Monday, August 23, 2010

Cornelius Mathews and "The Raven"

Cornelius Mathews
Cornelius Mathews (1817-1889) was a minor--very minor indeed--writer of his era. Poe did not respect Mathews' talent any more than anyone else did, but for reasons having to do with the tediously complicated literary politics of the 1840s, Poe felt it worth his while for a period to ally himself with Mathews and, more importantly, Mathews' closest friend Evert Duyckinck. Mathews himself left no lengthy or important descriptions of their acquaintance--his personal relations with the poet were evidently, as was the case with most people who knew Poe, of a distant nature. However, in the "Bachelor of Arts" magazine (1896) Mathews' niece, novelist and playwright Frances Aymar Mathews, published an account of how Poe came to write "The Raven," a story which she said her uncle had often related to her during her childhood.

Her tale has the overpowering aroma of apocrypha that suffuses most of the stories concerning Poe--I fear Miss Mathews let her theatrical background get the better of her--and there are several obvious errors in fact (for instance, Poe did not move to Amity Street until the latter part of 1845.) Still, it is a "quaint and curious" story, and as it has been largely ignored by Poe's biographers, I present it here as yet another example of "Raven-lore."

I intend someday to compile a list of all the reminiscences of people who said they watched Poe write/helped him write "The Raven." Just off the top of my head, I can think of at least a baker's dozen--all given in the same tone of highly detailed assurance that theirs was the true history of the poem, and all of them completely contradictory--and I'm sure there are more. (Has there ever been any other poem that has generated so much mythology?)

Says Miss Mathews:

One day when I was a child of twelve or thirteen I stood tiptoeing in my uncle's office, whither I had been taken for a treat to see how type was set up, my eye was caught by an engraving hung high over a lamp-bracket at one side of the chimney-place. It was the portrait of a man's face, dark, sad, proud, irresistible almost in the attraction of its deep eyes and the suggestive curve of the weak though haughty mouth. Underneath the picture was written in a beautiful, firm, small, even hand: "To my friend, Cornelius Mathews, from his devoted friend, Edgar Allan Poe."

"Is that the man who wrote 'The Raven'?" I asked, breathless in my gaze at the weird spiritual face, it seemed to me, flickering with suppressed life at that very moment, in the flare of the smoky little lamp below it.
My uncle nodded, picking out at the same moment a yellowed paper from a pile in his drawer and handing it to me.

It was part of a copy of the American Review for, I think, February, 1845, and in it I found "The Raven," signed "Quarles."

My uncle laid down his pen and wheeled his chair nearer to the fire. With the ancient bits of paper in my hands I sat down too on a little bench near him, feeling instinctively that a story was in the air. I always knew by his movements when he was going to "reminisce"; and as three or four years before I had plunged into the sweet, alluring stream of printers' ink by my small self, his memories of literary folk were my especial delight; and, well knowing it, he was always happy in gratifying my taste and curiosity.

"Do you want to know how 'The Raven' was written?" my uncle asked me, as I drew a bit nearer to him and the blaze.The RavenOf course I did; hungry for the eerie and the strange, I fairly shivered with delightful anticipation, then, over its first hearing, as I have many a time since when I have begged for its repetition at my uncle's lips.

It is because I have heard it so often that I am able to put down so accurately the picturesque little history of at least one of (if not the) inceptional phases of a poem that has run the gamut of the world and ensnared its every reader.

"It was in the winter of '44-45," began my uncle, "a drizzling night full of chill and murk, made more dismal by fitful glimpses of a full moon swirling amid billowing continents of clouds, appearing only to disappear, and shifty with freaks of an east wind that shivered against the lamp-posts and rattled the swinging signs all along Broadway. Broadway was not then what it is now, and on such a night years ago, the warm flare of the gas at the entrance to the Park Theater-the old Park Theater down yonder on Park row-seemed very attractive to a young man still in his twenties, and with a play of his own in his desk into which he had put his best."

"I crossed over and went in. Don't ask me what the play was or who were the players, child--I don't remember. What I do recollect is that I found Edgar Poe in the seat beside mine; we shook hands, we had known each other for some years by letter, and for some months face to face. Did he look like that picture up there? Very much, only there was in the almost alabaster whiteness of his skin, in the radiance of his eyes, a mystery of vividness, a supernaturalness of light, that no portrait traced by mere man's bands can reproduce."

"He spoke a little of his wife, after my inquiries; of her not being able to come out on a night like this; of his mother-in-law, of Willis, of Lowell, Mrs. Browning, and, drifting homeward, of ourselves. The actors came and went, the scenes shifted, the music played, the curtain was rung up and rung down a half a dozen times--bless your heart! yes, for in those days, long ago, a five-act tragedy, and a roaring farce, and a pas seul formed no unusual program--but of the stories the players told, Poe and I knew or noted but little."

