1822 - 1847
Virginia Eliza Clemm was born on August 22, 1822 to Maria Poe (sister of Edgar's father David) and her husband William Clemm, Jr. (1779-1826). Virginia grew to become a plump and sweet-tempered child with brown hair and violet eyes. After William died, Maria, nicknamed "Muddy," became a penniless widow with two other children to raise.
In 1829, Edgar, fresh out of West Point and estranged from his foster father John Allan, joined her impoverished Baltimore household, which included Virginia, aged seven; Maria's son Henry Clemm, a mason's apprentice and alcoholic; Edgar's grandmother Mrs. David Poe, paralytic and bedridden; and Edgar's older brother William Henry Leonard Poe, who suffered from advanced tuberculosis.
This household provided Edgar with a base of security from which he could pursue his literary aspirations up and down the Atlantic coast.
After the death of his grandmother and brother, Henry Clemm went to sea, leaving Edgar the sole supporter of his family. His second cousin, Neilson Poe, offered to take in Maria and Virginia to his household. However, Poe, looking for work in Richmond, wrote them on August 29, 1835, pleading to let him care for them and reject Neilson's offer.
Twenty-six year old Edgar had fallen in love with his cousin, now age thirteen. In October, when Edgar had been rehired by the SOUTHERN LITERARY MESSENGER, Virginia and Maria joined him in Richmond.
The following year, on May 16, 1836, Edgar and Virginia were married by the Reverend Amasa Converse, a Presbyterian minister and the editor of the SOUTHERN RELIGIOUS TELEGRAPH, at the Yarrington boardinghouse in the presence of T.W. White and his daughter Eliza, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas W. Cleland, William McFarlane, John W. Ferguson, Mrs. James Yarrington, Maria Clemm, and thirteen year old Jane Foster.
"I remember seeing Edgar, and his lovely wife, very soon after they were married -- I met them -- I never shall forget my feelings at the time -- They were indescribable, almost agonizing. -- However in an instant, I remembered that I was a married woman, and banished them from me, as I would a poisonous reptile."
--- Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton, Edgar's childhood sweetheart
By all accounts Edgar and Virginia were deeply in love with one another and played together almost as children. It is believed they did not have marital relations until she turned 16.
Edgar directed her education, tutoring her in the classics and mathematics. In addition, she took singing and piano lessons, developing a beautiful voice.
On January 20, 1842, while living in Philadelphia, Virginia began playing the piano and singing to her husband. Suddenly, she began to cough and blood gushed from her mouth.
This pulmonary hemorrhaging marked the onset of tuberculosis, the disease that had already killed so many of Edgar's loved ones.
"My dear little wife has been dangerously ill. About a fortnight since, in singing, she ruptured a blood vessel, and it was only on yesterday that the physicians gave me any hope of her recovery. You might imagine the agony I have suffered, for you know how devotedly I love her."
--- Poe to Frederick William Thomas, February 3, 1842
Virginia became an invalid and her diminishing health drove Edgar into deep depression. In spite of his ongoing poverty, Edgar did all he could to ease the pains of his dying wife.
During the "bluestocking" scandal, the jealous gossiping of Elizabeth Fries Ellet (1818-1877) about Edgar's relationships with other women created a great deal of stress for Virginia to endure and perhaps hastened her death. Despite this, many of Edgar's female friends offered comfort and economic assistance for his dying wife.
"Kindest--dearest friend--My poor Virginia still lives, although failing fast and now suffering much pain. May God grant her life until she sees you and thanks you once again! Her bosom is full to overflowing--like my own--with a boundless--inexpressible gratitude to you. Lest she may never see you more--she bids me say that she sends you her sweetest kiss of love and will die blessing you. But come--oh come tomorrow!"
--- Poe to Marie Louise Shew, January 29, 1847
"She called me to her bedside, took a picture of her husband from under her pillow, kissed it, and gave it to me. She took from her portfolio a worn letter and showed it to her husband, he read it and weeping heavy tears gave it to me to read. It was a letter from Mr. Allan's wife after his death. It expressed a desire to see him, acknowledged that she alone had been the cause of his adopted Father's neglect."
--- Marie Louise Shew, March 28, 1875
"She (Mrs. Shew) tendered her while she lived, as if she had been her dear sister, and when she was dead she dressed her for the grave in beautiful linen. If it had not been for her, my darling Virginia would have been laid in her grave in cotton."
--- Mary Gove quoting Maria Clemm, 1863
On January 30, 1847, Virginia died.
"I bought her coffin, her grave clothes, and Edgar's mourning, except the little help Mary Starr gave me."
--- Marie Louis Shew, January 23, 1875
This obituary was printed in both the DAILY TRIBUNE and the NEW YORK HERALD on February 1, 1847:
"On Saturday, the 30th ult, of pulmonary consumption, in the 25th year of her age, VIRGINIA ELIZA, wife of EDGAR A. POE. Her friends are invited to attend her funeral at Fordham, Westchester county, on Tuesday next, (tomorrow,) at 2 P.M. The cars leave New-York for Fordham, from the City Hall, at 12 P.M., returning at 4 P.M."
On February 2, 1847, Virginia was buried in the family vault of John Valentine, owner of the Fordham cottage where Poe lived, in the graveyard of the Old Dutch Reformed Church.
Almost a year later, Edgar wrote George W. Eveleth, describing how Virginia's illness and death had affected him tragically.
Poe's relationship with Virginia and the affect her suffering and dying had upon him can be reflected in both of the poems “Annabel Lee” and “Ulalume.”
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