April 28, 2010

The fever called "Living"

At the end of Edgar Allan Poe's life, the financially-struggling poet was ardently searching for a second wife (his first, Virginia Clemm, died in 1847). Many of the women he pursued were hopeless causes, including Nancy Richmond of Lowell, Massachusetts — a married woman he nicknamed "Annie." The relationship between Poe and Richmond (or, really, Poe and many women) confuses most Poe scholars and biographers; it may have been platonic, it may have been a sibling-like attachment, or it may have been more. Regardless, the relationship inspired one of Poe's greatest poems.

Determined to see her no matter the cost, Poe made Richmond promise that she would visit him, even if he was on his deathbed. A promise secured, he soon went about reaching his death-bed. In an event which may or may not have been a suicide attempt or, perhaps, a desperate act for attention or, perhaps a complete work of fiction, Poe nearly died from the use of laudanum (his only recorded drug use). The experience is believed to have inspired his poem, "For Annie."

Published concurrently in Nathaniel Parker Willis's Home Journal and the Boston-based Flag of Our Union on April 28, 1849, the poem was described by Poe as "the best I have ever written." Here is an edited version of it (full version here):

Thank Heaven! the crisis—
  The danger is past,
And the lingering illness
  Is over at last—
And the fever called "Living"
  Is conquered at last.

Sadly, I know
  I am shorn of my strength,
And no muscle I move
  As I lie at full length—
But no matter!—I feel
  I am better at length.

And I rest so composedly,
  Now, in my bed
That any beholder
  Might fancy me dead—
Might start at beholding me,
  Thinking me dead.

The moaning and groaning,
  The sighing and sobbing,
Are quieted now,
  With that horrible throbbing
At heart:—ah, that horrible,
  Horrible throbbing!

The sickness—the nausea—
  The pitiless pain—
Have ceased, with the fever
  That maddened my brain—
With the fever called "Living"
  That burned in my brain...

She tenderly kissed me,
  She fondly caressed,
And then I fell gently
  To sleep on her breast-
Deeply to sleep
  From the heaven of her breast.

When the light was extinguished,
  She covered me warm,
And she prayed to the angels
  To keep me from harm—
To the queen of the angels
  To shield me from harm...

But my heart it is brighter
  Than all of the many
Stars in the sky,
  For it sparkles with Annie—
It glows with the light
  Of the love of my Annie—
With the thought of the light
  Of the eyes of my Annie.

Poe died within six months of the poem's publication. After her husband's death, Richmond officially changed her name to "Annie."


  1. I recently read Kenneth Silverman's biography of Poe. Life at that time could often be nasty, brutish and short. It was a terribly sad life story. Poe was full of talent and huge ambition to direct the path of American literature--and he did contribute direction both here and in Europe.

  2. I don't particularly endorse Silverman's biography, mostly because of his overemphasis on amateurish psychoanalytic readings of everything Poe ever wrote or did. I don't find Poe's life terribly sad - at least no more so than most other lives. He worked as hard as anyone else and had just as many problems (no more, no less). Try Harry Lee Poe's Edgar Allan Poe: The Illustrated Guide to His Tell-Tale Stories; I recommend that one as less catering to the expectations of the dark Poe.

  3. Okay, "slippery-slope" territory here: a kind-of edginess that, for me, Poe's life-and-art engenders (as-with all accomplished poets and fiction-writers).

    Where/what is the line between what writers describe (i.e. the actions of their characters/writings) and what may (or may-not) be personal experience?

    Readers tend to connect writers to the personal/voice in the work, for good or for ill, even if there is no basis for that.

    Good writing--a la Poe (at his best)--is so convincing--that it is easy (albeit possibly erroneous) to see the character as the embodiment-of the author. Poe's stories, "The Black Cat," "The Tell-Tale Heart," and others, are examples.

    That said, I struggle-with the gray-area raised between Harlan's comment and Rob's rebuttal. I do-believe that Poe's life was difficult in many ways; I also feel (and I am not a Poe scholar, but a fan of his work) that he did not always make the best choices in his life, which may have contributed to his subsequent difficulties.

