiction of Poe and Virginias love, as well as the narrators consequent descent to a type of madness after her death, again like the narrator of "The Raven." But what a gift he left Virginia! To go down for all time, as did Juliet, as the Lenore of American literature.

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    1. Much of what you write here is conjecture, but matches the general narrative we have of Poe as someone who was so surrounded by death, he could never overcome it in his literary themes. I disagree, and would counter that most Americans, even writers, were equally surrounded by death and disease. Many, many, many other writers wrote on similar topics and are not analyzed with the same autobiographical scrutiny as Poe. Poe likely did not remember his mother, for example, let alone her death. I also disagree that Poe fictionalized the death of his wife (as Lenore in "The Raven") while his wife was yet alive. That is probably the most insensitive thing a married writer can do. Further, Poe emotionally dealt with his wife's illness and death more by courting other women than by retreating into fiction or poetry. Poe's themes were universal; certainly, his own experiences informed his writing, but it was not an indication of his own personal inability to escape death.

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  9. Which other authors lost their mother, foster mother, childhood love and then wife one after another? I would like to read their work. I know Hemingway often wrote about death in war, hunting and bullfights. Edward Munch watched his mother die at a young age and that certainly influenced his paintings. (I know a lot about the effects it has as it also happened to my mother.)
    In the beginning of Berenice, Poe writes about his indistinct yet powerful memories of losing his mother when he was born.
    The author of this article makes a good point in stating that Poes themes of the death of women began long before Virginia, stemming from the loss of his mother at age three.
    Poe did overcome death by immortalizing his loves , and himself, in beautiful stories like Eleonora. Not to mention his invention of the detective story, criminal profiling, and the beginning of science fiction. Just as strong as his themes of death are his philosophical, humorist ice satires, hoaxes and imaginative fairyland works. What a polymath!

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    1. "One after another" is a substantial exaggeration -- you're talking about some 35 years. I think we often cherry-pick the stories/themes that fit the image we want of Poe as being death obsessed. We tend not to do the same with other writers that wrote on the same themes at the same time period.
      Also, I am "the author of this article" you reference.

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