Wednesday, February 27, 2013

In Which I Realize That This Blog Would Probably Be Greatly Improved By a Few Posts About New Hampshire Glass Blowers

Every so often, Edgar makes the dreadful mistake of Googling himself.

Yes, it's time for yet another peek at some of the internet searches that have led people to my humble little corner of cyberspace:

1. did edgar allan poe and albert einstein ever meet

Edgar Allan Poe: 1809-1849. Albert Einstein: 1879-1955.

2. the tell tale heart: edgar allan poe decide how he wanted to ____ his readers beore [sic] he decided what

Our public education system at work.

3. productive Quotes to think about while at work

You’ll never find them here.

4. 75 fun facts about edgar allan poe

Because what says “fun!” like Edgar Allan Poe?

5. you cant have exqusite [sic] beauty without some weirdness

You can’t write a Poe blog without some of that, either.

6. is it true or false edgar allan poe was son of a nobleman

See what I mean?

7. if you had $50 dollars to spend what would you buy poe

Anything his little heart desired.

8. Could edgar allan poe have sex?

Hey, what kind of joint do you think I'm running here?

9. edgar allan poe syphilis symptoms

Go ask Dr. Tanner about this one.

10. edgar allan poe with first wife

I’d be more curious to know who the second one was.

11. did edgar allan poe live in providence rhode island in 1848?

No.  He just made a few brief visits.  On a related note, you wouldn't believe how many people come to this blog searching for the "Edgar Allan Poe house" in Providence.  I'm not sure if they're thinking of Sarah Helen Whitman's home (which still exists,) or if some idiot of a tour guide has spread the word Poe actually resided in the city.

12. did rosalie mackenzie poe marry

No.  And she didn't live in Providence either.

13. how to draw turkey

Put out some tasty food for turkey. That’ll draw him.

14. edgar allan poe married virginia clemm

Yes, I do believe he did.

15. poe theme recipes

Bon-Bon? The Duc De L'Omelette? Hamabel Lee? The Tell-Tale Heartichoke? Wines and Spirits of the Dead? The Fall of the House of Pies? The Purloined Lettuce? The Angel Food Cake of the Odd?  The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pimento?  Burger King Pest?

I think what I need is a nice nap.  One that lasts three or four years, perhaps.

16. stoddard glass blowers photo

This is the best I can do. We aim to please here at World of Poe.

17. edgar allan poe house in lewistown, pa


18. jon lippard

My guess is he's a glass blower living in Lewistown, PA.  And he's probably excellent at drawing turkeys.

19. did edgar allan poe die on a bench

John Cusack, you've got a hell of a lot to answer for.

20. and in a sieve ill thither sale

Finally, some productive quotes to think about while at work!

21. was virginia clemm murdered

No, but questions like this may wind up being the death of me.

22. was edgar a poe the father of marie louise shew's son henry b.1849

Forget the nap. Can someone just show a little mercy and knock me unconscious with a brick?

Let me--not a moment too soon--end this post by quoting the most horrifying words anyone ever typed into a search engine:

comparing justin bieber to edgar allan poe

Monday, February 25, 2013

Marginalia: Freemasons, Sarah Helen Whitman, a Premature Burial, and How the Heck Did the Raven Cast That Shadow, Anyway?

The following comes from an interview with a painter named John Arnold that appeared in the “Boston Herald” around the time of Poe’s Centenary. It is of some interest because the latter paragraph, at least, is all so much balderdash. From all the available evidence—including the stories Sarah Helen Whitman herself gave out—after their tentative engagement was broken, Poe stalked out of her life for good. They never saw each other again, and their only subsequent contact was an extremely cold, formal letter he wrote her discussing the best ways they could put a public air of dignity over the end of their relationship—a letter she never worked up the nerve to answer. (In truth, rather than asking her to “reconsider her decision,” Poe gave every indication that he felt he was well rid of Mrs. Whitman.) And, of course, Whitman herself once privately admitted that what she felt for Poe was admiration and fascination rather than love.

I am mildly curious if Arnold was simply giving a garbled recollection of Whitman’s reminiscences, or if this is a fairly accurate summary. Her descriptions of her relations with Poe underwent decided shifts and embellishments over the years—especially when she thought she was speaking “off the record”—and this may well be another example. If so, it is just additional evidence the “Seer of Providence” tended to talk through her hat. Or, rather, her ether bottle.
“I became acquainted with Mrs. Whitman in 1868, the year before I painted her portrait. She came to my studio and said she desired that I should paint her portrait. She wanted an original sketch and one differing from that which Thompson had painted. From the hour of that first interview until she died, we were great friends. As our acquaintance grew more confidential, Mrs. Whitman told me a good deal of Poe. She said that they were very much in love with one another, but he was addicted to drink which made her cautious as to completing their alliance. She said that she had implored and then made Poe leave off drinking. This was accomplished by exacting a promise of abstemiousness. For a while I believed and so did Mrs. Whitman that Poe was keeping his word. This illusion was dispelled when one night he came to her home in this city under the influence of liquor.

Mrs. Whitman was deeply shocked by Poe's disregard of the promise he had given her and summarily broke the engagement. Poe was very much affected by her decision. He went immediately to New York, where he wrote to her and asked her to reconsider her decision and permit him to see her. Mrs. Whitman in recalling this momentous incident in her life said to me one evening that Poe pleaded hard and that for a while she did waver, but feeling that it was impossible she could not give her consent for the renewal of their engagement. Deeply as she loved him, she said, she could not give her happiness into the keeping of a man who had so little will power.”

The following column by E. J. Edwards appeared in the “Washington (D.C.) Herald” on December 2, 1913, under the title “Capt. Wagner’s Recollections of Edgar A. Poe."  These “recollections” are the usual vague, generic material found in so many articles about Poe, and I would not bother reprinting them if not for the odd comment in the first paragraph. Although Poe made sly references to Freemasonry in “The Cask of Amontillado,” I do not know of any credible claim that he was affiliated with the Craft, let alone that he was “prominently identified” with the Utica home. (Although this blog gets a startling number of hits from people linking Poe and Masonry.) I have found several contemporary references to Wagner--he was, unsurprisingly, a prominent Freemason. However, I have no other evidence that he even knew Poe.

I find it quite hard to believe Poe had any genuine ties to the Masons, (particularly given his published mockery,) but as this is a unique statement, I just pass it along as a curiosity. (Note: The “lady of Providence” was, of course, Sarah Helen Whitman.)

“I presume that very few persons are now living who ever saw, certainly very few who ever talked with, Edgar A. Poe." said Capt. Frederick C. Wagner to me. "In his day he was a very prominent citizen of New York and was well known to the Masonic fraternity of the United States by his prominent identification with the establishment of the great Masonic home at Utica, N.Y. I am fortunate enough to be able to recall many meetings of Poe and several interesting conversations which I had with him at one time or another,” he went on.

Having said this to me, Capt. Wagner took a wallet of the kind used for carrying small papers or documents from an inner pocket, and opening it, after some searching among the papers, took a half sheet of what used to be styled commercial note paper. He showed me the date. It was in September, 1859. With a delicacy, the reasons for which I afterward appreciated, Capt. Wagner concealed the name of the writer of the communication. I saw it was in a woman's handwriting. The paper was somewhat faded and the ink was beginning to turn. The communication had reference to some business matter, as I saw after I had read the first paragraph of the letter.

"That letter," said Capt. Wagner, "was written to me by a friend of my family, a lady of Providence, RI, who wanted me to execute a business commission for her. It was a lady to whom Edgar A. Poe was once engaged to be married.

