Monday, April 12, 2010

The "Broadway Journal" Poems

One of the more irritating traits found among Poe's biographers is their tendency to repeat the same statements over and over without even pausing to consider if there is any truth behind them.

A prominent example is the subject of the poems Frances S. Osgood and Poe published in the "Broadway Journal" during 1845. As we have very little solid evidence regarding their acquaintance, (probably because there was very little of an actual acquaintance at all) these poems have been transmogrified into the status of vital source material that supposedly provides the key to their entire relationship. Volumes of overheated prose have been written about how their public exchange of so-called "love poems" became a "literary courtship" which, it is assumed, became the talk of New York, feeding scandalous gossip about the pair. (This flight of fancy also ignores the fact that in those times, it was a "fad" for the literati to publish poems of praise to each other that often got far more extravagant than anything written by Osgood or Poe.)

The truth is far more prosaic. Their poems in the "Journal" were either utterly inapplicable to whatever personal relationship they had or quite innocuous. There is also not one whit of contemporary evidence suggesting that anyone at the time saw any suggestive significance to their writings--or, indeed, to their whole relationship at all.

And they would have been fools if they had. As John E. Reilly noted ("Mrs. Osgood and 'The Broadway Journal,'" Duquesne Review, Fall 1967) the "identity of Mrs. Osgood's contributions to the series [the alleged "literary courtship"] is uncertain largely because her poetry is often so conventional that it is difficult to determine if it was written with any specific person in mind and because the center of focus in most of her poems is not the person addressed but upon the personae she assumes...Even among the several poems which can definitely be assigned to the series, it is apparent that Mrs. Osgood has distorted her relationship with Poe in the interest of exploiting its melodramatic potentialities..." (In fact, "I Cannot Forget Him," a poem that appeared in her last book of verse, has often been pointed to as clearly being a lament for her sundered relationship with Poe. These commentators were unaware that this poem--which even depicts her lost love as a "genius" writer--was first published the year before they met. This mistake should serve as a warning of the dangers of interpreting Osgood's writings as autobiography.)Edgar Allan Poe To Frances S. Osgood

Poe's contributions to the "series," consisted of only two poems--neither of which was even originally written for Osgood. The first, "To F---," appeared on April 26. Previously published as "To Mary," and "To One Departed," it is (as the second title implies) addressed to someone who is in the writer's past, someone who is dead, or at least permanently estranged from him. It is an extremely strange poem to rededicate to a person with whom he presumably had a current personal relationship. It is as if Poe was announcing that Osgood--whom he had met only a month before--was no longer a factor in his life.

edgar allan poe to frances broadway journalThe second poem, published on September 13, is also simply designated as "To F---." (It is also known as "To F--s S. O--d.") Here, we enter the realm of farce. It consists of the first four lines of mild verses he published a decade earlier to an "Eliza." In the "Journal," it appeared at the bottom of a reprint of one of his stories--as column filler! It is impossible to believe this was not done as deliberate--and not very kindly--mockery at Osgood's expense. Rather amusingly, Osgood biographer Mary De Jong desperately tried to palliate this none-too-subtle insult by arguing that, after all, Poe could have used other writings as "filler." To this, one can only reply: "Yes, exactly."

There is one more oddity concerning these two poems. Years later, Sarah Helen Whitman told Poe's biographer John H. Ingram that Poe told her that he had "allowed" those verses to be rededicated to Osgood--at that lady's own request. If Whitman's memory was correct, it casts a curious light, not only on the "literary courtship," but on Poe's whole relationship with Osgood.Frances Sargent OsgoodOsgood's contributions to the "Journal" began with two poems which appeared in the issue for April 5 (when, it should be noted, Poe had no editorial control over the magazine,) under the pseudonyms, "Kate Carol" and "Violet Vane." "The Rivulet's Dream" is Osgood at her most childishly ethereal, a vague allegory about "stars" and "rills" that says nothing, and certainly had no possible connections to Poe. "So Let It Be" is always interpreted as Osgood pleading for his affection:
"The fair, fond girl, who at your side,
Within your soul's dear light, doth live,
Could hardly have the heart to chide,
The ray that Friendship well might give."
Even this attribution is questionable, considering the poem's narrator is addressing an old flame, someone she describes as having turned "from every memory of the past"--a statement that could hardly apply to Poe, whom she had just met a matter of days before this poem was published. Even if one wants to apply this poem to the "literary courtship," the theme is Osgood's complaint that the addressee is cold and indifferent to her, engrossed instead in his love for "the fair fond girl" he has married. It hardly suggests a budding illicit romance.

