Lecture in memory of Edgar Allan Poe

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
From left to right: Mr. Whitelaw Reid, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mrs. Humphry Ward, and Captain Poe. (The Sphere, 6 march 1909, p. 207)

On monday 1st march 1909, Arthur Conan Doyle presided and spoke about "Edgar Allan Poe" for his centenary, at the Hotel Metropole, London.


  • Chairman
    • Mr. Charles Garvice
  • Special guests
    • Mr. Whitelaw Reid, the American ambassador
    • Mrs. Humphry Ward
  • Speakers
    • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
    • Mr. Whitelaw Reid
    • Mr. Charles Garvice
    • Captain Poe
    • Mr. Francis Gribble
    • Mr. J. Harry Irvine
  • Attendees
    • Admiral Charles H. Stockton
    • Mr. J. Ridgely Carter
    • Captain Poe
    • Mr. Humphry Ward
    • Mrs. George Cornwallis West
    • Mr. E. Marshall Fox
    • Mr. Herbert Trench
    • Mr. Douglas Freshfield
    • Mr. G. Herbert Thring
    • Mrs. Thring
    • Mr. Newton Crane
    • Mr. F. C. van Duzer
    • Mr. and Mrs. Edmund Goose
    • Mr. R. N. Fairbanks
    • Mrs. Fairbanks
    • Sir Arthur and lady Trendell
    • Rev. Henry C. de Lafontaine
    • Hon. Mrs. Alfred Felkin ("Ellen Thorneycroft Fowler")
    • Lady Abinger
    • Lady Lister Kaye
    • Mr. and Mrs. Reginald Smith
    • Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Dashwood
    • Mr. A. Laurence Felkin
    • Mr. Robert J. Wynne
    • Mr. J. Arthur Barratt
    • Mr. Isaac N. Ford
    • Mr. G. J. Codrington Ball
    • Mrs. Ball (née Poe)
    • Mr. Justin McCarthy
    • Mr. Webster Glynes
    • Mrs. Glynes ("Ella Dietz")
    • Mr. W. Archer
    • Mr. E. Price Bell
    • Mr. George A. Mower
    • Mr. Thomas L. Feild
    • Mrs. Feild
    • Mr. Edward Morton
    • Mr. J. T. Grein
    • Dr. Ashley Bird
    • Dr. G. E. Herman
    • Mr. Francis Gribble
    • Commander Claud Harding
    • Mr. John H. Ingram
    • Mr. Ernest Brain
    • Mr. J. Newton Beach
    • Dr. F. Hewitt
    • Mr. Sidney Low
    • Mrs. Low
    • Mr. Kingsley Conan Doyle
    • Sir John and Lady Brickwood
    • Captain Acheson
    • Mr. Franklin Lieber
    • Mr. Harold Hartley,
    • Mr. James Purefoy Poe
    • Mr. T. Cato Worsfold
    • Mr. Charles Garvice
    • Mrs. Garvice
    • Mr. Algernon
    • Mrs. Rose
    • Dr. Bernard Hollander
    • Mr. Duncan Irvine
    • Dr. P. W. Ames
    • Mr. Robert Machray
    • Mr. Henry Longman
    • Dr. S. Stephenson
    • Mr. St. John Lucas
    • Mr. Morley Roberts
    • Mr. Horace Wyndham
    • Dr. E. Law
    • Sir Bruce
    • Lady Seton
    • Mr. Percy White
    • Mr. Albert Gray, K.C.
    • Dr. Stanton Colt
    • Mr. John Lane
    • Mrs. Lane
    • Mr. B. Van Praagh
    • Dr. J. Todhunter
    • around 250 attendees in total

Conan Doyle contribution

Sir A. CONAN DOYLE, who was warmly received, said:— We have met here tonight as a body of English authors to celebrate the centenary of the birth of our great American fellow-worker and master, Edgar Allan Poe. He was a son of America, and yet we can also take some pride in his genesis. Not only was his mother an Englishwoman, but he came from an old Anglo-Irish family, the present head of which is rented at this table. (Cheers). Often when the flower and the fruit is across the Atlantic it pleases us to think that the old roots lie deep in our British soil. When we look at many of the great men who adorn the literary and the political history of the United States too are conscious of the half-proud and half-sad feeling of the man who sees grafts from his own ancestral trees flourishing mightily upon the land which has passed from his family. The name-label still tells whence the tree has come. (Cheers.) It has been a great year of centenaries — Lincoln, Gladstone, Darwin, and many more. These are names which have been carved far more deeply upon the world than his whom we have met to commemorate. And yet Poe has one claim upon us which these others lack. To all of them there came full fame and recognition in their lifetime. They had their full careers and ended as victors. It was not so with Poe. Fate struck him down before his genius had time fully to mature, before either the man or his work had reached the full development. These others wore their laurel crowns upon their living brows, but his we can only lay upon his tomb. It would be impertinent for me to enter with any detail into the life of Edgar Allan Poe. It is part or our literary heritage, known to you as to me.


A very slight acquaintance with that life will convince that the notion of a moping, brooding nature, a nature which was morbid out of pure wantonness, is not justified by the facts. It is here that the story of his life corrects the impression which might be left by some of his work. Starting with an impressionable and highly sensitive nature, a succession of events which were entirely beyond his own control warped him towards that sadness which is reflected in his writings. Never was there a literary attitude which was less of a pose. Consider the facts. On both sides he inherited the artistic temperament. To such an organization even the smaller evils of life seem formidable. Yet in the very outset, when only three years old, he sustained the loss of both his parents. A nature of a type which is particularly dependent upon love and sympathy was left with absolutely no one to whom to turn. It was a piteous childhood. Adopted by his godfather, he was sent at an early age to England — to him a strange and foreign country — there to endure his schooling under the rough conditions of those days. It was all very cold and loveless, and his soul was driven in upon itself. A little kindness and sympathy brought it out at once with an impetuosity and wealth of gratitude which must have amazed the recipient. It is in this recoil from loneliness that we find the explanation for the fervent, passionate letters which he wrote when a boy of 14 to Mrs. Stannard, the mother of one of his schoolfellows, who had shown him some kindness. It was then, incredible as it may seem, that he wrote those great verses, which end:—

"Thy classic face ... has 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 Are Holy land."