    In that case, as with most of us, some of the problems may have been with the era and circumstances we lived-in (Poe's financial times were desperate), and others may have been with, to quote The Bard, "...ourselves, that we are underlings."

  4. I agree; readers tend too often to put the writer and his writing in the same basket. This is more true in the case of Poe, partly because we are told (usually by middle school English teachers) that he was just as insane as the narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart." This is not the case.

    You say he didn't make the best choices and that resulted in his difficulty. I have a hard time blaming Poe for his struggles. Most of his problems were financial (remember he was not a drug addict, nor was he insane, and his drinking has been overblown), and he could not help that the market typically paid $10 to $15 per work for magazine writers. As a critic, he was purposely overdramatic to keep himself in the spotlight (and, thus, more able to publish). The worst decisions he made? Marrying before he had steady income and shooting himself in the foot when he tried to get full-time work for the government. Frankly, I'm glad he didn't get that job; His financial struggles are what pushed him to write and write (and rewrite), resulting in the massive oeuvre he was able to create in only 20 years of work.

  5. As an aside, I think we put the writer in the shoes of their narrators for most people. I've been running poetry discussion groups focusing on Longfellow and we do the same for him. Readers tend to think every poem he writes take place in his famous Cambridge home and comment on the exact trees he's referring to, even if the poem was written before he moved there (or if we know it was written elsewhere).

  6. Rob,

    Hey, thanks for the interesting dialogue re this entry. Just want to clarify one or two points (I am the correspondent from above; sorry, I don't like the term "blogger": it's not pleasing onomatopoeiacally!).

    I think your statement--as interpretation of my earlier comment--that "he [Poe] didn't make the best choices and that resulted-in his difficulty" is a slight over-interpretation of mine. I do believe that Poe made a few less-than-fortuitous choices in his life (perhaps one or so more than the two you mentioned), but please note that I used the words "contributed-to"; I did not intend to imply that the choices he made totally created whatever degree of difficulty any of us--Harlan Lewin, myself, etc.--thinks he had.

    Also note that I wasn't "blaming" (your word) Poe for anything, least-of-all his struggles. Just intended to suggest that for most of us humans, some of our struggles are imposed from without and others from within (hence the partial Shakespeare quote).

    Not meaning to be touchy, just intending to clarify my own words. I also agree that Poe's not getting the government job was a good thing. He was not an institutional-type guy: his West Point/Army record shows that--as if one needed proof of it, given the highly creative individual that he was. And, in-line with one of your earlier postings, Hawthorne's writing career foundered during his gov-job days, much as he needed-it to support his family (and the living-abroad probably expanded his horizons).

    Sorry for running-on. And many thanks for the stimulating discussion(s).

  7. It's funny you mention the struggle with the term "blogger." Years ago, I swore I'd never use any variation of the word "blog" because it's just such a goofy word. I didn't think it would stick! Ah, well...

    I do enjoy these discussions! I always hope these short blurbs inspire a voracious hunger for more information, more interpretation, more literature, etc. I'm glad to see it's working and I'm equally happy to be challenged myself! These comments always make me think; I never respond recklessly (I hope!).

  8. Very challenging comment, Rob: "Frankly, I'm glad he didn't get that job; His financial struggles are what pushed him to write and write (and rewrite)." One might take it the other way around, mightn't one? That Poe (though struggling to make some money) in a way chose poverty (by minimizing conformist production and toadying to taste makers)as part of a deeper rejection of the entire commercial lifestyle beginning to rage in the 1st half of the 1800s (Cf. "The Market Revolution by Charles Sellers.) Not being a Poe scholar, I'll ask a question that's probably been gone over many, many times. Was Poe's "darkness" (if one concedes it exists) any reflection of his southern response to the growth of northern capitalism? According to my one (unfortunately) source of biography, he was intensely negative about many writers connected with New England. Though born in Boston, my information tells me he identified with the south where he was raised and had his relations.
    Back to the point. I'm wondering, inexpert as I am, if the poverty was an effect of his anti-commercialism and commitment to the intuitive life of art rather than to be considered a cause. I happened on a bio of Rimbaud the other day and saw some similarities and, of course, Rimbaud was inspired by Baudelaire who was inspired and translated Poe.
    Well, just some questions for my edification.