Monday, May 23, 2011

Two Questionable Poe Poems [Updated]

Complete works of Edgar Allan PoeOver the years, many works that have either disappeared or that were published anonymously have been "attributed" to Poe. Some of these attributions are credible, but far too many writings have been attached to his name due to sheer reckless disregard for any standards of normal scholarship. Two of the best-known examples of the latter category are two "lost" poems, "Lines on Ale," and "The Beloved Physician."

The responsibility for anointing "Lines on Ale" as a Poe composition rests upon Thomas O. Mabbott. In 1939, he published in the journal "Notes and Queries" the claim that on one of Poe's visits to Lowell, Massachusetts, he visited a local tavern and was inspired to pen the following lines:
Fill with mingled cream and amber,
I will drain that glass again.
Such hilarious visions clamber
Through the chamber of my brain--
Quaintest thoughts--queerest fancies
Come to life and fade away;
What care I how time advances?
I am drinking ale today.
This so-called poem was quoted to Mabbott by a man who claimed to be a former bartender at this establishment. Supposedly, the manuscript hung on the wall of the tavern for some years, but this Poe relic disappeared, as Mabbott vaguely put it, "before 1920." Despite the lack of any sort of corroboration of this man's story, as well as the inherent implausibility that Poe would have written such puerile doggerel, Mabbott--as was his habit in many matters--fell for it with a gullibility that almost defies belief. Simply because he chose to give this poem his official seal of approval, it is widely accepted as a genuine Poe work. However, it is far more likely that this bartender was enjoying a good joke at Mabbott's--and Poe's--expense.

"The Beloved Physician" may be an even more astonishing attribution. In 1875, Marie Louise Shew Houghton wrote Poe's biographer John H. Ingram that the late poet had written a ten-stanza poem in her honor. She was, as usual with her, unable to provide any proof of this assertion--as was the case with "Lines on Ale," the manuscript of the poem was conveniently "lost"--but she supplied Ingram with some stray lines that she claimed to remember from the composition:
The pulse beats ten and intermits;
God nerve the soul that ne'er forgets
In calm or storm, by night or day,
Its steady toil, its loyalty.

The pulse beats ten and intermits;
God shield the soul that ne'er forgets.

The pulse beats ten and intermits;
God guide the soul that ne'er forgets. tired, so weary,
The soft head bows, the sweet eyes close,
The faithful heart yields to repose.

If Poe wrote these lines, I'm Rufus Griswold's grandma.

It's hard to even know what else to say about these poems. You might say they speak for themselves. It has long been a marvel to me how Poe specialists, even more than most other historians, seem utterly incapable of judging evidence. As Josephine Tey observed in "The Daughter of Time," historians "have no talent for the likeliness of any situation." What is worse, they usually appear indifferent to the fact that the need for such scrutiny even exists. And poor old Edgar has certainly paid the price for this indifference.

Update: Vindication!