Poe's Enchanted Garden: A Fitting Tribute to a Life of Mystery, Imagination . . . and Beauty

 The heart of Richmond's Poe shrine is a truly living embodiment of the late master's unrivaled mind

The beauty of the natural world may not be the first thing that springs to mind at the thought of America’s Gothic mastermind, Edgar Allan Poe, but the “American Shakespeare” was deeply inspired by both the simple beauty and intricate meanings in nature, and his writings reflect his many hours spent at places like Wissahickon Creek, which flowers into Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, the idyllic site which inspired his “Morning on the Wissahiccon” (also known as “The Elk”). One of his lesser-known short stories, “The Domain of Arnheim,” has actually been ridiculed as a something of a gardening manual for its vivid depictions of an imagined and elaborate landscape—though critics have found it to be one of Poe’s most important works. In it, the writer sets forth his belief that, by using the God-given elements of nature to create—yes—gardens, Man reflects the care of the Divine for humankind.

It is perhaps, then, more than appropriate that one of the loveliest tributes in existence to Poe today is, indeed, a garden.  The Enchanted Garden, established in  1922 at the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, is today the centerpiece of this, the oldest building of colonial-period standing in the city. The garden was designed by the Poe Foundation of Richmond in loving tribute to the life of Poe, when the idea of a Poe library was rejected (I know, right?)

The trees and flowers planted in the garden were many of those which Poe had described in his writings, in particular his ode “To One in Paradise,” composed of sentiments of charm, beauty and love.  Boxwood trees taken from Poe’s Richmond home are accompanied by hackberry, camellias, live oak, dogwoods, and other specimens which Poe admired, along with tulips, clematis, violets, pansies, and the other colorful flowers highlighted in Poe’s poetry.  A bust Poe oversees the garden from one end. The hardscaping and “bones” of the garden emerged from elements which had been significant to Poe in his life, including stones, bricks and ivy taken from the grave of his mother. The material used for building’s pathways was taken from the Southern Literary Messenger building, the home of Poe’s early office, where the writer began his career as a critic, poet and author. The resulting garden, then, is like Poe’s nature-inspired writing itself: a lovely picture in which is hidden (in plain sight) deep and meaningful messages.

Today, Richmond’s Poe Museum has grown into three buildings. The Old Stone House hosts a theme of Poe’s childhood, while two additional buildings follow the themes of his career and his death. But the Enchanted Garden is still central to the museum and is considered the heart of Poe’s Virginia “shrine.”

Every fourth Thursday from April to October, the museum hosts an “Unhappy Hour” --the "most miserable events of the year"--in the Enchanted Garden, to pay homage to the author. The event features live music, a cash bar and lots of Poe-inspired content and conversation.

It’s a fitting celebration of Poe’s matchless contributions to American letters—a body of work most loved for its Gothic themes but equally precious for its deep appreciation of the relationships between the human and the divine—relationships so perfectly grasped by the imagination of the master in his word paintings of rivers, streams, woods, hills, promontories, plateaus, and a host of intricate homes and forms that appeared to match the dreamlike projections of his narrators.

For Poe gifted his characters access to scenes that were both ideal and sublime, delicate and bizarre, visionary and gloomy, rural and suburban, minutely described and broadly expressive. It’s entirely fitting that visitors seeking to pay tribute to the late writer should find in the Enchanted Garden a living embodiment of his description of Paradise.


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