Text: James Albert Harrison, “New Glimpses of Poe (III)”, The Independent, September 20, 1900, vol. LII, No. 2703, pp. 2259-2261


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­[page 2259:]

New Glimpses of Poe.

By James A. Harrison,

PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH AND ROMANCE LANGUAGES IN THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA.

III.

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OUR concluding glimpse of this strange life-drama, which begun its same year as Tennyson’s, Darwin’s, Gladstone’s, Abraham Lincoln’s, Chopin’s and Mendelssohn’s, — an annus mirabilis of poetry, music, wit, oratory and science,  — is of Poe as a lecturer after he had attained celebrity as a writer. But, meanwhile, when we contemplate Gladstone’s and Tennyson’s long life, a keen regret may well flash through the end for an exquisite gift cut off so untimely, which might have flowed into marvelous exuberance; for at forty Tennyson was not yet laureate and Poe — was dead.

A note from the eminent Grecian, Prof. B. L. Gildersleeve, Editor of The American Journal of Philology and Professor of Greek in the Johns Hopkins University, thus describes Poe as he appeared in the year 1849, before a Richmond audience, reciting “The Raven”:

Poe’s personality is as vivid to me as if I had heard and seen him yesterday. I am old [column 2:] enough to remember what an excitement his “Goldbug [[Gold-Bug]]” created in Charleston when it first appeared, and how severely we boys criticised the inaccuracies in the description of Sullivan’s Island. Poe himself I saw and heard in Richmond during the last summer of his life. He was lodging at some poor place in Broad street, if I am not mistaken. At least I saw him repeatedly in that thoroughfare — a poetical figure, if there ever was one, clad in black as was the fashion then — slender — erect — the subtle lines of his face fixed in meditation. I thought him wonderfully handsome, the mouth being the only weak point. I was too shy to seek an introduction to the poet, but John R. Thompson procured for me Poe’s autograph, a possession, of which I was naturally very proud.

While Poe was in Richmond some of his friends got up a reading for his benefit, and I heard him read the “Raven” and some other poems before a small audience in one of the parlors of the Exchange Hotel. In spite of my admiration of Poe I was not an uncritical listener, and I have retained the impression that he did not read very well. His voice was pleasant enough, but he emphasized the rhythm unduly — a failing common, I believe, to poets ­[page 2260:] endowed with a keen sense of the music of their own verse.

This picturesque glimpse of the poet may well be supplemented by another from the pen of Bishop O. P. Fitzgerald who, in a talk to the Poe Memorial Association of the University in December last, threw his recollections of Poe for the writer into the following impressive form:

Edgar Allan Poe: A Talk. A compact, well-set man about five feet six inches high, straight as an arrow, easy-gaited, with white linen coat and trousers, black velvet vest and broad Panama hat, features sad yet finely cut, shapely head, and eyes that were strangely magnetic as you looked into them — this is the image of Edgar Allan Poe most vivid to my mind as I saw him one warm day in Richmond in 1849. There was a fascination about him that everybody felt. Meeting him in the midst of thousands a stranger would stop to get a second look, and to ask, “Who is he?” He was distingué in a peculiar sense — a man bearing the stamp of genius and the charm of a melancholy that drew one toward him with a strange sympathy. He was scarcely less unique in his personality than in his literary quality. His writings had already given him national reputation. The gentleness of his manner and the tones of his voice seemed to me to be strangely contrasted with the bitterness that characterized his personal controversies. These controversies were strangely numerous, and in nearly all cases their intensity was in the inverse ratio to the importance of the issues involved. Poe, I suspect, was one of the men who said worse things than he felt, his talent for satire proving a snare to him as it has been to many others who with pen or tongue sacrifice moderation for brilliancy or piquancy of expression. He was harshly treated by some of his contemporaries, but he owed them nothing on this account, giving them as good as they sent in the way of invective or sarcasm. The bitter personalities of literary men at that time were owing in part to an evil fashion then prevalent. The dueling and street fights among politicians had their counterpart in the shedding of vitriolic ink among the literati, great and small. Poe only differed from the rest in that he had a sharper thrust and a surer aim.

