Text: George E. Woodberry, “Appendix A-05,” The Life of Edgar Allan Poe: Personal and Literary (1909), vol. II, pp. 376-390


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­[page 376, continued:]

V. POE AND CHIVERS

The renaissance of Thomas Holley Chivers is one of the latest incidents of the Poe legend, which puts forth such curious growths from decade to decade. His fame still lingered here in the seventies, but only as a burlesque survival. At that time Bayard Taylor diverted himself with it in the “Echo Club,” recalling what is likely to prove his most immortal stanza: —

“Many mellow Cydonian suckets,

Sweet apples, anthosmal, divine,

From the ruby-rimmed beryline buckets

Star-gemmed, lily-shaped, hyaline;

Like the sweet golden goblet found growing

On the wild emerald cucumber-tree, Rich, brilliant, like chrysoprase glowing

Was my beautiful Rosalie Lee.” ­[page 377:]

Swinburne was known, among American friends, to exercise the divine right of inextinguishable laughter over such verses, scores of which he would repeat. The British Museum was fabled to have a complete set of Chivers, which seemed to clench the singularity of the poet, inasmuch as hardly any of his countrymen possessed even a single volume of his works. Collectors found them impossible to buy. Their titles were the most preservative part of them. “Eonchs of Ruby,” in particular, was itself antiseptic against time. It fascinated the mind it alarmed, and was eagerly but vainly sought. A few stanzas and lines might be heard quoted in literary small talk; and persons of long memory or deep delvers in our Lilliputian history recalled the fact that Chivers and the friends of Chivers stoutly asserted that he was the original owner from whom Poe conveyed “The Raven”; but the poacher, if trespass there were, seemed to have got safe off with the bird. Mr. Benton, however, strikes beside the mark in saying, “The breadth of his territory of renown among scholars is indicated by the fact that Professor Gierlow, a Danish author, wrote a beautiful poem” on his death. Gierlow was a teacher of language in a school at Macon, Georgia.

Things stood at this pass, with Chivers there in the British Museum, at the last bubble of Lethe, when there came a change, and his name began to brighten and grow frequent again. The fame of Poe had magnetized it, and it gave out new radiant energy. Fresh editions of his rare volumes may now fairly be expected. The late W. M. Griswold, in his edition of his father’s correspondence,(1) drew Chivers back from oblivion with a brief account, a ­[page 378:] letter to Poe, and a kindly word for his character. Joel Benton followed with a little sheaf of articles, “In the Poe Circle,”(1) and resuscitated the controversy as to who originated “The Raven”; incidentally he reprinted Chivers’s more extraordinary poems, and gave some from manuscript that had never seen light before.

“The Virginia Poe “comes last. The editor publishes from the Griswold papers nearly all of Chivers’s letters to Poe, and in an appendix he examines Chivers’s claims to be the precursor of Poe and decides that Poe was the precursor of Chivers. These letters were in the hands of the present writer when he edited the Griswold papers, but in the absence of Poe’s answers it seemed needless to give them at that time. The latter have now come to light, together with companion papers, having survived Sherman’s march to the sea and other vicissitudes of the last half century in their nook in Georgia; they afford further illustration of Poe’s character and career, and they also allow us to reconstruct somewhat more vividly the interesting figure of Chivers himself.

Dr. Thomas Holley Chivers was born in Wilkes County, Georgia, at Digby Manor, near Washington, in 1807,(2) the eldest of seven children. His father, Robert ­[page 379:] Chivers, was a cotton-planter, rich in lands and slaves. His grandfather, Thomas H. Chivers, had emigrated from England in the middle of the seventeenth century and settled in Virginia, but afterward removed to Georgia. His mother, whose name was Digby, was of similar emigrant stock, her father having come from England and settled in Pennsylvania before finally transferring the family to Georgia, where she married the poet’s father in 1806. He was religiously brought up, all the family being Baptists; and, as appears from his verses, his childhood was happy, his domestic affections were warm and tender, and his love for his mother was devotional. He began to write verse early, and with some mastery of metrical form, to judge by the stanzas entitled “Faith,” which belong to his twentieth year, and which he afterward described as “showing that the two angels, Love and Adoration, were the twin Sisters who went hand in hand with him through the Eden of his youth, gathering the purple Violets of Heaven.” He adopted medicine as a profession and studied at the Transylvania University, where he took the doctor’s degree. He was, however, by his father’s kind ness, independent of the necessity to practice, and he gave himself up to literary and especially poetical pursuits; later in life he was offered a chair of physiology in the university at Atlanta, which he declined, and this was his nearest approach to a medical or scientific career.

