Text: W. Moy Thomas, “Edgar Allan Poe,” The Train, vol. 3, no. 16, April 1857, pp. 193-198


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[page 193:]

EDGAR ALLAN POE.

BY W. MOY THOMAS.

A Letter to the Editor of “THE TRAIN.”

THE poems and tales of Edgar Allan Poe are now so well known to English readers; the story of his life and character has been so often told, in magazine articles and prefaces to reprints of his works, that I purpose here to do nothing more than say a few words upon what has been already said upon this subject. I have, indeed, no new story to tell, or fact to add, to what is written in memoirs long extant and accessible to all; nor am I ashamed to confess that I have little acquaintance with American literature, and that I do not go so far in my admiration of Poe, as the most ardent of his friends. But, from the first day that I heard a rumour of this Transatlantic genius, and of his reputed wild and dissolute life, I have felt some curiosity concerning him; for I fancied that he must, at least, fill a gap in American literary history — a gap, which but for him might perhaps never have been filled. The lettered [page 194:] scamp of the first order (have we not heard it a hundred times?) will leave few bones or imprints of himself in this latest formation of the literary world. He was going out, when the maxims of Poor Richard first came to us as a token of the future respectability of the literature of His Majesty King George’s Plantations in America. I am not aware that any American city has, or ever had, a Grub Street. Of the Otways and Savages, the Gildons, the Chattertons, the Smarts and Dermodys, America had, I presume, no knowledge, save what we sent her, until at length this native name arose, outdarkening all that had been yet recorded. Presuming this to be so, I had, as I have said, some curiosity to know more about this strange anachronism in literary history. Knowing as I did, how tenderly modern biography deals with the departed, I was curious, I say, to learn what honest tongue had dared to tell these unpalatable truths. It would not be difficult for me to put in a foot-note to this sentence some names of men of genius, who even of these better days, even of this last stratum of literary life, owe something of their respectable fame to the indulgent pen of the biographer, the critic, or the literary executor. You know, Sir, that, when little Button the Antiquarian, or poor Tom Grub the Poet is taken from us, it is not the fashion to be hard upon him. We drag no frailities from their dread abode. The reader of the present day, not initiated into that esoteric doctrine which sometimes reveals itself among ourselves by nods, or shrugs, or compassionate ejaculations, must, I fancy miss the wicked men, as the little child missed them in the churchyard. Perhaps some critic, whose great-grandmother is yet in swaddling clothes, may one day rake and pry, as we now rake and pry into the lives of Pope and Swift, and Steele and Young, and Mallet and Boswell, and may glean some few things that we have missed or have not cared to tell. For who among us likes to be called a flunkey, a valet-soul, a miserable puppy, who takes a wanton delight in defiling the illustrious dead? It would be a pitiful, a foolish, and an unprofitable ambition. In fact, our sins lie not on that side. I would rather say, that we are a trifle too large-hearted — have a trifle too much love in public towards our kind. Let me mention the case of Ringlett, that well-known epic poet. It is no secret to me or you that he ran away from Mrs. Ringlett, for Potosi, a year or two ago — that he still lives there, a prosperous gentleman, and that he has never yet dreamed of sending poor Mrs. R. anything, save three small portraits of his own inspired countenance, in lieu of board and clothes, and lodging. Well, if Ringlett were to die to-morrow, should we be found wanting in Christian charity? I should say not. There was, I know, the other day, when the diary of a dead poet was published, a little squabble between editor and critic, in which some things were blurted out before their time; but the indiscreet critic was an old man, and a Tory of another age.

