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Poe-Me Monday: Poe’s Women Part 2, Virginia Clemm Poe


Virginia Clemm Poe, Painting.




The Poe Cottage, Fordham, Bronx, New York


Edgar Allan Poe’s relationship with his only wife, Virginia Clemm Poe, is as mysterious as it is troubling to our modern eyes. Even 214 years after his death, it is difficult to wrap our minds around the fact that Poe married his 14-year-old first cousin. What follows is not a justification of his questionable choices, but a stating of the facts and an explanation of the times the Poes lived in. The plain truth is that we will never know what happened behind the closed doors of their bedroom–they will forever be closed to us. 


Virginia Eliza Clemm was born August 15, 1822, when Edgar was already 13 years old. Her mother Maria “Muddy” Poe Clemm was Poe’s father’s sister. Maria’s father, William Clemm, Jr. died when Virginia was just 4 years old. William, a widower, was a hardware merchant who already had 5 children when he married Maria (against the wishes of his family). The property left on William’s death went to the children from his first marriage, leaving Maria faced with supporting herself and her surviving children, Henry and Virginia Eliza (her second child Virginia Maria having died at the age of 2). Little is known about Henry Clemm; just his name and the date of his birth are recorded. Maria was left with only the means to take in laundry and ply her sewing skills to make a living; she moved to care for–and share expenses with–her paralyzed, bedridden mother, Elizabeth Carnes Poe, in Baltimore. Later Edgar’s older brother William (“Henry”) would join his grandmother, aunt, and cousin in their cramped household. When Virginia was 7, she met Edgar Allan Poe for the first time not long after he was court-martialed and dismissed from West Point. 


This was the first time Edgar had experienced true family life. Henry and Elizabeth’s deaths would alter the family’s financial circumstances for the worse. Losing the Revolutionary War pension granted to paternal patriarch David Poe, Sr., (Elizabeth’s late husband and the beneficiary of the pension during her life) was a blow that would eventually compel Edgar to relocate to Philadelphia in order to support his dwindling family. While separated from his aunt and cousin, Poe sent money to his destitute family and copious amounts of correspondence to express his emotional bond with his female relatives. 


Poe received a letter from his cousin Neilson Poe offering to take Virginia Clemm into his household to educate and find a suitable marriage for her. Neilson Poe was a wealthy man and could easily afford to acquire a rich husband for his young female cousin. Edgar’s response was as immediate as it was passionate. He begged the 13-year-old Virginia to marry him and keep the family together. 


“My dearest Aunty,


I am blinded with tears while writing this letter — I have no wish to live another hour. Amid sorrow, and the deepest anxiety your letter reached — and you well know how little I am able to bear up under the pressure of grief. My bitterest enemy would pity me could he now read my heart. My last my last my only hold on life is cruelly torn away — I have no desire to live and will not. But let my duty be done. I love, you know I love Virginia passionately devotedly…

Adieu my dear aunty. I cannot advise you. Ask Virginia. Leave it to her. Let me have, under her own hand, a letter, bidding me good bye — forever — and I may die — my heart will break — but I will say no more.


E A P.

Kiss her for me —— a million times

 

For Virginia,


My love, my own sweetest Sissy, my darling little wifey, think well before you break the heart of your Cousin, Eddy….”


In the terror Edgar must have felt in losing the only family he had ever known, he proposed marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, whom he called “Sissy.” Evidently, Virginia chose to marry Edgar. However, on their marriage license, she listed her age as 21 instead of 13. So Poe actually married his 13-year-old first cousin. Pretty irredeemable in modern society. 


Looking at the relationship from a historical perspective, the fact that they were first cousins was no barrier at the time. Many people married within their own families to protect and accumulate wealth. Even looking back at my own family history in the early American South, it’s clear that many of my ancestors married close relatives in order to keep their vast properties within the family. The first laws banning marriage between first cousins didn’t appear until 1858 and, most interestingly, currently 19 US states still allow legal unions between first cousins. 


