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December 15, 2017

Edgar More Poe Than Allan

On this day in 1811 a final notice appeared in the Richmond, Virginia Inquirer asking for donations in aid of the destitute young actress, Eliza Poe, and her children, two-year-old Edgar and his baby sister, Rosalie:
    To the Humane heart. On this night Mrs. Poe, lingering on the bed of disease and surrounded by her children, asks your assistance and asks it perhaps for the last time. The Generosity of the Richmond Audience can need no other appeal....
A week later, Eliza Poe died, more or less as Poe's wife, Virginia Eliza, would die thirty-six years later: of tuberculosis, in dire poverty, at the age of twenty-four. Her stage fame had rested on her Ophelia, Cordelia and Juliet roles, and now her burial echoed them: many in the local church argued against burying her in consecrated ground, not because a suicide like Ophelia, but because an actress. There being no family to care or argue for her - Eliza Poe was an orphan at eleven, her first husband died, and her second, Poe's father, ran off - the prosperous merchant John Allan stepped in to manage the funeral, and then Mrs. Allan took on young Edgar.

Poe seemed surely rescued from this history of abandonment, itinerancy and hand-outs. Mrs. Allan was doting, and though Mr. Allan was no-nonsense, he was willing to spend on young Edgar for a fair return on the investment. Opportunities were offered in society, at school, and at the family business, though Poe was not legally adopted. Nor was he much interested, preferring poetry and other habits that Allan did not like. By the time his guardian died in 1834, the twenty-five-year-old Poe had run up so many debts and broken so many promises to reform that he was cut from the very substantial will. Even when attempting to play the prodigal stepson at Allan's deathbed, he had been booted out of the house. Poe would spend the fifteen years that remained moving up and down the Eastern seaboard as his mother the actress had done, his talent for writing and histrionics never quite enough to overcome his darker habits, or his need for hand-outs.

These are the concluding lines of "The Conqueror Worm," a poem set in the theater, the "angel throng" gathered for a "gala night" which turns to nightmare:
    But see, amid the mimic rout
    A crawling shape intrude!
    A blood-red thing that writhes from out
    The scenic solitude!
    It writhes! - it writhes! - with mortal pangs
    The mimes become its food,
    And seraphs sob at vermin fangs
    In human gore imbued.
    Out - out are the lights - out all!
    And, over each quivering form,
    The curtain, a funeral pall,
    Comes down with the rush of a storm,
    While the angels, all pallid and wan,
    Uprising, unveiling, affirm
    That the play is the tragedy, "Man,"
    And its hero the Conqueror Worm.

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