The next issue of the "Journal" carried another pair of Osgood's poems, "Spring" and "Love's Reply." They are both conventional, unrevealing verses that, it is universally conceded, could not apply to Poe. (Reilly believed they must have been written before Osgood even met him.)

The April 26 issue contained Osgood's "Impromptu to Kate Carol," (which is often erroneously attributed to Poe.) This cutesy, punning poem expresses admiration, not of Poe, but for her own literary alter ego!

Osgood's next "Journal" poem, "To Lenore," appeared on May 31. Although the titular name is the same as an earlier poem of Poe's, it otherwise has no relation to him. Like "Love's Reply," it is believed to have been written before she made Poe's acquaintance.

"Slander," published on August 30, is assumed to be Osgood's commentary on the gossip supposedly circulating about her and Poe. We have no evidence that any such scandal existed. (Note well how Poe's biographers endlessly assert there was "talk" about the pair during this period--without ever quoting one contemporary word of it. Also ignored is the fact that the niece of Mrs. Osgood's husband later told Poe biographer Mary E. Phillips that her family had never heard any rumors whatsoever about Frances and Poe--and the niece was certain they would have known about it if such rumors had existed. She added the obvious observation that her uncle would never have painted Poe's portrait if he thought there was anything funny going on between the poet and Osgood's beloved wife.) "Slander," a lament for a "fragile girl" destroyed by venomous rumor, is so generic that it could apply to anyone--or no one.

"Echo-Song," which appeared the following week, quotes from Poe's "Israfel." This has led biographers to assume that the poem, which announces that:
"I know a noble heart that beats
For one it loves how 'wildly well!'"
was written as a tribute to him, and as a coy hint about his fondness for Osgood. That is insufficient evidence on which to base this claim, as Osgood often quoted other poets in her own work without actually addressing the poems to them. Even if she meant to dedicate "Echo-Song" to Poe, the arch and rather vague lines say little. For all we know, the "little name" the "noble heart" loved was a reference to Virginia Poe. Or someone else Osgood knew who had nothing to do with Poe. Or no one in particular at all. (The fact that "Echo-Song" was soon set to music and peddled as a contemporary pop song tends to rob the poem of any personal significance.)

On November 22, the "Journal" published her next contribution. "To ---" defends someone against accusations of "flirtation":
"Smile on then undimmed in your beauty and grace,
Too well e'er to doubt, love, we know you;--
And shed, from your heaven, the light of your face,
Where the waves chase each other below you;
For none can e'er deem it your shame or your sin,
That each wave holds your star image smiling within."
Again, the assumption that she is addressing Poe is built on mere fancy. There is nothing to show whom Osgood had in mind when she wrote the poem--if she had a specific person in mind at all. If it was penned for anyone in particular, the reference to her subject's "beauty and grace" seem to indicate she was writing to a female friend, not a man. (Indeed, this poem was later republished under the title, "To Sarah.")

Another "To ---" appeared in the November 29 issue. Of all her submissions to the "Journal," this is the one that is most plausibly identified as a message to Poe. It opens with another quote from "Israfel," and rhapsodizes:
"I cannot tell the world how thrills my heart
To every touch that flies thy lyre along;
How the wild Nature and the wondrous Art,
Blend into Beauty in thy passionate song--"
If Osgood indeed wrote this to Poe, it is nothing more than an expression of admiration for his poetry. A fan letter, in other words. (Osgood's attitude towards Poe was always reminiscent of a schoolgirl swooning over the teen idol of the moment.) In no way does it indicate any close personal relationship between the pair.

Her next "Journal" poem, "A Shipwreck," (December 13,) showed Osgood in her favorite role, that of self-pitying Drama Queen. This trite poem of rejected love has no obvious connection to Poe. Interestingly, however, if it did, it would (like the earlier "So Let It Be,") indicate that he wanted nothing to do with her.