"He was one of the most courteous and attentive listeners I ever encountered, and, with a delicacy and interest unbounded, he inquired as to the play I was then so intent upon. It was 'Witchcraft,' and as briefly as I could I outlined the plot to him. As I came to the close of the fourth act, depicting the anguish and horror of my hero Gideon on being convinced that his mother is in truth a witch, beholding as he does the signs in the elements and in the sky, Poe, his gaze fixed before him, said in his low, melodious voice, 'Mr. Mathews, why do you not at this point have a raven, that bird of ill-omen, flit across the stage over the witch's head?'"

"I told him that while the picturesqueness of the bird would be undeniable, the unity of the atmosphere would be disturbed by its introduction, that a raven in Salem town would never do."

"'Do you know,' he went on, his eyes still immovably riveted on the glowing space before him, his voice so low that it could not disturb even his next door neighbor, 'that that bird, that imp-bird, pursues me mentally, perpetually; I cannot rid myself of its presence; as I sit here I seem to hear the melancholy of its croak as I used to hear it in my boyish days at school in Stoke-Newington; I seem to hear the sordid flap of its wings in my ears.'"

"I turned and looked at him; I could see very plainly that both I and my drama had been left very far behind, that his brain was busy with some strange fantasy, and I kept silent."

"Presently he drew himself up, and folded his arms across his chest."

"'I wonder, Mr. Mathews,' he said, looking at me now squarely in the face, 'if Dickens has ever been haunted by the raven as I am; I wonder if the raven in Barnaby Rudge is his expression of the monotonous power the bird has had over his mind--what do you think?'"The Raven and Edgar Allan Poe"Candidly, I answered, from a long correspondence with Dickens, I take him to be a man so little inclined to the introspective, that his presentation of Barnaby's raven is likely to have been more for its effect than the result of a deep cause."

"'I see,' Poe responded; 'that is precisely it. Some men sway trifles, foibles, or events to their own shaping, others--' he shifted his gaze back to the space no doubt peopled by his fancies--'are swayed and swung hither and fro by whispers heard only by themselves.'"

"We talked much more, and on many themes about many people, issues, schemes, books, and friends, until the audience rising in a mass, we knew that the last curtain had fallen for that night. The orchestra played the overture to 'Amelie,' a long-forgotten opera, my dear, but famous in those times, and Poe and I went out with the light-hearted crowd."

"I saw by the steaming mist through the wide open doors that the night had not bettered any, and I put out my hand to touch my companion's arm, and bid him, under the shelter of my umbrella (I observed that he had none and but a thin overcoat), come across the street and join me for a hot oyster supper."

"But my hand met nothing, my friendly eyes and invitation were to be useless--Poe, like a spirit, had dissolved seemingly in the murk of the night and left me standing alone."

"I started out and searched everywhere about for him, well understanding his rare delicacy of feeling, which, half anticipating my hospitality, thus sought to elude it. I could not find him, so I went over and took my supper by myself."

"Half an hour later I came out, jumped into the omnibus, and away it went rattling over the wet cobble-stones--oh, yes, nothing smoother in those old days--up through the mirth of Broadway. But there was not much mirth about it that winter night, and the frost-king was laying his fingers on the rain as it fell and turning every drop into a glisten, every sidewalk into a pitfall of slippery uncomfortableness; the breath of the passengers--there were but three besides myself-steamed on the omnibus windows, the oil lamp flickered and shook as we bounced along, and I, pondering on the lamentable impracticability of introducing a raven into 'Witchcraft,' sat with my damp umbrella in my grasp, staring a bit vacantly, I imagined, out of the small spot in the pane opposite me which the third passenger had just obligingly rubbed clear with his coat-sleeve."

"We had reached Bleecker street, when there, in the circle of sickly yellow light under the lamp-post, I beheld Edgar Poe standing, writing on the margin of a paper, apparently utterly oblivious of everything around him."

"I pulled the strap and dashed out, and yet, even then something made me pause as I saw him, a something that shone, like the glitter of stars in a hot summer sky, in the depths of his gray eyes, a something that exuded from his white brow where the dark curls, gemmed with the frozen rain-drops, sparkled in the meager light of the almost deserted thoroughfare; but for an instant, when common-sense came to my aid, combined with common feeling for a man standing inviting disease in such weather as this--"

"'Poe!' I cried, touching him lightly on the shoulder, as I held the umbrella over his head."

