Who was Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe?
Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe was the wife of the famous American writer Edgar Allan Poe, who is best known for his poetry and tales of mystery and macabre. Their marriage became the topic of discussion because of the fact that they were first cousins and when they got married, she was just 13 years old and Edgar 26. She came from a poor and humble background and lived as a devoted wife to her husband who flirted with older women. Unfortunately, she fell ill with tuberculosis and had to suffer for the last five years of her life, till her death at the age of 24. Her relationship with her husband became a subject of debate as they had no children and behaved more like a brother and sister. What is apparent from Poe’s work is that he was inspired by the young age and sufferings of his wife that became the theme for most of his poetry and writing. He was so shocked by the death of Virginia that he took to heavy drinking after her death, till he too died of tuberculosis. Virginia will always remain an example of the impact that a devoted wife can have on her husband. Even though he flirted while she was still alive, and courted other women after she was dead, he could never strike up another meaningful relationship because he was deeply enamored by the beauty and simplicity of his wife.
Childhood & Life
Virginia Eliza Clemm was born on August 15, 1822 in Baltimore, Maryland to William Clemm, Jr and Maria Poe. Her father was a hardware merchant who died when Virginia was four years old. She had two brothers from her parent’s marriage and five half-siblings from her father’s previous marriage to her mother’s cousin who had died due to illness.
Her mother made a living by stitching clothes and taking boarders to make ends meet. Her two brothers died by 1836 leaving Virginia as her mother’s only surviving child. When she was seven years old her cousin, Edgar Poe came to live with them for a while after his discharge from the Army. During this period, he courted their neighbor Mary Devereaux and young Virginia played the role of a messenger between them.
The financial condition of the family deteriorated with the death of her grandmother, who brought in an annual pension. Later, Edgar proposed to marry Virginia, which was opposed by the family as they were first cousins. Virginia's other cousin Neilson even volunteered to take her in and educate her in order to prevent the relationship.
However, due to their destitute state, her mother agreed to the marriage when Virginia was just 13 years old and Edgar was 27. The wedding was conducted in a quiet ceremony due to the debate generated on the couple’s blood relationship and age. On official records she was shown as 21 when they got married.
Virginia and her mother moved to Richmond after the wedding and were financially supported by Edgar, who himself made meager earnings out of his writing career. He took upon himself to educate his young wife in English and Mathematics, in which she excelled.
Virginia was a simple housewife who supported her husband and stood solidly by his side. Her tender age and suffering due to prolonged illness became an inspiration for her husband’s writing.
The life of Virginia is reflected in the poetry of her husband, which include his works titled ‘Annabel Lee’, ‘Ulalume’ and ‘Lenore’.
She is also portrayed in his pros titled ‘Eleonora’, which is the story of a man marrying his first cousin and ‘The Oblong Box’, which is about a man transporting the body of his wife by boat.
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Personal Life & Legacy
Virginia’s marriage to her first cousin, Edgar Allan Poe, has always been a subject of debate. Some say that the relationship was more of a brother and sister and it was never consummated. Others say that Edgar was passionate about his cousin. There is also another school of thought that says that she was an inspiration for his work and he never looked upon her sexually.
They slept separately till she reached the age of sixteen, after which they lived like a normal couple. They loved each other in a very special way and supported each other. However, they had no children.
Marriage between first cousins was not uncommon during her time. However, marriage at the age of 13 was. While Edgar was enamoured by her beauty, she idolized him. He was also devoted to his wife because he was orphaned when he was just a child and knew what it was to live without parental support.
Edgar was known to flirt with Frances Sargent Osgood, who was a married woman and poet. Virginia is believed to have encouraged the relationship as it had a sobering effect on her husband, who otherwise was often under the influence of alcohol.
Another woman in the life of her husband was a poet, Elizabeth F Ellet, who was jealous of Osgood and Virginia. She went on to create friction between Virginia and her husband by sending her anonymous letters about her husband. However, she remained devoted to her husband and did not doubt his love for her.
In mid-1842, she developed symptoms of tuberculosis and started throwing up blood from her mouth. Her condition kept fluctuating which brought deep depression in her husband’s behavior. For the next couple of years the family changed home more than once in the hope that change of surroundings would help her condition.
She knew that she would die soon but she wanted to remain by her husband’s side. She took up gardening and playing the piano and harp to keep herself occupied. Her husband encouraged her not to lose hope and said that she was his biggest inspiration for his work. However, he too fell ill with tuberculosis and his health began deteriorating.
Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe died in January 1847 after suffering for five years. Her death had a devastating effect on her husband who took to alcohol in a big way and ruined his health. He was looked after by Virginia's mother till his death in 1849. Virginia's remains were finally reburied by the side of her husband in 1885, on the 76th anniversary of his birth.
The only portrait available of Virginia was made by an artist employed by her husband after her death, who used her corpse in the coffin as a model.
Most of Poe’s poetry reflects the life of his wife, Virginia, and her suffering. He was one of the first American writers who wrote detective fiction and something close to science fiction.
The Norwegian band ‘Katzenjammer’ in their debut album titled “Le Pop’ portray the life of Virginia in a girl who is married at the age of 13, whose husband flirts with other women and who dies young due to prolonged illness.
Virginia lived with her husband and mother and her beloved cat named Caterina.
Shortly after Virginia’s death, her husband courted several women but could not establish a meaningful relationship due to the memories of his late wife.