"She had great admiration for Poe's genius and for him as a man, but there came a day when she had visible evidence that Poe could not control his appetite, and for that reason the engagement was broken.

"I knew the circumstances at the time. But I did not then know that Poe occasionally yielded to the temptations of indulging in spiritous drink. I was speaking of this to a friend who knew Poe well and who admired him greatly, and he told me that Edgar, as he called Poe, was to be pitied rather than censured. He said that the trouble with Poe was that if he swallowed even a small amount of liquor it instantly affected him--set his brain in a whirl--and that this was due to some physical weakness. He said that Poe's only safety was in absolute abstinence. Frequently when he was thought to be greatly overcome by liquor it was really the case that he had swallowed only a moderate amount of whisky or brandy.

"I never saw Poe when he gave the slightest indication that he was not fully himself. I used occasionally to meet him at some one of the monthly receptions, which were given by the Cary sisters, Alice and Phoebe at their home in Seventeenth Street, New York. If there ever was what the French call a literary salon in New York, these receptions of the Cary sisters could be thus described. We used to see George William Curtis, dignified and yet cordial, frequently the center of a merry group, a very handsome man who had just gained his first reputation as an author. Occasionally Parke Godwin would stroll in, a heavy, thick set man, son-in-law of William Cullen Bryant. There was romantic association with Mr. Godwin, since he was known as a lad to have sat upon the knee of Aaron Burr, and when a young man at Princeton to have met and talked with Burr in the cemetery, where Burr had gone to look at the grave of his father, once president of Princeton. Horace Greeley used to come in, dressed like a gentleman, without any eccentricity of costume, and Anne Stevens [Ann S. Stephens], who then had a great reputation as the author of ‘Fashion and Famine,' a novel which almost vied in popularity with 'Uncle Tom's Cabin.' And sometimes Edgar A. Poe came in, not at all affected in his manner, dreamy and often sad eyed, rejoicing, apparently, in the common tribute that was paid to him even then, because his genius was recognised, although the feeling was that its greater recognition would not come till after his death, which was the fact. My recollections of Edgar Allen [sic] Poe are among the most pleasant of any of those of my young manhood in New York City."

“I don‘t see anything very irrelevant in the last stanza and that Hartford Review man was a fool to think that he could. There might be more ways than one fixed so that the lamplight streaming on the Raven would cast a shadow on the floor within the room.”
-George W. Eveleth, letter to Edgar Allan Poe, June 9, 1846

“What you say about the blundering criticism of ‘the Hartford Review man’ is just. For the purposes of poetry it is quite sufficient that a thing is possible--or at least that the improbability be not offensively glaring. It is true that in several ways, as you say, the lamp might have thrown the bird’s shadow on the floor. My conception was that of the bracket candelabrum affixed against the wall, high up above the door and bust--as is often seen in the English palaces, and even in some of the better houses in New-York.”
-Edgar Allan Poe, letter to George W. Eveleth, December 15, 1846

The question of how, precisely, literature’s most famous Raven managed to maneuver the “lamp-light o’er” to throw “his shadow on the floor,” is one that has puzzled many other readers besides the “Hartford Review” critic. An unknown poet in the “Wichita (KS) Daily Eagle” for May 7, 1899 offered his own solution to the mystery:

How distinctly I remember, late one evening last November,
I was sitting on a barrel that the moonlight gloated o'er;
‘Twas an empty cider barrel and was useful now no more
Worthless, now, forevermore.

As a few lone stars were blinking I betook myself to thinking.
And I thought of that old raven Edgar Poe has told about.
That was quite a high old raven Mr. Poe has told about.
I kept thinking, thinking, thinking, as those stars kept blinking, blinking.
And the more I thought about it I was more and more in doubt
Edgar's logic knocked me out.

And I found no explanation to that curious situation:
Here's the lamp upon the table and the raven on the door,
And the lamplight o'er him streaming threw his shadow on the floor.
Think of where the lamp was sitting and you cannot help admitting
‘Twas an awful crooked shadow to have ever reached the floor.
‘Twas a hump-backed, cross-eyed shadow
If it ever saw the floor.

So I thought a clear solution to that shadow's dire confusion.
And my only strong conclusion was that Edgar had the snakes.
I am sure he had been drinking and he must have had the snakes.
So perhaps the raven sitting on the cornice, never flitting,
With its fiery eyes a-burning into Edgar's bosom's core
Was the whiskey he'd been drinking just before he fell to thinking
Of his lovely lost Lenore.
It was bug-juice, evermore. 
Or perhaps the maiden, deeming such a fellow too demeaning,
Had preferred to share the fortunes of the friends who'd gone before,
And had perished broken-hearted, as fair maids have done before.
Maybe he disgraced and slighted till she felt her life was blighted,
And her lonely soul, benighted, wandered to a fairer shore.
Maybe Edgar's drinking killed her, as it has killed girls before.
It was benzine, evermore.

Get 'most anybody frisky on a quart or two of whisky,
And he'd think he saw some shadows, or some ravens, or some floors,
And the lamps would get befuddled, and the shadows awful muddled,
And he'd see some crazy raven perched on forty-'leven doors.
And he wouldn't know a shutter from a dozen lost Lenores.

It is my profound opinion that if Poe had kept dominion
O'er his brains and o'er his reason, as they used to be of yore
That if he had been less frisky and had guzzled down less whisky
He'd have never seen that raven on the bust above the door.
Very likely that same evening he'd been on a bust before
And got sober--Nevermore.

To end on a considerably more ominous note, the following appeared in Oregon’s “Daily Morning Astoria” on December 19, 1889. I believe that here we have the “How Did Poe Die?” tale to end them all:

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Who Was W.B. Tyler?

Poe often wrote about his fascination with cryptography, most notably in a series of articles published in “Alexander’s Weekly Messenger” and “Graham’s Magazine.” As a result, he was often bombarded with ciphers sent by readers eager to test his puzzle-solving abilities.

Poe published the most curious of these challenges in “Graham’s” in December of 1841. A W.B. Tyler, whom Poe described as “a gentleman whose abilities we very highly respect,” sent in the following letter:


I should perhaps apologise for again intruding a subject upon which you have so ably commented, and which may be supposed by this time to have been almost exhausted; but as I have been greatly interested in the articles upon "Cryptography," which have appeared in your Magazine, I think that you will excuse the present intrusion of a few remarks. With secret writing I have been practically conversant for several years, and I have found, both in correspondence and in the preservation of private memoranda, the frequent benefit of its peculiar virtues. I have thus a record of thoughts, feelings and occurrences, — a history of my mental existence, to which I may turn, and in imagination, retrace former pleasures, and again live through bygone scenes, — secure in the conviction that the magic scroll has a tale for my eye alone. Who has not longed for such a confidante?

Cryptography is, indeed, not only a topic of mere curiosity, but is of general interest, as furnished an excellent exercise for mental discipline, and of high practical importance on various occasions; — to the statesman and the general — to the scholar and the traveller, — and, may I not add "last though not least," to the lover? What can be so delightful amid the trials of absent lovers, as a secret intercourse between them of their hopes and fears, — safe from the prying eyes of some old aunt, or it may be, of a perverse and cruel guardian? — a billet doux that will not betray its mission, even if intercepted, and that can "tell no tales" if lost, or, (which sometimes occurs,) if stolen from its violated depository.

