Poe’s Last Words

by Professor Solomon
Poe’s Last Words
i aii ixoinrio ro iocai aiiax ioi ioi rui
detective story, which he invented. But Poe also
bequeathed to us a real-life mystery—that of his
deathbed cries.
He had been found, intoxicated and delirious, on a Balti-
more street, and taken to a hospital. There, according to
Dr. Moran, the attending physician: “This state [of delirium]
continued until Saturday evening...when he commenced
calling for one ‘Reynolds,’ which he did through the night
until three on Sunday morning.”
Who was Reynolds? And why would Poe, in his final
hours, have called for him?
The standard view among Poe’s biographers is that he
was calling for Jeremiah Reynolds (although Henry Reynolds,
a carpenter who lived nearby, has also been suggested).
Jeremiah Reynolds was an advocate for polar exploration.
His theory of a polar opening—an abyss at the South Pole
into which the ocean flowed—had figured in two of Poe’s
works: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and “MS.
Found in a Bottle.” (At the conclusion of both tales, a ves-
sel is drawn into the abyss.) Poe also reviewed a pamphlet,
about a proposed expedition, that Reynolds had written;
the review praised Reynolds as “the active, the intelligent,
the indomitable advocate of the enterprise.” And Poe may
have known him while living in New York.
So why would Poe, on his deathbed, have called out for
Reynolds? One biographer, Arthur Hobson Quinn, offers
this explanation:
“On Saturday night he began to call loudly for ‘Reynolds!’
Perhaps to his dim and tortured brain, he seemed to be on
the brink of a great descending circle sweeping down like
the phantom ship in the ‘Manuscript Found in a Bottle’
into ‘darkness and the distance.’”
And Robert Almy offers a similar explanation:
“Is it not likely, therefore, that in his last illness, when
Poe called to Reynolds, he was calling from the verge of that
polar chasm whose shadow was as the shadow of death and
whose concentric circles led downward to the incommuni-
Perhaps. Yet such speculation makes an assumption: that
Dr. Moran correctly transcribed what he heard. But what if
the doctor was mistaken? What if Poe had called out, not
“Reynolds!” but some other word?
What might that word have been?
Poe had a problem with alcohol. But a month prior to
his death, he had joined the Sons of Temperance and taken
the oath of abstinence. (He had gotten engaged to a woman
in Richmond; and a precondition to the marriage may have
been that he swear off alcohol.) Commonly, the oath of
abstinence was worded thus: “I am now fully determined to
renounce this destructive beverage, from this day, to the day
of my death. Yes, I do renounce it, fully, totally.” (emphasis
He seems to have adhered to the pledge—until a fateful
day in October. As described by J. P. Kennedy, a friend in
“On Tuesday last Edgar A. Poe died in town here at the
hospital from the effects of a debauch....He fell in with
some companion here who seduced him to the bottle,
which it was said he had renounced [emphasis added] some
time ago. The consequence was fever, delirium, and mad-
ness, and in a few days a termination of his sad career in the
hospital. Poor Poe!...A bright but unsteady light has been
awfully quenched.”
Poe—susceptible to the worst effects of alcohol—was
dying and delirious. Yet surely he was aware of the lapse
that had caused his condition. And as if possessed by
the voice of Temperance, he had cried out: “Renounce!
Alas, it was too late. That same morning he uttered his
very last words—“Lord help my poor soul!”—and expired.