In 1846, Edgar Allan Poe, then resident in Manhattan, was looking to settle in more restful, less sooty environs, where his ailing wife might recover her health. He chose the Bronx.
At the time, the choice made sense. Their new neighborhood was then mostly rural, tranquil. Poe and his sickly bride — and his mother-in-law — moved into a laborer’s cottage in Fordham, a new suburb of scattered homesteads. Situated on a rise overlooking Kingsbridge Road, the cottage offered attractive vistas, fresh air and the kind of quiet surroundings that would appeal to any invalid. It was also so tiny and modest that Poe was able to rent it for $100, paid annually. Poe was at the time desperately poor, his income coming largely from his occasional essays or lectures in which he ruthlessly mocked the editors and writers of New York’s literary scene, thus alienating the very people who might offer him more regular employment. It was a questionable career strategy.
Poe’s wife, Virginia — 13 years old on their wedding night and also, by the way, his cousin — was sick with tuberculosis. Despite Poe’s hopes, the move to the Bronx did her little good. Growing ever more ill, she languished in bed in the family’s tiny new home. Tormented by his inability to provide her with the care she needed, Poe could do little but wring his hands by her bedside, helpless and guilt-ridden.
When she died in 1847, Poe fell into a prolonged and dramatic grief.
“I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity,” he wrote.
Visitors describe him making daily visits to his late wife’s grave at the nearby Dutch Reformed Church, where he would linger for hours in any weather, sometimes “almost frozen in snow,” by one account.
About his only consolation during this dark period was the companionship of a community of Jesuits from nearby St. John’s College. The college had been founded just six years earlier — it’s called Fordham University now — and the priests were, like Poe, new to the isolated neighborhood. They seemed to welcome the poet’s company as much as he needed theirs. The Jesuits granted him access to their small library, and sometimes he joined them for dinner or a game of cards. Poe became a regular around their residence. He liked to speak French with one of the priests, a Canadian named Edward Doucet, who often accompanied Poe on walks in the woods and who listened sympathetically when the writer told him of his misery.
Doucet and the other priests looked after their guest. When Poe was overcome with grief, or with drink, or with some combination of the two, one of them would walk him home. Poe was grateful for their companionship. They were “highly cultivated gentlemen and scholars,” he wrote. “[T]hey smoked and they drank and they played cards and they never said a word about religion.”
The language of grief reflects our discomfort with the topic. We talk of “losing” someone we love, as if she were a set of car keys. Or people “expire,” like the freshness date on a milk carton. In a hospital you may not die; you experience “a negative patient-care outcome.”
The dead are said to be late, as in “the late Mr. Smith, who was run over by a delivery van last Friday.” The expression comes from the sense of late as “belonging to the recent past.” Then again, for the loved ones left behind, the feeling is usually that the dead have left not too late but too soon.
The whole point of such euphemisms is to create some distance from the unspeakable, the unthinkable. Death can’t be avoided, but language can at least sanitize it. Or at the other extreme, we may get extravagantly tasteless, as in the dysphemism, “he’s taking a dirt nap.” In an introductory journalism class in college, my professor scolded me for writing that a person had “passed away.” In the margins, the teacher had scribbled angrily, “We tell the plain truth in here. He died.”
In a sketch from the first season of Monthy Python’s Flying Circus, a character named Mr. Praline, played by John Cleese, enters a pet shop to return a recently purchased parrot that has turned out to be dead. When the shopkeeper insists that the parrot is not actually dead, perhaps merely “resting” or “stunned,” Mr. Praline launches into a rant. The parrot “is no more,” he insists. It is “bereft of life,” has “gone to meet its maker,” has “rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible.” It is “an ex-parrot.”
When Cleese’s Python colleague Graham Chapman, the co-author of the parrot sketch, died in 1989, Cleese reprised the list of euphemisms from the sketch to describe Chapman. Cleese conceded that the litany might seem inappropriate for the service, but said the inappropriateness made it apt: “Anything for [Chapman] but mindless good taste,” he said.