In the solution of the various ciphers which have been submitted to your examination, you have exhibited a power of analytical and synthetical reasoning I have never seen equalled; and the astonishing skill you have displayed — particularly in deciphering the cryptograph of Dr. Charles J. Frailey, will, I think, crown you the king of "secret-readers." But notwithstanding this, I think your opinion that the construction of a real cryptograph is impossible, not sufficiently supported. Those examples which you have published have indeed not been of that character, as you have fully proved. They have, moreover, not been sufficiently accurate, for where the key was a phrase, (and consequently the same character was employed for several letters,) different words would be formed with the same ciphers. The sense could then only be ascertained from the context, and this would amount to a probability — generally of a high degree, I admit — but still not to a positive certainty. Nay, a case might readily be imagined, where the most important word of the communication, and one on which the sense of the whole depended, should have so equivocal a nature, that the person for whose benefit it was intended, would be unable, even with the aid of his key, to discover which of two very different interpretations should be the correct one. If necessary, this can easily be shown; thus, for example, suppose a lady should receive from her affianced, a letter written in ciphers, containing this sentence, "4 5663 967 268 26 3633," and that a and n were represented by the figure 2, — e, m, and r by 3, — i by 4, — l by 5, — o, s, and v by 6, — u by 7, — w by 8, — and y by 9; a moment's inspection will show that the sentence might either be "I love you now as ever," or "I love you now no more." How "positively shocking," to say the least of it; and yet several of the ciphers that you have published have required a greater number of letters to be represented by one character, than any to be found in the example before us. It is evident, then, that this is not a very desirable system, as it would scarcely be more useful than a lock without its key, or with one that did not fit its wards.

I think, however, that there are various methods by which a hieroglyphic might be formed, whose meaning would be perfectly "hidden;" and I shall give one or two examples of what I consider such. A method which I have adopted for my own private use, is one which I am satisfied is of this nature, as it cannot possibly be solved without the assistance of its key, and that key, by which alone it can be unlocked, exists only in my mind; at the same time it is so simple, that with the practice in it which I have had, I now read it, and write it, with as much facility as I can the English character. As I prefer not giving it here, I shall be compelled to have recourse to some other plan that is more complicated. By a CRYPTOGRAPH, I understand — a communication which, though clearly ascertained by means of its proper key, cannot possibly be without it. To most persons, who have not thought much upon the subject, an article written in simple cipher, (by which I mean with each letter uniformly represented by a single distinct character,) would appear to be an impenetrable mystery; and they would doubtless imagine that the more complicated the method of constructing such a cipher, the more insoluble — to use a chemical expression — would be the puzzle, since so much less would be the chance of discovering its key. This very natural conclusion is, however, erroneous, as it is founded on the supposition that possession must first be obtained of the key, in order to unravel the difficulty, — which is not the case. The process of reasoning employed in resolving "secret writing" has not the slightest relation to the form or description of the characters used, but refers simply to their succession, and to a comparison of words in which the same letters occur. By these means any cipher of this nature can be unriddled as experience has fully shown. A very successful method of avoiding detection, would be to apply the simple cipher to words written backwards and continuously. This, I conceive, might be called a perfect cryptograph, since from the want of spaces, and consequently the impossibility of comparing words, it would utterly perplex the person attempting to discover its hidden import, and yet with the help of the key, each letter being known, the words could easily be separated and inverted. I give a short specimen of this style, and would feel much gratified with your opinion of the possibility of reading it.

, † § : ‡ ] [ , ? ‡ ) , [ ¡ ¶ ? , † , ) ¡ , § [ ¶ , : ¶ ! [ .§ ( , † § ¡ || ( ? ? , * * ( ¡ ( [ , ¶ * . [ § ¡ ¶ § ¡ .¶ ] ¿ , † § [
? ( § [ : : ( † [ . ( * ; ( || ( , † § ¡ ‡ [ * .: , ] ! ¶ † || ] ? * ! ¶ † § ¶ || , * ( † ¡ ( , ? ‡ § ( ¡ ¡ ¶ [ ¡ ¶ [ ? ( ,
; § ‡ ‡ ] † § § : ( † [ † [ ¶ ? ‡ ] : .* ¡ ¶ : ( § ? ] ! ¶ † § ‡ ] ; § ? ‡ † ¡ ‡ ¶ ! ( , † § ? ( || * ] [ § ¡ ‘ ¡ , : , , †
§ ) , ? || * ] ? , § § ( ! ¡ ( , .† § † [ ‡ ! ) * ] [ : ? ] ||

Should this not be considered perfect, (though I suspect it would puzzle even the ingenious editor to detect its meaning, ) I shall give another method below, which I can show must be, and if I am successful I think you will do me the justice to admit that " human ingenuity" has contrived "a cipher which human ingenuity cannot resolve." I wish to be distinctly understood; the secret communication above, and the one following, are not intended to show that you have promised more than you can perform. I do not take up the gauntlet. Your challenge, I am happy to testify, has been more than amply redeemed. It is merely with an incidental remark of yours, that I am at present engaged, and my object is to show that however correct it may be generally, — it is not so universally.

Agreeably to a part of my foregoing definition, that cannot be a proper cryptograph, in which a single character is made to represent more than one letter. Let us for a moment see what would be the result if this was reversed, — that is, if more than one cipher were used for a single letter. In case each letter were represented by two different characters, (used alternately or at random, ) it is evident that while the certainty of reading such a composition correctly, by help of the key, would not be at all diminished, the difficulty of its solution without that help, would be vastly increased. This then is an approach to the formation of a secret cipher. If, now, the number of the characters were extended to three or four for each letter, it might be pronounced with tolerable certainty that such a writing would be "secret." Or, to take an extreme case, a communication might be made, in which no two characters would be alike! Here all reasoning would be entirely baffled, as there would evidently be no objects of comparison; and even if half a dozen words were known, they would furnish no clue to the rest. Here, then, is a complete non plus to investigation, and we have arrived at a perfect cryptograph. For, since any given cipher would stand for but one letter in the key, there could be but a single and definite solution; and thus both conditions of my definition are fully satisfied. In the following specimen of this method, I have employed the Roman-capital, small letter, and small capital, with their several inversions, giving me the command of 130 characters, or an average of five to each letter. This is to "make assurance doubly sure," for I am satisfied that were an average of three characters used for each letter, such a writing would be emphatically secret. If you will be so kind as to give my cipher a place in your interesting Magazine, I will immediately forward you its key. Hoping that you will not be displeased with my tedious letter,

I am most respectfully yours,

Underneath Tyler’s communication, Poe included a cordial rebuttal of his correspondent’s views:

"The difficulty attending the cipher by key-phrase, viz: that the same characters may convey various meanings — is a difficulty upon which we commented in our first article upon this topic, and more lately at greater length in a private letter to our friend, F. W. Thomas.

The key-phrase cryptograph is, in fact, altogether inadmissible. The labor requisite for its elucidation, even with the key, would, alone, render it so. Lord Bacon very properly defines three essentials in secret correspondence. It is required, first, that the cipher be such as to elude suspicion of being a cipher; secondly, that its alphabet be so simple of formation as to demand but little time in the construction of an epistle; thirdly, that it shall be absolutely insoluble without the key — we may add, fourthly, that, with the key, it be promptly and certainly decipherable.