I do not think that in the whole range of English poetry one could point to anything so mature and so dignified as these verses done at so early an age. (Hear, hear.) His whole nature opened like a flower before the warmth of this kind woman's sympathy. But it was Poe's hard fate that the shadow ever came so quickly upon the little sunshine which broke upon his path. Mrs. Stannard died, and again he was left alone with his own emotions. But even then, after this sad young life, he was not of a morbid type. He was very virile and athletic. When he returned to America and went to college he was noted as a runner, a swimmer, and a boxer. He was no milksop or dreamer, but a proper lad of his hands, full of healthy open-air instincts. Still, a cruel fate bent him to a strange purpose. Everything went amiss with him, sometimes through his own impetuous, ardent nature, but usually through no fault of his own. Surely he had himself in mind when in "The Raven" he wrote of

"Some unhappy master, whom unmerciful Disaster Followed fast and followed faster."

His godfather married again, and having at last a child of his own disinherited the adopted one. Poe found himself homeless. It was shortly after this time that he volunteered to fight for Greece in the War of Independence. It would certainly have been an odd thing if the greatest living poet of England and the most original poet of America had both fought in the same quarrel. However, Byron met his death, and the end of the war prevented Poe from starting.


Then came the crowning sorrow of his life, which left him a broken and desperate man. That was his love for his cousin Virginia Clemm, his marriage and her early death after four years of perfect happiness. Even now cannot read of that death scene without horror. The lovely girl of eighteen — she was but fourteen when she was married — the husband chafing the cold feet, the great yellow cat laid on her cheat to supply the warmth which poor food and imperfect covering denied. Even to us, I say, this is grotesque and horrible. What was it to this exquisitely sensitive and deeply loving nature which had to endure it? Is it a wonder that it left him a broken thing, a man without hope or purpose in life, a husk from which the virtue and energy had been taken? I give this short sketch of the successive disasters which darkened Poe's life to show how irresistibly his mind was turned to a sad and sinister outlook. He was no morbid and self-conscious neurotic, but one whose healthy and natural mind had been darkened by the facts of life as he had found them. Had he been the figure drawn by his acrid biographer Griswold, he would have been an object of contempt. As he really lived he was an object for heart-felt sympathy and admiration — sympathy for his sorrows, admiration for lofty view of the literary calling. In that view he was most nobly independent. Never, I should think, did any man under such pressure hold so high a standard. (Cheers.)


A few words now as to this great man's work. It is not, I think, upon his strange and haunting poems that Poe's fame will rest. They are musical to a degree, original, masterful, and yet so aloof from life, so devoid of message, that one feels their limitation. But his tales were one of the great landmarks and starting points in the literature of the last century for French as well as for English writers. For those tales have been so pregnant with suggestion, so stimulating to the minds of others, that it may be said of many of them that each is a root from which a whole literature has developed. The originality of the ideas, unspoiled by redundancy, and told in that restrained, austere, "black-velvet" style of his, produces an impression on the mind which can never be eradicated. In his prodigal way he never repeated himself. When he had done his work he broke the mould. His original and inventive brain was always trying daring experiments, always opening up pioneer tracks for other men to explore. It is the irony of fate that he should have died in poverty, for if every man who wrote a story which was indirectly inspired by Poe were to pay a tithe towards a monument, it would be such as would dwarf the Pyramids. One may glance in a few words at some of those root "The Gold Bug," the obvious father of every cryptogram-solving and treasure-hunting story from that day to this. There are the exploits of M. Dupin. Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it? There is the pseudo-scientific story, which has since been so popular both here and under M. Jules Verne in France. It traces back to the "Journey to the Moon" and to the "Case of M. Valdemar." There is the double personality, Jekyll and Hyde, story. Its first appearance was in "William Wilson." This one man's brain was like a seed capsule which scatters its seeds carelessly to every wind. The capsule withers, but the seed spreads and flourishes without end. (Cheers.) I have little more to say. A French philosopher has remarked that "life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel." Poe was one who felt acutely, and to him it was a tragedy. Was it all waste? It is possible to construct a scheme of life which would show that a happy life is a wasted one, that all progress and refinement are on the lines of pain. If we who hold it cannot prove it, at least its opponent cannot disprove it. It would at least give some rational and consoling explanation of such a life as this, which must otherwise seem so aimless and so tragic. It was said in his life that he had no friends. That at least we have set right; this room is enough to disprove it. (Cheers.) It was said in his life that he had no friends. That at least we have set right; this room is enough to disprove it. (Cheers.) And so I ask you, as a sign of our feeling, to pledge his memory in silence — a sentiment which I couple with the name of his Excellency the American Ambassador.

An ode written by Mr. Herbert Trench for the occasion was then recited by the author. It included the following verses:—

When I think of him, comes gliding A perfume strange, abiding Of a flower I saw when riding One summer night In the Dolomite When stars did all the guiding.

So 'mid inhuman splendour Chaotic, bleak, untender To all that skies engender In giddy air These poems rare Do flutter, wild and slender.