The Richmond Examiner was just then achieving its first and winning distinction as an able and ultra advocate of State Rights politics. John C. Calhoun was the leader, and the young “chivalry” of the South made a following that was heroic, and that did not stop to count the cost. The Examiner was their organ in Virginia — and a live organ it was. John M. Daniel, its editor-in-chief, wrote political leaders that were logic and rhetoric on fire. Robert W. Hughes discussed in good English economic questions from the standpoint of his time and his section. Arthur E. Petticolas wrote concerning art with much enthusiasm and some show of culture. Patrick [column 2:] Henry Aylette, a kinsman of the great orator of the Revolution, whose Christian name he bore, with a free hand touched up current politics and living politicians. Aylette was a picturesque Virginian of that time — a man nearly seven feet high who had something of the eloquence of his renowned ancestor, and the easy swing of a man of the people, a man who believed with all his heart in the Revolution of ’98 and ’99, and uniformly voted the straight Democratic ticket. Mr. Poe now and then contributed a literary article critical and peculiar, unmistakably his own. There were others who wrote for the Examiner — among them a youth who felt called upon to expound oracularly certain controverted Constitutional questions that Clay, Calhoun and Webster had failed to settle. He was a young man then, and need not be named now.

Poe and Daniel were often together, and I was not surprised when informed that arrangements had been made by which the former was soon to become the literary editor of the Examiner, was talked of in newspaper circles, and much satisfaction expressed by the initiated, who regarded it as a transaction promising good things for Southern journalism and literature. The Examiner, the new star in the journalistic firmament, was expected to blaze with added lustre and fill all the South with the illumination.

Poe had the sensitive organization of a man of genius, to whom alcoholic stimulation brings madness; for such there is no middle ground between total abstinence and inebriety. By the persuasion of friends he was induced to take a pledge of total abstinence from all intoxicating drinks. There is no reason to doubt his sincerity. His sad face took on a more hopeful expression; with a new hope in his heart he was about to make a new start in life. It was announced that he would soon make a visit to New York to close out his affairs there, preparatory to his entrance upon his new engagement at Richmond. With a view to giving him pecuniary assistance in a delicate way, and an expression of the good will of the Richmond public toward him, Poe was invited to deliver a lecture on some topic to be chosen by himself. The tickets were placed at five dollars each, and at that price three hundred persons were packed into the assembly rooms of the old Exchange Hotel. The lecture prepared for that occasion was on “The Poetic Principle,” and it was read by him as it is now presented in his works. He was a charming reader, his manner the opposite of the elocutionary or sensational — quiet, without gesture, with distinctness of utterance, nice shadings of accent, easy gracefulness, and that indefinable element that draws the hearer toward the speaker with increasing good will and pleasure. I am glad that I heard Poe read that lecture; its sentences on the printed page have for me an added charm from the recollection. The net proceeds of the lecture amounted to fifteen hundred dollars. There was a touch of old Virginia in the way this was done. There is some of that old Virginia still left. The Virginia of that day and this will demonstrate their identity in the outcome of the movement to provide here at your university a suitable memorial of her most distinguished alumnus.

With the proceeds of this lecture in hand, Mr. Poe started to New York, but he never made the journey. Stopping in Baltimore en route he was invited to a birthday party. During the feast the fair hostess asked him to pledge with wine; and he could not refuse. That glass of wine was a spark to a powder magazine. He went on a debauch, and a few days later died in a hospital of mania a potu. On its nearer side death is a tragedy whenever, wherever and however it may come. But the tragedy of Poe’s death is too deep for words of mine. He was only thirty-nine years old. His best work ought to have been before him. Had he lived and worked with unclouded brain and ardent purpose during the tremendous decades that followed, what might he not have achieved! Who can compute the loss to our literature from his untimely death! [column 2:]

Go on with your work, gentlemen of the University of Virginia, provide a fitting memorial to Edgar Allan Poe, your illustrious son. Young gentlemen of the University, do your part in this good work — and shun the rock on which he was wrecked.

This Trilogy in three Glimpses thus gives us three insights into a remarkable nature at three critical periods of its career: the child, the student, the man. The fallen angel began to fall very early, with elements of pity and terror in the tragedy which might have satisfied Aristotle himself.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA.

 

NOTE: Zolnay’s bust of Poe was unveiled with brilliant ceremonies in the Public Hall of the University, October 7, 1899. Mr. Hamilton W. Mabie, the guest of the Poe Association, delivered a masterly address on “Poe’s Relations to American Literature.”


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Notes:

Mr. Mabie’s address was afterwards reprinted as “Poe’s Place in American Literature, Atlantic Monthly, Dec. 1899, pp. 733-745.

The “youth” was presumably Oscar Penn Fitzgerald, a methodist minister who saw Poe in Richmond in 1849.

Poe was 40 at the time of his death, not 39. The claim of mania a potu is one of many unproven assertions in the mystery of Poe’s death.

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[S:1 - IND, 1900] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - New Glimpses of Poe (III) (J. A. Harrison, 1900)