Text: Anonymous, “Poe’s Wonderful Interpreter,” New York Sun, August 1879


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POE’S WONDERFUL INTERPRETER.

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The Old Richmond Negro whom the Poet Taught to Recite His Lines.

TO THE EDITOR OF THE SUN — Sir: “Do you see that fine-looking old negro coming down the street, with blue coat and brass buttons, and a slight limp in his gait?” said my friend W —— , as we were walking up Main street, Richmond.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Well, sir, that was formerly the body-servant of Edgar Allen [[John Allan]], the gentleman who adopted Poe. We take great pleasure in the old darkey here, andhardly a week passes that he does not assist at some private entertainment. Though he can neither read nor write, his memory serves him, and almost all the poetry Poe taught him he retains, and the delivers it well. You must know him.”

By this time we had approached, and my friend introduced James Stirling. A fine specimen of a negro he was — tall, well-shaped, and but little bowed, though seventy winters had frosted his hair, and “tried to twist his joints,” he said. He was on his way to Zion Church, where he was deacon and trustee, and was a little late.

“But I want to introduce you to my New York friend, who is a great admirer of Massa. Poe’s poetry,” said W ——. That was enough to deter the old fellow, and without any seeming pride, but all affection, he removed his hat the second time, and stood the rest of the interview uncovered. We talked long enough for me to get his promise of an afternoon conference at Wallace’s Tobacco Warehouse, where he was night watchman.

My thoughts all sermon time were of the negro and the treat in store for me; and I learned from him afterward that more of the spirit of Poe than of God possessed him through his morning service.

Two o’clock found me before the long, low warehouse, and soon the limping step of the negro sounded but a little way off. He came wiping his brow, heated more by the excitement that the occasion promised than by the weather. A quick recognition and a hasty entrance and we were alone. He seated me on a rather dilapidated stool in the second loft, and there began his tale of the poet’s life. The incidents were of the common sort, of childish scrapes, outbreaks of temper, gambling, debauchery, and the end in Baltimore, the sight of which, “thank God, he (Stirling) had been spared!”

These were of no interest to me, for they were out of all reason, and were unlicensed, inasmuch as Poe had had bright example and kindliest discipline. But when the old negro came to reciting Poe’s lines, he threw so much fervor into them that I felt the poet’s spirit, and remained entranced and delighted. What a voice, and what control! The telling of “Annabel Lee” was made more pitiful than you can imagine; and so were many other of the shorter poems. But “The Bells” went beyond all my idea of human power. “‘Massa Poe’ had told him there was no use trying to make sleigh bells, but had made him stop and listen to all fire and funeral bells.” And well had he studied them, and what a delight it must have been for Poe to hear him imitate then, making them near or distant. With poor acoustics, still he made that old loft ring out his pleasure, his fear, or his grief, as the poet had taught him to feel and to express them — until with dying measure and echo he pronounced, “To the moaning and groaning of the bells!” and burst into tears.

The “Raven” was given in a mood of revery, until the first response of the bird, then joculary, then with great seriousness, and, finally, exasperated to madness, the interpreter threw the box, that had served him as a seat and rostrum, at the imaginary bird, and fell prostrate. His voice in the last lines weakened to a husky whisper, and his eyes wandered with the “Civil Death.,” and can only instance im as an approach to that negro’s abject terror and surrender.

Two nights afterward I slept in the poet’s room in the old Man street mansion, where conclusively to my mind we started the thoughts that produced “The Raven” and “The Bells.” The room had an oriole window and deep door casings, and the furniture was old-fashioned and heavy. The stuffed raven was there “above the door;” the bust of Pallas was missing. As soon as I saw the bird in position I grasped the whole situation, and could imagine the poet watching, as he lay with his hands under his head (as was his habit), the moving curtains, the flickering candle light, and the shadows. Until long past midnight I busied myself in changing the raven’s position, trying to get his shadow on the floor, and I succeeded. Satisfied with that, I tried to sleep, but ‘twas no use, every sound was magnified, and the fire bell was my only relief.

I remember that Poe, in answering certain malicious articles as to the conception of the “Raven,” wrote that it was simply a mechanical effort, and that the last stanza was written first. I was convinced of the partial untruth of that statement. A stronger nerved man than Poe would have treated differently sound and shadow, and I could imagine him scared beyond sleep and giving his fancy rein, while the bird and the fire bell were simply the motives.

What became of the negro?

We buried him in 1866, and James T. Brady, Kate Bateman, and myself paid the expenses.


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Notes:

The present article survives as a clipping in the Ingram Collection, item #758.

The language in this article from more than a century ago is, to our modern sensibilities, very racially insensitive. It is hoped that readers who find offense in the terms used will overlook such issues as a necessary artifact of an item of historical interest. The apparent claim that Poe’s poem “The Raven” was inspired from a childhood memory of a stuffed raven in his room in Richmond seems little more than romantic fantasy.

Kate Bateman may have been the 19th century actress (1843-1917), and James T. Brady a lawyer from New York (1815-1869). It may be presumed that the names were of sufficiently prominent people that they warranted direct mention by the author.

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[S:0 - NYSUN, 1879] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Poe's Wonderful Interpreter (Anonymous, 1879)