On the theme of “Reservation,” why not write about one of the greatest social enigmas of all–getting to know a stranger? And what if that stranger just happened to be the world’s most savage literary critic, Edgar Allan Poe? Wallie and I decided to explore the reservations between strangers (and not-quite strangers) meeting for the first time.
There is a superstition amongst players that a performance of Macbeth brings ill luck on the company. We had just given a performance that I remember, when I first met him. It was a poor season and perhaps we knew we were not at our best, but we gave it what we could on tight, empty bellies, breathing cold air through cold noses and making fine gestures with numb hands. The winter was bitter and had worked itself into our bones. But it was not the play nor the weather that troubled us. It was a villain with a pen, Mr. Edgar Allan Poe.
What I myself knew of Mr. Poe was not favorable. He was an artistic man they said, full of opinion and self-contradiction—a man whose skill with words was his strength as much as his weakness. His articles earned his bread but also exposed a raw nerve that his enemies teased with vigor. His wit was sharp as razor’s edge, his humor bitter as gall; and when we saw him leave with the last of our eight o’ clock audience, we knew we were done.
“Stop him!” said Macduff.
“What—stop him?” returned Banquo with vigor. “How, stop him?”
“Don’t let him leave!”
“We’re not going to murder him are we?” asked Macbeth in a querulous voice. He wore five-inch heels to give him a chin over the rest of us and was sitting on a stool to ease the ache.
“No,” said Macduff, furiously pulling off his wig. “You—stop him. Invite him for a drink. Don’t let him go until I’ve gotten out of these clothes!”
“But which one is he?” I asked.
“The shabby one—oh, he’s getting—the one, the one in the great—greatcoat!”
Fortune favored us. In the initial tidal of departure Macduff might have been disappointed, but of the scattered remnant there was only one who fit his otherwise loose description. So Lady Macbeth, sponged free of powder and bareheaded as a pauper, hitched her skirts and ran. I had brought my harp, a small lap instrument, for a musical intermission—this I took hastily under my arm, not wanting to tempt my colleagues with the idea of stealing and selling it for the price of a warm meal.
“Mr. Poe,” I gasped. “Mr. Poe?”
“Lady Macbeth?” he answered.
The man who turned to me was small, shy of the average height. His clothes were well-worn, but his neck cloth was tied with firm precision and his waistcoat and trousers mended with care. Over his usual clothes he wore a large greatcoat of a bald dun stain. It must have shielded him from the worst of the weather. I doubted if there was any natural defense against the chill in what I could judge of his frame, which was spare and light. His features were irregular, his hair dark and wildly curling under his hat, though I could tell he had done what he could to tame the unruliness with comb and water. His eyes were what arrested me. They were strikingly large and clear, grey and alert.
There was not a drop of irony in his address.
“Mr. Poe,” I said, “Mr. Martin would like to invite you for a drink.”
“I am sorry,” he replied, “I cannot accept.”
“But you must,” I said—“how—how did you like the performance?”
A strange look passed over his face. His emotion was like stray color on a blank canvas. It showed all. I was certain I glimpsed hesitation and shame, as if his own hard thoughts embarrassed him.
“Please join us for supper, Mr. Poe,” I said.
“Forgive me, ma’am. My wife is expecting me.”
Again I was surprised. I had heard that he was a man of reckless habits and temper, but he spoke like a gentleman, quiet and inoffensive. The mention of a wife also affected me. It made him seem less a harbinger of disaster than a creature of human blood and bone.
“Mr. Poe.” Martin, our manager and the late Macbeth, had joined us. “Will you be honoring our performance with a review?”
His discussion with me had steadied him. When Poe answered, he was composed and short.
“Yes indeed. You are Mr. Martin?”
Martin looked somewhat uncomfortable.
Poe held out his hand. “I am pleased to meet you, sir. I enjoyed the show—particularly the liberties with Shakespeare, which dare I suggest improved on the script with a comedy I am afraid future audiences will miss if you are too strict. I beg you to keep it as a redeeming grace.”
Martin stared at him in astonishment.
Poe raised his finger to his hat. But before he could turn, Martin stayed him with a cautious hand on his arm.
“Mr. Poe, sir,” he said, “I know you are a busy man. But surely you can spare a moment for friends. I have heard of you, and so have my colleagues. I feel I am honest in saying that if your criticisms are a little beyond us, your poetry is without doubt, genius itself. If you would favor us with a rhyme, I should be glad not only to allow you free entrance to the theatre the next time you visit us, but I would be more than honored to buy you a drink.”
Poe listened. His expression was reserved but his eyes were attentive. I could see the mention of his poetry had moved him; the others could see it too, and as the rest of our company had gathered to press him, Mr. Poe allowed himself at last to be persuaded. I thought it must be the flattery that won him. That, and a singular need I would recognize later as a consequence of his own extraordinary imagination. But it is like soaring things to be weak in points that keep others bound to earth; it is the nature of all flying creatures to excel in the clouds and be resigned to hopping chance on what is to most, level ground.
