Text: Susan Archer Weiss, “Chapter 28,” Home Life of Poe (1907), pp. 184-193


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[page 184:]

CHAPTER XXVIII.

A MORNING WITH POE AND “THE RAVEN.”

(A Leaf from a Journal.)

One pleasant though slightly drizzly morning in the latter part of September I sat in our parlor at Talavera at a table on which were some new magazines and a vase of tea roses freshly gathered. Opposite me sat Mr. Poe. A basket of grapes — his favorite fruit — had been placed between us; and as we leisurely partook of them we chatted lightly.

He inquired at length what method I pursued in my writing. The idea was new to me, and on my replying that I wrote only on the impulse of a newly conceived idea, he proceeded to give me some needed advice. I must make a study of my poem, he said, line by line and word by word, and revise and correct it until it was as perfect as it could be made. It was in this way that he himself wrote. And then he spoke of The Raven. [page 185:]

He had before told me of the difficulties which he had experienced in writing this poem and of how it had lain for more than ten years in his desk unfinished, while he would at long intervals work on it, adding a few words or lines, altering, omitting and even changing the plan or idea of the poem in the endeavor to make of it something which would satisfy himself.

His first intention, he said, had been to write a short poem only, based upon the incident of an Owl — a night-bird, the bird of wisdom — with its ghostly presence and inscrutable gaze entering the window of a vault or chamber where he sat beside the bier of the lost Lenore. Then he had exchanged the Owl for the Raven, for sake of the latter’s “Nevermore”; and the poem, despite himself, had grown beyond the length originally intended.

Does not this explain why the Raven — though not, like the Owl, a night-bird — should be represented as attracted by the lighted window, and, perching “upon the bust of Pallas,” which would be more appropriate to the original Owl, Minerva’s bird? Also, we recognize the latter in the lines: [page 186:]

“By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore.”*

Poe, in adopting the Raven, evidently did not obliterate all traces of the Owl.

Of these troubles with the poem he had before informed me, and now, in answer to a remark of mine, he said, in effect:

The Raven was never completed. It was published before I had given the final touches. There were in it certain knotty points and tangles which I had never been able to overcome, and I let it go as it was.”

He told how, toward the last, he had become heartily tired of and disgusted with the poem, of which he had so poor an opinion that he was many times on the point of destroying it. I believe that his having published it under the nom de plume of “Quarles” was owing to this lack of confidence in it, and that had it proven a failure he would never have acknowledged himself the author. He feared to risk his literary reputation on what appeared to him of such uncertain merit.

He now, in speaking of the poem, regretted [page 187:] that he had not fully completed before publishing it.

“If I had a copy of it here,” he said, “I could show you those knotty points of which I spoke, and which I have found it impossible to do away with,” adding: “Perhaps you will help me. I am sure that you can, if you will.”

I did not feel particularly flattered by this proposal, knowing that since his coming to Richmond he had made a similar request of at least two other persons. However, I cleared the table of the fruit and the flowers and placed before him several sheets of generous foolscap, on which I had copied for a friend The Raven as it was first published. He requested me to read it aloud, and as I did so, slowly and carefully, he sat, pencil in hand, ready to mark the difficult passages of which he had spoken.

I paused at the third line. Had I not myself often noted the incongruity of representing the poet as pondering over many a volume instead of a single one? I glanced inquiringly at Mr. Poe and, noting his unconscious look, proceeded. When I reached the line,

“And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor;” [page 188:]

he gave a slight shiver or shrug of the shoulders — an expressive motion habitual to him — and the pencil came down with an emphatic stroke beneath the six last words.

This was one of the hardest knots, he said, nor could he find a way of getting over it. “Ember” was the only word rhyming with the two preceding lines, but in no way could he dispose of it except as he had done — thus producing the worst line in the poem.

We “pondered” over it for awhile and finally gave it up.

(But I may here mention that I have since, in studying the poem, made a discovery which, strangely enough, seems never to have occurred to the author. This was that in this particular stanza he had unconsciously reversed the order or arrangement of the lines, placing those of the triple rhymes first and the rhyming couplet last. Thus all his long years of worry over that unfortunate “ember” had been unnecessary, since the construction of the verse required not only the omission of the word as a rhyme, but of the whole line of

“And each separate dying ember;”

when the succeeding objectionable words, [page 189:]

“Wrought its ghost upon the floor,”

could have been easily altered; and the addition of a third line to the succeeding couplet would have made the stanza correct.)

Our next pause was at the word “beast,” through which he ran his pencil.

“Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above my chamber door.”

“I must get rid of that word,” he said; “for, of course, no beast could be expected to occupy such a position.”

“Oh, yes; a mouse, for instance,” I suggested, at which he gave me one of his rare humorous smiles.

Leaving this point for future consideration, we passed on to a more serious difficulty.

