Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Power of (Misusing) Words

“Web surfers see facts as a bore,
‘Check sources?’ they say, ‘Nevermore!’
No matter how often he’s given the credit,
Don’t take it for granted that Edgar Poe said it.”
-Geoffrey Chaucer
Poe has acquired quite the afterlife online. Unfortunately, it has usually turned out to be in Bizarroville. I have grown accustomed to finding deranged biographical fictions about the man on certain websites that are, like Hastur, Not to Be Named. However, it is a new twist to the generally hellish existence of a Poe blogger to discover that there is a positive mania for attributing the words of others to Poe. The fact that said quotes are inevitably mind-bendingly stupid only adds to the horror.

The following are lines that the Interwebs have attributed to Poe--often at literally thousands of different sites. Read ‘em and weep, gang:

Fake Edgar Allan Poe quotes the internet is full of gibberish

1. “Sleep, those little slices of death-- how I loathe them.”

This is one of those quotes that gets attributed to virtually everyone who has ever picked up a pen, but Poe seems to get saddled with it the most. One source claims it traces back to a line from the 1959 film “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” (“I don’t sleep. I hate those little slices of death.") In any case, whoever wrote it, it wasn’t Poe.

2. “All religion, my friend, is simply evolved out of fraud, fear, greed, imagination, and poetry.”

I covered this one before, but its lure is still evidently irresistible for everyone with a fondness for theology on the cheap.

3. “Science has not yet taught us if madness is or is not the sublimity of the intelligence.”

Here we have a bastardization of the famous line from “Eleonora”: “Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence…”

4. “Sometimes I’m terrified of my heart; of its constant hunger for whatever it is it wants. The way it stops and starts."

Wrong Poe, kids. This line is from a song by the living singer-songwriter Poe, (“Terrified Heart”) rather than the not-so-living author.

5. “The best things in life make you sweaty.”

You know, I could really use a martini right about now.

6. “The past is a pebble in my shoe.”

The singer/songwriter Poe is a thorn in my side.

7. “To elevate the soul, poetry is necessary.”

I suspect this is another case of someone repeating words of Poe’s they vaguely remember without bothering to recheck their sources. It reads like a mashup of a line from Poe’s 1846 review of William Cullen Bryant, (“Poetry, in elevating, tranquilizes the soul,”) with “The Poetic Principle’s” “a poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul.” This is not a literal Poe quote, however.

8. “Stupidity is a talent for misconceptions.”

Here at last we’re seeing glimmerings of authentic Poe. In “The Rationale of Verse,” he wrote, “On account of the stupidity of some people, or, (if talent be a more respectable word,) on account of their talent for misconception…”

9. “If you run out of ideas follow the road; you'll get there.”

Bet you didn’t know Poe was a TED speaker in his off-hours, did you?

Thank God for gin.

10. “A woman being never at a loss... the devil always sticks by them.”

This is a genuine quote, but not by Poe. It’s from a letter written by Lord Byron. But hey, who can tell all those dead poets apart, right?

11. “The ninety and nine are with dreams, content, but the hope of the world made new, is the hundredth man who is grimly bent on making those dreams come true.”

This dates from about the 1920s. It's from a poem called “Dreamer and Doer,” written by Ted Olsen. Perhaps the gods know how it came to be associated with Poe, but I sure don’t.

12. “The idea of God, infinity, or spirit stands for the possible attempt at an impossible conception.”

This sentence--which, like #2 above, is often used to prove Poe’s “atheism”--is a misleading paraphrase of a passage from “Eureka”: “Let us begin, then, at once, with that merest of words, ‘Infinity.’ This, like ‘God,’ ‘spirit,’ and some other expressions of which the equivalents exist in all languages, is by no means the expression of an idea, but of an effort at one. It stands for the possible attempt at an impossible conception.”

13. “No one should brave the underworld alone.”

The least this woman can do is give Edgar a share of her royalties.

14. “The pioneers and missionaries of religion have been the real cause of more trouble and war than all other classes of mankind.”

This is another statement put in Poe’s mouth from that lunatic John Alexander Joyce book that spawned quote #2. No one who has any real knowledge of Poe and his work could possibly believe this quote is genuine, but it has caused no end of false assumptions among everyone else.

15. “A million candles have burned themselves out. Still I read on.”

That is supposedly from “The Cask of Amontillado.” (Sometimes, it's simply attributed to "Montresor.") All I can say is, this line is not in the story, or anything Poe or anyone else ever wrote as far as I can tell. This one’s a puzzler.