"With a curious urbanity, a gentleness which yet spoke to me in other language and told me of his chagrin at being interrupted, he greeted me and thanked me, and said, answering my earnest queries as to why he had given me the slip and deprived me of the pleasure of his company at supper:"

"'I thank you very much; I could not have eaten, or drunk, or slept, or gone a step farther than this, or waited a moment longer than now.' (Poe then lived in Amity street, only a few blocks distant.)"

"'It is the Raven,' he went on, pushing his dark hair back from his forehead, and with his feet almost frozen in a puddle; with my umbrella beaten now this way, now that, by the fierceness of the wind; with the rumble of a solitary cart emphasizing the solitude; with the creaking of a board sign at the corner--Poe said in a hushed, strained voice, a voice where some pent-up, surging sorrow seemed slipping from his control:"

"'Let me read you a stanza or two here, now, will you ?'"

"'Go on,' I answered quickly, as eager as he in my attitude; truth to tell, the fantasy of his mood was communicated to me in force, and that freezing quarter of an hour in December, '44, I shall never forget. He began in a low monotone the well-known lines:"Edgar Allan Poe The Raven
'Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore-
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
'Tis some visitor, I muttered, tapping at my chamber door--
Only this, and nothing more.
Ah, distinctly I remember, it was in the bleak December'

"At this word Poe stopped for a second and, raising his eyes, looked up to the impenetrable dome above him. The flicker of the lamplight caught the brilliancy of his eyes, augmenting it to something unfathomably effulgent. A blast keener and more cutting than any that had come before nearly turned the umbrella inside out, and made his slight figure sway against the post, while the paper fluttered in his fingers."

"As rapt as he, was I. The melody incomparable and the magic rhythm of 'The Raven' had seized upon my soul as tensely as it held his, and, reckless of the storm of the December night, I repeated, 'Go on, go on.'"

'Ah, distinctly I remember, it was in the bleak December,
And each separate, dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow--sorrow for the lost Lenore--
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore--
Nameless here forevermore.
And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain'

"I have heard," said my uncle, stopping in his reading of the poem from the paper I held in my hand, "I have heard Poe himself recite that poem later on at Miss Lynch's; I have heard distinguished actors read it, but never have I heard such an effect produced by human voice as when its author stood there in the sweep of the storm and uttered it--I presume, for the first time in mortal hearing. I could detect the stir of the curtain; I could hear, too, the sob of a stricken soul in the cadence of that matchless line."

" He read on from the scrap of paper that he held as far as the words,"

'Perched, and sat, and nothing more.'

"when lack of mere physical strength, I believe, made him stop, and I came to a realizing sense of our surroundings and position."

"'It is cold,' he said with a slight tremor, while he looked half inquiringly at me."

"'The poem is superb, Mr. Poe,' I cried, ' but it is madness for us to stop out here in the street in the storm. Come home with me to my room, come!' And I linked my arm in his and attempted to lead him up Broadway.

"Poe rarely smiled, but then he did, a reluctant, flitting movement playing about his lips as he gently disengaged himself, saying:"

"'I cannot go home with you, Mr. Mathews. You know, Virginia is expecting me. Perhaps it is late,' vaguely looking around him and adding, 'If it is not late, will you come home with me and sit a while?'"

"I assented, merely meaning to go the few blocks with him to where he then lived, in Amity street; for I knew quite well that it was nearing two o'clock in the morning."

"We walked along together, and all the while his lips were framing snatches of the poem destined to win him immortality; more often the fatal refrain coming to my ears of"

'Quoth the Raven Nevermore.'

"We reached the steps of his residence, and then he turned and thanked me with the peculiar grace and charm of manner which in my acquaintance with him always distinguished Edgar Allan Poe, saying:"

"'Will you come in?'"

"'No,' I replied, 'surely not. Some other time; meantime, if I can serve you in any way let me know, and be sure to finish this Raven poem.'"

"With a melancholy sigh, the insensible, impalpable waft of a restless and imprisoned spirit, he said:"

"'I shall have to--it has not let me rest; it will not let me sleep until it is completed. Perhaps if I have once put it on paper the ill-omened fowl will quit my ear and leave me in peace.'"

"He pressed my hand, turned, went up the stoop, raising his eyes to an upper window as he disappeared."

"A light shone above, and against the film of the curtain I saw the slender, girlish figure I knew to be his wife's."

"Not many weeks after, my dear, I bought and read that very copy of 'The Raven' which I now give to you, and a little later it was the most admired, wondered over, and written of the productions of the day."Rosetti The Raven

Bottom image: Dante Gabriel Rosetti, "The Raven."