Text: Burton R. Pollin, “Stoddard’s Elegiac Sonnet on Poe,” Poe Studies / Dark Romanticism, December 1986, Vol. XIX, No. 2, 19:32-34


[page 32:]

Stoddard’s Elegiac Sonnet on Poe

Bronx Community College of the City University of New York, Emeritus

[column 1:]

For most of his adult life, Richard Henry Stoddard (1825-1903) made it a practice to denigrate Edgar Allan Poe. His hostility stemmed from Poe’s charge that Stoddard’s poem “Ode on a Grecian Flute” was plagiarized, as Poe said in the Broadway Journal of August 2, 1845 (2, 63): “We doubt the originality of the ‘Grecian flute,’ for the reason that it is too good at some points to be so bad at others. Unless the author can re-assure us, we decline it.”

Stoddard retaliated for Poe’s rejection often and variously. Upon Poe’s death, he published in the New York Daily Tribune of October 27, 1849, a thirty-two line poem “Miserrimus,” feigning sorrow but emphasizing that Poe’s “faults were many, his virtues few,” and that his “melodies breath’d of hell.”(1) He appended the poem to his destructive sketch of Poe in the National Magazine of March 1853 (2, 193-200). And for the rest of his life, Stoddard published biased reports of this er“counter with Poe and its aftermath, when Poe threatened to remove Stoddard from his office by physical force.(2) Sometimes these accounts claimed that the poem’s very unevenness proved Stoddard’s high, if unsustained, poetic gift; sometimes they described a later episode when Stoddard failed to share an umbrella with Poe during a heavy shower.(3) As Stoddard’s influence grew, to the point that Clarence Stedman dubbed him the UNestor of American literature,”(4) his accounts carried more and more weight, to Poe’s increasing degradation.

But occasionally Stoddard’s venom abated. In his two-hundred-page “Life of . . . Poe,” which replaced Griswold’s “Memoir” as Introduction to the standard edition of Poe’s Complete Works, Stoddard confessed to the derivativeness of the ode Poe had rejected: as “a young man . . . I had a weakness . . . I wrote verse and thought it poetry. Something I had written assumed that pleasing form to my deluded imagination . . . ‘Ode on a Grecian Flute.’ I have a strong suspicion that I [column 2:] was fresh from the reading of Keats, and that I particularly admired his ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ ” (I, 128). In a later variation in Lippincott’s Magazine, Stoddard admitted that an earlier “Ode on a Grecian Flute” by Major David Richardson (1801-1865), editor of papers at Calcutta and author of published prose and verse,(5) “caught his fancy, as an admirer of Keats,” prompting him to “write a companion piece, ‘crude’ but with promise.”(6)

Second, and more important, a long overlooked piece of evidence testifies that Stoddard, despite his crust of hostility and wounded pride, could manifest respect and sympathy for Poe, if only temporarily. It is a sonnet which first appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger of July 1850 (16, 426) captioned “To W. J. R. / With a MSS. [SIC] / R. H. Stoddard.” Because it contains no reference to Poe, students have not identified him as its subject and have not included it in Poe bibliographies,(7) nor has it appeared in any collection of Stoddard’s poems. The next month the sonnet appeared again in the International Weekly Miscellany of Literature, Art, and Science, with two minor changes in accidentals, with the correction of UMSS.” to UMS.,” and with the same enigmatic caption.(8) The “Contents” page of the Miscellany, however, lists the sonnet under “Poetry, Selected” as “ ‘To W. J. R. with an Autograph of Poe,’ R. H. Stoddard”; this reworded title does not identify “W. J. R.,” who remains a mystery, but it does help establish that Stoddard’s sonnet represents a meditation on a Poe manuscript that Stoddard had sent to this individual.

Stoddard’s sonnet follows:

A little common weed, a simple shell,

From the waste margent of a classic sea;

A flower that grew where some great empire fell,

Worthless themselves, are rich to Memory.

And thus these lines are precious, for the hand

That penned their music, crumbles into mould;

And the hot brain that shaped them now is cold

In its own ashes, like the blackened brand. — [page 33:]

But where the fiery soul that wove the spell;

Weeping with trailing wings beside his tomb?

Or stretched and tortured on the racks of Hell

Dark-scowling at the ministers of doom? —

Peace! This is but a dream, there cannot be

More suffering for him in Eternity!

In an article titled “A Box of Autographs” in the February 1891 Scribner’s Magazine (9, 213-227), Stoddard alluded to this sonnet on Poe without mentioning its earlier printings (surely a significant omission): “My third remembered autograph was presented by Griswold. It was a sonnet from the hand of Edgar Allan Poe, who had lately departed this life: “I did not value my Poe as I should have done; for I wrote a sonnet on the back of his sonnet, and gave the pair to a friend, by whom they were probably as little cared for as by myself” (p. 213). There are two possible candidates for this asonnet from the hand of . . . Poe”; it may have been “To Zante,” Poe’s 1837 poem which he copied by hand and sent to Stoddard on November 6, 1840, in response to Stoddard’s “very flattering request” for his autograph;(9) but this particular manuscript has no Stoddard sonnet on the obverse.(10) The more likely candidate is a copy of “An Enigma”: in an earlier article in the January 1889 Lippincott Magazine (43, 107-115), Stoddard writes of his views on and relations with Poe and mentions a gift from Griswold of Poe’s sonnet against “Tuckerman” (“An Enigma,” a humorous tribute to Sarah Anna Lewis, is not an attack on Tuckerman but does refer to him sarcastically in its reference to atuckermanities”; Works, I, 425-426). Griswold must have presented it in 1849 or early in 1850 for use with Stoddard’s own sonnet. In the Scribner’s article, Stoddard fails to identify “An Enigma” as the one he gave away or “To Zante” as the one he still had and therefore could print, as he did near the end of the article (facing p. 224). There is no trace of the “Enigma” manuscript that Stoddard apparently wrote his own sonnet on the back of and then sent to aw. J. R.” before July 1850.(11)

