Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Virginia Poe's Raven

Virginia Clemm Poe died on this day in 1847, at the age of twenty-four.  On February second, she was buried in the family vault of John Valentine, Poe's landlord, in the graveyard of the Old Dutch Reformed Church.  However, many years later, the cemetery was razed.  Poe biographer William F. Gill claimed that he "just happened" to be on the spot when Virginia's remains were about to be discarded.  He often boasted that he rescued what he could of Poe's wife (which, unfortunately, only amounted to a "few, thin, discolored bones") and for years kept them in his house as a distressingly Ed Gein-like souvenir and general conversation piece.  Finally, in 1885, the little that was left of poor Virginia was reburied with her mother and husband in Baltimore.

This article from the January 27, 1909 issue of the “New Ulm (MN) Review” gives Gill's own version of how his little adventure in body-snatching came to an end.  The headline is “The Raven Came Tapping.” A better title might be, “A Good Illustration of Why William Gill is Considered One of Poe’s More Chuckleheaded Biographers”:

At the Poe memorial meeting in Boston the other evening William Fearing Gill of Paris, the friendly biographer of the poetic genius Edgar Allan Poe, deeply interested his audience by relating a strange incident which he said had never been published or told and which he had determined to reserve for the centennial anniversary of the poet's birth.

"I was living in New York at the time, and in my room I had in a box the bones of Mrs. Edgar Allan Poe, which I had rescued when the graveyard in which she was interred was leveled. It was a bleak morning in December. I was awakened by a rap, rap, rap. I went to the door. No one was there. Again came the rap, rap, rap. I went to the window and opened it. All was darkness, but I could distinguish some sort of small animal on the sill. 'Come in,' I said, and in walked a raven.

"On my mantel I had an album of autograph letters of Poe, together with a poem called ‘The Demon of the Fire,' which doubtless inspired his 'Raven.' This bird went to the book, perched on top of it and, fastening his talons in it, turned and looked at me. I said, in the words of the poem, 'Tell me what thy lordly name is.' The raven flapped his wings and cried, 'Whoo-oo,' probably as near 'Nevermore' as Poe's raven ever got. The apparition of the raven I accepted as Hamlet accepted the apparition of the ghost—as a rebuke because I had delayed so long in interring the remains of Mrs. Poe. While the bird sat there I wrote to Nelson [sic] Poe asking him to take the bones. He did so, and we interred them in Baltimore."

A footnote: “The Demon of the Fire” (also known as “The Fire-Fiend”) was published in the “Southern Literary Messenger” in 1863, billed as an “unpublished MS.” of Poe’s. It was actually a hoax perpetrated by one Charles D. Gardette, who, when he republished the poem under his own name in 1866, stated unblushingly that he had been challenged to “produce a poem in the manner of ‘The Raven’ which should be accepted by the general critic as a genuine composition of Mr. Poe’s.”

It is depressing to record that Gardette succeeded, at least with certain critics. Not only Gill, but more reputable scholars, such as Edmund Clarence Stedman and James A. Harrison, showed a curious willingness to sacrifice their credibility by, even after Gardette’s confession, maintaining Poe’s authorship of lines such as:

“Speechless struck with stony silence, frozen to the floor I stood,
Till methought my brain was hissing with that hissing, bubbling blood;
Till I felt my life stream oozing, oozing from those lambent lips;
Till the demon seemed to name me — then a wondrous calm o‘ercame me,
And my brow grew cold and dewy, with at death damp stiff and gluey,
And I fell back on my pillow, in apparent soul eclipse.”

To be fair, those lines are a good description of how I feel after reading most of the Poe biographies.