Poe relished melancholy. “The death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world,” he wrote. Certainly he mined the topic for all he could extract from it. His poems “Lenore,” “To Helen” and “The Raven” all center on a young romantic hero mourning the untimely death of his young beloved. Poe’s black-clad raven has passed into pop-culture consciousness, such an obvious emblem of implacable death that it’s hard to read the poem without hearing Vincent Price as the narrator.
Poe’s raven is a cousin to other scary literary birds, like the thrushes Ted Hughes wrote about: “terrifying,” machine-like, experiencing none of the ambivalence and uncertainty of the poet. Hughes’ birds are killing contraptions. They exist only to “drag out some writhing thing”:
No indolent procrastinations and no yawning state,
No sighs or head-scratchings. Nothing but bounce and stab
And a ravening second.
Ravening. The word in this sense comes from Old French and means to ravage or pillage; the bird’s name comes from an entirely different, Germanic root. Either etymology ends in death.
I had assumed that Poe’s fixation on mortality was rooted in his life experience, that he wrote about the loss of a beloved because he had been so wounded himself. But “The Raven” was published two years before Poe’s wife died. Poe had anticipated his own grief and expressed it obsessively in his art before it ever happened.
Not long after my mother died, after a long, punishing illness, my sister, sitting alone in her kitchen one afternoon, noticed a small cardinal sitting on the windowsill over her kitchen sink. This cardinal soon took to hanging out outside the window, often pecking at the glass.
Over the previous two years, as my mother had grown progressively more ill and less coherent, my sister had devoted most of her time to caring for and worrying about her. The effort had exhausted my sister, left her bereft. Now, with this bird tapping at her window, she recalled reading that cardinals were supposed to be symbolic of . . . what, exactly? She couldn’t remember. Was it good luck? Hospitality? New life?
My sister did what any of us would do. She consulted the Internet. There she discovered an entire folk iconography in which cardinals are depicted as messengers from the other side: greeting cards, Christmas ornaments, refrigerator magnets, needlepoint throw pillows that proclaim that cardinals are really visitors from heaven, that they appear when angels are near. This cardinal pecking at her window, according to this doctrine, was letting my sister know that our mother was watching us, hearing us whenever we thought about how much we missed her.
Illustrations by Herb Schnabel
In our phone conversations, my sister gave me regular updates on the cardinal, whether I asked for them or not. One day she emailed me a photo of this messenger-cardinal, I suppose as evidence that she wasn’t making the whole thing up, and something strange happened. The photo of the cardinal appeared in my inbox, as expected, but just a minute later so did a duplicate of the same email. Then, after a brief pause, five more copies. Seconds later, a dozen more.
I called my sister to tell her that something had gone wrong, email-wise, either on her end or on mine. While we talked, a dozen more copies of the email appeared. I tried shutting my computer down, then powering up again. I ran a diagnostic program. I hit my computer’s delete key repeatedly, out of frustration. I couldn’t help but notice that I had become birdlike, that I was pecking at my computer just as my sister’s cardinal had been pecking at her window, but with less effect.
All afternoon, the duplicate emails kept coming in, by the dozens, faster than I could erase them. Was it possible my email trouble might also be some sort of message from our mother? The idea was ridiculous. To think that our mother was using some software bug to communicate with her grief-stricken children was to give her credit for more technology savvy than she had ever displayed in life. But in any case, at some point that night, in response to I’m not sure which of my frantic troubleshooting attempts, the duplicate emails stopped.
Relieved as I was to have the problem resolved I couldn’t help noticing that my inbox now seemed sadly quiet. I found myself missing all those duplicate emails with duplicate photos of duplicate cardinals.