When we reached the Cat and Crow, the place was fairly empty. The hour was late. I would rather have been in my rooms in bed, but I felt compelled to see the matter through. I couldn’t tell if the offered whiskey was to Poe’s taste, for he didn’t drink though Martin urged him. Instead he listened to the talkative company about him. More than ever he reminded me of some displaced bird, his head tipped to one side and his glance restless and almost uneasy.
“How long have you been writing, Mr. Poe?”
“Curtis,” I told him. “Eleanor Curtis. Are you very fond of poetry?—Shakespeare, perhaps?”
He almost smiled.
“I would be a fool not to admit the genius in Shakespeare,” he said, “though I confess—poetry—has been much misused of late.”
This comment seemed to rouse Martin from his cups.
“Let us have some of your own poetry, Mr. Poe,” he said. “Give us a rhyme!”
Poe did not require much coaxing. All the same, he was not an ambitious performer. He remained on his stool, his hands loosely curled in his lap. The company fell silent, and I felt he was about to speak—when his eye fell on the instrument in my lap.
“Do you play the harp, Ms. Curtis?” he asked.
I was surprised. “Not as well as some.”
“Could you play while I recite?” he pressed.
I had never heard of such a thing. “Yes, Mr. Poe, if you like,” I said. “What tune would you have?”
“Any as you will,” he said, “—a little sad perhaps; but soft.”
I thought of a tune. For a moment he listened. The music had a calming effect on him. He seemed again in possession of himself in the midst of our strange party. When he began, every ear followed the moderate Southern cadence of his voice.
“Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicéan barks of yore,
That gently, o’er a perfumed sea,
The weary, way-worn wanderer bore
To his own native shore.
On desperate seas long wont to roam,
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece,
And the grandeur that was Rome.
Lo! in yon brilliant window-niche
How statue-like I see thee stand,
The agate lamp within thy hand!
Ah, Psyche, from the regions which
The company was wild at the finish. Their admiration was not all feigned, and Poe flushed with pleasure. For the first time I saw his glance turn to his untouched whiskey with an almost willing desire.
Martin caught the look, too.
“What do you call the poem, Mr. Poe?” he asked.
“Why—To Ellen,” he replied, with a sly mispronunciation of the name and a delicate nod in my direction. I learned later that the poem had been published some years before as “To Helen.”
Martin laughed and raised his drink high.
“To Ellen!” he cried.
I demurred. They drank, and Poe, unable to withstand their genial invitation, joined them. It was then that I realized our manager’s plot. Whether or not something had been added to the liquor to make its influence stronger, Poe had scarce downed a third of his drink than his eye began to turn more wildly around the room and his manner, though still reserved, was more excited than before. Martin watched him like a hawk.
“Mr. Poe,” I said, endeavoring to distract him, “Do you—”
“The shadows are longer than they were before,” he interrupted me. “Is it because the flames leap higher—or have they got souls of their own, do you think—that grow with midnight and sink at day?”
“How is your wife, Mr. Poe?” I asked him.
He stiffened slightly. I think he almost understood me. But his mood darkened rather than sobered, a perilous, grieving twist.
“Poetry is dead,” he said. “It is dying. Sick—sick. There is no ear for it. Did you see—did you see that damned awful performance of Macbeth? My God, but Macduff was made of more villainous stuff than ever poor, pecked Macbeth! Ha-ha! To think if they had changed wives!”
The company fell silent. Martin alone remained composed as he replenished Poe’s drink from his own.
“Martin,” I hissed. “What are you giving him?”
“Nothing but his own bile,” was the cold reply.
My colleagues were less friendly than before. I thought their behavior childish; I did not doubt for an instant that if Poe were in his right mind, he would be more generous than he was now. But perhaps it was the late hour. The strained atmosphere was difficult to bear. I was almost relieved when the barkeep reminded us he was closing in half an hour. Martin took Poe by the arm and guided him out of doors. The latter could hardly stand. What speech he managed was almost nauseous, it was so like the activity of a tongue without soul or heart to guide it.
When we had gone down the road a ways together, Martin freed himself of Poe’s grasp. Poe stumbled heavily to his knees. Perhaps there had been some truth in his assessment of our casting—for Charles Hobs, our Macbeth, was as troubled as I by Martin’s rough action.
“It is very cold,” Hobs said. “We can’t leave him.”
“I want nothing to do with him,” replied Martin. “Neither do you.”
“But he could—”
“He will miss the deadline for delivering his review to the press. One more bad word could ruin us; are you willing to risk it?”
It was true that we had been somewhat shunned of late as a theatre company. With so many unflattering assessments, there was no doubt that sooner or later we would be forced to disband, and ever as always finding new work on the stage is a difficult proposition. But even so, Hobs maintained it was not right to leave Poe to the mercy of the streets.
Martin said we might do as we liked. He was going to bed.
“My rooms are nearby,” I said. “I don’t know where he lives—he can stay there until he is better, if you’ll help me.”
Hobs saw I was in earnest. Between us we managed to raise Poe to his feet. Poe made a brave effort to support himself, but it was vain. I was truly afraid for him, though Hobs reassured me he was only severely intoxicated. But in Poe, drunkenness showed itself like sickness and disease.
I doubted if he would survive the night.