As an English major, the thing that I’ve always sworn by is to always go through the intricacies of a writer’s or poet’s life before breaking down a piece written by them. Honestly, the doors and windows this practice of mine has opened for my perspective! And that is why I believe that if you are a literature enthusiast like me or are simply getting into the literary world of Edgar Allan Poe, you first need to unravel the mystery surrounding the Unexplained Death of Edgar Allan Poe’s Wife.
For those of you who might not know so much about Allan Poe, I’ll try to summarise his entire identity into two to three lines. Edgar Allan Poe was one of the very first American writers who tried to sustain with nothing but only his flare of writing. Poe wrote in the 19th century and mostly specialised in short stories, mysteries and horrors. He is known to be the inventor of the detective fiction genre but lived a financially strained life despite it all. Some of his best works are “The Raven” and “The Black Cat”. He is also known for his art of poetry.
Now that his introduction is out of our way, we can finally get to solve this conundrum. But first, we must know who his wife was, how their marriage and romance (if there was any) was and then get to the mortal parts of the story.
1. Virginia Clemm Poe: Edgar Allan Poe’s Wife
1.1 Early Life
Though Poe wrote many horror novels, his wife didn’t remotely resemble a ghost. Instead, she was a sweet little girl named Virginia Eliza Clemm. She was born in 1822 in Baltimore, Maryland. Her father William Clemm had married her mother Maria Clemm who was also the cousin of William’s first wife, Harriet. He had five children from his marriage with Maria’s cousin Harriet and went on to have three more with Maria herself.
The first thing that should be mentioned at this point is that William Clemm was nothing, but a mere hardware businessman. The second thing is that the rest of the family despised him because of his marriage with Maria Poe. Therefore, to no one’s surprise, the family suffered financially after the death of Virginia’s father.
Little Virginia of seven, along with her family, had to move in with her first cousin Edgar Allan Poe and their grandmother, Elizabeth Cairnes Poe.
1.2 Were They Enchanted to Meet Each Other?
I think the right word for their encounter would be ‘indifferent’ and not ‘enchanted’. Well, for starters, Virginia Clemm was only seven concerning Allan Poe’s 22. Soon before the two families started living together, they had to endure the sudden death of Poe’s older brother due to the deadly tuberculosis. Then, their grandmother, Elizabeth Cairnes Poe died. All of this was soon followed by the news that Virginia’s brother, Henry died. So, to say that the house was constantly in a sullen mood would be an understatement.
Though, all of this didn’t stop the son of David Poe and Eliza Poe from courting a new neighbour named Mary Devereaux. Quite ironically, poor Virginia acted as their infamous messenger.
When exactly the romance (or as the modern dictionary would like to call it, grooming) between the two start budding might be uncertain. However, it is believed that till the time he shifted to Richmond, Virginia to take up a job with the Southern Literary Messenger, Edgar Allan Poe was already adamant about marrying Virginia. He was even encouraged by his aunt and Virginia soon-to-be Poe’s mother Maria Clemm. It is also speculated that she might have neglected the huge age gap between Allan Poe and her daughter because of the grave economic situation they were in.
2. The Aftermath of the Wedding
After a brief time in which Edgar Allan Poe courted Virginia Clemm, both of them tied the auspicious knot of marriage on 16th May 1836. It might creep some people out, and rightfully so, that Allan Poe was a promising young man of 27 years while Virginia Poe was nothing but a teenager of 13 years. One should also not forget that they married in a world where it was not that bizarre for first cousins to marry.
Having led quite a lonely life since his childhood, Edgar Allan Poe was more than delighted with his child bride. He took it upon himself to teach her everything ranging from classics to mathematics. Virginia Clemm Poe particularly excelled in her piano lessons and also had a melodious voice.
Though, the relationship between Edgar Allan Poe and Virginia Poe was less that of a couple and more of siblings. To make matters weirder, Virginia Clemm Poe called her husband “Eddy” while he referred to her as “sissy”.
According to Poe biographer Joseph Wood Krutch, the couple might have never consummated their marriage. However, some also believe that the physical act of intimacy was only performed once Virginia Poe turned 16. All in all, you could say that their marriage was a weird amalgamation of grooming and incest.