While at the university he had continued to write verse, such as “Georgia Waters,” and in 1834 he published a tragedy, “Conrad and Eudora,” at Philadelphia; he contributed ­[page 380:] the next year to the “Southern Literary Messenger” while Poe was editor; and in 1837 he issued his first collection of verse, “Nacoochee; or, The Beautiful Star, with Other Poems,” at New York. He spent much of his time at the North in these years, where he had a circle of relatives and friends, and to the end of his life he made long visits there and established connection with writers and scholars of distinction. It is interesting to record also that he was a painter as well as a poet, and that he added to his income as well as his versatility by inventing a ma chine for unwinding the fibre from silk cocoons.

It was “Nacoochee,” the volume of lyrics, which first attracted Poe’s public attention to Chivers; but at the age of thirty, when this appeared, Chivers had not developed those characteristics which constitute his originality. The ordinary critic would have found in the verses the metrical form of Moore and Coleridge, and perhaps little else at that time; now other qualities would be more apparent. Though there is no reason to believe that he ever read the poetry of Blake, the Blakeish suggestion in his imagination and diction is occasionally startling; partly because he deals with scriptural allusion and the material imagery of the Bible, his mind having been fed on them, but also because of some similarity in his irregular force of conception and grandiloquent method. In the “Ode to the Mississippi” there are three lines that will serve as an illustration, describing the rivers flowing down to the great “Father of Waters”: —

“Like soldiers enlisted for Freedom to fight!

Who started their marching ere Adam was born,

And never shall stop till Eternity’s morn.”

In the last stanza, too, there is a touch of the same quality and tone: — ­[page 381:]

“We look on thy bosom, but cannot control

The terror that strikes from the heart to the soul!

We know thee unique in the East or the West,

Who look’st in a calm like a lion at rest!

We give thee the praise — then adieu to the wild

That brought forth a son called Eternity’s child.”

It is also a noticeable matter now that the new poet must have fed on that Philadelphia reprint of Galignani’s edition of Keats, Shelley, and Coleridge in one large volume which first brought the immortal romantic fire to our coast and was for our grandfathers a great altar of the Muse. It was a distinction for a new poet in 1837 to quote “Alastor “and “Rosalind and Helen “; and, in fact, Chivers was one of the first of Americans to be “Shelleymad.” The enthusiasm did not mount to his poetry, but it filled the man. Still a third trait worth pointing out is the fact, disclosed by the preface, that he had the Orphic conception of the nature of poetry and the poet’s role, though he had not yet reached that Orphic egotism which was to belong to him later. Evidently he had the sensibilities and intuitions that denote the poetic temperament, and he possessed instincts of metre and imagery. It is natural to find him soon that rare thing, a Southern transcendentalist, and soon also a Swedenborgian, and even an “associationist” at a later time. The son of a Southern slaveholder, a devotee of Shelley, a friend of Bostonian vagaries, Chivers had fallen on unlucky times; and as he grew older the unregulated elements in him gradually became most marked, till at last he became, not to speak it profanely, a kind of Southern Alcott.

When in the summer of 1840 Poe endeavored to start the “Penn Magazine” in Philadelphia, Chivers was among those whose support he sought as a writer for magazines and as a collector of subscriptions. Chivers ­[page 382:] promised his aid, but he found room to remonstrate against Poe’s “tomahawk” criticism and to advise a milder method. Chivers appears next to have heard from Poe by an example of that “tomahawk” style, which he had deprecated, applied to himself. In the article “Autography,” in “Graham’s” for December, 1841, Poe described Chivers in few lines: —

“Dr. Thomas Holley Chivers, of New York, is at the same time one of the best and one of the worst poets in America. His productions affect one as a wild dream — strange, incongruous, full of images of more than arabesque monstrosity, and snatches of sweet unsustained song. Even his worst nonsense (and some of it is horrible) has an indefinite charm of sentiment and melody. We can never be sure that there is any meaning in his words, — neither is there any meaning in many of our finest musical airs, — but the effect is very similar in both. His figures of speech are metaphor run mad, and his grammar is often none at all. Yet there are as fine individual passages to be found in the poems of Dr. Chivers as in those of any poet whatsoever.”

