Monday, May 21, 2012


This post is designed to provide a home for a few stray bits of Poeana I've encountered here and there.

1. The Case of the Postponed Pym

"The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym" was issued by Harper's in July of 1838. However, the firm applied for copyright and had a title page prepared over a year earlier, in June 1837. (A month before, the "Knickerbocker" announced that the novel was "nearly ready for publication.") Why the long delay? We have no idea. Poe researcher Kenneth Rede suggested "they withheld the volume from the public to give Poe, desperately in need of funds, and without employment at the time, a reasonable opportunity to find a periodical willing to continue the serialization of the tale...and that when he failed in this quest, they then brought out the book as originally planned." It has also been theorized that Harper's held off releasing the book because of the uncertain economic climate of the times. (May 1837 saw a financial panic which inaugurated a severe depression that lasted until 1843.)

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym
These theories, though plausible, fail to completely convince me. Admittedly, however, I cannot think of any better explanations. It is a curious coincidence that we know almost nothing of Poe's personal and professional activities between his move to New York City early in 1837 and his relocation to Philadelphia about a year later. Could this strange gap in his timeline have any connection to the simultaneous pause in the life of "Pym?"

Rene Magritte Not to Be Reproduced

2. Bayard Taylor's Poe Parody

In October of 1845, Poe became the sole proprietor of the "Broadway Journal." He bought out his partner, John Bisco, with the help of a promissory note for fifty dollars, which was endorsed by Horace Greeley. When it came due, Bisco evidently collected it from the endorser. ("As was to be anticipated," snorted Poe biographer George Woodberry.) Greeley, rather tastelessly, dined out on the episode for years to come, even proclaiming in his autobiography that he offered the note to someone seeking Poe's autograph "for half that amount."

The episode itself, thanks to Greeley, is relatively famous. What is less well-known is the fact that Greeley's friend Bayard Taylor was, for reasons known only to himself, inspired to commemorate it in a poem, "The Promissory Note." The result is one of the weirder Poe spoofs:

Bayard Taylor

In the lonesome latter years,
(Fatal years!)
To the dropping of my tears
Danced the mad and mystic spheres
In a rounded, reeling rune,
'Neath the moon,
To the dripping and the dropping of my tears

Ah my soul is swathed in gloom,
In a dim Titanic tomb,
For my gaunt and gloomy soul
Ponders o'er the penal scroll
O'er the parchment (not a rhyme,)
Out of place out of time,
I am shredded, shorn, unshifty,
(O, the fifty!)
And the days have passed, the three,
Over me!
And the debit and the credit are as one to him and me!

'Twas the random runes I wrote
At the bottom of the note
(Wrote and freely,
Gave to Greeley,)
In the middle of the night
On the yellow, moonless night,
When the stars were out of sight,
When my pulses, like a knell,
Danced with dim and dying fays
O'er the ruins of my days,
O'er the dimeless, timeless days,
When the fifty, drawn at thirty,
Seeming thrifty, yet the dirty
Lucre of the market, was the most that I could raise!

Fiends controlled it,
(Let him hold it!)
Devils held for me the inkstand and the pen;
Now the days of grace are o'er,
(Ah, Lenore!)
I am but as other men;
What is time, time, time,
To my rare and runic rhyme,
To my random, reeling rhyme,
By the sands along the shore,
Where the tempest whispers, "Pay him!" and I answer "Never more!"

Many poems made money, but this is the only case I know where money made poems.

3. Rufus W. Griswold, Poetic Muse

Another example of bizarre verses from the World of Poe comes to us courtesy of Frances S. Osgood. It is well known that in 1846 Poe wrote her an acrostic Valentine poem containing her name. His more frivolous biographers have tried to twist this innocuous--and probably commissioned--contribution to a Valentine party into evidence that they had some sort of close relationship (overlooking the fact that the poem misspelled her middle name and called her a dunce.) Left largely ignored is the fact that in 1850, Mrs. Osgood wrote a similar, but far more intimate poem to none other than everyone's favorite fraud, Rufus Wilmot Griswold. This poem, which George Woodberry dryly called "an illustrative document in regard to the literary group," rarely has appeared in print. I propose to do my part in correcting that omission. Fanny and the Reverend won't live this one down--in a manner of speaking--if I can help it. (Note: By reading the italicized letters, their names can be found--hers, left to right, his, right to left.)
For one, whose being is to mine a star,
Trembling I weave in lines of love and fun
What Fame before has echoed near and far.
A sonnet if you like--I'll give you one
To be cross-questioned ere it's truth is solv'd.
Here veiled and hidden in a rhyming wreath
A name is turned with mine in cunning sheath,
And unless by some marvel rare evolved,
Forever folded from all idler eyes
Silent and secret still it treasured lies,
Whilst mine goes winding onward, as a rill
Thro' a deep wood in unseen joyance dances,
Calling in melody's bewildering thrill
Whilst thro' dim leaves its partner dreams and glances.

Even more embarrassing evidence of her partiality (however self-serving) for Griswold can be found in her 1850 collection of poems, which "his attached friend" dedicated to him "As a souvenir of admiration for his genius, of regard for his generous character, and of gratitude for his valuable literary counsels."

4. In Which I Give John Evangelist Walsh the Plot of His Next Book

On a related note, an Edward A. Oldman wrote a peculiar letter to the New York Times which appeared in the August 11, 1929 issue. He claimed to know "the real reason" behind Griswold's enmity for Poe, information he gathered from "reminiscences at first-hand" he acquired from Poe's old classmates at the University of Virginia. (It was not explained how these youthful acquaintances would have the slightest "first-hand" knowledge about the relations between the two men, but never mind that.)