Now, knowing all these things, and many more of the kind, and having upon me, I suppose, the habit and prejudice of these times, it did, I say, fill me with wonderment and curiosity, when I heard what was said of this American Poet. Granting all to be true, — what man, within a few months after his decease, had been brave enough to paint the author of the “Raven” as a liar, a cheat, a libertine, a drunkard, a slanderer, and a coward? He presented himself to my mind, I confess, as a problem [page 195:] no less wonderful than Poe himself. Greater still was my surprise, when I learned that he was the literary executor of the deceased poet, selected by the latter himself, to give the public an account of his warfare upon earth. Surely this was a case of stern devotedness to truth, which could find few parallels in the world’s history. Here is a Christian Clergyman — a Reverend Rufus Griswold — announcing himself as a personal friend of the deceased, intrusted with the task of editing his works, who does his duty with such bitter honesty, as puts the whole race of mealy-mouthed and pliant critics and biographers to shame. For I took it for granted that there was no known enmity between Poe and Griswold — I took it for granted that the biographer’s motives were unquestionable — the facts of his melancholy story too recent and too notorious, to be made the subject of ‘historic doubts.’ Had not Poe himself chosen this man? Were not the poet’s most ecstatic friends all silent? Did not memoir after memoir reproduce, without one doubtful line or softened feature, the original portrait of the Reverend Editor and Executor, till all the world has seen and knows it at first sight? Such indeed were my impressions when I first became interested in the subject. Yet, knowing that Poe’s miserable story rested wholly upon Griswold’s Memoir — that all since him have followed Griswold with the exactness of a Hebrew copyist, trembling at the prophet’s curse upon all who should add or take away one tittle of the text — it did appear to me to be an important and an interesting point, to learn what explanation, if any, Griswold himself had given of the reasons which had determined him to fulfil his painful task. How had he conquered that unwillingness, which the sternest moralist among us might have felt in such a case? — how had he escaped that tender casuistry that might have haunted the best and wisest, to turn them from their purpose? You and I, Sir, have far too much honesty — far too great a reverence for the truth, to flatter the living or the dead; but let us imagine ourselves in Griswold’s place, and let us try to conceive what temptations might have beset us to gloss or to suppress. We might have thought of some persons living, who still perhaps remembered him with sorrow, or with an unreasoning affection — some who, knowing him better, or being more closely allied to him than we were, could think of his failings with more compassion than the world could feel — some, perhaps, to whom the truest story we could tell, would for his sake even cause more pain than all the wrongs that he had done them. We might, with a diffidence at other times foreign to our nature, have mistrusted our own judgment, or suspected ourselves of some secret bias — or have nourished an illogical and superstitious notion that it is possible to do a wrong towards the dead, who cannot answer from their graves. We might have fancied that some stranger was better qualified for this task than we, who had so lately heard his voice or held his hand in ours. We might have thought that time would bring a better judgment, and weakly taken the middle course of silence.

God forbid that I should be in haste to say that Mr. Griswold has done wilful injustice to the memory of Poe; but this matter is too important to humanity to be settled without question. That a man may “love beauty only,” and become a glorious devil, large in heart and brain; that he may attain the highest culture, yet be in daily life the vilest — is a fact of which, if [page 196:] true, few men, I hope, would desire to multiple the proofs. Now it is right that English readers should know, what even American readers appear to have forgotten, that when Mr. Griswold’s Memoir was first published, its assertions were denied by many who had known Poe — that no person corroborated the worst parts of his story — that some went so far as to impugn his motives; and that others, who had known, and had closer relations with the poet, gave accounts differing materially from Griswold’s.

Mrs. George R. Graham, in what the Reverend Biographer calls “a sophomorical and trashy, but widely circulated letter,” denounced the Memoir as “the fancy sketch of a jaundiced vision,” and an immortal infamy;” and Mr. John Neal, a literary name well known on both sides of the Atlantic, asserted that there was a long, intense, and implacable enmity between Poe and Griswold, which disqualified him for the office of biographer.

The particulars of that controversy will be found in the third volume of the collected edition of Poe’s works, published in New York in 1850. They are inserted by Mr. Griswold himself, in his own justification, and I can therefore be guilty of no injustice in quoting and commenting upon them. Mr. Griswold admits that when the news of Poe’s death first reached him, he announced the fact in the Tribune Newspaper in the following terms: — “Edgar Allan Poe is dead. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.”

And again: “Passion in him comprehended many of the worst emotions that 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. * * Irascible, envious, bad enough, but not the worst, for these salient angles were varnished over with a cold repellent cynicism. His passions vented themselves in sneers,” *&c.

He had not then been informed of his appointment to the duty of literary executor; but, “I did not,” he says, “suppose I was debarred from the expression of any feelings or opinions in the case, by the acceptance of this office.”

I think it must be evident to you and all other unbiassed persons, that the tone of these extracts did not indicate any intention to conceal or palliate the errors of the deceased. We trace here no unwillingness to enter on his task of accuser — no regret that the stern duty should have fallen to him. Mr. Griswold admits that he had been long at enmity with Poe; but he shows that a reconciliation had taken place, and points triumphantly to the poet’s wish that he should edit his Remains. But was every spark of that enmity extinguished? Had the biographer examined his own heart, or ever doubted of himself? That there was a time during their quarrel when Poe would have been unwilling to hand himself over to the critical mercies of his future editor, is shewn by the published Letters. The enemies of Poe, unhappily, appear to have been not few. Any one who will turn to his admirable criticism upon Mr. Dickens’s “Barnaby Rudge,” — a paper which drew from Mr. Dickens himself a letter of acknowledgment to the writer — will see that Poe was no common critic. But he had not always such a theme as Barnaby Rudge, and he had little tenderness for the sins of authorship. The more refined productions of his genius were sometimes overwhelmed for awhile, by the [page 197:] deluge of American bookmaking, and he had a natural impatience of literary quackery. He attacked it openly, and with a savage pleasure which made him many foes. Now, the Reverend Rufus Griswold — not without a reverend counterpart on this side of the Atlantic — appears to be an active manufacturer of editions of the poets, and such books, whose style of comment on the poets may be judged from the fine sentences above quoted. I can imagine Poe reading this posthumous sketch of himself from the pen of his Literary Executor: —

“He walked the streets in madness or melancholy, with lips moving in indistinct curses, or with eyes upturned in passionate prayer — never for himself, for he felt, or professed to feel, that he was already damned; but for their happiness, who at the moment were the objects of his idolatry — or with his glances introverted to a heart gnawed with anguish, and with a face shrouded in gloom he would brave the wildest storms, and all night, with drenched garments, and arms beating the winds and rains, would speak as ‘if to spirits,’ “ &c.

