Text: Thomas Dunn English, “Reminiscences of Poe [Part 04],” Independent (New York), November 5, 1896, vol. XLVIII (whole no. 2501), pp. 4-5


[page 1480, column 2, continued:]

Reminiscences of Poe.



THERE is something to be said in palliation of Poe’s intemperance in drink. His natural sensitiveness, his excessive love of approbation, his domestic afflictions, and his constant struggle with poverty, were causes which sometimes might have driven him to drink. He himself urges that one of these things, his wife’s serious illness, was the cause; but he had been guilty of these excesses at Richmond and elsewhere when his wife was in perfect health. I think that poverty and the recklessness it sometimes engenders had more to do with this defect. Drunkenness, undoubtedly, is very frequently the cause of poverty, but poverty sometimes leads to drunkenness. Poe never received one-half what he deserved for the best of his productions, and his masterpiece, “The Raven,” only brought him thirty dollars, when any of our leading magazines of the present day, were it offered now for the first time, would consider it cheap at a hundred. It must be considered, however, that the prices paid at that time for literary work of excellence were not one-half, and scarcely one-quarter of that given now for productions of merit. The taste of our people has enlarged with it. On the other hand the cost of living then was much less than now.

But while his occasional lapses from sobriety may be readily excused, his constant mendacity and deceit are capable of only one explanation. The intellectual faculties of Poe overbalanced all the rest, and the animal faculties dwarfed the moral. A reference to [column 3:] some of his acts will show that he had little sense of right and wrong whenever need or resentment provoked him, and could no more be held responsible for many things that he did, than could a lunatic or an idiot. His audacity in asserting that I had borrowed money from him from time to time when he, poor fellow, rarely received five hundred dollars a year for his work, and I, especially at the time he lays his charge, was in receipt of a large salary and perquisites from official sources, when all our common acquaintances knew the facts, shows that he was perfectly reckless in his statements — a recklessness only excusable on the ground of moral idiocy. Two instances selected out of others are quite enough, as in these he himself furnishes the evidence.

One of these was his obtaining under a false pretense, through Griswold, a sum of money from the publishers of the latter’s book, “The Poets and Poetry of America.” One day in Philadelphia Poe met me, and said: “I have a good joke on Griswold”; and then proceeded to detail it. “I told him,” said he, “that I thought he had made a capital book of his ‘Poets and Poetry of America,’ and I’d like to write a favorable review of it; but I was pressed for money, and couldn’t afford the time. He bit at the bait like a hungry gudgeon, and told me to write the notice, and as his publishers could use it he would pay for them my price. So I wrote, and handed it to him, and he paid me.”

“Well?” I asked; for I saw nothing in that but one of the tricks of the trade.

“I knew he wouldn’t read it until he got home,” continued Poe; “but I should like to have seen his face when he did.”

“Wasn’t it favorable, then?”

“Favorable? Yes, to the amateur in scalping. I abused the book and ridiculed him, and gave him the most severe using up he ever had or ever will have, I fancy. I don’t think he’ll send that to his publishers; and I’m quite sure they wouldn’t print it if he did.”

“It is a good joke — of its kind,” was my answer. “You did not keep the money?”

“Keep it? No, indeed; I spent it at once.”

In a letter written to F. W. Thomas in 1842 (vide Woodberry’s book, page 175) he says of this transaction:

“About two months since we were talking of the book when I said I thought of reviewing it in full for the Democratic Review, but found my design anticipated by an article from that ass O’sullivan, and that I knew no other work in which a notice would be readily admissible. Griswold said, in reply: ‘You need not trouble yourself about the publication of the review should you decide on writing it, for I will attend to all that. I will get it in some reputable work and look to it for the usual pay, in the meantime handing you whatever the charge would be.’ This, you see, was an ingenious insinuation of a bribe to puff his book. I accepted his offer forthwith, and wrote the review, handed it to him, and received from him the compensation, he never daring to look over the manuscript in my presence, and taking for granted it was all right. But the review has not yet appeared, and I am doubtful if it ever will. I wrote it precisely as I would have written under ordinary circumstances, and be sure there was no predominance of praise.”

He evidently had not the slightest notion that he had been doing a dishonorable thing, even according to to his later version of the matter.

