This edition of the Storytellers Channel’s newsletter features Chris Semtner, Curator, The Poe Museum, writing about the impact of Love on Poe’s work and highlighting a couple of artifacts from the museum’s collection.
This past spring I directed R.Satiafa’s play, Love Locked Down, about the legacy of slavery. In my ongoing research as we prepare to mount another production in the fall I just finished reading The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein. I cannot commend the book too highly.
The Storytellers Channel
Love & Death
Young, lovely, and musically gifted, Virginia Poe was deeply devoted to her husband Edgar Allan Poe. And he wrote a friend that he loved her “as no man ever loved before.” Despite their struggles with poverty as he moved from city to city in search of writing jobs, the couple found warmth and happiness in the parlor of their modest home where, no matter how poor he became, he made sure she had a piano to play. After grueling days at the magazine office, he would join Virginia and her mother to make cheerful music by the gentle glow of the fireplace.
Virginia sang and played her piano while Edgar accompanied her on the flute. Her mother sang along while their cat Catterina curled up in her lap. Having grown up as an unwanted foster child constantly reminded by his guardian that he did not belong, Edgar finally found peace and security with two women who absolutely adored him.
Then one night everything changed. While she was singing, Virginia started to cough. She coughed again and again, struggling to breathe. That’s when Edgar saw a few drops of blood on the piano keys. She was coughing up blood. It was tuberculosis, the same dread disease that had claimed his mother, brother, and foster mother. In Poe’s day, there was no cure, and all hope was lost. As Poe wrote, “Her life was despaired of…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.”
How did the knowledge of his wife’s impending death impact his writing? Listen to “The Oval Portrait,” the story of a brilliant artist with a beautiful young wife. Like Poe, the artist is committed to his craft and labors to paint the perfect portrait of his beloved. He devotes so much time to this painting that he fails to realize his wife is dying from neglect. Could this be Poe’s expression of the guilt and sorrow he felt as he watched his own beloved die?
The next selection, “Eleonora,” tells the tale of two young cousins who grow up together, just as the very young Virginia grew up before the eyes of her cousin Edgar. (She was nine when they met and only thirteen when they married.) In the short story, the two cousins fall in love and get married. Just like Virginia, Eleonora, the wife in the story, grows ill. Before she succumbs to the disease, she makes her husband never to love another. As you will soon hear, her widower struggles with guilt and despair, terrified that devoting himself to another woman will invoke the wrath of his first wife’s ghost. Listen to the story to find out what happens next.
What’s Going on at Storytellers Channel
Well, we had the Virginia Storytelling Alliance’s From Plot to Narrative retreat with Elizabeth Ellis up at the Whippoorwill Manor Farm in Madison, VA June 8-10. It was a grand success. Danita Rountree Green aka R. Satiafa crafted a story at the workshop thinking she’d never have an opportunity to tell it again. The very next week she was asked to step in for the key note speaker at a conference she was attending and got to tell the story again to another appreciative audience. Congratulations Danita.
Andy Offutt Irwin and Darci Tucker’s concert at HATTheatre in Richmond’s fashionable West End was an equally delightful event. Darci shared her story of a colonial woman who dressed up like a man (an illegal act in those days) and enlisted in the Continental Army. We were all enraptured from beginning to end. Check her out at AmericanLives.net
Andy delighted us with guitar, singing, whistling par excellence and of course he regaled us with stories of his Aunt Marguerite.
You can find more about Andy at AndyIrwin.com
I mentioned Danita Rountree Green aka R. Satiafa earlier and the work we’ve been doing on her play, Love Locked Down. My research on the project led me to reading The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein. The book is subtitled A Forgotten History Of How Our Government Segregated America.
I begin our storytelling workshops by saying, “We live into the stories we tell ourselves.” This book lays to rest a number of fallacious myths that permeate our national dialogue. I found it riveting and stayed up past my bedtime way too many evenings reading it. As I mentioned in the intro, I cannot commend this book too much.
This Issue’s Poe Museum Artifact: A Gift from Poe to His Last Love
Shortly before his death, Edgar Allan Poe gave this glass, part of a set with a decanter and other glasses, as a gift to his last love, Elmira Royster Shelton. Though the struggling author could ill-afford such extravagant purchases, he gifted her the glassware set, a gold ring with his name inscribed on the inside, and a locket with his and her initials on the back. Meanwhile, his hotel confiscated his luggage until he could pay for his room.
Poe had first fallen in love with Elmira Royster Shelton a quarter century earlier, when they were teenagers in Richmond. Even though her father James Royster, a wealthy merchant, disapproved of her relationship with the unadopted orphan Poe, Elmira had clandestine meetings with Edgar behind the tall brick walls of a secluded garden. Determined to spend their lives together, the young lovers became secretly engaged. They were to marry after Poe graduated college and could take care of himself.
Then her father intervened. When Poe sent her love letters from the University of Virginia, Elmira’s father saw them before she did and burned them. Each time Elmira handed her father letters to mail Edgar, Mr. Royster destroyed those, too—convincing each lover that the other had forgotten them.
Consequently, by the time Edgar returned from college for Christmas, Elmira was engaged to an older, richer man. Upon learning the news, the devastated Poe ran away from home. A few years later, he heard from a mutual friend that Elmira never really loved her husband and still had feelings for Poe. About this time, Poe wrote “The Assignation,” a short story about a dark-haired, mysterious young man hopelessly infatuated with a beautiful young woman who is married to a rich older man she didn’t really love. Does that sound familiar? Listen to the story to discover how the loss of his first great love inspired Poe’s art.
Elmira stayed with her husband until his sudden, early death. In the last year of his life, the widowed Edgar reunited with her, and the two renewed their engagement. That is when he gave her this glass, which her great-great-great grandson donated to the Poe Museum as a reminder of Poe’s first and last love. You can see it today in the Poe Museum’s Elizabeth Arnold Poe Memorial Building.
Be sure to visit the Poe Museum.