I can, I say, imagine Poe reading this, and being stirred with other feelings than those of anger. Mr. Griswold is, I presume, a prosperous man. He tells us that he undertook the task of editing Poe with reluctance, being then engaged in a work, in which “many thousand dollars were invested.” it is possible that Poe, in a bitter mood, may have looked upon his gains with “a cheek paled with gnawing envy.” it is possible that, wounded, as he said, but a report that Griswold had attacked him, he may have said some disagreeable things of the tawdry sentence of his reverend friend. We know only that he commented upon some work of Mr. Griswold in a public lecture, and that he result was open enmity between them. Shortly afterwards, a work of Mr. Griswold’s called the “Prose Writers of America” being in the press, Poe wrote to him, saying: “With your present feelings you can hardly do me justice in any criticism, and I shall be glad if you will simply say after my name, ‘Born 1811; published Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque in 1839; has resided latterly in New York.” A reconciliation ensued, and Poe asked forgiveness for some absurd jokes at his expense in the Lecture: they were based, he said, upon the malignant slander of mischief-maker by profession — upon a false imputation of a “beastly article.” so te quarrel was patched up; but his reverend friend would not allow him any judgment as a critic. Two years after the reconciliation, he declares that Poe’s “chief skill lies in the dissection of sentence.” Four years after their reconciliation, it is evident that he was in the habit of still harping privately upon the ‘Lecture.’ “They lied,” says Poe, in a letter to him, “(if you told —— what he says you told him) upon the subject of my forgotten lecture.” Now I think there was in all this sufficient to give a man who has ever reflected upon the subtlety of human motives, some misgivings as to his qualification for the task which Mr. Griswold did not hesitate to accept. You and I, whose calling has no particular sanctity about it, might have asked ourselves what the world would say, when they found that we had no good thing to tell about our hero. We should not, perhaps, have liked to have begun our task with an anecdote of his childhood, to “explain that morbid self-esteem which characterized the author in after-life.” When we told of his gambling and intemperance at the [page 198:] university, we might not have liked to round off our sentence with an allusion to “other vices,” which we omitted to name. We might have been unwilling to quote an anonymous and exaggerated paragraph accusing him of “a sin that wanted name or precedent[[”]], and of which there should not “remain any resister but that of Hell.” When Poe won the prize for an essay, we might have felt that it might be considered ungenerous to ascribe the fact to his penmanship rather than literary skill; or, in quoting a letter from the poet telling of his own illness, and the illness of his wife — of which, it appears, that she died a few weeks afterwards — we might have shrunk from saying, that “this was written for effect.”

I have little more to say upon this subject. My purpose was merely to call attention to what any one may read for himself, and form his own judgment upon. I felt it just and right to remind English readers, that there are portraits of Poe less repulsive than that one which is best known. That Poe’s errors were many cannot be doubted; they find some excuse in the story of his early training. That in his poverty and vagabondage, in early life, he contracted a fatal habit of intemperance, is admitted by all; but there are traces even in the Memoir of his literary executor of many a struggle to subdue temptation, of long periods when he did his duty bravely; glimpses of him in an orderly and happy home — or watching tenderly and long by the side of a sick wife. His fine culture and acquirements are in themselves the best evidences of many days well spent. There were surely some who saw him to the last with other eyes. The story of the untiring devotedness of her who knew him best — the mother of his wife — is touchingly related by Mr. N. P. Willis in his notice of Poe’s death, which should always be printed with Mr. Griswold’s Memoir. “I have this morning,” she wrote, “heard of the death of my darling Eddie. * * Ask Mr. —— to come, as I must deliver to him a message from my poor Eddie. I need not ask you to notice his death, and to speak well of him — I know you will; but say what an affectionate son he was to me, his poor desolate mother.”

I cannot think of the history of this unhappy lady, without remembering how many such have been, who, by testimony like this, have, in truth, borne witness to little, save their own patient long suffering and inexhaustible forgiveness. Yet, let us not say that this is all; but rather think that, in their deeper sympathy and closer knowledge, some things are visible to them, which are not the less there, because many see them not.


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Notes:

The Train was published in London, price one shilling. It notes itself as “A First-Class Magazine.”

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[S:0 - Train, 1857] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Edgar Allan Poe (W. M. Thomas, 1857)