Text: John Sartain, “Reminiscences of Edgar Allan Poe,” Lippincott’s, vol. XLIII, no. 3, March 1889, 43:411-415


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­[page 411:]

REMINISCENCES OF EDGAR ALLAN POE.

I HAVE been favored with the perusal of advance-sheets of an article on Edgar Allan Poe to appear in Lippincott’s Magazine for January, and written by my esteemed friend R. H. Stoddard. In it there is a passage relating to Poe’s poem of “The Bells” that may be construed in a way very damaging to the poet’s honesty, although of course the writer never meant that. But things written in such an off hand touch-and-go sort of way are apt to be misunderstood, and I desire to correct a false impression that I think is produced by words used concerning the poem referred to. The article says that “The Bells” was sold three times before it ever appeared in Sartain’s Magazine or Godey’s Lady’s Book. (In Godey’s of course it never appeared, because the poem was our property.)

It came from Poe in three distinct forms, and at different intervals of time, and, as each of the last two was a great improvement on the preceding, it was but fair that the author should receive additional compensation each time. So, although it is true that it was thrice paid for before it was published, it was so in a sense quite other than that implied, or that I think is implied, in the Lippincott article.

In its first original form the poem was the merest trifle, compared with its after expansion and development of thought. The whole was in eighteen lines, and ran thus:

THE BELLS. — A SONG.

The bells! — hear the bells!

The merry wedding bells!

The little silver bells!

How fairy-like a melody there swells

From the silver tinkling cells

Of the bells, bells, bells!

Of the bells!

 

The bells! — ah, the bells!

The heavy iron bells!

Hear the tolling of the bells!

Hear the knells!

How horrible a monody there floats

From their throats —

From their deep-toned throats!

How I shudder at the notes

From the melancholy throats

Of the bells, bells, bells —

Of the bells!

Now, it is interesting to compare these lines with the opening stanza of the finished work as we published it in the November number of Sartain’s Magazine for 1849. How different they are! ­[page 412:]

Hear the sledges with the bells —

Silver bells!

What a world of merriment their melody foretells!

How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,

In the icy air of night!

While the stars that oversprinkle

All the heavens, seem to twinkle

With a crystalline delight;

Keeping time, time, time,

In a sort of Runic rhyme,

To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells

From the bells, bells, bells, bells,

Bells, bells, bells —

From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

In its complete form the poem contains one hundred and thirteen lines. Very soon after its publication it was extensively copied, and many believed it was Poe’s last work, but that was an error. We thought we had his very last, as it was received from him so short a time before his death, and in the December number announced that “Annabel Lee” should appear in January. But by some agency or other it appeared elsewhere before our time, first in the New York Tribune, I believe. We printed it as promised, all the same, not because we had bought and paid for it, but because our copy differed in several places from those already published.

I first met Mr. Poe in 1840, on the occasion of William E. Burton, the actor, parting with his Gentleman’s Magazine to George R. Graham. Burton had been too much occupied with his professional duties as a member of the stock-company at the old Chestnut Street Theatre, above Sixth Street, to have time enough left for editing his periodical unaided, and Edgar Allan Poe rendered him the needed intelligent assistance. Burton sold his subscription-list to Graham because, having quarrelled with Maywood, the lessee of the theatre, he determined to build one of his own in a spirit of rivalry, which he accomplished on Chestnut Street on part of the ground now occupied by the Continental Hotel. This brought Charlotte Cushman, Peter Richings, and other New York performers to Philadelphia for the first time. This enterprise demanded a concentration of all his mind and means, and with so much requiring his attention it would have been impossible for him to continue his Gentleman’s Magazine.

Graham obtained the list of Atkinson’s Casket, and also that of a New York monthly, that I think was called the Atlantic. It was conducted by Dr. Robert M. Bird, from one of whose drawings of the entrance to the Mammoth Cave I engraved a plate for it. The united lists of all three amounted to but five thousand five hundred. This I know for certain, because Mr. Graham had engaged me to engrave a plate a month for his projected magazine and also furnished the impressions. By the end of the first year, however, it had augmented to twenty-five thousand. The service rendered by Poe to Burton was now transferred to Graham as co-editor. Besides various literary work, he contributed both prose and poetry. Of his complete stories the first ­[page 413:] in order of time was “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and the second “A Descent into the Maelstrom.”

The last time I saw Mr. Poe was in 1849, and then under such peculiar and fearful conditions that it can never fade from my memory. Early one Monday afternoon he suddenly made his appearance in my engraving-room, looking pale and haggard and with a wild expression in his eyes. I did not let him see that I noticed it, and, shaking his hand warmly, invited him to be seated, when he began: “Mr. Sartain, I have come to you for protection and a refuge. It will be difficult for you to believe what I have to tell, — that such things could be in this nineteenth century. It is necessary that I remain concealed for a time. Can I stay here with you?” “Certainly,” said I, — “as long as you like: you will be perfectly safe here.” He thanked me, and then went into an explanation of what was the matter. He said that he was on his way to New York, when he overheard some men who sat a few seats back of him plotting how they would kill him and throw him from the platform of the car. He said they spoke so low that it would have been impossible for him to hear and understand the meaning of their words, had it not been that his sense of hearing was so wonderfully acute. They did not guess that he had heard them, as he sat so quiet and suppressed all indications of having heard the plot. He watched an opportunity to give them the slip at Bordentown, and when the train arrived at that station he stepped to the platform and kept out of sight till the train had moved on again. He had returned to Philadelphia by the first return conveyance, and had hurried to me for shelter.

I assured him that he was perfectly welcome, but that it was my belief that the whole thing was the creation of his fancy, for what interest could these people have in taking his life, and at such risk to themselves? He said, “It was for revenge.” “Revenge for what?” said I. He answered, “Well, a woman trouble.”