16. “Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.”

I am trying, and utterly failing, to picture what Poe’s reaction would be if he knew that long after his death, the Internet would make him plagiarize Longfellow.

17. “I do not suffer from insanity, I enjoy every minute of it.”

Good for you, buddy. That's more than I can say right now.

And don’t you notice my glass is empty? Pour another, quick.

18. “Come little children
I'll take thee away, into a land of Enchantment
Come little children the time's come to play
Here in my garden of Shadows
Follow sweet children I'll show thee the way
Through all the pain and the Sorrows
Weep not poor children
For life is this way murdering beauty and Passions
Hush now dear children it must be this way
To weary of life and Deceptions
Rest now my children for soon we'll away
Into the calm and the Quiet
Come little children
I'll take thee away, into a land of Enchantment
Come little children the time's come to play
Here in my garden of Shadows”

No, this song comes from a 1993 movie, “Hocus Pocus.” Yes, there are loads of people out there who think Poe was driveling idiot enough to write it. If this list doesn’t turn me into a falling-down drunk, nothing will.

19. “There is no exquisite beauty… without some strangeness in the proportion.”

You get half-credit for this one.  Poe did use this line several times, most notably in "Ligeia."  However, if you would bother to actually read Poe instead of fishing the Internet for cutesy quotes to post on Tumblr, you would realize that he was quoting Francis Bacon, not providing original words of his own.

20. "I wish I could write as mysterious as a cat."

I don't have the slightest idea in Hell where this ungrammatical little quip originated.  And a Google search for the line returned 177,000 hits.  Sigh.

21. “I remained too much inside my head and ended up losing my mind.”

Stop it. Just, please...stop it.

22. "If a poem hasn’t ripped apart your soul, you haven’t experienced poetry.”

If a bogus Edgar Allan Poe quote hasn't ripped apart your soul, you haven't experienced the internet.

23. "The scariest monsters are the ones that lurk within our souls."

The scariest bogus quotes are the ones that lurk within the internet.  This line was a tweet by someone with the Twitter handle "Edgar_Allan_Poe," but it has nothing to do with the real Edgar.

Well, there you go. I’m sure there are more soul-ripping pseudo-Poe quotations out there, but these are all I’ve encountered to date. If you know of some I’ve missed, or if I’ve accidentally made some errors of attribution myself, I’d appreciate hearing about it.

In the meantime, remember:  Friends don’t let friends misquote Poe.

[Update:  The Poe Museum blog has a few more.  The quotes just keep on comin'!]

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Quote of the Day

Edgar Allan Poe Statue Richmond
“Poe constantly and inevitably produced magic where his greatest contemporaries produced only beauty…Poe’s supremacy in this respect has cost him his reputation. This is a phenomenon which occurs when an artist achieves such perfection as to place himself hors concours

Yet his is the first—almost the only name that the real connoisseur looks for…

…His poems always have the universe as their background…

…In his stories of mystery and imagination Poe created a world-record for the English language: perhaps for all the languages. The story of the Lady Ligeia is not merely one of the wonders of literature: it is unparalleled and unapproached. There is really nothing to be said about it: we others simply take off our hats and let Mr. Poe go first.

Poe’s limitation was his aloofness from the common people…His houses are haunted houses, his woods enchanted woods; and he makes them so real that reality itself cannot sustain the comparison. His kingdom is not of this world…

Above all, Poe is great because he is independent of cheap attractions…His verse sometimes alarms and puzzles the reader by fainting with its own beauty; but the beauty is never the beauty of the flesh. You never say to him as you have to say uneasily to so many modern artists: ‘Yes, my friend, but these are things that men and women should live and not write about. Literature is not a keyhole for people with starved affections to peep through at the banquets of the body.’

It also explains why America does not care much for him, and why he has hardly been mentioned in England these many years. America and England are wallowing in the sensuality which their immense increase of riches has placed within their reach. I do not blame them: sensuality is a very necessary and healthy and educative element in life. Unfortunately, it is ill-distributed, and our reading masses are looking on it and thinking about it and longing for it, and having precarious little holiday treats of it, instead of sharing it temperately and continuously, and ceasing to be preoccupied with it. When the distribution is better adjusted and the preoccupation ceases, there will be a noble reaction in favor of the great writers like Poe, who begin just where the world, the flesh, and the devil leave off.”

