Monday, September 20, 2010

Linking Fancy Unto Fancy: More "Raven" Lore

"He's a walking contradiction
Partly truth and partly fiction"
-Kris Kristofferson, "The Pilgrim"
I have, as I earlier threatened I might do, compiled a list of at least the most notable instances of stories detailing "How Poe wrote 'The Raven,'" or "How I helped Poe write 'The Raven.'" (The latter has a sub-category of "How Poe stole 'The Raven' from me.) If nothing else, it all serves as yet another cautionary tale warning of the dangers of taking Poe reminiscences (even the first-hand ones) too trustfully. I probably missed a few "Raven" legends while putting this roster together, but if there are any stories weirder than these out there, I'm not sure I even want to be reminded about them.Gustave Dore The RavenHere is how and when Poe's most famous poem was written:

1.Under a New York streetlight sometime in the winter of 1844 (so Cornelius Mathews' niece told us in an earlier post.)

2. In the summer of 1842 or 1843, at the Barhyte estate in Saratoga Springs. (Again, see this earlier post.)

3. In the winter of 1843 in Philadelphia, as a desperate attempt to put food on the table of his starving wife and mother-in-law, an attempt that ended in failure, as no one he approached, including George R. Graham and Louis Godey, wanted anything to do with the poem. (This, according to the second or third-hand accounts related by Hyman Rosenbach, who was born nine years after Poe died. Rosenbach was one of those enterprising journalists with a nose for sniffing out colorful but extremely dubious Poe stories.)

4. It was written hurriedly during the course of one night while Poe was living in Fordham, in a frantic effort to obtain medical care and other necessities for Virginia. (So says Francis Gerry Fairfield in a particularly bizarre 1875 article, "A Mad Man of Letters." Of course, "The Raven" was first published in January of 1845, and Poe did not move to Fordham until the spring of 1846, but Fairfield was cheerfully untroubled by that pesky little detail.)

5. It was written piecemeal in New York City in the summer of 1844, with the aid of his fellow boozers at "Sandy Welsh's cellar on Ann Street." Thus, so we are told, "'The Raven' was a kind of joint-stock affair in which many minds held small shares of intellectual capital." (This was also related by Fairfield, who said he had it from a Col. Du Solle, who supposedly heard the story from Maria Clemm. Fairfield, however, insisted that #4 above was the "true" account, and that Poe, who was, according to Fairfield, a victim of "cerebral epilepsy," which turned him into a "habitual liar," simply invented the tale related by Du Solle.)

6. It was written in Richmond, in the office of "Southern Literary Messenger" editor John R. Thompson. As Thompson only took over on the "Messenger" in 1847, further comment is unnecessary. (This story comes to us from James K. Galt, John Allan's great-nephew.)

7. It was written while the Poes were boarders at the Brennan Farm outside New York City, sometime in the latter half of 1844. (This, incidentally, is the most credible account we have about the poem's creation.)

8. It was composed on an unspecified date at a Merion, Pennsylvania inn, as commemoration of Poe's failed love affair with a local girl. (This story appears to be the work of a Pennsylvania blowhard named Henry Shoemaker, who, during the early 1900s, gulled many an overzealous Poe devotee with a series of completely fabricated stories incorporating the poet into local history.)

9. It was composed over a period of ten years. (Susan Archer Talley Weiss claimed Poe confided this to her.)

10. And, of course, there is Poe's own version of how "The Raven" came to be written, "The Philosophy of Composition." Most Poe historians dismiss his account as a mere hoax, and certainly Poe was indulging himself in some gleeful nose-tweaking in this essay, but I would not be at all surprised if there wasn't a good deal of truth in his story. In any case, he must have greatly enjoyed how his account disconcerted the romantics. As he commented mockingly: "Most writers--poets in especial--prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy--an ecstatic intuition--and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peek behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought--at the true purposes seized only at the last moment--at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view--at the fully-matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable--at the cautious selections and rejections--at the painful erasures and interpolations--in a word, at the wheels and pinions--the tackle for scene-shifting--the step-ladders, and demon-traps--the cock's feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio."