A week later, Osgood's final "Broadway Journal" poem appeared in print. It is the most intriguing, and possibly the most significant, of the whole lot. "To 'The Lady Geraldine'" tells a story of betrayal. Osgood's narrator reproaches a woman she had thought was a friend, someone she trusted who turned others--presumably, if you wish to take these lines as based on fact, Poe--against her, even making her an object of ridicule.
"Though friends had warned me all the while,
And blamed my willing blindness,
I did not once mistrust your smile,
Or doubt your tones of kindness.

I sought you not--you came to me--
With words of friendly greeting:
Alas! how different now I see
That ill-starred moment's meeting.

When others lightly named your name,
My cordial praise I yielded;
While you would wound with woe and shame,
The soul you should have shielded.

Was it so blest--my life's estate--
That you with envy viewed me?
Ah, false one! could you dream my fate,
You had not thus pursued me.

Perhaps when those who loved me once,
Beguiled by you, have left me,
You'll grieve for all the hopes of which,
Your whispered words bereft me.

You'll think, perhaps, the laugh you raised,
Was hardly worth the anguish,
With which it caused a deep, true heart,
In silent pride to languish.

You'll think, perchance, the idle jest--
The joy--will scarce reward you,
For all the blame another's breast
Must now, in scorn, accord you.

Yet go! 'tis but a darker cloud,
O'er one fore-doomed to sadness;
I would not change my grief so proud,
For all your guilty gladness."

It is usually argued that Osgood was addressing Elizabeth Ellet, who is pictured as a rival for Poe's favor. This is not impossible, as Osgood did afterwards accuse Ellet of some unspecified dirty dealings against her. (Years later, Elizabeth Oakes Smith told Sarah Helen Whitman how feuds and jealousies had erupted among certain of Poe's female admirers, leaving him caught in the middle of the crossfire.) Soon after this poem was published, open warfare broke out when Virginia Poe confronted Ellet with a letter Osgood had written--a letter which (judging from Ellet's subsequent fury against Osgood--and both the Poes) likely elaborated on Osgood's charges against her enemy. "Lady Geraldine" may have been a harbinger of trouble to come. If so, it is worth noting that in this poem, Osgood yet again depicts Poe as rejecting her, even regarding her with amused contempt. However, as we have no way of proving what--if anything--Osgood wished to communicate in this characteristically affected and histrionic poem, it would be wrong to depend upon it as historical evidence. (It is also impossible to know for certain the meaning of the "Lady Geraldine" reference--that was a surprisingly common name in the literature of the day.)

In short, the poems of Poe and Osgood hardly justify the legend of scandalous literary flirtation that has filled the fantasies of far too many biographers.

**A footnote: The May 24 issue of the "Broadway Journal" included a poem entitled "To ----." It ran:
I would not lord it o'er thy heart,
Alas! I cannot rule my own,
Nor would I rob one loyal thought,
From him who there should reign alone;
We both have found a life-long love;
Wherein our weary souls may rest,
Yet may we not, my gentle friend
Be each to each the second best?

A love which shall be passion-free,
Fondness as pure as it is sweet,
A bond where all the dearest ties
Of brother, friend and cousin meet,--
Such is the union I would frame,
That thus we might be doubly blest,
With Love to rule our hearts supreme
And friendship to be second best.

In recent years, it has been suggested that these verses, written by someone identified only as "M," were composed by Poe as a response to Osgood's "So Let It Be." There is no evidence whatsoever to support this attribution. Poe himself certainly never claimed these lines as his own. In 1848, when he gave Sarah Helen Whitman bound volumes of the "Broadway Journal," he marked all his anonymous writings for the magazine. This poem was ignored. Also, these rhymes are even less like Poe's style than "Impromptu To Kate Carol," but they are typical of Osgood's poetry. The poem could very well have been written by some minor and unimportant contributor, but it is also quite possible that Osgood herself penned a rejoinder to "Violet Vane." (There are other known examples of her writing "responses" to her own work.)

If Poe did write this poem, however, it is notable as a gentle, but definite declaration of both his devotion to his wife and his insistence to Osgood that there could never be anything between them but innocent "passion-free" friendship.