The Boston affair shows his lack of moral perception in a yet stronger light. He came to my room one day in the autumn — if my memory serve me right it was in October — looking so haggard and with such lack of his customary neatness, that I saw he had been on a drinking bout, and taxed him with it. He admitted the truth of the charge, averring that he would never be guilty of it again, but said he was in sore straits. He told me that he had been invited to deliver an original poem in Boston, for which he was to be paid, and had not written a line of it. I advised him to write and postpone the matter on the ground that circumstances had prevented him from carrying out the contract, and go to work to complete his task. He replied that he wanted the money; and when I told him he couldn’t expect it until he earned it, said he had thought of a plan, and so went off. The next thing I heard was through the Boston papers that he had delivered an old printed poem instead of the one expected, and that he had let out the fact afterward over some wine. Lest there be some doubt as to the facts, I give Poe’s own statement, extracted from an article in The Broadway Journal of November 1st, 1845, as follows:

“Still, with their vile ingratitude staring us in the eyes, it could scarcely be supposed that we would put ourselves to the trouble of composing for the Bostonians [page 5, column 1:] anything in the shape of an original poem. We did not. We had a poem (of about five hundred lines) lying by us — one quite as good as new — one, at all events, that we considered would answer sufficiently well for an audience of Transcendentalists. That we gave them; it was the best that we had for the price, and it did answer remarkably well. Its name was not ‘The Messenger Star’ — who but Miss Walters would ever think of so delicious a little bit of invention as that? We had no name for it at all. The poem is what is occasionally called a ‘juvenile poem,’ but the fact is it is anything but juvenile now, for we wrote it, printed it and published it before we had fairly completed our tenth year. We read it verbatim from a copy now in our possession, and which we shall be happy to show at any moment to any of our inquisitive friends.

“We do not ourselves think the poem a remarkably good one; it is not sufficiently transcendental. Still, it did well enough for the Boston audience, who evinced characteristic discrimination in understanding, and especially applauding, all those knotty passages which we ourselves have not yet been able to understand. As regards the anger of the Boston Times and one or two other absurdities — as regards, we say, the wrath of Achilles, we incurred it, or rather its manifestation, by letting some of our cat out of the bag a few hours sooner than we had intended. Over a bottle of champagne that night we confessed to Messrs. Cushing, Whipple, Field and a few other natives — who swear not altogether by the frogpond — we confessed, we say, the soft impeachment of the hoax.”

A similar instance was his engagement before that time to deliver a poem before a New York society at a certain date. In this case a fit of intoxication lasting some time prevented him from fulfilling his engagement. I think in this, however, he did not receive money in advance for neglected work.

Another instance of this same lack of a sense of right and wrong, of which I was the victim, might be given; but enough has been written to show that Poe, from the defects in his moral constitution, must be relieved of responsibility for many of his crooked actions. As a poet, Poe stands, in the narrow line which he voluntarily chose, and to which his genius was particularly fitted, facile princeps among his contemporaries. In his “Coliseum,” and one or two earlier minor pieces, he showed power in a path which he abandoned. As a prose writer, he entered a gloomy and morbid line, and showed masterly skill in developing the darker shades of human motive and action. While he strongly enough showed some appreciation of such poems as the “Florence Vane” of Phillip Pendelton [[Pendleton]] Cook, and the “Old” of Ralph Hoyt, he had no love for productions in general that arouse the tender feelings or elevate the heart of humanity. His dislike of Longfellow’s work was possibly prompted by jealousy; but his distaste of Burns was because of the strong contrast between the latter and himself. He carried this so far as to assert in one of his criticisms that Burns had written nothing which any magazine of the time would accept. That might have been true then, but is not true now. If “Tam o’ Shanter” and the “Cotter’s Saturday Night” were offered in manuscript for the first time at the present day, no editor of a leading magazine would suffer either to leave the office. Burns wrote for all humankind. He had pathos, tenderness and a love for his fellow-men. His humor was without malice, and his wit without venom. Poe wrote for a few. His work was in the fantastic, the weird and the terrible; and he had no sympathy with human beings. His malice was without humor, and his venom without wit.