3. The First Crack in Their Glass
Even though Edgar Allan Poe was excelling at his job, the salary was still quite low to sustain his family of three. Hence, he retired from his job and the family shifted to Philadelphia in mid-1838. Poe then took up a day job while continuing his writings in the night.
The family was finally settling into a peaceful routine. During this time only, Edgar Allan Poe started to grow an affinity for expensive furniture. He even went to the lengths of buying a piano and a harp for his wife, Virginia Clemm Poe.
On a cold January day in 1842, poor Virginia was playing the piano and singing when suddenly she started coughing violently. It was after seeing the first droplets of blood that the realisation dawned upon Edgar Allan Poe. His beloved Virginia was suffering from the same disease that had already snatched his many loved ones from him. Virginia’s illness was consumption, now known as tuberculosis.
The family yet again shifted their habitat to New York. Edgar Allan Poe started to drink a lot under the stress of Virginia’s illness. Poe started working on The Evening Mirror where his poem,” The Raven” was published. It was a hit at the time and was an obvious boost to Poe’s literary career. Though the earnings from it still weren’t very satisfactory. After Allan Poe became the associate editor of The Broadway Journal, his relationship with his fellow writers suffered because of his biting and cruel criticism.
4. Poe’s Illicit Affairs
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” was not only his rise to fame in the literary salons but also in the heart of the poetess Frances Sargent Osgood. Poe drew her attention towards him by describing her poems as an exception among the rest of the deteriorating American poetry.
This exchange between them resulted in many poems dedicated to each other unanimously. Though their identities were common knowledge at that time. It was also believed that Fanny Osgood was being courted by Edgar Allan Poe semi-publicly.
The only roadblock in this arrangement of theirs was the fact that both of them already had different spouses. While Edgar Allan Poe had Virginia, Fanny Osgood was wed locked to the portrait painter, Samuel Osgood.
Now at the age of 23, young Virginia served her days in quarantine because of her fatal disease. She was very much aware of her husband’s relationship with Fanny and in a way, even encouraged it. She deemed Frances Sargent Osgood to be worthy of her husband’s friendship and hence, even invited her to their home on numerous occasions. In return, Edgar Allan Poe also shared all their letters with Virginia and her mother Maria.
4.1 With Elizabeth Ellet
While Virginia was approving of the friendship between Edgar Allan Poe and Fanny Osgood, someone else was growing envious of it. Another poet and writer Elizabeth Ellet had started developing feelings for Allan Poe and was growing vindictive towards Fanny Osgood. However, her feelings were never reciprocated by Poe who even called her love for him “loathsome”. Though he did publish many of her poems in the Broadway Journal when he was the editor.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Ellet made sure that her insinuations regarding Edgar Allan Poe and Fanny Osgood’s relationship reached Virginia’s ears. She even went to the lengths of writing abusive letters to Virginia Clemm Poe. All of It disheartened her but her faith in her husband didn’t waiver for a second.
When Ellet reached Osgood with her concerns, she found her in her most worrisome state because of her reputation as she was pregnant. So, then Samuel Osgood stepped in asking Elizabeth Ellet to formally apologise to his wife. Elizabeth in turn blame Edgar Allan Poe’s head and even spread rumours about his insanity.
The effects of this scandal on Poe were scandalous. He was excluded from the New York literary salons and never saw his friend Fanny Osgood again. Also, Elizabeth Ellet never failed to miss a chance on proving Poe a madman.
5. The Last Chapter Before the Unexplained Death of Edgar Allan Poe’s Wife
In May of 1846, Edgar Allan Poe along with Virginia Clemm Poe and Maria Clemm moved to their final home in Fordham, The Bronx, fourteen miles outside of New York City. The house is known as the Poe cottage in the present times.
By now the case of Virginia was a hopeless one and even though the only light of the life of Edgar Allan Poe was extinguishing, he was the most productive in his career. Maybe it was an attempt to keep the economic situation above the waters and Virginia healthy.