Admitting, now, that the ingenious cryptograph proposed by our correspondent be absolutely what he supposes it, impenetrable, it would still, we think, be inadmissible on the first point above stated and more so on the second. But of its impenetrability we are by no means sure, notwithstanding what, at a cursory glance, appears to be the demonstration of the writer. In the key-phrase cipher an arbitrary character is sometimes made to represent five, six, seven, or even more letters. Our correspondent proposes merely to reverse the operation: — and this simple statement of the case will do more towards convincing him of his error than an elaborate argument, for which he would neither have time, nor our readers patience. In a key-phrase cryptograph, equally as in his own, each discovery is independent, not necessarily affording any clue to farther discovery. Neither is the idea of our friend, although highly ingenious, philosophical, and unquestionably original with him, (since he so assures us,) original in itself. It is one of the many systems tried by Dr. Wallis and found wanting. Perhaps no good cipher was ever invented which its originator did not conceive insoluble; yet, so far, no impenetrable cryptograph has been discovered. Our correspondent will be the less startled at this, our assertion, when he bears in mind that he who has been termed the ‘wisest of mankind’ — we mean Lord Verulam — was as confident of the absolute insolubility of his own mode as our present cryptographist is of his. What he said upon the subject in his De Augmentis was, at the day of its publication, considered unanswerable. Yet his cipher has been repeatedly unriddled. We may say, in addition, that the nearest approach to perfection in this matter, is the chiffre quarre of the French Academy. This consists of a table somewhat in the form of our ordinary multiplication tables, from which the secret to be conveyed is so written that no letter is ever represented twice by the same character. Out of a thousand individuals nine hundred and ninety-nine would at once pronounce this mode inscrutable. It is yet susceptible, under peculiar circumstances, of prompt and certain solution.

Mr. T. will have still less confidence in his hastily adopted opinions on this topic when we assure him, from personal experience, that what he says in regard to writing backwards and continuously without intervals between the words — is all wrong. So far from ‘utterly perplexing the decipherer,’ it gives him no difficulty, legitimately so called — merely taxing to some extent his patience. We refer him to the files of ‘Alexander's Weekly Messenger,’ for 1839 — where he will see that we read numerous ciphers of the class described, even when very ingenious additional difficulties were interposed. We say, in brief, that we should have little trouble in reading the one now proposed.

‘Here,’ says our friend, referring to another point, ‘all reasoning would be entirely baffled, as there would evidently be no objects of comparison.’ This sentence assures us that he is laboring under much error in his conception of cipher solutions. Comparison is a vast aid unquestionably; but not an absolute essential in the elucidation of these mysteries.

We need not say, however, that this object is an excessively wide one. Our friend will forgive us for not entering into details which would lead us — God knows whither. The ratiocination actually passing through the mind in the solution of even a single cryptograph, if detailed step by step, would fill a large volume. Our time is much occupied, and notwithstanding the limits originally placed to our cartel, we have found ourselves overwhelmed with communications on this subject, and must close it, perforce — deeply interesting as we find it. To this resolution we had arrived last month; but the calm and truly ingenious reasoning of our correspondent has induced us to say these few words more. We print his cipher — with no promise to attempt its solution ourselves — much as we feel inclined to make the promise — and to keep it. Some of our hundred thousand readers will, no doubt, take up the gauntlet thrown down; and our pages shall be open for any communication on the subject, which shall not tax our own abilities or time.”

So far as is known, Poe’s readers failed to “take up the gauntlet,” and the ciphers remained unsolved and forgotten until 1985, when Professor Louis Renza theorized that “W.B. Tyler” was really Poe himself, a suggestion based largely on the rather weak evidence that Renza had been unable to find documentation that Tyler actually existed. This claim was then championed by Shawn Rosenheim in his book “Cryptographic Imagination.” Rosenheim felt that Tyler’s letter was too similar to Poe’s own beliefs to be a mere coincidence, and he noted Poe’s known habit of anonymously publishing writings to and about himself. He also pointed out that Poe acknowledged that some of his readers suspected him of “writing ciphers to ourselves,” which Rosenheim chose to think was an indirect confession.

The hunt for “W.B. Tyler” was on. In 1992, Terence Whalen solved the first of Tyler’s ciphers, which was eventually found to be a quote from Joseph Addison’s 1713 play “Cato.” Rosenheim then established the “E.A. Poe Cryptographic Challenge,” offering a prize of $2500 to the first person to solve the second cipher. Despite this lure, the puzzle was not solved for six years, when a Canadian software engineer named Gil Broza finally submitted a correct decryption. (Broza also discovered that one of the reasons for the difficulty with solving the cipher was the fact that it had numerous mistakes made either by the typesetter or the encipherer himself.) The resulting text proved to still be something of a puzzle (errors in original):

“It was early spring, warm and sultry glowed the afternoon. The very breezes seemed to share the delicious langour of universal nature, are laden the various and mingled perfumes of the rose and the essaerne, the woodbine and its wildflower. They slowly wafted their fragrant offering to the open window where sat the lovers. The ardent sun shoot fell upon her blushing face and its gentle beauty was more like the creation of romance or the fair inspiration of a dream than the actual reality on earth. Tenderly her lover gazed upon her as the clusterous ringlets were edged by amorous and sportive zephyrs and when he perceived the rude intrusion of the sunlight he sprang to draw the curtain but softly she stayed him. ‘No, no, dear Charles,’ she softly said, ‘much rather you’ld I have a little sun than no air at all.’”

Rosenheim agreed that Poe did not actually compose this text (it is a variation of a popular punning joke—sun/son, air/heir—that made the rounds during the era,) but he maintained that the poet was the cipher’s author. He cited not only his belief that “its themes…are absolutely typical of Poe’s writing,” but Poe’s oddly discouraging comments about the Tyler ciphers. In 1842 he advised a reader named Richard Bolton to not even attempt to solve the codes “for the reason that it is merely type in pi or something near it. Being absent from the office for a short time, I did not see a proof, and the compositors have made a complete medley. It has not even a remote resemblance to the MS.” Rosenheim saw Poe’s efforts to exaggerate the errors in the ciphers as evidence of his authorship—although it is difficult to understand why Poe would wish others to ignore a puzzle he himself had created.

Considering Poe’s well-known predilection for hoaxes and multiple literary identities, the circumstantial evidence for his authorship of these ciphers has been considered compelling enough for many researchers to assume he was “W.B. Tyler.” (This presumption has inspired numerous hilariously overblown efforts to interpret these ciphered quotations as Poe’s “secret autobiography”—excellent examples of the fevered lengths scholars will go to in order to try and gain insights about the man.)

There are, however, some difficulties with the “hoax” theory. Author and professor Steven Rachman (who had originally endorsed Renza’s conclusions) discovered several contemporary poems by “W.B. Tyler”—evidently sappy verses that could hardly be considered as Poe’s work--in “Graham’s” and “Alexander’s Weekly Messenger.” I myself have found several nineteenth-century poems by a William Bartlett Tyler (whose name is sometimes also given as “W.B. Tyler.”) These poems are admittedly much later in date than the ones Rachman found, so this could be a different Tyler. However, it seems stretching coincidence to have two different American sentimental poets in that era with the same name.

Some have asked why Poe would spend his valuable time creating a fake persona in order to encrypt two utterly meaningless quotations that he never even bothered to decipher. Also, Poe already knew he was suspected of inventing all the ciphers he had solved, and his pride was clearly offended at the idea he had debased himself by mere “gaggery, or more deliberately speaking, of humbug.” As John A. Hodgson, a researcher who became increasingly unconvinced Poe was Tyler, wrote: “[Poe] was entirely capable of such tricks, but he had his standards.” Hodgson gave further evidence of Poe’s sincerity in the matter:  “Among the ciphers submitted to Poe at Alexander’s was the one from a G.W. Kulp…that Poe nevertheless ‘demonstrated to be an imposition—that is to say, we fully proved it a jargon of random characters, having no meaning whatever.’ In his rigorous and even elegant proof of the cipher’s incoherence, Poe offered the fullest glimpse of his deciphering method that he would provide prior to ‘The Gold-Bug.’ Some 135 years later, however, a professor and student in a cryptology class reexamined Kulp’s cipher, found it worth pursuing, and were able to decode it with the help of some computer programs. Kulp, it seems, had indeed submitted ‘a genuine article’; but he had not been ciphering in entire good faith. Poe had clearly offered to solve simple (monoalphabetic) substitution ciphers, and had analyzed Kulp’s as such; but Kulp had in fact sent instead ‘a polyalphabetic substitution cipher working with 12 alphabets keyed by the [twelve letters of the] words ‘United States.’ Kulp’s imperfectly good faith as a cipherer, now revealed, antithetically demonstrates Poe’s genuinely good faith as a decipherer.”