Of the, domestic life of Poe, which while in Philadelphia I had ample opportunity of observing, I have nothing to say. I was a guest. But I never visited his house while in New York, and, except on one or two occasions, never called on him in that city. He visited me frequently at my room, however, as I have before stated. I would gladly have whitened his memory if it had been possible; and as it was not would have given him the charity of silence. The attacks of his injudicious friends upon me have forced me to this partial exposition of his life; but I have suppressed much, because I did not consider any more was necessary for my own vindication. Had I not been assailed, Gill and the rest of them might have made an apotheosis of mendacity, meanness and ingratitude without any remonstrance from me.

Since writing the above, I submitted the manuscript to Mr. Lane, in order to be sure that I had given accurately these facts, especially in regard to the closing of The Broadway Journal, with which that gentleman was familiar. The manuscript was returned, with the following note, which I submit to the reader:[column 2:]

ELIZABETH, N. J., July 23d, 1896.

My dear English: — I have carefully read the paper you handed me, relative to your troubles with Mr. Edgar A. Poe, or rather with his biographers and critics, as well as with himself. With a positive knowledge of much which it contains, and floating memories of other portions, I do not hesitate to indorse it as correct, and, under the circumstances surrounding the case, quite gentle in tone.

For a long time, and especially during our combined New York experiences, you had the capacity of being a perfect irritant to Mr. Poe, especially when the poet was lost in the inebriate. When entirely himself, and free from the grip of his enemy, such a condition was not apparent, for then he was gentle and respectful to you as to his other acquaintances and friends. How often he has rushed into my room, excitedly exclaiming, “Where is English? I want to kill him.” Fortunately, on these many occasions you were employed in your Custom House duties, and easily escaped assassination; not that I supposed you were in any real danger from the exasperated poet, who had no weapon with him but his tongue, which, tho bitter enough when he chose to let it loose, could not “kill.” Naturally I objected to having my apartment the place for a scene of violence, and was pleased that you were out of the way, nor did I wish for the discomfiture of Mr. Poe; for I felt assured that in the event of a personal conflict the odds were all against a favorable result for the author of “The Raven,” an assurance justified by a subsequent experience, when he was severely and properly punished for his maudlin desire to attack you. His animosity to you was developed by a criticism you had published on something he had written which criticism was decidedly spicy, and he, tho fierce almost to the verge of brutality upon the writings of others, could not patiently endure antagonistic opinions on his own productions. You will probably remember how our warm-haired poetic friend of Philadelphia, Henry B. Hirst, gave Mr. Poe mortal offense by his parody on “Never Seraph shook a Pinion over Fabric half so fair,” by changing it as follows: “Never nigger shook a shinbone in a dance-house half so fair,” etc. Hirst never regained the regard of Poe after this flippant use of one of his poetic gems.

All the incidents connected with my short experience with The Broadway Journal are truly stated, as far as my memory recalls the unimportant events of half a century ago.

Altho it is proper for you, my old friend, to defend your reputation, even at the expense of others, I most sincerely regret that, at this late day, the weaknesses of that distinguished writer should be brought again to public notice. I could add much to the slime which has flowed over his memory, but will not. His friends, many of whom knew nothing of him, except by his writings, have been injudicious, and have tried to bury his transgressions in the supposed wrong-doings of some of his contemporaries, thereby arousing defenses, which, as in your case, keep the memory of his ill-doings alive and to the front. In thinking over the failings of Mr. Poe, much consideration should be given to the difference in the circumstances of his youth and those of his later years. During the period when his only resource was his pen, which gave him but small returns, his wants were largely in excess of his ability to procure what they demanded, and, no doubt, the misery arising from this cause drove him to submerge his troubles in that which made his manhood disappear, and brought to life all that was ungentle in his nature. The character of his writings was such that he could not rapidly produce, which in conjunction with the then low prices attainable for literary work kept him continually on the rack of poverty. It is not difficult to be decently gentle and agreeable in prosperity, but to face smilingly the aggravations of want is not possible to many natures, and surely was not to his.





The page numbers reflect the numbering within the volume, and are given within parentheses. Page numbers are also given within the issue, making page 1480 equivalent to page 4, and 1481 to page 5.


[S:1 - IND, 1896] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Reminiscences of Poe [Part 04] (T. D. English, 1896)