Certainly, that sounds more plausible than these giddy tales of a raven-haunted Poe deliriously scribbling lines in the rain under a streetlight, or enlisting his drinking buddies or a small boy in Saratoga to help him haphazardly cobble the poem together.Gustave Dore Edgar Allan PoeBut wait, there's more. Not content with being an eyewitness to literary history, an equally large flock of buzzards sought even greater glory by presenting to the world their accounts of how that untalented loser Poe just couldn't have written "The Raven" without them. (And, of course, if you consider all the people who later claimed to have been among "the very first" to hear Poe recite the poem, or to read it before its publication, you'd have to assume he unveiled it before a crowd the size of Australia.) My favorite listing in this category comes, of course, from the immortal Susan Talley Weiss, who, in her "Home Life of Poe," described the poet coming to her in the summer of 1849, begging her help in rewriting the poem, as he "regretted" having ever published it in such an imperfect form. (She added that she "did not feel particularly flattered by his proposal, knowing that since his coming to Richmond he had made a similar request to at least two other persons.") Weiss wrote that Poe had asked her to recite the poem, while he took notes on the many and glaring flaws they noted in the work. (This collaboration would have been an interesting sight, considering Weiss was completely deaf since childhood and unable to lip-read. As usual when writing about Poe, the lady coyly omitted that bit of information.) She told her readers that, alas, they were interrupted in their work by "the tumultuous entrance of my little dog, Pink, in hot pursuit of the family cat," and so the world was cruelly deprived of the new, improved Poe/Weiss "Raven."Edgar Allan Poe The RavenFor sheer unmitigated shamelessness, it is always hard to trump Mrs. Weiss when she was in top form, but many have tried. Probably the earliest entrant in the "Poe Plagiarized Me" sweepstakes was that strange and creepy being, Thomas Holley Chivers. After Poe was safely dead, Chivers worked off what seems to have been a long-festering jealousy and resentment of his "friend" by making a series of increasingly insane claims that Poe had stolen virtually his entire body of poetic work from Chivers. In 1850, he kicked off this campaign by publishing a pronouncement that "The Raven" was stolen from his own "To Allegra Florence in Heaven:"
"As an egg, when broken, never
Can be mended, but must ever
Be the same crushed egg forever--
So shall this dark heart of mine!
Which, though broken, is still breaking,
And shall never more cease aching
For the sleep which has no waking--
For the sleep which now is thine!"

Not to be outdone, yet another crushed egg, a Philadelphia friend of Poe's named Henry B. Hirst, became obsessed in his later years with the notion that he had actually written Poe's masterwork. His proof for this claim was evidently the fact that he had, at one point, owned a pet raven. Hirst went "harmlessly insane" in the latter part of his life, but it is difficult to say if this fantasy was a symptom of his madness or a cause. (As a side note, while Poe was still alive, Hirst aroused his wrath with claims that "Ulalume" was plagiarized from Hirst's "Endymion." Poe responded--in classic Poe fashion--by writing that on the contrary, it was Hirst who stole from him. "Now my objection, in this case, is not to the larceny per se. I have always told Mr. Hirst that, provided he stole my poetry in a reputable manner, he might steal just as much of it as he thought proper--and, so far, he has behaved very well, in largely availing himself of the privilege. But what I do object to, is the being robbed in bad grammar. It is not that Mr. Hirst did this thing--but that he has went and done did it." )

In 1870, the "New Orleans Times" published a "confession" from Poe himself, admitting that he had received "The Raven" from an unknown poet, one Samuel Fenwick, who died soon afterwards. Subsequently, said Poe, he became so intoxicated he no longer knew what he did, and while in that state signed his own name to the poem and sent it to be published. Although the letter was immediately revealed to be a hoax, the story continued to be repeated as fact for quite some time afterwards--a tribute to the power of the printed word, or the world's eagerness to denigrate Poe by any means necessary, or both.

In 1901, John A. Joyce published the claim that Poe stole "The Raven" wholesale from Leo Penzoni's "The Parrot," which he claimed had been published in the "Milan Art Journal" in 1809. (Modern-day researchers have been unable to find any clue that either Penzoni or the magazine in question ever existed.) In the years following Poe's death, claims were also made that "The Raven" was merely a translation of unspecified Chinese or Persian poems.The RavenPerhaps the apex to all this delirious nonsense was reached by one C.D. Gardette, who in 1859 published a poem entitled "The Fire Fiend," which he claimed Poe had written as an "incomplete" predecessor to "The Raven." Even after Gardette admitted in print that he had intended nothing more than a playful Poe-like hoax, "The Fire Fiend" continued to be described as Poe's genuine handiwork at least as late as the early 1900s. (Poe biographer William Gill even claimed to have seen the manuscript of the poem in Poe's handwriting!) One can best demonstrate the truly horrifying readiness of so many Poe devotees to believe virtually anything told about him by reciting these lines from Gardette's all-too-successful prank:
"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-blood 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 a death-damp stiff and gluey,
And I fell back on my pillow in apparent soul-eclipse!"

When the ghost of Rufus W. Griswold, in whatever strange netherworld he was by then inhabiting, heard that Poe was actually being blamed for these lines, he must have just laughed his head off.