Having said all that, there is still something very peculiar about the Tyler letter that suggests it contains a mystery that we do not realize even exists. The tone of the letter, as well as Poe’s strangely complimentary, but dismissive response, all gives off a certain sense of mockery towards the readers, of Poe enjoying a little private joke at our expense.

In short, is it possible that these trivial cipher messages were “red herrings,” distracting us from the fact that the important “coded message” is somehow embodied in the Tyler letter itself? Could that have been Poe’s real hoax?

We’ll probably never know. And that was very possibly Poe’s intention.

Monday, February 18, 2013

A Glimpse of Poe's Schooldays

The following appeared in the “(Troy) Kansas Chief” for Feb 19, 1880. It originally ran in the “Baltimore Bulletin” at a date unknown to me. Although Joseph H. Clarke shared a couple of other reminiscences of his most famous pupil that have often been quoted in Poe biographies, this interview, so far as I know, remains obscure. As I like to think of this blog as the place where weird old bits of Poeana go to die, I decided to post it.

Few Poe reminiscences are trustworthy, but those discussing his youth are probably the most uncertain and contradictory of the lot. This is not surprising—they were all given many years after the fact, and deal with a period when few had any reason to take particular note of the boy. Recorded memories of Poe’s childhood fall into one of two categories: Deliberately embellished, if not outright fabricated accounts designed to tell a good story rather than good history, or sincerely vague, poorly-remembered anecdotes.

Clarke falls into the latter category. He appears to have been an honest man, but unfortunately, no one thought to ask him about Poe until his old age, when he was, as this reporter stated with rather excessive frankness, “mentally feeble.” There are a couple of obvious whoppers in this interview—for instance, we know very few people attended Poe's funeral, and as a result the minister kept his remarks very short--but it is still of some interest, and I believe that, at least, Clarke gave his information as accurately as he could. That is certainly more than one can say about a good many people who talked about Poe.

His Venerable Teacher Still Living in Baltimore—Interesting Reminiscences of the Poet

One of The Bulletin’s staff, a day or two ago, had the good fortune to have an interview with the venerable Joseph H. Clarke, now 89 years old, who was the preceptor of the poet, Edgar Allan Poe. In Eugene L. Didier's memoirs of Edgar Allan Poe, the following occurs: "On Mr. and Mrs. Allan's return from their two years' visit to England, Mr. Allan placed Poe in the academy of Prof. Joseph H. Clarke, of Trinity College, Dublin, who kept an English classical school at Richmond, from 1810 to 1825."

He greeted The Bulletin representative cordially, but it was plain to see that the aged man, although physically as many a man of thirty years his junior, had grown mentally feeble under the weight of many years. When the old gentleman was seated, the reporter explained that he wanted any reminiscences of Poe that he could give.

"Edgar, Edgar," said the old man, rising, with a far-away look, as memories of old times flitted through his mind. "Why, he was a born poet. One day Mr. Allan came to me and said: 'Mr. Clarke, I have heard much about your school and as Edgar shows a decided aptness for classics, I have decided to place him under your care.' This was about 1820 or ‘21, and Edgar entered my school. He became one of my most distinguished scholars. He and Nat. Howard were in the same class. Nat. was as good, if not better, than Edgar in the classics, but Nat. couldn't write poetry like Edgar could. Edgar was a poet in every sense of the word. One summer, at the end of the session, Nat. and Edgar both wrote me a complimentary letter. Nat's was written in Latin, after Horace, but Edgar's was written in poetry. I came to Baltimore that summer, and I showed those letters to Rev. Mr. Damphoux. of St. Mary's College, and what do you think he said ? “Mr. Clarke, those compositions would do honor and credit to the best educated professor in my college.' Oh, yes, Edgar was a poet, and he wasn't over twelve or fourteen when he wrote that letter to me."

"Did you keep it? have you it now?" the reporter asked, eagerly.

“No, no," the old gentleman answered sadly; “I returned it to Edgar. One day, after I had come to Baltimore from Richmond, Edgar came to visit me. I told him about the letters, and Edgar rose and said, with such a strange, yearning look in his eyes: 'You couldn't do Nat. Howard and me a greater favor than to return us those letters. I think Nat. would like to have his, and I am sure I would give worlds to have mine.'  I gave them to him.”

"Then you have no memento of Poe?”

The old man sadly answered, "No, sir; that's one thing I always regretted, not having kept some of Edgar's notes or poems. But then, you know, I couldn't tell at that time that Edgar would ever be a great man."

"Wasn't Poe a very handsome boy, Professor?”

"Well, he had very pretty eyes and hair, and rather an effeminate face, but I don't think he was a beautiful boy. He had a very sweet disposition. He was always cheerful, brimful of mirth, and a very great favorite with his schoolmates. I never had occasion to say a harsh word to him while he was in my school, much less to make him do penance."

"Did he study very hard?"

"No; he was not remarkable for his application. He was naturally very smart, and he always knew his lessons. He had a great deal of pride."

"Did you ever see Mary [sic] Poe, Edgar's little sister?”

"Yes; she was adopted by Mr. McKenzie when Mr. Allan took Edgar."

"Was she pretty?"

"Well, really, I can't remember very well, but I think she was a very sweet and interesting child."

"You saw Poe, after you left Richmond, of course?"

"Yes; when he came to Baltimore, and stopped at the tavern, he would never forget to come and see me."

"Do you believe that your pupil was a habitual drunkard?”

"That I can't tell. I think he was fond of wine, and I know that I always opened a bottle for him when he came to see me; but then it was the custom of the age, you know, to drink wine at that time. Then, when Edgar became editor of Graham's Magazine, he sent it to me regularly, gratis."

"Was he affectionate to you, Professor?"

"Yes, indeed; I think the boy and man loved me dearly, and I am sure I loved him."

"When was the last time you saw him?"

"When he was laid away to rest, in 1849. I went to his funeral. A large number of persons were present, and, I remember, the minister who officiated dwelt long on the great man's virtues. Yes," he concluded, "Edgar, as a boy, was a dear, open-hearted, cheerful, and good boy, and as a man, he was a loving and affectionate friend to me."