“This and more I sat divining,

With my head at ease reclining

On the cushion’s velvet lining, with the lamplight gloated o’er.”

The knotty point here was in the word “lining” — a blunder obvious to every reader. Poe said that the only way he could see of getting [page 190:] over the difficulty was by omitting the whole stanza. But he was unwilling to give up that “violet velvet” chair, which, with the “purple silken curtain,” he considered a picturesque adjunct to the scene, imparting to it a character of luxury which served as a relief to the more sombre surroundings. I had so often heard this impossible “lining” criticised that when he inquired, “Shall I omit or retain the stanza?” I ventured to suggest that it might be better to give up the stanza than have the poem marred by a defect so conspicuous. For a moment he held the pencil poised, as if in doubt, and I have since wondered what would have been his decision.

But just here we were interrupted by the tumultuous entrance of my little dog, Pink, in hot pursuit of the family cat. The latter took refuge beneath the table at which we were seated, and there ensued a brisk exchange of duelistic passes, until I called off Pink and Mr. Poe took up the cat and, placing her on his knee, stroked her soothingly, inquiring if she were my pet. Upon my disclaiming any partiality for felines, he said, “I like them,” and continued his gentle caressing. (Was he thinking of Catalina, his wife’s pet cat, which he had left at home at Fordham, and which [page 191:] after her death had sat upon his shoulder as he wrote far into the night? Recalling his grave and softened expression, I think that it must have been so. But at that time I had never heard of Catalina.)

But now came the final and most difficult “tangle” of all — the blunder apparent to the world — the defect which mars the whole poem, and yet is contained in but a single line:

“And the lamplight o’er him streaming casts his shadow on the floor.”

Poe declared this to be hopeless, and that it was, in fact, the chief cause of his dissatisfaction with the poem. Indeed, it may well excite surprise that he, so careful and fastidious as to the completeness of his work, should have allowed The Raven to go from his hands marred by a defect so glaring, but this is proof that he did indeed regard it as hopeless.

———

When Mr. Poe left us on this September morning he took with him this manuscript copy of The Raven; which, however, he on the following day handed to me, begging that I would keep it until his return from New York. [page 192:] I found that he had marked several minor defects in the poem, one of which was his objection to the word “shutter,” as being too commonplace and not agreeing with the word “lattice,” previously used.

He remarked, before leaving for New York, that he intended having The Raven, after some further work upon it, published in an early number of the Stylus. I do not doubt but that, had he lived, he would have made it much more perfect than it now is.

After his death his friend, Mr. Robert Sully, the Richmond artist, was desirous of making a picture of the Raven, but explained to me why it could not be done — all on account of that impossible “shadow on the floor.” Of course, said he, to produce such an effect the lamplight must come from above and behind the bust and the bird. No; it was impracticable.”

This set me to thinking; and the result was that I, some time after, went to Mr. Sully’s studio and said to him: “How would it do to have a glass transom above the door; one of those large fan-shaped transoms which we sometimes find in old colonial mansions, opening on a lofty galleried hall?”

It would do, he said. Indeed, with such an [page 193:] arrangement, and the lamp supposed to be suspended from the hall ceiling, as in those old mansions, there would be no difficulty with either the poem or the picture. And we were both delighted at our discovery, and thought how pleased Poe would have been with the idea — so effective in explaining that mysterious shadow on the floor.

Mr. Sully commenced upon his picture, but died before completing it.

———

This manuscript copy of The Raven, with all its pencil-marks, as made by Mr. Poe on that September morning, remained in my possession for many years. It is yet photographed upon my memory, with all the details here given from an odd leaf of a journal which I kept about that time — the quiet parlor, the outside drizzle, the books, the roses, and the face and figure of Mr. Poe as he gravely bent over that manuscript copy of his immortal poem of The Raven.

Had he no premonition that even then a darker shadow than that of theRaven was hovering over him? It was one of the last occasions on which I ever saw him.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 186:]

*  As by also:

“And its eyes have all the seeming

Of a demon that is dreaming.”

 


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Notes:

In his 1969 edition of Poe’s poem, T. O. Mabbott refers several times to Mrs. Weiss’s comments about “The Raven,” but does so with no mention at all about her claim to have had a corrected manuscript. While it is not impossible that she may have had such a manuscript, she may have been remembering Poe’s own copy of The Raven and Other Poems, in which he made a number of pencilled changes and corrections. That copy was still in his possession at the time of his death, and appears to have been the copy from which the text in the Richmond Semi-Weekly Examiner was prepared. If she had such a manuscript, it would have been among the items destroyed in the Civil War during the siege of Richmond. If she did not have such a manuscript, it is another example of someone embellishing historical claims for personal reasons.


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[S:0 - HLFP, 1907] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Home Life of Poe (S. A. Weiss) (Chapter 28)