Monday, December 14, 2009

"Lines From an Unpublished Drama"

Edgar Allan Poe
In recent years, Edgar Allan Poe biography has been heavily infested with fevered speculation--writers who have "talked and scribbled themselves into convulsions" as the man himself might put it--about the poetic exchanges between Poe and Frances S. Osgood. Many biographers and novelists, lacking almost any sort of actual evidence about what, if anything, actually went on between the pair, have built virtually everything they know--or, rather, think they know--about the relationship between the two by micro-analyzing their poetry. (I have come across reputed "scholars" and "academics" who claim to find insight into the Poe/Osgood relationship by--I'm not kidding here--literally measuring the distances between their writings published in the "Broadway Journal." Yes, this sort of thing is what passes for Poe scholarship nowadays.)

This is all very remarkable, as Poe's contribution to the so-called "literary courtship" (about which none of their contemporaries, including their spouses, seemed to care, or even notice,) consisted of two of his blandest poems which had already been published several times before, and an 1846 Valentine verse where he pays tribute to the lady by misspelling her name and calling her a dunce. (As I have noted earlier, the revised version of this Valentine poem that he later published calls Osgood a liar.)

According to Sarah Helen Whitman, Poe "allowed"--that was the word she used--those old poems of his to be rededicated to Osgood, at Mrs. O's own request. If this is true--and it does sound like the sort of childishly self-aggrandizing thing Osgood would do--it casts an interesting light on their alleged relationship.

Also lost in all the heavy-breathing pother is the fact that there are only three of Osgood's poems that can be at all confidently regarded as being "about" or "to" Poe. (It should be remembered that Osgood herself put an introductory note in one of her books cautioning the reader that many of her poems were written for inclusion in short stories, and thus illustrate the feelings of fictional characters, not of herself.)Frances S. OsgoodHer "Poe poems" consist of an acrostic incorporating his name, unpublished during her lifetime and, from the textual evidence, probably written early in 1846--not 1847, as has been speculated. (It reads as an envious tribute to his relationship with Virginia, and was clearly written in response to his acrostic Valentine.) Another is a rather trite elegy commemorating his death, "The Hand That Swept the Sounding Lyre." (A side note: In a plagiaristic touch Poe himself would have noted, she "borrowed" the title line from James Bird's "The Vale of Slaughden.") The most interesting of the trio is a poem first published in the "American Metropolitan" for January 1849 under the title, "Lines From an Unpublished Drama," and later expanded into "Fragments of an Unfinished Story." After Poe's death, Sarah Helen Whitman recalled him mentioning the poem as being addressed to himself (the title, reminiscent of his "Politian: Scenes From an Unpublished Drama," likely led him to this conclusion.) This identification is bolstered by a letter of Mrs. Clemm's, mentioning the poem as one addressed to her "Eddie."

"Fragments," judged as poetry, is practically unreadable--thirteen published pages of awkward, semi-coherent blank verse--but as what is probably the most honest account she ever gave about her relations with Poe, it is valuable. She opens with the abrupt lines:
"'A friend!' Are you a friend? No, by my soul!
Since you dare breathe the shadow of a doubt
That I am true as Truth"

And continues:
"What though a thousand seeming proofs condemn me?"
And later:
"Would I were anything that you dost love!
A flower, a shell, a wavelet, or a cloud--
Aught that might win a moment's soul-look from thee"

Osgood goes on to describe him as being not only "blind" to her love for him, but positively antagonistic to her, which she blames on the schemes of another:
"...And after that a cloud,
Colder and darker, hung between her heart
And yours. There were malicious, lovely lips,
That knew, too well, the poison of a hint,
And it work'd deep and sure."

And then:
"...We ne'er have met!...our souls meet not."

..."You have loved often--passionately, perchance--
Never with that wild, rapturous poet-love
Which I might win--and will--not here on earth."

She even concedes that he does not find her attractive:
"...from boyhood, you
Have been a mad idolater of beauty.
And I! ah, Heaven! had you return'd my love,
I had been beautiful in your dear eyes;
For Love and Joy and Hope within the spirit,
Make luminous the face. But let that pass:
I murmur not. In my soul Pride is crown'd
And throned--a queen; and at her feet lies Love,
Her slave--in chains--that you shall ne'er unclasp.
Yet, oh! if aspirations, ever rising
With an intense idolatry of love,
Toward all of grace and purity and truth
That we may dream--can shape the soul to beauty,
(As I believe,) then, in that better world,
You will not ask if I were fair on earth."

(Obviously, Osgood had yet to recover from his comment in "The Literati of New York City" that she was "in no respect" beautiful.)

The poem concludes that in Heaven he will recognize her true worth, and love her, but until then she will proudly keep her love a secret from the world--and him:
"Ay, I would die
A martyr's death, sir, rather than betray
To you by faintest flutter of a pulse--
By lightest change of cheek or eyelid's fall--
That I am she who loves, adores, and flies [sic] you!"

(No, she'll just display to all the world a lengthy poem about the subject instead.)

So, there you have it. Through the medium of an embarrassingly large amount of wretched verse, Osgood announced to one and all that Poe distrusted her, scarcely acknowledged she even existed, and didn't think much of her looks. If we use her poetry as a guide to their relations, as everyone is so eager to do, Poe had no more of a romantic relationship--or even an intimate friendship--with her than he did with Hiram Fuller.

Poe's reaction to "Lines" is unknown. Mrs. Whitman, frantically searching for some excuse for why he should have told acquaintances that their marriage would never take place, theorized that Osgood's poem had moved him to the extent that he was inspired to repudiate his engagement to Whitman. This bizarre notion, however, was only her desperate guesswork, plucked out of the air. She gave no indication Poe said anything to her about the poem or his opinion of Osgood's outreach efforts. (Another instance of the strange lack of communication between him and Whitman.) Certainly, it did not inspire him to contact Osgood. Probably he was flattered. Perhaps touched. Perhaps amused. Possibly, he forgot about the whole thing immediately after reading it. Who can say?

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