I placed him comfortably, and then went on with my work, which was in a burry. Occasionally conversation between us, and I observed a singular change in the current of his thoughts. He had rushed in on me in terror for his life, in fear that he might be killed, and now I perceived that he had drifted round to the idea that it would be good to kill himself. After a long silence, he said suddenly, “If this moustache of mine were removed I should not be so readily recognized. Will you lend me a razor, that I may shave it off?”’ I told him that, as I never shaved, I had no razor, but if he wanted it removed I could do that for him almost as close, with scissors. Accordingly, I took him to the bath-room and performed the operation successfully.

After tea, it being now dark, he prepared to go out, and on my asking him where he was going, he said, “To the Schuylkill.” I told him I would go too, to which he offered no objection. His shoes were worn down a good deal on the outer side of the heels, and he complained that his feet were chafed in consequence, and hurt him, so I gave him slippers to wear, as I had no second pair of shoes that would serve. When we had reached the corner of Ninth and Chestnut Streets we waited there for an omnibus, and among the things he said was that he ­[page 414:] wished I would see to it that after his death the painting Osgood had made of him should go to his mother (meaning Mrs. Clemm). I promised that as far as I could control it that should be done. We entered an omnibus and rode to its stopping-place, a tavern on the north side of Callowhill Street, on the bend it takes towards the northwest to reach the Fairmount bridge. At this place there was light enough, chiefly from what shone out through the door of the tavern, but beyond was darkness, and forward into the darkness we went.

I kept on his left side, and on nearly approaching the bridge I guided him off to the right by a gentle pressure until we reached the foot of the lofty flight of steep wooden steps that ascended almost to the top of the reservoir. Here was the first landing, and with seats, so we sat down. All this time I had contrived to keep him in conversation, which never ceased except while we were on our way up that breakneck flight of stairs. I had reckoned on the moon’s rising, but it did not: I had forgotten that each evening it rose so much later. There we sat at that dizzy height in perfect darkness, for clouds hid the stars, and I hoping for the moon which came not.

Here he related to me his late experiences, or what he believed to be such, and the succession of images that his imagination created he described in a calm, deliberate, measured voice as facts, that were as wild and fantastic as anything I have met with in his writings. He said he was in Moyamensing Prison, and through the grated window of his cell he could see the battlemented stone tower, and on the topmost point of the coping stood a young female figure, so radiant, either in herself or in her surrounding atmosphere, that the light on the wall of his room was crossed by the shadows thrown from the window-bars. From this remote position she addressed him in words not loud, but clear, and spoken slowly. Not a word failed to reach his ear, because of his astonishing faculty of hearing. It was necessary that he should bear every question she put and make apt response, or the consequences would be fatal to him. He repeated the words she spoke, imitating the tone and manner. I was profoundly impressed, but I cannot recall the words in my memory now. It’s forty years since.

This ordeal safely passed, another was in store for him. He was asked if he would not like to take a stroll around the place, he might see something interesting, and he agreed. In course of their rounds they arrived at a spot where there was a great caldron of boiling spirits. He was asked if he would not like to take a drink. He declined. “If,” said he, “I had said yes, do you guess what they would have done? I should have been lifted by the hair of my head and dipped into the hot liquid up to my lip, like Tantalus.” “Yes,” I exclaimed, “but that would have killed you.” “Of course it would,” said be; “that’s what they wanted, and why they tried to catch me; but you see I escaped the snare. At last, in order to torture me, they brought out Mrs. Clemm and compelled me to have my sight blasted and my heart grieved by seeing them first saw off her feet, then her legs at the knee, her thighs at the hips, and so destroy her piecemeal, all to torture me.”

These are examples of the kind of talk I listened to up there in the darkness; but, as everything has an end, so had this, and we descended ­[page 415:] the steep stairway slowly and cautiously, holding well on to the hand-rails. By still keeping him talking I got him back to an omnibus that waited for passengers at the tavern door, and when exactly abreast of the step I pressed against him and he raised his foot to it, but instantly, recollecting himself, he drew back, when I gently pushed him, saying, “Go on,” and, having got him seated with myself beside him, said, “You were saying so and so,” and he responded by continuing the subject he had been speaking on. I took him safe home to Sansom Street, gave him a bed on the sofa in the dining-room, and slept alongside him on three chairs, without undressing.

On the second morning he appeared to have become so much like his old self that I trusted him to go out alone. Regular meals and rest had had a good effect; but his mind was not yet free from the nightmare. After an hour or two he returned, and then he told me that he had arrived at the conclusion that what I said was true, that the whole thing had been a delusion and a scare created out of his own excited imagination. He said that his mind began to clear as he lay on the grass, his face buried in it, and his nostrils inhaling its sweet fragrance mingled with the odor of the earth; that the words he had heard kept running through his mind, but somehow he tried in vain to connect them with who spoke them, and thus his thoughts gradually awakened into rational order and he saw that he came out of a dream.

I had asked him how he came to be in Moyamensing Prison, and he said he had been suspected of trying to pass a fifty-dollar counterfeit note; but the truth is it was for what takes so many there for a few hours only, the drop too much. When his turn came in the group before Mayor Gilpin, it was remarked, “Why, this is Poe the poet,” and he was dismissed without the customary fine.

Being now all right again, he was ready to go to New York. He borrowed what was needful, and departed. I never saw him more.

John Sartain.


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Notes:

Althouhg Sartain believed that Poe was headed to Nw York, and thus would have been on his return from Richmond, most biographers believe that Poe visited with Sartain on his trip from New York to Richmond.

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[S:1 - LM, 1889] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Reminiscences of Edgar Allan Poe (J. Sartain, 1889)