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Gift For Dr. Griswold

On this date last year, I prepared a little birthday tribute to the remarkable Rufus Wilmot Griswold. The experience inspired me to start a campaign to have the anniversary of his birth given its proper place among history’s memorable events. For instance, with the sinking of the Titanic. Or the Great Lisbon Earthquake.  Or the sack of Rome by the Visigoths. Or the outbreak of the Black Plague.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present World of Poe’s second annual salute to the Reverend Doctor:

“Griswold, having now assumed the mantle of a true villain…”
-Website for the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore

“[T]hat very peculiar fancy-piece called a ‘Memoir.’”
-George W. Eveleth extolling Griswold’s talents as a biographer in the “Old Guard,” June 1866

“[Griswold] was one of the most irritable and vindictive men I ever met…”
-Charles Godfrey Leland, one of the Reverend’s closest friends

“Dr. Griswold’s biography of my Eddie is one atrocious lie.”
-Poe’s aunt/mother-in-law Maria Clemm

"[A] gentleman of the highest culture, a contemporary of Griswold, now living in New York, speaks of him as one of those characters in whom the habit of lying had come to be in such a degree a second nature, as to be excusable on the ground of the falsifier’s personal irresponsibility for what was not always a conscious act.”
-William F. Gill

"Almost as devious as they came in this era of deviousness."
-Literary scholar Perry Miller

"If Marie Bonaparte had to find necrophilism in connection with her study of Poe, it seems a pity she did not investigate Griswold, who, upon at least one occasion [after the death of his first wife,] came very close to it indeed."
-Poe biographer Edward Wagenknecht

“’[Poe] doesn’t think I’m a great man,’ quoth Rumpus.”
-George Lippard writing of “Rev. Rumpus Grizzel” in "The Spermaceti Papers," “Citizen-Soldier,” July 26, 1843

“I never see him that I do not think of the school-book description of the ‘Reptile’ in the ‘Animal Kingdom’--that is: a creature, ‘with lungs, a single heart, cold blood, a brain and a cartilaginous skeleton.’ Of course Griswold has a brain. He fancies it is the brain of the American continent, and he has had address enough to induce some of the more affluent book-publishers (more’s the pity!) to agree with him. And that he has but one heart, like a serpent and a fish, is evident from his conduct towards Poe, who, with all his faults, was truly a great man, and had a soul that was, beyond dispute, a splinter fractured from the diamond of the Infinite--and not the less a brilliant because, like other brilliants, it had its flaws and imperfections. . . . Griswold disliked Poe. Everybody knew that. But, when Poe, who equally disliked Griswold, died, and in a fit of magnanimity made the latter his literary executor, it was the infallibility of contemptible meanness, on the part of Griswold, to use the advantages of his position to carry out before the world his petty, personal enmity.”
-Anonymous writer in the “Philadelphia Sunday Dispatch,” September 15, 1850

“[T]his gentleman-the literary executor--I had well nigh said executioner--of Edgar A. Poe, before he had stiffened in his winding sheet, I should have supposed him, though honest enough perhaps, when he had no temptation to be otherwise, and rather willing to tell the truth, if he knew how, and it was likely to pay, yet wholly unfitted for the solemn duty he had undertaken so rashly; because, in my judgment, wholly incapable of understanding or appreciating Poe-dead or alive-and by no means of a temper to forget that he had ever been out-generalled or out-blazed, or not listened to by such a man as Poe, and therefore not likely to do him justice after death, when he would have no longer anything to fear from the poet’s ‘glittering eye’, and searching words.”
-John Neal, “Daily Advertiser,” April 26, 1850

“Have you seen Griswold’s Book of Poetry? It is a most outrageous humbug, and I sincerely wish you would ‘use it up.’”
-Edgar Allan Poe, letter to Joseph Snodgrass, June 4, 1842

“The pedagogue vampire.”
-Charles Baudelaire

“[T]he slanderous and malicious miscreant who composed the aforesaid biography…Edgar A. Poe was infinitely his superior, both in the moral and in the intellectual scale.”
-Lambert A. Wilmer

“…[Griswold’s] favorite pastime of forgery.”
-Arthur H. Quinn

“Rufus Griswold (a gentleman, grim by name, who makes so repulsive a figure in literary history, that he might well have been coined in the morbid fancy of his victim.)”
-Robert Louis Stevenson, “Academy,” January 2, 1875

“I have not a particle of ill feeling toward Mr. Griswold, in truth it seems to me that he ought to be incapable of creating strong feelings of any kind; his want of truth, justice and dignity seems to be an infirmity rather than a vice.”
-Ann S. Stephens, letter to Lydia H. Sigourney, April 27, 1843

“By the way, if you have not seen Mr. Griswold’s ‘American Series of the Curiosities of Literature,’ then look at it, for God’s sake--or for mine. I wish you to say, upon your word of honor, whether it is, or is not, per se, the greatest of all the Curiosities of Literature, or whether it is as great a curiosity as the compiler himself.”
-Edgar Allan Poe, “Doings of Gotham,” “Columbia Spy,” June 29, 1844

“But stay, here comes Tityrus Griswold and leads on
The flocks whom he first plucks alive, and then feeds on,--
A loud-cackling swarm, in whose feather's warm-drest,
He goes for as perfect a--swan as the rest.”
-James Russell Lowell, “A Fable For Critics”

“Stupidity's true mouthpiece, however, was one Rufus Griswold, who easily outgilfillaned the smug Gilfillan himself. This vessel of wrath had been the poet's friend, and (strange to tell) Poe, by appointing him his literary executor, was unconsciously guilty of posthumous suicide. Griswold was not one to lose an illegitimate occasion. Poe died on October 8, 1849. October 9.  Griswold's infamy was in type. Hate and malice scream in every line of this monumental hypocrisy. Here speaks, through the mouth of Griswold, the hungry middle-class, which hated poetry and loathed the solitary dignity of Poe. The poet's character, said this literary Pecksniff, was ‘shrewd and naturally unamiable.’ He recognised no 'moral susceptibilities '; he knew ‘little or nothing of the true point of honour.’ His one desire was to ‘succeed--not shine, not serve--succeed, that he might have the right to despise a world which galled his self-conceit.’ And so magnificently did he 'succeed,' so vilely did he sacrifice his art to prosperity, that America, which kept Griswold in affluence, condemned the author of ‘William Wilson’ to starvation and neglect!

But Griswold's purple patch must be given in its true colour. In these terms did our moralist describe the friend, laid but a few hours since in the grave: ‘Passions, in him, comprehended many of the worst emotions which militate against human happiness. You could not contradict him but you raised quick choler; you could not speak of wealth but his cheek paled with gnawing envy. The astonishing natural advantages of this poor boy—his beauty, his readiness, the daring spirit that breathed around him like a fiery atmosphere—had raised his constitutional self-confidence into an arrogance that turned his very claims to admiration into prejudices against him. Irascible, envious—bad enough, but not the worst, for these salient angles were all varnished over with a cold, repellent cynicism; his passions vented themselves in sneers.’ Those there are who assert that Griswold's outrage upon truth and taste was a revenge, deliberately taken upon Poe's hostile criticism. But there is no need to spy out a motive for so simple a crime. Griswold spoke not for himself, but for his world. Genius is repellent to those who know it not; gaiety is a crime in the eyes of unhappier men who fear not the disease. The envious morality of hypocrites, in whose veins vinegar flows for blood, rises superior to all the obligations of taste and friendship. No doubt the infamous Rufus laid down his pen that day with infinite content; no doubt he adjusted his spectacles over the Tribune next morning with a more than usual placidity. Thus he, who would not allow a poet the license of displeasure, gives an easy rein to his own denunciation. Nor does the poor devil divine the incongruity. Poe's ‘harsh experience,’ he says in a tone of grievance, ‘had deprived him of all faith in man or woman.’

Of course it had: Poe had known Griswold.”
-Charles Whibley, “Studies in Frankness”

“The probing of the personal history of Rufus W. Griswold is like stirring up a jar of sulphuretted hydrogen--it exhales nothing but foul and loathsome odors.”
-William F. Gill

“We have often asked those whose course of light reading was more extensive than our own, to tell us what Rufus W. Griswold, the self-constituted critic among the poets of his country, had written; but no one could name a piece of his composition of the length of a brad awl.

