179 years ago today, it was OK to marry your underage first cousin — and Poe did exactly that with Virginia Eliza Clemm.
Like so many aspects of Edgar Allan Poe’s life (including his death), the nature of his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia Eliza Clemm, is shrouded in mystery. The two first met in 1829, when Clemm was seven years old. Her widowed mother Maria had then allowed the 20-year-old Poe, who had been orphaned in his youth and more recently discharged from the military, to stay with her family. Clemm adored Poe, following him on long walks in the countryside and even delivering his love letters to a neighbor — until, that is, his affections turned to her. It’s said that the pair attended strangers’ funerals, held each other and cried. (Oh, the Poe folklore!)
Poe and Clemm decided to marry, but Maria didn’t approve of their age difference — 13 years — or Poe’s financial situation — he had just been fired from the Southern Literary Messenger for on-duty drunkenness. Regardless, the couple eloped in Baltimore on September 22, 1835, and made their marriage public with a ceremony in Richmond, Virginia, on May 16, 1836. The wedding was held that spring evening at a boarding house, where the couple and Maria stayed the night. A Presbyterian minister officiated the union, and the couple honeymooned briefly in Petersburg, Virginia, on the Appomattox River.
Poe and Clemm’s familial ties weren’t scandalous for the time — marriage between first cousins was legal in all states before the Civil War — but biographer Kenneth Silverman believes their stark difference in age sparked disapproval. Though Virginia claimed she was 21 years old on their marriage certificate, she was, at the time, only 13 — half the age Poe.
The marriage came at a productive time for Poe. A month before the couple eloped, his contributions to the Southern Literary Messenger had earned him a position as assistant editor; this was the post he would lose for drinking, but he was reinstated after promising better behavior. Poe continued to work for the Messenger until 1837, leaving then for Burton’s Gentleman's Magazine, where he published countless stories, poems and critiques.
Poe and Clemm never had any children and never alluded to anything sexual in their letters. Biographers have claimed that the two had a kind, devoted bond, but one more like brother and sister than husband and wife. Indeed, in letters, Clemm was Poe’s “Sis” or “Sissy.” Clemm may have even encouraged Poe’s scandalous friendship with the married 34-year-old poet Frances Sargent Osgood, delivering notes between the two in a fashion similar to that of her childhood. This eventually triggered a messy love triangle — not with Clemm, but with Elizabeth F. Ellet, a fellow poet and Poe admirer who became wildly jealous of Osgood and spread rumors about their affair and Poe’s “lunacy.” The ordeal eventually died down, but it tarnished Poe’s reputation and Clemm never forgot it. Famously, the incident inspired her 1846 Valentine poem to Poe about the “tattling of many tongues.”
As folklore will have it, on her deathbed, Clemm declared Ellet her murderer. Years before, in January of 1842, while singing and playing the piano, Clemm began to bleed from her mouth. Poe had believed it was just “a ruptured blood-vessel,” but it was in fact the first sign of tuberculosis. Her struggle with the disease set her husband into a “horrible never-ending oscillation between hope & despair,” as he would detail in a letter to a friend:
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.
Unable to cope with Clemm’s illness, Poe began drinking heavily. For years, his wife’s health wavered between near death and more promising days of garden-tending and harp-playing. On January 30, 1847, Clemm succumbed, following 11 years of marriage to Poe.
Readers occasionally like to believe that Clemm is the beautiful, dark-haired girl who dies young in so many of her husband's stories, like “The Raven,” “Annabel Lee” and “Ligeia.” Poe had admired other women before marrying and saw other women after Clemm’s death, so it’s debatable, yet a story like “Ligeia” is hard to disassociate from her:
Ligeia grew ill. The wild eyes blazed with a too — too glorious effulgence; the pale fingers became of the transparent waxen hue of the grave, and the blue veins upon the lofty forehead swelled and sank impetuously with the tides of the gentle emotion. I saw that she must die — and I struggled desperately in spirit with the grim Azrael. … Words are impotent to convey any just idea of the fierceness of resistance with which she wrestled with the Shadow. I groaned in anguish at the pitiable spectacle. Would have soothed — I would have reasoned; but, in the intensity of her wild desire for life — for life — but for life — solace and reason were the uttermost folly.
Whether or not Clemm was Poe’s muse can be debated, but she did undoubtedly strike something within him, setting into play an intensity that would define his work long after his own demise.