Chivers wrote in remonstrance against this, and a second time; and Poe replied, June 6, 1842, acknowledging the three unanswered letters and apologizing for the “Autography” squib; and at the same time suggesting that Chivers should join him in the “Penn,” which enterprise he was just renewing, and bring financial aid.

Chivers’s father had died, and the estate was about to be divided, so it was quite possible that this offer might bear fruit; he wrote a polite and cordial reply, July 12, 1842, in which he explained the situation, but made no promise with regard to the “Penn Magazine” except that he would obtain subscribers for it. Poe wrote again, ­[page 383:] September 27, 1842, stating that the sum requisite would be one thousand dollars, and estimating the expenses of the magazine at three thousand dollars, and its profits at ten thousand for each editor, on a list of five thousand subscribers, of whom he felt sure of five hundred at once.

There was, however, to be no result from any of these plans. Chivers lost a little daughter, and went South for the burial. There he received no answers to three letters; but he was a persistent correspondent, and in the spring of 1844 made another attempt, asking whether the “Penn Magazine” was abandoned, and saying that he would receive his part of his father’s estate in July and would be glad to join Poe in the enterprise, “provided it would be to my interest to do so.” Poe replied to this at once, saying that he still contemplated the “Penn” project, but had changed the name to the “Stylus, “and he suggested a conference in New York. This letter contained some metaphysical mysticism. Chivers replied, much delighted with the turn the correspondence had taken, August 6, and again September 24, without receiving any further lucubration from Poe; but correspondence was now to be supplemented by personal acquaintance on the occasion of Chivers’s visit to New York in the next summer, 1845, where he brought out his third volume of verse, “The Lost Pleiad.” The story of the visit has been told in the text. Chivers’s account of his walks and talks with Poe is wild and rambling, but it is not lacking in vividness. He wrote out these reminiscences and impressions, after Poe’s death, for a life which he meant to publish in Poe’s defense; but the reader must be referred to the magazine in which they were published, if he would know them.

Chivers did not remain long in New York in the memorable summer when he met his idol of genius face to face ­[page 384:] and consorted with him in so mundane a fashion. “The Lost Pleiad,” his last volume of verse, was now safely published. Poe noticed it in the “Broadway Journal,” August 2, 1845; he describes the volume as the honest and fervent utterance of an exquisitely sensitive heart which has suffered much and long. “The poems,” he goes on, “are numerous, but the thesis is one — death — the death of beloved friends. The poet seems to have dwelt among the shadows of tombs, until his very soul has become a shadow. . . . In a word, the volume before us is the work of that rara avis, an educated, passionate, yet unaffectedly simple-minded and single-minded man, writing from his own vigorous impulses, — from the necessity of giving utterance to poetic passion, — and thus writing not to man kind, but solely to himself. The whole volume has, in fact, the air of a rapt soliloquy.” He then gives a long extract from the poem on Shelley, and ends by complimenting the volume as “possessing merit of a very lofty — if not of the very loftiest order.”

The correspondence was resumed in August and continued, as usual, with more frequency by Chivers than by Poe, whose main interest seems to have been the hope of obtaining money, of which he was in need for the “Jour nal.” Poe wrote one letter of great biographical interest, July 22, 1846, describing his illness and professing warm friendship, but the correspondence languished after that; Chivers, on his part, offered a home and support to Poe for the rest of his life if he would come South to settle. The later intercourse of the two is obscurely known. Chivers visited New York, it would seem, in the summer of 1847, an d certainly in that of 1848. On the last occasion he was invited to Fordham by Poe, but whether the two met is untold. Poe’s last reference to his friend, as ­[page 385:] has been seen, was ungenerous, — one of those words that often escaped him with regard to those with whom he had been intimate; but, by Mrs. Clemm’s account, his friend ship and admiration had been warm toward his worshiper.