Stoddard’s sonnet demonstrates his commonplace but popular qualities and his habit of borrowing conventional phrases and touches from famous authors. It has traces of Shakespeare, Shelley, Dryden, and even Poe. The first six lines reflect Shakespeare’s seventy-first sonnet: “Nay, if you read this line, remember not / The hand that writ it, . . . When I perhaps compounded am with clay. . . . ” (In this section, Stoddard’s characteristic contempt for Poe’s work peeps out of the first four lines.) And lines 11-12 recall Lady Macbeth’s exhortation to Macbeth about “murdering ministers” [column 2:] and “smoke of hell” (I, v, 38-54). Shelley’s “Ozymandias” echoes in the rhetoric and phrasing of lines 5-8: “Tell that its sculptor well those passions read / Which yet survive, stamp‘d on these lifeless things, / The hand that mock‘d them and the heart that fed.” Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel (I, 156) provides a phrase, the afiery soul,” in line 9. Most important is the image as well as the phrasing of line 10, which reflects Poe’s “Ulalume,” the very poem which Stoddard weighed and told Mrs. Kirkland he found wanting in 1848;12 the pertinent lines in Poe are aIn terror she spoke; letting sink her / Wings till they trailed in the dust — / In agony sobbed; letting sink her / Plumes . . . / Till they sorrowfully trailed in the dust. . . . This is nothing but dreaming . . .” (ll. 56-61).

The sonnet thus marks a brief pause in 1850, shortly after his “Miserrimus,” in Stoddard’s prolonged hostility to Poe, during which he paid tribute to Poe’s talent and sympathized with his harsh circumstances. Reticently he permitted two printings of the sonnet, under a half-concealed authorship, and then withdrew it, so to speak, from his preserved oeuvres. Within two years he was again disparaging Poe, as he continued to do for the rest of the century.



1 - Printed in the Tribune’s Supplement, p. 2; for this information, I thank Professor John Reilly of the College of the Holy Cross. See my “Poe as Miserrimus,” in Discoveries in Poe (Notre Dame, Ind.: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1970), pp. 201-204, which reprints Stoddard’s poem and describes its circumstances.

2 - For a dozen of Stoddard’s accounts, see J. Lasley Dameron and Irby J. Cauthen, Jr., Edgar Allan Poe: A Bibliography of Criticism, 1827-1967 (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1974), items S 206-216, pp. 234-235.

3 - Stoddard, “Life of . . . Poe,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: A. C. Armstrong & Son, 1884), I, 130. This edition, which retains Lowell’s and Willis‘memoirs, includes only the tales, poems, essays, and Eureka, the aLiterati” sketches, and special series such as “Marginalia.” Other firms used the plates, thus widely disseminating Stoddard’s account.

4 - The Dictionary of American Biography, 18, 5759, provides much evidence of Stoddard’s influence and popularity. See also the full report of the Authors’ Club retirement dinner for Stoddard on March 25, 1897, in the next day’s New York Mail and Express .

5 - Dictionary of National Biography, 48, 223.

6 - “Edgar Allan Poe,” January 1889, 43, 107-115.

7 - The solmet is not included in Dameron and Cauthen or in Esther F. Hyneman, Edgar Allan Poe: An Annotated Bibliography of Books and Articles in English, 1887-1975 (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1974).

8 - International Weekly (August 5, 1850), I, no. 6, 192. See Luther Mott, A History of American Magazine (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1957), II, 406-408, for the importance of this magazine, which soon changed to a monthly, called the International Monthly Magazine. In 1852 it succumbed to its rival Harper’s Monthly. Griswold may have been responsible for reprinting Stoddard’s sonnet, for he was prominent in setting up this new magazine. The following text follows the International Wcekly because of its more accurate caption.

9 - See Letters I, 147, for a partial text, II, 692-693 for the full text. Ostrom mistakenly ascribes Stoddard’s [column 2:] 1884 edition of Poe’s Complete Works to 1894, and he ignores Stoddard’s 1875 edition of the Poems and 1880 edition of Select Works, both with Stoddard’s “Life” as Introduction.

10 - The manuscript is now owned by H. Bradley Martin, who graciously allows it to be seen in the Morgan Library. Besides aTo Zante” and “An Enigma” (see below), Poe also wrote the sonnets “To Science,” “Silence,” and “Sonnet to My Mother” (Works, I, 90-92, 320-323, 465-468), but clearly it was a form that he did not favor, as “An Enigma” hints.

11 - Mabbott does not mention this manuscript (Works, I, 424-426); nor do others.

12 - See Works, I, 409-413, for Mabbott’s account of the composition of “Ulalume,” which seems to derive only from the J. C. Derby reference of 1884. Stoddard’s account is in his “Reminiscences of Hawtllorne and Poe,” Indepcndent (November 20, 1902), 44, 27562758; rpt. in Book-Louer (September 1903), 4, 352. Poe praised Mrs. Kirkland’s New Home . . . or Glimpsee of Western Life in the Broadway Journal (November 11, 1845), 2, 320, and incorporated the review in a glowing aLiterati” sketch of her in the August 1846 Godey’s (Complete Works, XV, 86-88).


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