Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Nota Bene

Lambert Wilmer Merlin Edgar Allan Poe Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton
In 1827, a young writer named Lambert A. Wilmer published in Baltimore a verse drama entitled "Merlin." It was a commonplace sundered-lovers melodrama, heavy with the pseudo-mystical trappings so fashionable in that era. It would be long-forgotten but for its alleged link to Edgar Allan Poe.

As is well known, in the latter half of 1825, the sixteen-year-old Poe is said to have had a brief romance with a neighbor girl of fourteen named Sarah Elmira Royster. This relationship soon ended under the combined weight of Poe's departure to the University of Virginia early in 1826 and parental disapproval. Over a century later, Poe scholar Thomas O. Mabbott devised the theory--a theory that has been repeated by Poe's biographers ever since--that Wilmer's "Merlin" was based on this truncated puppy-love affair, a supposition based solely on the fact that the heroine of Wilmer's play was named "Elmira." (A not-uncommon name in those days.)

Although Poe and Wilmer became friends in the early 1830s, there is no evidence they knew each other as early as 1827. It has been imagined, however--and as happens so often in Poe biography, imagining winds up presented as fact--that Poe may have briefly visited Baltimore at this time to see his brother William Henry, and presumably while there spent his time telling all and sundry--including Wilmer--of his lost love. Overcome by the pathos of it all, Wilmer immediately immortalized the heartbreak of his new friend in verse.

There is just one slight difficulty with this romantic little story: It cannot possibly be true. Any quick perusal of that standard reference book, "Early American Plays, 1714-1830" will show that Wilmer first published "Merlin" in Philadelphia in 1823, years before he met Poe--or Poe met Sarah Elmira, for that matter.Lambert A. Wilmer and Edgar Allan PoeThus, "Merlin" becomes less a case of "Nevermore," and more one of "Never mind."

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