Monday, August 24, 2009

In Defense of Virginia Poe

Ferdinand: Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle. She died young.
Bosola: I think not so; her infelicity seem'd to have years too many.
-John Webster, "The Duchess of Malfi"

I believe that Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe is an unjustly shadowy and undervalued figure in Poe's life. There are, unfortunately, no known letters from her, and only two brief notes to her from her husband survive, so vital information about her personality and relationship with Poe is scanty. The hostile testimony of Susan Talley Weiss (who never knew Virginia and whose knowledge about Poe is, to say the least, debatable,) and that alone, has given history a view of Virginia as a perennially childlike, insipid girl who was a pitifully inadequate mate for her brilliant husband. For some reason, it is Weiss' account of Virginia that has largely formed the reputation of Poe's wife. The little solid information we have about her, however, suggests that Weiss--as in so very much else--was a malicious liar. Virginia's one surviving composition--an 1846 acrostic Valentine poem to Poe, containing his name--is written in a elegant, sophisticated hand, and while it is not a technically polished poem, it conveys both intelligence and sensitivity:
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.
(Intriguingly, there is some reason to speculate that she may have been the actual author of the Valentine poem Poe addressed to Frances Sargent Osgood in that year. The earliest known manuscript of the poem, currently in Baltimore's Enoch Pratt library, appears to be in Virginia's writing, with Poe himself adding his merely his initials and the poem's title to the document.) The testimony of people who actually knew Virginia all describe a beautiful, cultured, charming, refined young woman who made a loving and loyal wife for her troubled husband. Many statements from friends of the pair, as well as Poe himself, indicate he loved her deeply--as a man, not merely as a "brother" as Weiss suggested--and from all accounts of her, there is no reason why he should have felt otherwise.Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe ValentineVirginia had a difficult life--she never knew anything but poverty, she became an invalid at nineteen, died a lingering, painful death before she was twenty-five, and she was married to one of the most unusual and trouble-plagued men of her time--but she seemed to have handled her lot with patience, unfailing good nature, and quiet courage. She deserves a better historical reputation that she has generally been granted.

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