It’s unclear what Edgar’s motivations were in marrying Virginia, a child of 13 years when he was a man of 27 in 1836 (7 US states have no age restriction on underage marriage in 2023). If you look at his own correspondence, he refers to her as “Sissy” often, and it’s clear that he took her education very seriously. Contemporary accounts noted their singular devotion to each other. While it’s been suggested that they didn’t share a bed until 1838, when Virginia was 16, this cannot be factually corroborated. There was little scandal about the marriage of first cousins at the time, but there was much gossip about her extremely young age. Many visitors to the Poe household commented on Virginia’s beauty, grace and intelligent conversation, but they also noted how young she looked and behaved. Peers also noted that Edgar was solicitous in his behavior towards his child bride, eager to make her happy and devoted to her every whim. His wife and his mother-in-law/aunt Muddy provided a stable, sober retreat for Eddy, as they called him, in order to give him the best environment for his literary creations. It’s clear that Poe's home was a happy one where love and family were more important than money or social standing. During Virginia’s life, there are a few rumors of Edgar forming literary attachments to other women, but the only instance often noted is correspondence between Edgar and fellow poet Elizabeth Ellet who wrote anonymous letters to Poe. A deeper analysis of this event will be in an upcoming entry: Poe’s Women, Part 3.  


It was at a social gathering at the Poe home in Philadelphia that tragedy struck and their lives would be forever altered. While Virginia (piano) and Eddy (flute) were playing a duet, she began to cough. What followed must have been a horrific scene as she experienced a pulmonary hemorrhage and blood gushed forth from her mouth. The first sign of tuberculosis had made its presence known and Virginia would experience several of these terrifying occurrences before her death. Poe would write to a friend of this horrific time to a friend after Virginia’s death:


“You say —‘Can you hint to me what was the terrible evil’ which caused the irregularities so profoundly lamented?” Yes; I can do more than hint. This ‘evil’ was the greatest which can befall a man. Six years ago, a wife, whom I loved as no man ever loved before, ruptured a blood-vessel in singing. Her life was despaired of. I took leave of her forever & underwent all the agonies of her death. She recovered partially and I again hoped. At the end of a year the vessel broke again — I went through precisely the same scene. Again in about a year afterward. Then again — again — again & 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 & clung to her life with more desperate pertinacity. But I am constitutionally sensitive — nervous in 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 death of my wife. This I can & do endure as becomes a man — it was the horrible never-ending oscillation between hope & despair which I could not longer have endured without 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.”

Edgar Allan Poe letter to George Washington Eveleth, January 4, 1848 (Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, Austin)


Poe Park, Fordham, Bronx, New York


When Virginia began the final stages of her disease, Eddy became increasingly desperate to give his wife all the comforts that he could afford. Unfortunately, due to his financial straits, this was little to nothing. One visitor described the cottage in Fordham, New York, as only heated by a fireplace on the first floor while Virginia’s bed was on the second floor. Her only means of warmth were a thin blanket, Eddy’s greatcoat, and a calico cat named Caterina who lay on her chest. Her mother and husband took turns warming her hands and feet. Donations were collected by friends to give Mrs.Poe more comfort in her final days. Virginia wrote her first and only poem to Edgar–an acrostic, in which the first letter of each line spells out his full name–on her last Valentine’s Day. 


Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe bedroom, Fordham Cottage, Bronx, New York



Valentine 


Ever with thee I wish to roam—

Dearest my life is thine.

Give me a cottage for my home

And a rich old cypress vine,

Removed from the world with its sin and care

And the tattling of many tongues.

Love alone shall guide us when we are there—

Love shall heal my weakened lungs;

And Oh, the tranquil hours we’ll spend,

Never wishing that others may see!

Perfect ease we’ll enjoy, without thinking to lend

Ourselves to the world and its glee—

Ever peaceful and blissful we’ll be.

Virginia Poe - Valentine’s Day 1846


Virginia, aged 24. would die the following January. Her death would leave Poe bereft, untethered, and desperate to find a woman to anchor his life once again. 


Next: Poe’s Ratiocination 




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