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:

1 comment:

  1. FYI, the poem about the Raven's shadow is entitled "Poe's Raven." It is attributed to Joseph Bert Smiley in "Local and National Poets of America" (pub. 1890) and is also included in a collection of original poems and parodies pubished by Smiley in 1886 called "Meditations of Samwell Wilkins" (also on google books).