It is apparent that Chivers was filled with an enthusiastic admiration for Poe and worshiped his genius. It is the more striking a tribute because he was of a religious cast of mind and not a sharer in Poe’s weaknesses. He was not one of those who drank with Poe; and in spite of what he knew and had seen, he maintained a high respect for his genius and a warm interest in his welfare. Chivers was a hero-worshiper, and he adored the spirit of poetry after that fashion that sees in the poet, whatever he may be humanly, only a great glory. When Poe died, and the trouble arose over Griswold’s memoir of him, Chivers, like several others who had known Poe, was desirous to write a life of him and defend his memory. He made some collections for this purpose; his reminiscences are a part of his material. He offered this life to Ticknor, October 27, 1852, as if it were completed; but it seems never to have passed a fragmentary state.

The claim which Chivers here sets up is to an original ity in metrical effects independent of Poe’s example; he asserts that he practiced these effects before Poe and that Poe borrowed from him, notably in the idea and the rhythm of “The Raven.” It is only too obvious that what was styled at the beginning of these articles the “Orphic egotism” was now fully developed in Chivers. He had, in 1849, corresponded with W. E. Channing and proclaimed himself an associationist. He was also in correspondence with Professor George Bush on the candelabrum of the Tabernacle and cognate matters, and devoted somewhat to Hebrew learning. He became, as has ­[page 386:] been said, a Swedenborgian. His poetic self-sufficiency and illusions were a part of this seething mental state. But if it be thought that his mind had lost its balance in some degree, it is only just to observe that his claim to have developed originality in metrical effects was nothing novel. He maintained his originality in metre from the first. It was not an afterthought.

A poem, “The Lady Alice,” seems to me the fairest example of the rhythm which Chivers evolved; and the patient reader may welcome one entire poem from his pen.

THE LADY ALICE

1

The night is serene with pleasure —

Balmy the air —

For the Moon makes the icy azure

Argently clear;

And the Stars with their music make measure

To mine down here —

My song down here —

My beautiful song down here.

2

Pale light from her orb is raining

On earth — the sea;

While I am on earth complaining

Of one to me

More fair than the Moon now waning —

More pure than she —

More fair than she —

More womanly pure than she.

3

She lives in her golden palace

Beside the sea;

And her name is the Lady Alice —

So dear to me!

And she drinks from her crystal Chalice

Sweet wine so free — ­[page 387:]

White wine so free —

Because her pure heart is free.

4

She sings while the Angels listen

With pure delight!

And the Stars with new glory glisten,

And laughter bright;

While my heart in its narrow prison

Doth pine to-night —

Pine all the night —

For want of my Moon to-night.

5

She smiles while my soul is sorry

With love divine;

And the Stars hear in Heaven the story

Which makes me pine!

I would give all their crowns of glory

If she were mine —

Were only mine —

Were only forever mine.

6

Oh! come from thy golden palace,

Sweet Lady bright!

And fill up this empty Chalice

With wine to-night! —

I drink to my Lady Alice!

My soul’s delight —

Heart — soul’s delight —

My ever divine delight!

The likeness to Poe is unmistakable; but in the poem as a whole there is to my ear a Celtic quality in the refrain which Poe never naturalized in his own verse. It may be allowed that, though overlaid with Poe’s peculiar mythnames and vocal mystery, Chivers’s verse had a music of its own. From the start he had sought the melodic effects of the refrain more markedly than Poe himself, and he had been bred on Coleridge and Shelley, the lyrical masters ­[page 388:] of sound. He was in parallelism with Poe, so to speak, and was attracted to him till he coalesced. It is no wonder that he himself sincerely regarded his work as the primary one, and Poe’s as the derivative, given his egotism. The claim he made in regard to “The Raven” can be denned precisely. He had employed an iambic metre with three feminine rhymes for elegiac verse in the poem “To Allegra Florence in Heaven,” and he had developed the idea of the return of the dead woman’s soul to her lover in “Uranothen” — a title certainly pre-Poesque. If one chooses the marvelous lines from the first of these to illustrate the kind of metre, it is easy to give the impression of a reductio ad absurdum. No account of Chivers would be complete without them.

