Friday, January 30, 2009

In memoriam: Virginia Clemm Poe

On January 30, 1847, Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe died after a five-year battle with tuberculosis at the age of 24. Though she is often referred to as Edgar Poe's "child bride," it's important to note that after 11 years of marriage, we can presume she grew up a bit.

We don't tend to talk much about her character; not even I have a personal opinion if she was a strong woman, intelligent, artistic, or good at housekeeping. She has sort of been relegated to a background character in the life of Poe. Even so, discussing Poe requires discussion of his wife, and that discussion can be romantic, awkward, confusing, or apologetic. The truth is, yes, Poe married his first-cousin when she was 13 (he was 27). No, it was not unusual to marry your cousin in those days and, from what I've seen, especially among poorer families in the South. But, just to make a point, others who married their first cousins include two signers of the Declaration of Independence (a couple others opted for second cousins), writer H. G. Wells, and (fellow bicentennial) Charles Darwin. As far as the age difference, women did marry young in those days. But, I would quickly point out that Virginia was unusually young for marriage, even at this time period. I can't dispute that.

Of course, there has been dispute as far as the kind of relationship Mr. and Mrs. Poe shared. The doting husband called his wife "Sissy" as a nickname, and many scholars believe they shared more of a sibling partnership. Many also believe that the couple never consummated their marriage (especially if you believe "Annabel Lee" stood in for Virginia as the "maiden there lived whom you may know"), while others suggest that they held off until a more appropriate age.

My personal opinion is that Poe was madly in love with his wife. But, to Poe, love was not physical but poetic and, because he existed on this higher plane of artistic passion, his relationship can't compare to our modern definitions of marriage. Even if their relationship was sexual (which I believe is possible, but I fall into the camp that believes it didn't happen right away), it was not the primary part of their marriage. This relationship was based on love - and there's nothing wrong with that, especially for a 19th century coupling. When she died, of course he was devastated.

Nevertheless, there is a rumor that Poe never got over the death of his wife, and that her sickness and death defined all of his writing and forced him to become an alcoholic. I would dispute some of these rumors, if you don't mind.

First, though much of Poe's writing emphasizes death and, more specifically, deaths of women, not all of them do. One of his most famous, for example, "The Tell-Tale Heart," shows no signs of illness or of women dying. Further, Poe's use of the theme of dying women is for artistic purposes - as explained in my last blog post on "The Raven." As far as Poe never getting over Virginia's death, well, there is likely some truth to that - just as they say today, you never truly stop loving someone. But, Poe was looking for his second wife even while Virginia was still alive and, in some cases, was encouraged by Virginia to do so.

Drinking, of course, is always a contentious discussion with Poe. I would argue that his drinking problems first manifested as a university student (anything unusual about college students experimenting with alcohol?) and, sure, he drank throughout his life. But, it was after Virginia's death that Poe joined a temperance society and took a vow of sobriety. We can argue about this for quite some time and never really find the source of Poe's drinking, how much he drank, how affected he was by alcohol, etc.

All this aside, here's to Virginia Clemm Poe, to whom this blog is respectfully dedicated today.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad you paid a tribute to Virginia--she tends to be an oddly ignored figure in Poe's life. However, I was startled by your statement that "Poe was looking for his second wife even while Virginia was still alive and, in some cases, was encouraged by Virginia to do so."

What makes you say that?

Rob Velella said...

Which part confuses you? That Poe was already looking for a second wife (i.e. his well-known flirtation with Frances Osgood) or that Virginia encouraged it? For the latter, as she knew she was dying, Virginia was hoping Poe would find a woman who would have a restraining effect on him (like Osgood). She even encouraged Marie Louise Shew to "take care" of Poe when she was gone.

Anonymous said...