Day by day, Virginia’s condition was worsening. Visitors would often come to see her condition. To one of the visitors named Elizabeth Oakes Smith, she said, “I know I shall die soon; I know I can’t get well; but I want to be as happy as possible and make Edgar happy.” She promised her husband that after she departs for the heavenly abode, she’ll be his guardian angel.
For some time, a family friend named Marie Louise Shew. To her, Edgar Allan Poe wrote, “Kindest – dearest friend – My poor Virginia still lives, although failing fast and now suffering much pain. May god grant her life until she sees you and thank you once again! Her bosom is full to overflowing – like my own – with boundless, inexpressible gratitude to you. Lest she may never see you more – she bids me say that she sends you her sweetest kiss of love and will die blessing you. But come – oh come tomorrow!”
6. Unexplained Death of Edgar Allan Poe’s Wife, Virginia
The day after Edgar Allan Poe sent that Shew, Virginia Clemm Poe died. It was 30th January 1847 when Poe collapsed at the bedside of poor Virginia the moment she stopped living.
Marie Louise Shew helped in organising the funeral. Her death notices were published in several newspapers including the New York Daily Tribune.
7. How was the Unexplained Death of Edgar Allan Poe’s Wife handled?
Soon after Virginia’s death, Edgar Allan Poe fell into a pothole of great depression. He often visited her grave in the dead of the night for which his friend Charles Chauncey Burr also accounted.
After the death of Edgar Allan Poe, Virginia’s remains were later placed beside her husband’s in Westminster Hall and Burying Ground in Baltimore, Maryland.
7.1 Poe’s Letter to a Friend
Poe wrote to a friend named George Eveleth, “Six years ago, a wife whom I loved like no man ever loved before, ruptured a blood vessel in singing. Her life was despaired of. I took leave of her forever and underwent all the agonies of her death. She recovered partially and I again hoped….
At the end of the year, the vessel broke again. I went through precisely the same scene. Again in about a year afterwards. Then again – again – again and even once again at varying intervals.
Each time I felt all the agonies of her death – and at each accession of the disorder I loved her more dearly and clung to her life with more desperate pertinacity. But I am constitutionally sensitive – nervous to a very unusual degree. I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.
During these fits of absolute unconsciousness, I drank, God only knows how often or how much. As a matter of course, my enemies referred the insanity to the drink rather than the drink to the insanity. I had indeed, nearly abandoned all hope of a permanent cure when I found one in the leash of my wife.
This I can and do endure as becomes a man – it was the horrible never-ending oscillation between hope and despair which I could no longer have endured with the total loss of reason. In the death of what was my life, then, I receive a new but – oh God! How melancholy an existence.”
7.2 Dealing with the Grief of the Unexplained Death of Edgar Allan Poe’s Wife
Though Poe was devastated by her death, he did try to court other women. However, it was nothing serious. He also tried to rekindle his relationship with Frances Osgood, but she was a firm believer in the fact that Poe had only ever loved Virginia.
Edgar Allan Poe died on 7th October 1849 at the age of 40. He had collapsed at a tavern in Baltimore with no female love in his life whatsoever.
8. Eddy and Sissy; an Underappreciated Love Story (Conclusion)
After having led a life lonelier than a bachelor when Poe met Virginia, he thought his stars had finally aligned. In her presence, he found comfort, peace and solace. She was his student, companion, child and home. Having all of that taken away by the same illness which haunted his other family members is as cruel a tragedy as there ever could be.
Edgar Poe, in his lifetime, only ever loved a woman and that was his sweet Virginia. The fact that he never settled down after Virginia Poe’s death only gives testimony to the above statement. She was his light in the dark and without her, Poe’s life was purposeless. In my opinion, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that she was his only true friend.
When we talk about great romances, we talk of Romeo and Juliet, Wuthering Heights and many different creations by other writers but sometimes, it is a writer’s story torn apart by fate that goes unnoticed. Who would have thought that the reason Edgar’s characters always ended up with no love was because he took their inspiration from his own life?
However, loving someone despite any illness and the fear of losing them, is the bravest type of love. Edgar Poe had that love. He might have been alone physically when he took his last breaths, but he had his Virginia with him in spirit. Also, I’d like to believe that, if there exists an afterlife, then Virginia and Poe are together in it, probably singing sweet nothings to each other.