Rufus Wilmot Griswold

"From this material," wrote Oldham, "one important statement is recalled. It was in the effect that Rufus Wilmot Griswold was smitten with the flower-like charms of the poet's wife, and had on at least one occasion been rebuffed by her, the incident very nearly causing a permanent rupture between Poe and Griswold. The latter never forgot the circumstance and was known to have harbored a feeling of rancor against the poet."

This is nearly as silly a tale as the old cliché that Poe and Griswold were rivals for the dubious charms of Mrs. Osgood, but far more delightful. As long as the world is going to be plagued by badly-written, ahistorical Poe novels, I wish somebody would write one featuring a scene where the lustful Reverend makes impassioned advances to Virginia, only to have flowery Mrs. Poe "rebuff" him with a well-aimed knee to the groin. And perhaps a karate chop to the neck.

I may have to write it myself.

Poe scholars, showing a distressing lack of humor, have ignored Mr. Oldham's revelations, with the exception of Thomas O. Mabbott. He wrote the Times a week later, saying that he had never heard the story, "but it is one of those things that may very well be true." Thus proving a point I have made several times on this blog: There were no, I repeat, no Poe myths too nutty for Mr. Mabbott to embrace.

5. A "Lost" Portrait of Virginia Poe?

Mrs. W. H. Jackson, a self-described "admirer of Poe," wrote an article for the May 7, 1899 issue of the Detroit Free Press describing a visit she paid "many years ago" to Maria Clemm when Poe's aunt/mother-in-law was living in the Church Home in Baltimore. The article is brief and says nothing new or interesting, except for one brief statement that caught my eye. Mrs. Jackson said that on the wall of Mrs. Clemm's room hung "a colored lithograph" of Virginia holding "her favorite cat." She added, "Mrs. Clemm looked with a mother's tenderness upon this shadow of her frail child, whose nature 'touched to finer issues' was an inspiration to her gifted husband, sitting at his feet while many of the fantastic though purely rhythmic lines were dictated."

This does not fit the description of any known picture of Virginia, either accepted or apocryphal, and I have yet to find any other reference to this alleged portrait. There are several possibilities: This lithograph was lost or destroyed at some early date. Mrs. Jackson saw a generic portrait of a young woman and mistakenly assumed it was of Mrs. Clemm's daughter. Possibly, the portrait is still extant and simply has yet to be identified as Virginia. Finally, and most probably, Mrs. Jackson simply made that detail up. (That would be entirely typical of the newspaper stories of the day.)

6. A Glimpse of Poe in 1845

The May 1, 1895 issue of the Boston Globe carried a letter from a George Barron, who claimed to have been a fellow-boarder with the Poe family ("on Greenwich St., near the Battery") in the early half of 1845. I have never seen his brief reminiscences reprinted, so I quote them here. Barron described Poe as "particularly kind and attentive" to Virginia and Mrs. Clemm, "and they all seemed much devoted to each other."

"From what I saw of this remarkable man at that time, his kind attentions to his wife and mother-in-law, and his natural politeness to his fellow-boarders sitting near him at the table, I was sure he was at heart a true gentleman, notwithstanding what his detractors may have then or since said of him. While he was not a communicative man, but rather reticent and reserved in his manner, yet he was always courteous in responding to those who addressed him. He was always neatly and well dressed when I saw him, although I had the impression he was suffering somewhat from poverty at that time."

Barron's only specific anecdote regarding Poe was about the poet giving him and some of the other boarders complimentary passes to a lecture he was giving, only to have it cancelled due to bad weather, "to the great disappointment of those of us who were present." (The April 18, 1845 issue of the New York Evening Mirror noted that Poe was scheduled to lecture the previous evening, but was forced to postpone "in consequence of the inclemency of the weather.")

7. All You Need to Know About Sarah Helen Whitman

In 1874, she wrote John H. Ingram that she had never seen a ghost, "though I once saw a beautiful luminous hand that wrote for me three initial letters, which I still preserve & look upon with awe & wonder!"

8. Stop the Internet, I Want to Get Off

Finally, let me address a few of the utterly idiotic and equally indestructible Poe Myths I've seen floating around online:

A. No, Poe was not kicked out of West Point for showing up for drill stark naked. Sorry, flashers.

B. No, Poe was not an atheist. A widely-circulated quote attributed to him, that "all religion is simply evolved out of chicanery, fear, greed, imagination, and poetry," is apocryphal. It originated from a justifiably obscure 1901 biography by a noisy crackpot named John Alexander Joyce, which is full of outlandish and clearly fictional statements. (Of especial note is his chapter claiming that "The Raven" was stolen from an 1809 poem called "The Parrot"--a work which never actually existed outside of Mr. Joyce's fevered mind.) Joyce claimed to have received this quote from a "Mr. William Barton, who was a typo and foreman on the 'Broadway Journal' when Poe was editor of the paper." I have not found any other indication this Barton even existed, and there is absolutely no reason to take this as evidence of Poe's spiritual beliefs. His views were unquestionably unorthodox, but I dare anyone to read "Eureka," "The Island of the Fay," "Mesmeric Revelation," "The Poetic Principle"--to make it short, just about anything he ever wrote--and still say he was an atheist.

C. No, as far as we know, Poe did not have any sort of connection to "Barnaby's Castle" in Providence, Rhode Island. However, judging by the keyword searches used to find this blog, a puzzling number of people seem to think he did, which makes me suspect that an overimaginative tour guide is lurking somewhere in the background.

D. No, Poe did not die of poison on a park bench, he never had a pet raccoon, he never wore a goatee, and Sarah Elmira Shelton was no Alice Eve. Thanks a bunch, Cusack.

E. I shall close with one sentence I never thought I'd ever have to write: No, Elizabeth Poe was not pecked to death by crows. Please, people. You're beginning to depress me.
Le Corbeau