The story of Poe and the Jesuits appealed to me partly because it softened the edges around his macabre reputation. I had always thought of him — when I thought of him — as otherworldly and weird. But in his encounter with the priests he became one of us, human, hurting and deeply grateful for an unexpected friendship that came along when he needed it most.
In my enthusiasm for the story, I shared it with an old friend, a Poe fan I thought might appreciate it, too. My friend, though, had a different take on the story. He wasn’t a believer himself, but still he wondered why the Jesuits had failed to offer Poe the spiritual rescue he needed: Why hadn’t they tried to save his soul? Why hadn’t they urged the sacraments on him, tried to convert him? Surely, Poe needed salvation more than he needed a glass of wine and a walk home.
If we’re unsure about what to do or say to comfort the grieving, it may be useful to remember that actions often work better than words. The pan of lasagna my aunts always made for grieving friends and family must have come in handy. Going to a funeral, if you can, will mean a lot to someone. Irish author Deirdre Sullivan wrote appreciatively of the people who attended her father’s midday, midweek funeral: “The most human, powerful, and humbling thing I’ve ever seen was a church at 3:00 on a Wednesday full of inconvenienced people who believe in going to the funeral.”
Poe lived only another two years after the Jesuits befriended him. Soon after the death of his wife, the one whose passing unmoored him so completely, Poe embarked on a series of romantic affairs. It was while preparing to marry for a second time, having apparently recovered from his bottomless grief, that he was found, semiconscious and apparently wearing another man’s clothes, on a street in Baltimore. He died four days later, never becoming lucid enough to explain what had happened.
Poe’s death remains one of literature’s great mysteries — maybe a fitting end for the originator of the detective story. Rabies, alcohol abuse, physical assault: all have been suggested as causes of death. According to one account, in his final delirium, Poe repeatedly cried out for someone called “Reynolds.” I like to think that in his final hours he might have remembered the peace he had found with his Jesuit friends.
On the other hand, one story has it that his final words were, “Lord, help my poor soul.”
Ravens and thrushes. Cardinals and dead parrots. Why do we want to make birds complicit in our anxiety about our end? Maybe we envy their eloquence, especially when we’re at a loss for the words to help the ones who need help, the way the priests helped Poe. Birds possess the song we all aspire to. They always know just what to say — even if, as with Poe’s raven, it’s just one, spooky word.
The last time I was in Chicago, I drove to the cemetery where my mother rests alongside my dad. This cemetery sits between a golf course, an assisted-living home and a hospital, as if someone had thought to place all the needs of retirement, aging, ailing and finally resting for eternity in one convenient location. My mother survived my father by 30 years, and the whole time, she was faithful about tending to his gravesite. She would visit occasionally to edge the grass and weeds from around to his gravestone, as if lawn maintenance were a kind of memorialization. And who’s to say it isn’t?
Now I could see that someone had done the same thing around my mother’s grave. Someone had cleared and cleaned the area around the marker, edged the grass so it didn’t intrude on the marble. It had to have been my sister. Who else? Also, I could see that, up and down the rows of stones, others had made similar improvements, picking weeds and dandelions, planting tiny American flags or plastic yellow roses on sticks in the ground next to or in front of graves.
Poe had done something similar during his long vigils at the graveyard of the Dutch Reformed Church in Fordham, where witnesses recall him going to “cry . . . and keep it green with flowers.” Did his friend Doucet come along with Poe, too, hoping that his presence on these visits would make up for his inability to find the right, comforting words? Did the two of them, maybe, on a particularly gray day, spot a cardinal in some nearby, barren tree and take it as some kind of sign?
If so, I’d like to think that Poe’s Jesuit friend didn’t make a big deal of it. After all, what Poe seems to have most appreciated was not anything the priests said, but what they didn’t say. Poe’s friends didn’t preach, they “never said a word about religion.” Their reticence was a gift that would stay with Poe until his own dying day.
Andrew Santella is the author of Soon, a cultural history of procrastination to be published by Dey Street Books in 2018.