-George Bernard Shaw, “Edgar Allan Poe,” “Nation,” January 16, 1909

Although Poe is probably a larger figure in popular consciousness than when Shaw wrote this essay, I fear that in our "Fifty Shades" world, the "better adjusted distribution" and subsequent "noble reaction" he anticipated is more unlikely than ever.

(Image of Edgar Allan Poe statue, Capitol Square, Richmond Va, via Wikipedia.)

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Poet and the Murderer

In October of 1845, the corpse of a prostitute named Maria (or Mary Ann) Bickford was found in her Boston boardinghouse lodgings, her throat gruesomely slashed. Her former lover, a wealthy, married man named Albert J. Tirrell, immediately became the prime suspect. Although he made attempts to flee the country, he was soon arrested and brought back for trial. The circumstantial evidence against him seemed overwhelming, and his own personal character had long been an object of public scandal (one observer noted that he and Bickford had, between them, accounted for “a rather high percentage of moral turpitude.”) However, Tirrell had two very important factors in his favor: A high-powered defense attorney, former U. S. Senator Rufus Choate, and a public who had decided the slain “fallen woman” was a mere Jezebel who brought doom upon herself.

Choate and the rest of Tirrell’s defense team, as all good attorneys do when faced with a seemingly hopeless client, did their best to put the jury into a state of utter discombobulation. First, they argued Bickford had committed suicide, the “natural death of persons of her character.” Then, they tried insinuating someone else in the boardinghouse was the true culprit. Finally, perhaps unable to convince even themselves of those possibilities, they brought on a parade of witnesses ready to testify that Tirrell had long suffered from somnambulism. If Tirrell killed Bickford, Choate declared, it was when he was in this hypnotic-like state, and thus could not be held accountable for the tragedy.

This was good enough for the judge. His instructions to the jury stressed the victim’s dubious character, and suggested that Tirrell’s alleged sleepwalking could be seen as a form of exculpatory insanity. Tirrell was duly acquitted of murder, although he was forced to spend three years in state prison for “adultery and lascivious cohabitation.” Choate, who subsequently became understandably popular with America’s criminal classes, went on to become the Attorney General of Massachusetts, but the Tirrell trial proved to be his real legacy. After his death, he was remembered as the lawyer who “made it safe to murder."

What does this sordid little story have to do with the World of Poe, you ask?

Not long before Bickford’s bloody demise, Tirrell was in New York City, nursing dreams of glory. Although he knew nothing of the publishing business, he wished to launch a periodical of national influence, one that would transform the American literary scene. Who better to help him realize this lofty goal, Tirrell reasoned, than Edgar Allan Poe? He called on the author/editor--this meeting evidently took place sometime during the short life of the “Broadway Journal”--and offered him “exclusive editorship and control” of his planned publication.

Poe has often been unkindly stereotyped as a feckless man with no head for business and little understanding of human nature, but he clearly could read people better than your average Boston juror. He failed to share his would-be colleague’s enthusiasm.

Tirrell’s biographer depicted him as urging the poet to accept his munificent offer, pleading, “The people want knowledge; they thirst for it as the heart [sic] panteth for the water brooks.” ("He seemed to be possessed of a belief that if he brought some doubled sheets of printed paper before the people, and the ladies in particular, an illumination as wonderful as the aurora borealis would be the consequence.")

Poe, after a “cautious and analytical survey of the gentleman,” “propounded divers queries which Tirrell had not the capacity to answer.” Finally, he told his caller, “engagements compel me to decline your generous offers; I have already promised to do more than I can possibly accomplish.” Poe suggested Tirrell bring his proposals to a Silas Estabrook, “a compositor of my acquaintance whose talents are so nearly like your own that he would prove the very person you are seeking.”

Unfortunately, Poe was right in his estimation of Estabrook’s compatibility with Tirrell. The two subsequently collaborated on “The Unexpected Letter: A Truthful Journal of News and Miscellany,” which proved an immediate disaster. The enormous, wildly ambitious initial costs of the venture, coupled with Tirrell’s chronic "rattle-headedness," sank the publication before it even began. (Estabrook, who saw himself as the dupe of his unconventional business partner, found consolation by publishing a tell-all booklet about Tirrell's crimes that included the anecdote above.) Tirrell and Poe apparently never met again while achieving, in their very different ways, memorable places in history.

Researcher Harry Koopman wrote, “[Tirrell’s] offer may be regarded as a tribute to Poe’s prominence in the literary world.” The encounter can also be regarded as even more eloquent tribute to Poe’s underrated prominence as an escape artist.

(Image via the fascinating early American crime site Murder By Gaslight)