I was baffled mainly by your statement that both he and Virginia were looking for a second wife for him. There is no evidence for that at all--whatever his "flirtation" with Osgood may have been (and I believe that the importance of that relationship to him has been grossly exaggerated) she was already married, and could in no way be "spouse material." (That aside, there is also testimony from people who knew Poe stating that he found the idea of a second marriage abhorrent.)

Going back to Osgood--we only have her uncorroborated word that Virginia encouraged their relationship, and I believe that word is not to be trusted. After Poe's death--when neither he nor Virginia could contradict her--Osgood had obvious ulterior motives for trying to convince the world that Poe's wife incited her to cozy up to him. (Osgood's Poe reminiscences as a whole are remarkably self-serving and self-glorifying, and I have found evidence that among people who knew her the best, Osgood did not have a reputation for honesty.) Besides, it is established that Osgood and Mrs. Clemm hated each other. With that in mind, does it make any sense that Mrs. Clemm's daughter would select Osgood as Poe's AA buddy, the only person in the world with the influence to keep him sober? And how many women who love their husbands encourage another woman--particularly one who is openly infatuated with him--to "use their influence" on him? It's laughable, but for some strange reason, no one seems to question it.

As for Mrs. Shew, the little evidence we have about the matter indicates that Virginia wanted her to care for Poe in a medical sort of way--he was seriously ill before and after Virginia's death, and she wanted Mrs. Shew to continue to nurse him and befriend him until he was back on his feet again. That's all.

Rob Velella said...

It just goes to show you can find evidence for anything.

Many biographers believe that Virginia's support for Poe's relationship with Osgood was not in the hopes of a platonic one. Regardless of Osgood being married, it did not stop Poe's pursuit (nor did it stop his pursuit of other married women, including Nancy "Annie" Richmond).

Biographers also suggest that Virginia was hoping for something to spark between Poe and the unmarried M. L. Shew - culminating in the famous scene where she forced them to hold hands. If she just intended medical care, why go through the drama?

Of course, we can't prove much of this, but my main point is that I do believe that Poe moved on quite well from Virginia. The idea that he "never" got over her death is another exaggeration.

Anonymous said...

That wasn't Mrs. Shew that Virginia supposedly had Poe hold hands with on her deathbed--that anecdote was from that bizarre 1889 article about Mary Starr.

The only biographer I've found that even hints that "Virginia's support for Poe's relationship with Osgood was not in the hopes of a platonic one" is Kenneth Silverman, and he was , as usual with him, presenting pure speculation as fact. He offers no actual evidence for this highly unlikely idea. I don't think even he went that far about Mary Shew. (Incidentally, considering what an emotional wreck Poe was in the last two years of his life, it's questionable how well he "moved on" from Virginia's death.)

I just have to add one last thing before I let the matter drop (I'll bet you can't wait for me to do that)--the evidence all suggests that Osgood pursued Poe--not the other way around. Even Silverman had to admit she played a much more aggressive role in their acquaintance than she claimed.

Rob Velella said...

You're correct on the hand-holding incident - my mistake!

Don't worry about letting the matter drop. I think these kinds of discussions are great! What other 19th-century author sparks discussion more than Poe?

As far as Poe moving on, well, we can read his actions any number of ways. Poe was an emotional wreck after Virginia, true, but his letters to women like Sarah Helen Whitman and Nancy Richmond show a different kind of an emotional wreck than the stereotype we've given him ("Boo-hoo, my wife is dead," etc). I think his pursuit of so many other women do show, at least in part, that he was moving on.

I think Osgood was an unintentional flirt. I characterize her in my head as a good-looking woman who was rather simple-minded and unaware. In her "being nice" moments, my guess is she was actually flirtatious, luring in the likes of Poe. If that's the case, she's not really an aggressor here, but she is to "blame," so to speak. Even so, Poe knew what he was doing.

By the way, I put the flirtation on Osgood (albeit unintentional) because that's the only way to explain Griswold's infatuation with her (while he was also still married). Again, this is all just speculation, but isn't speculation fun?!