Judge, then, of our surprise, upon opening the Magazine of the intellectual and indefatigable Graham for June, to find Rufus W. Griswold’s Addled Egg--and such an egg!--no wonder the press cackled when such a pullet laid. It would have caused the muses to forsake Helicon in the days of Grecian glory, and made Homer himself forget his rhapsodies, and open his blind old eyes to behold it…the greatest poet of America--the Rev. Rufus W. Griswold, L.L.D. and A.S.S.”
-Jesse Dow giving Griswold’s poetry the respect it deserves in the “Index,” June 2, 1842

“Mr. Rufus W. Griswold is wholly unfit, either by intellect or character, to occupy the editorial chair of Graham’s Magazine.”
-An anonymous writer who may (or may not) have been Poe, “New World,” March 11, 1843

“Did any one read such nonsense? We never did, and shall hereafter eschew everything that bears Rufus Wilmot Griswold’s name...if ever such a thing as literary ruin existed, or exists, nine-tenths of the Poets (!) of America are ruined forever by the praise of Mr. Griswold!”
-Henry B. Hirst's anonymously published review of Griswold's "Poets and Poetry of America," "Philadelphia Saturday Museum," January 28, 1843

Happy birthday, Rumpus!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Poe Hits the Lecture Circuit

Even fans of Poe’s writings are often unaware that for the last six years of his life, he was also a successful lecturer. Unfortunately, the still-fragmentary documentation we have of his life means that some of the details of his speaking career are incomplete, relying mostly on whatever contemporary newspaper reports have been uncovered by scholars. We can usually only estimate how much he was paid for his lectures, and with the exception of “The Poetic Principle,” which was published shortly after his death, and “The Universe,” which became the basis for “Eureka,” we do not have full texts of his performances. It is also possible that he did additional lectures for which we have no surviving record. We know, however, that he was a popular and effective speaker, and it is somewhat mysterious that he did not, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, make more of what would have been a relatively easy and fast way to raise cash.

Poe’s first known stage appearance took place at Philadelphia’s William Wirt Institute on November 21, 1843. Ticket prices were $1 for “a gentleman and two ladies” to attend the Institute’s entire season of lectures, 25 cents for the same to attend one evening, and 12 ½ cents to admit a single person.

The local papers had given Poe’s talk on “American Poetry” an enthusiastic buildup. George Lippard in the “Citizen Soldier” promised attendees would be given “a refined intellectual repast,” and the “Philadelphia Inquirer” predicted a “large and intellectual audience.” Poe was indeed greeted by an overflow crowd, with “hundreds” being turned away at the gate. His debut proved popular with the critics, as well. The “Saturday Courier” reported it was “a very learned critique, marked by the severity of illustration for which the author is so ably known.” The “Saturday Museum” noted that Poe’s poetic talents, his “great analytical power,” and “command of language and strength of voice” gave him “qualities which are rarely associated in a public speaker.” They added that despite his “occasional severity,” “the lecture gave general satisfaction.” Lippard went even further, declaring that “it was agreed by all” that Poe’s lecture “was second to none, if not superior to all lectures ever delivered before the Wirt Institute.”

Poe repeated his lecture in Wilmington, Delaware, one week later, with tickets at the same prices as at the Wirt Institute. A local correspondent described his talk as “Good, but rather severe.”

He delivered an encore performance in Delaware on December 23, at the Newark Academy, a preparatory school for boys. On January 2, 1844, the “Delaware State Journal” published a review of this lecture written by “Academicus.” This critic’s identity is unknown, but he may have been the Academy’s principal,William S. Graham. In any case, it is one of the most detailed and interesting accounts we have of any of Poe’s lectures.

“Academicus” recorded that Poe began by denouncing “the system of puffery” so common in the publications of the day. “Editors of newspapers building up large Libraries for which they pay by wholesale and indiscriminate puffs of works whose title pages they have hardly had time to copy--Authors reviewing and praising their own writings, or securing the bespoke praises of a friend--booksellers and publishers promoting the sale of their goods by measures equally corrupt, all received their full share of severe rebuke…While on the subject of criticism our Lecturer was especially witty and sarcastic in reference to a peculiar style of reviewing not unknown in New England, ‘yclept the ‘Transcendental.’ The wonderful involutions and dislocations by which good English words were made to wrap up the fancies of their mis-users until the little sense that was intended was forever buried like the Roman nymph…”

Poe used that as an introduction to his analysis of current anthologies of American poetry, culminating with Rufus W. Griswold’s “Poets and Poetry of America,” which was “handled by the critical Lecturer in not the most gentle manner.” In essence, Poe said Griswold’s reliance on his personal favoritism caused “a miserable want of judgment.”

After discussing individually some of the prominent poets of the time, Poe concluded with “a highly philosophical and eloquent discourse on the true end and province of poetry,” which was probably a precursor to his themes in “The Poetic Principle.”

“Academicus” concluded by calling Poe’s visit “one of the most interesting and instructive lectures I have ever had the pleasure of hearing,” and expressed hopes that the speaker could be persuaded to return to Newark.

On January 10, Poe repeated his lecture (which was described as “one of the most brilliant and successful of the season,” and “A literary treat of no common kind,”) in the Philadelphia Museum. He commanded a higher ticket price this time around, with single tickets going for 25 cents, while “a gentleman and two ladies” cost 50.

On January 31, Poe brought his lecture to Baltimore’s Odd Fellows Hall. The “Sun” predicted “The name of the lecturer, the subject of the lecture, and the well known adaptation of the talents of the one to the material of the other, form a combination of attractions which will irresistibly result in a crowded audience—and our word for it a delighted one.” Three days later, Joseph Snodgrass in the “Saturday Visiter” admitted his talk was “very entertaining,” but disagreed with Poe’s view that “the inculcation of truth is not the highest aim of poetry.”

Poe’s next stop was Reading, Pennsylvania’s Mechanics’ Institute, on March 12. We are told he “was greeted by a large and highly respectable audience, and they testified their approbation of the lecture by repeated bursts of applause.”

So far as we know, Poe did not lecture again until early 1845. On February 28, he spoke about “The Poets and Poetry of America” (evidently an updated version of his previous talk,) in New York’s Society Library. Nathaniel Willis’ “Evening Mirror” predicted “those who would witness fine carving will probably be there.” In the “Morning News,” Evert Duyckinck noted the success of Poe’s earlier lectures, and commented that his New York appearance “will differ from anything he has ever done before, if it do[es] not prove novel, ingenious, and a capital antidote to dullness.”

An audience of “some three hundred” came out to see Poe, who was, thanks to the newly-published “The Raven,” at the height of his fame. He was dismissive of Lucretia and Margaret Davidson, two “sentimental poetesses” whose death in girlhood had given them what Poe saw as a largely undeserved vogue. He called Griswold’s poetry anthology the best of the current collections, (although he was clearly damning with faint praise,) then judiciously, and, on the whole, kindly, evaluated the currently fashionable poets, repeated his denunciations of “puffery,” (particularly when it came to “the Dunderheaded critics of Boston,”) and accused Longfellow of plagiarism.