“As an egg when broken, never can be mended, but must ever

Be the same crushed egg forever, so shall this dark heart of mine

Which, though broken, still is breaking, and shall nevermore cease aching,

For the sleep which has no waking — for the sleep that now is thine!”

But the absurdity of the substance is not one of the arguments, after all, and the rest of the poem is not like this. It is not too much to grant that in the many atmospheric influences that surrounded the germination of “The Raven” (and their number was a multitude) these two poems, familiar to Poe, and certainly the last of them, “Uranothen,” had a place. The two poets were extraordinarily sympathetic, but what was intense and firm in Poe was diffused and liquescent in Chivers, who was in truth a kind of double to him in what seems sometimes a spiritualistic, sometimes a grotesque way. He was, in deed, to Poe not unlike what Alcott was to Emerson, and the comparison helps to clarify the confusion of their ­[page 389:] mutual relations, while it maintains Poe’s mastery unimpaired. Chivers continued to publish new volumes, and reissue the old, until he died in Georgia in 1858.

Unfortunately, in attempting to reconstruct the image of Chivers it is impossible to escape that burlesque effect, though with the kindest intention in the world, which has proved the most enduring element in his works. He did not really change and lose his balance of mind in poetic egotism; the lack of balance was always there, and only declared itself more spectacularly as time w r ent on. The tumultuous vacuity of Blake is found in him from the start and at the finish; it took the form of senseless sonority of diction and mindless rhyme-echo at the end, instead of visible chaotic things of line and color. But at the beginning there was the germ. Here is a stanza from one of his early pieces, entitled “To a China Tree.”

“How gladly I looked through the suckle-gemmed valley,

The grove where the washwoman filled up her tank —

And stood by the well, in the green oakey alley,

And turned down the old cedar bucket and drank.

But farewell, ye oaks! and the trees of my childhood!

And all the bright scenes appertaining to joy!

I think of ye often, away in this wildwood,

But never shall be as I was when a boy.

Nor shoot with my cross-bow — my mulberry cross-bow —

The robins that perched on the boughs near the gate.”

This is something that neither Moore, nor Coleridge, nor even Woodworth, would have been capable of; but in it are the imitative catch, the liking for the refrain,. the unconscious dips into bathos, that appear also in the later verses. Many poets have felt that Poe escapes these things only by a hair’s-breadth, though his material is finer. The difference was that Poe was a genius, while Chivers only thought he was one. Poe, I think, played ­[page 390:] with Chivers to make something out of him; but there was nothing to be made of him but a friend, and that was not Poe’s game. Apart from Poe, Chivers was an interesting illustration of his times: the vast, unfathomable ocean of American crudity was in Chivers, Alcott, Whitman. He was, without regard to his poetry, a most estimable man in his intellectual sympathy, his ideals and labors, and kindly and honorable in all his relations with his fellows.


[[Footnotes]]

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

1  xxxxxxxxxxxx.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 377:]

1 Passages from the Correspondence and Other Papers of Rufus W. Griswold. Cambridge, Mass. 1898.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 379:]

1 The student of Poe should compare, beside the authorities named in the text, the most able defense of Chivers’s originality and argument for Poe’s indebtedness in a long article by Warfield Creath Richardson of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, “Who was Chivers?” in the Boston Transcript, April 24, 1897.

2 The Virginia Poe corrects this date as follows: —

“On page 90 of this volume (1837) he addresses a poem To my Precious Mother, on the anniversary of my Twenty-fifth Year, and subscribes it, Written at Philadelphia, October 18, 1834. “The copy of the volume before the writer has a different poem on page 90. On page 89 there is a poem entitled To my Mother simply, and no date is subscribed. The phrase “To my Precious Mother” ­[page 379:] occurs in the dedication. The copy used by the Virginia editors may belong to a different issue or have manuscript notes. In any case the year 1807 is the accepted family date, and occurs in a sketch of Chivers written apparently by himself late in life.


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - LEAPPL, 1909] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - The Life of EAP (G. E. Woodberry) (Appendix A-05)