Monday, November 15, 2010

Poe in 1844

"In truth, the man who would behold aright the glory of God upon earth must in solitude behold that glory."
-"The Island of the Fay"

"For the heart whose woes are legion
'Tis a peaceful, soothing region--
For the spirit that walks in shadow
'Tis--oh 'tis an Eldorado!"

In April of 1844, Poe and his family moved from Philadelphia to New York City. Urban life was never to the liking of any of the trio (and Poe immediately developed a particular distaste for Gotham,) so soon afterwards they retreated to the country. They found lodgings in the home of Patrick Brennan and his family, who lived on a 200-acre dairy farm, on what later became Eighty-fourth Street and Broadway. In Poe's time, however, it was about five miles from the heart of the city, a charming rustic retreat full of ponds, hills, and forests near the Hudson River. He and his family occupied a spacious double room on the second story of the house, with two large windows that faced the Hudson (we are told that in the evenings, Poe and Virginia enjoyed sitting by these windows to watch the sun set over the river,) and two toward the East. During the day, Poe, along with his wife and mother-in-law, used the larger bedroom as an all-purpose living room, with Mrs. Clemm retiring to the smaller room at night.Edgar Allan Poe and the Brennan Farm where he wrote The RavenThe solitude and quiet of the farm was exactly to Poe's liking. The Brennan's eldest daughter Martha, who was a child of about ten during his stay in the household, later described the poet as a "shy, solitary, taciturn sort of man, fond of rambling down in the woods, between the house and the river, and sitting for hours upon a certain stump on the edge of the bank of the river." Another favorite spot was "Mount Tom," an immense rock in Riverside Park, where he would sit silently for hours gazing out at the Hudson.

In September of that year, he contentedly wrote his friend Frederick W. Thomas that he was "playing the hermit in earnest," that for months he had not even spoken to anyone outside his family. It is most likely that "The Raven" was composed, or at the very least perfected, in these tranquil surroundings. Mrs. Brennan later recalled him reading the poem to her after it was completed, and the sheer lack of drama in her account gives it credibility.The Raven Edgar Allan PoeIt has also been observed that his stories which were probably written during his stay with the Brennans, such as "The Angel of the Odd," and "The Literary Life of Thingum-Bob" are notable for their playful amiability--a quality not normally associated with his writings.

Poe's months of self-imposed retirement on the farm have a peculiar charm and fascination for me, because they give the impression of an interregnum in his harried life; a rare taste of peace. During the increasingly grim four years he experienced afterwards, the Brennan home must have seemed in retrospect like Arnheim itself. I instinctively sense he was happy there--and happiness certainly is a rare commodity in his biography.

Unfortunately, his seclusion during this period means that few details of it remain. Our main source of information comes from brief accounts given by members of the Brennan family to various journalists and biographers. Martha Brennan said Poe was kindly towards children, and that she would sit on the floor of his room at his feet and arrange his manuscripts. She could never understand his habit of turning the written pages toward the floor, and she would insist on reversing them and putting the pages in their proper order. Martha and her mother Mary also described him as "the gentlest of husbands and devoted to his invalid wife."

It was Mary Brennan who gave the most detailed description of Poe in late 1844. She recalled him as "eccentric" and reticent, but very good-natured and courteous, and that her relations with him and his family "were of the pleasantest nature." Mrs. Brennan, who was a strict prohibitionist, added that when she knew him, she would never have dreamed that he ever had a problem with liquor. Whatever illnesses he had during that time of his life were, she averred, due to "the great care he so cheerfully and untiringly bestowed upon his wife," which "greatly undermined his constitution." She assumed he must have acquired the liquor habit after his wife's death, as she had never heard, even by rumor, of his having a problem with alcohol before that loss.

She testified that Poe seldom left the farm, with Mrs. Clemm generally taking his manuscripts to the publishers. He was modest about his writings, she said, never referring to them. Like her daughter, Mrs. Brennan described him as spending much of his time wandering through the woods, lost in thought, or sitting for hours on a stone, "tapping the ground with a small stick." Afterwards, he would retire to his room for days, writing down whatever he had been thinking about with such intensity.

Mrs. Brennan described Virginia as "a slight little woman, but very beautiful." She was, however, so frail that Poe sometimes had to carry her up and down stairs. Their landlady said of Poe and his wife that "the most loving relations subsisted between them...They never quarreled, and he never addressed her except in the most endearing terms. He used to call her 'Diddie' [sic] and she would call him 'Darling,' and they both addressed Mrs. Clemm as 'Muddie.'" She also said that the floor of Poe and Virginia's bedroom was generally completely strewn with manuscripts. She recalled one in particular that stretched across the entire room, with the pages held down by large stones which Poe had gathered from the yard.

The Poes probably lodged with the Brennans until about February of 1845, when his duties at the "Broadway Journal" necessitated a return to the metropolis, although some sources indicated that they did not move into the city until spring. (As I mentioned in an earlier post, they probably made a brief return to the Brennan household in the spring of 1846, just before their move to Fordham.) The farmhouse itself--which was very old even in Poe's time--was torn down in 1888, and now, of course, the area is completely unrecognizable from what he knew. (The site now hosts a coffeehouse called--but of course--"Edgar's Cafe." If anyone reading this is ever in the neighborhood of 255 W. 84th Street, it would be nice if you could stop by and have a bite to eat on his behalf.)

When the Brennan house was demolished, an enterprising Poe enthusiast rescued the mantel from what had been Poe and Virginia's room, and later donated it to Columbia University. The University eventually mounted it in their Carpenter Library with a plaque identifying it as "the mantel before which E.A. Poe wrote 'The Raven.'"The Raven on the bust of Pallas Edgar Allan Poe

(Images: NYPL Digital Gallery)

Update: Since writing the above post, I've learned that Edgar's Cafe is, alas, no more, yet another victim of a bad economy. Ave atque vale.