New York Society Library Edgar Allan Poe

The reviews were largely favorable. Horace Greeley’s “Daily Tribune” called it “a remarkable Lecture,” with “much acute and fearless criticism.” However, Greeley deprecated some of Poe’s harsher denunciations, and did not think much of his elocution. (“Mr. Poe writes better than he reads.”) His most severe rebukes, however, went to the people of New York City. He was “rather ashamed” that a city of four hundred thousand could not summon up a larger audience for “a critic of genius and established reputation.” Willis reported that Poe’s audience listened “with breathless attention.” Onstage, he wrote, Poe “becomes a desk--his beautiful head showing like a statuary embodiment of Discrimination; his accent drops like a knife through water, and his style is so much purer and clearer than the pulpit commonly gets or requires, that the effect of what he says, besides other things, pampers the ear.” The “New York Herald” felt Poe was overly harsh on American poets, particularly the most popular ones. When quoting the female poets, they complained, for every good passage he cited “what he deemed ten bad ones,” and the male writers were treated with even more disdain. On the whole, it “was the severest piece of criticism that has come within our recollection for some time….certainly, if we are to judge from what he advanced on this occasion, and take him at his own valuation, he is the only man in the country that is able to write a poem, or form a proper judgment of the writings of others.” The critic for the Boston “Daily Atlas” was not in attendance, but took umbrage at Poe’s reported slights of Sprague and Longfellow. “If he was to come before a Boston audience with such stuff, they would poh him at once.”

The editor of the Boston “Evening Transcript” responded to Poe’s contempt for that city’s literati with a rhyming sneer:
“There lies, by Death’s relentless blow,
A would-be critic here below;
His name was Poe
His life was woe:
You ask,’What of this Mister Poe?’
Why nothing of him that I know;
But echo, answering, saith—‘Poh.’"
Poe was scheduled to return to the Society Library on April 17, but “in consequence of the inclemency of the weather,” the lecture was cancelled.

His next stage appearance is one of the most notorious—and misunderstood—episodes of his entire literary career. Early in the fall of 1845, he accepted an invitation to read an original poem at the Boston Lyceum on October 16. As I have already analyzed the entire complicated episode here and here, I will only repeat that it is, to say the least, debatable whether or not his recital of “Al Aaraaf” before a “densely crowded” audience was truly the unmitigated disaster of modern-day opinion.

The next two years were famously difficult ones for Poe. Virginia’s increasingly failing health, ending with her death early in 1847, combined with Poe’s own physical and emotional debility, probably accounts for the fact that he made no further lecture appearances until early in 1848. On February 3 of that year, he delivered “The Universe” at New York’s Society Library, with a ticket price of 50 cents. His aim was not merely to air his metaphysical theories, but to raise money for his cherished magazine project, “The Stylus.” Unfortunately, the weather was extremely stormy, keeping the audience down to about sixty people. The small band who braved the rain and wind to hear his nearly three-hour talk were rewarded with a memorable night. A spectator later marveled that “I have seen no portrait of Poe that does justice to his pale, delicate, intellectual face and magnificent eyes. His lecture was a rhapsody of the most intense brilliancy. He appeared inspired, and his inspiration affected the scant audience almost painfully.” Another member of the audience said Poe’s “brilliant effort was greeted with warm applause by the audience, who had listened with enchanted attention throughout.” The other reviews were, on the whole, equally positive. Even those who found Poe’s philosophy unconvincing or unintelligible acknowledged his remarkable persuasive powers. The main dissenter was Evert Duyckinck. In contrast to the other observers, he groused that Poe’s lecture was “full of a ludicrous dryness of scientific phrase…Why it drove people from the room…”

Can’t please everyone.

Poe’s next public appearance came about through the intervention of Mrs. Jane Ermina Locke, a regrettably unhinged admirer who had recently managed to shoehorn herself into his life. In the summer of 1848, she arranged to have him speak in her city of Lowell, Massachusetts. On July 10, he lectured at Lowell’s Wentworth’s Hall on “The Poets and Poetry of America.” Annie Richmond’s sister Sarah Heywood Trumbull said many years later that Poe’s lecture “fascinated” her. “Everything was rendered with pure intonation and perfect enunciation…he almost sang the more musical versifications.” It was evidently, as the “Lowell Advertiser” said, “no every-day affair.” He was apparently invited to repeat his lecture in October, but the event never materialized. According to Sarah Helen Whitman, this was due to local excitement surrounding the upcoming Presidential election.

On December 20, Poe delivered his talk on “The Poetic Principle” at the Franklin Lyceum in Providence, Rhode Island. His ever-growing reputation as both author and speaker drew what was considered a huge and enthusiastic crowd of about 1800-2000 people. (It was later said to be the Lyceum’s largest audience of the season.)

Poe’s final speaking engagements began in Richmond, Virginia, in the summer of 1849, where he repeated his successful “The Poetic Principle.” He appeared at the Exchange Concert Room on August 17, with tickets selling for 25 cents. It was another critical and popular triumph. Poe himself wrote Maria Clemm that “I never was received with so much enthusiasm.”

Exchange Hotel Richmond Virginia Edgar Allan Poe

One of the attendees, novelist John Esten Cooke, recalled how Poe’s “wonderfully clear and musical voice speedily brought the audience under its spell. Those who heard this strange voice once, never afterwards forgot it.” Cooke objected to the “sing-song” manner in which Poe recited poems, although he admitted the “exquisite” readings “resembled music.” The Richmond “Daily Republican” called the “clearness and melody of his voice” and elocution “soul-inspiring.” The “Richmond Whig” praised his “strong, manly sense.” In the “Semi-Weekly Examiner,” editor John M. Daniel enjoyed Poe’s critical remarks, but found his manner of reciting poetry ineffective. After making some disparaging remarks about Poe’s writings as a whole, he added, somewhat contradictorily, that “Had Mr. Poe possessed talent in the place of genius, he might have been a popular and money making author. He would have written a great many more good things than he has; but his title to immortality would not and could not be surer than it is.”

On September 14, he brought “The Poetic Principle” to nearby Norfolk, with tickets at the Academy’s Lecture Room going for 50 cents. The audience was smaller than in the more metropolitan Richmond, but equally adoring. The “Daily Southern Argus” called the lecture “Chaste and classic in its style of composition—smooth and graceful in its delivery, it had the happiest effect upon the fashionable audience, who manifested their appreciation by the profoundest attention.”

Poe closed his lecturing career by repeating “The Poetic Principle” at Richmond’s Exchange Hotel on September 24. It was reported that the spectators were not quite as numerous as before, but there was still “a large, attentive, and appreciative audience.” Twenty-five years later, Edward Valentine recorded the impression this lecture made on his brother William, who had been in the audience. He said “There was little variation and much sadness in the intonations of his voice—yet this very sadness was so completely in harmony with his history as to excite on the part of this community a deep interest in him both as a lecturer and reader.”

Two weeks later, Poe was dead.

It is clear that Poe was a unique and talented lecturer, but, as I noted earlier, judging the financial side is more difficult, particularly as it is usually unrecorded whether he was paid a flat fee or a percentage of the box office. Poe scholar John Ward Ostrom calculated Poe’s proceeds, but they seem to be largely educated guesses. Ostrom estimated Poe’s 1843 lectures netted him about $100, with his three 1844 engagements earning a total of $75. His February 1845 talk perhaps earned $25. The Boston Lyceum appearance possibly earned the same sum, or it may have been double that. His lecture on “The Universe,” may have earned him only about $10, due to the bad weather keeping attendance down. Ostrom estimated his July 1848 trip to Lowell paid $20, and his Providence sojourn $50. Ostrom believed Poe cleared about $75 from his Richmond/Norfolk tours.

These sums seem small to us, but compared to earnings from his published writings, it was good money for two hours or so at a podium. (And it is possible these are low estimates. Bishop O. P. Fitzgerald, an eyewitness to Poe's final visit to Richmond, stated the poet's final lecture netted him $1500. Although this is uncorroborated and generally disbelieved, it suggests Poe's lectures could conceivably have been more profitable than we think.) As I said at the beginning of this post, it is a bit curious that Poe did not further exploit his evidently remarkable stage presence.

But then, Poe always had his own agenda.

(Images of the Society Library and Exchange Hotel via NYPL Digital Gallery.)