May 16, 2010

Marriage of Edgar Poe

Edgar A. Poe married his first-cousin Virginia Clemm on May 16, 1836. He was 27; she was about three months shy of her 14th birthday. By today's standards, the marriage was a bit odd but, for the time, their relationship was not particularly unusual, though she was slightly young (15 years old was a more common marrying age).

The ceremony took place in Richmond, Virginia, overseen by a Presbyterian minister named Amasa Converse. The venue was the home of Mrs. James Yarrington, Poe's current landlord in a boarding house he stayed with both Virginia and Virginia's mother Maria Clemm (the sister of Poe's father). Mrs. Yarrington helped with the arrangements, even baking the cake. The couple then spend a short honeymoon in Petersburg, Virginia (a local Poe fanatic has taken it upon himself to reclaim the connection and is, quite appropriately, celebrating this coming Wednesday).

Several theories about the Poes still circulate: Maria Clemm may have suggested the pairing and hastened the marriage; the couple may not have consummated their marriage; they may have behaved more like brother and sister than husband and wife (Poe nicknamed her "Sissy"). One theatrical version of the Poes suggests that young Virginia had a sexual fetish for horror stories and sought Poe as a husband (making her the aggressor in the relationship). Friends said they didn't share a bed for at least the first two years of marriage. By all contemporary accounts, Virginia was beautiful and Poe was devoted to her. He once described her as "a wife, whom I loved as no man ever loved before."

The unfortunate trend in some Poe studies is to assign autobiographical elements to each of his writings, with no room for other interpretations. I disagree and suggest that few if any of Poe's works were inspired by his wife or her later illness (she only lived to be 24). Many friends assumed Virginia was the inspiration for the poem "Annabel Lee," probably written well after her death (and published after Poe's own death in 1849). The connection is certainly tempting and some scholars use the reference to the dead "maiden" in the poem as evidence that Virginia died a virgin.

However, a closer literary tribute is the romantic sketch "Eleonora" (1842), which describes the life of an isolated family of three: a man, his cousin-wife, and his mother-in-law. If Virginia is the inspiration for the title character, this is not a very virginal description of her:

We had drawn the god Eros from that wave; and now we felt that he had enkindled within us the fiery souls of our forefathers. The passions which had for centuries distinguished our race came thronging with the fancies for which they had been equally noted, and together breathed a delirious bliss over the Valley of the Many-Coloured Grass. A change fell upon all things. Strange brilliant flowers, star-shaped, burst out upon the trees, where no flowers had been known before. The tints of the green carpet deepened, and when, one by one, the white daisies shrank away, there sprang up in place of them ten by ten of the ruby-red asphodel. And life arose in our paths; for the tall flamingo, hitherto unseen, with all gay, glowing birds, flaunted his scarlet plumage before us; and golden and silver fish haunted the river, out of the bosom of which issued, little by little, a murmur that swelled at length into a lulling melody more divine than that of the harp of ├ćolus, sweeter than all save the voice of Eleonora.

*The images represent Edgar Poe a few years after marriage (sans mustache) as painted by Samuel Stillman Osgood. The portrait of Virginia Poe is a relatively-new discovery, now privately owned.

2 comments:

  1. But in the same story it says "She was a maiden artless and innocent as the brief life she had led among the flowers. No guile disguised the fervour of love which animated her heart — and she examined with me its inmost recesses, as we walked together in the Valley of the Many-Coloured Grass, and discoursed of the mighty changes which had lately taken place. At length, having spoken, one day, in tears, of the last sad change which must befall humanity, she thenceforward dwelt only upon this one sorrowful theme, interweaving it into all our converse — as in the songs of the Bard of Shiraz the same images are found occurring again and again in every impressive variation of phrase." I don't think that you saying she was a virgin is a correct statement.

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    1. I'm not sure what this comment means. I'm not saying she was a virgin, just that "Annabel Lee" has been used as evidence for some scholars that she was.
      In fact, in "Eleanora," I'm saying that it is a closer tribute from Poe to his wife, and there is a scene (which I quoted) which is expressly sexual, meaning the character was not a virgin.

      To be fair, neither of us knows for sure if Virginia Clemm Poe died a virgin. I feel that truth can only be verified by about two people, neither of whom are in a condition to tell us.

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