Text: Sarah Helen Whitman, “Poe, Critic, and Hobby,” New York Daily Tribune (New York, NY), Vol. XXXV, whole no. 10,775, October 13, 1875, p. 2, cols. 2-3


[page 2, column 2, continued:]





To the Editor of the Tribune.

SIR: Mr. F. G. Fairfield, a gentleman who has had the temerity to pass “ten years among spiritual mediums” in the cause of science, having demonstrated that they are all more or less afflicted with epileptic mania, has recently turned his attention to poets and men of inspirational genius, and finds that they, too, from Ezekiel to Æschylus, from Æschylus to Coleridge, are all as mad as March hares. If there is method in their madness, there is also madness in their method. He frankly confesses in his book of mediums that he has himself had personal experience of the malady. He has studied it in all its phases. He intimates that “habitual lying” is one of its most trustworthy exponents. I by no means wish to undervalue Mr. Fairfield’s researches in the nebulous atmosphere of peripheral nerve-auras. They are valuable and interesting, but does not his theory threaten to cover too much ground?

In the October number of Scribner’s this gentleman has an article entitled “A Mad Man of Letters,” in which he selects the author of “The Raven” as a favorable specimen of the epileptic type. Assuming chronic lying as symptomatic of the disease, he gravely quotes the following story in evidence of Poe’s habitual mendacity. A single instance, he says, may suffice to prove the many. Here is the instance: A gentleman who professed to have received the “facts” from Mrs. Clemm told him that Poe, once on a time, after walking all the way from New-York to Fordham, swallowed up a cup of tea, sat down to his writing-desk, and dashed off “The Raven” substantially as it is now printed, and submitted it to Mrs. Clemm as the result of his evening’s incubation! Unmindful of the fact that Poe did not reside in Fordham until long after “The Raven” was printed and published, Mr. Fairfield naively accepts this story as a choice bit of veritable history, illustrative of Poe’s epileptic tendency to habitual lying. For how could “The Raven” have been composed at a single sitting, when Mr. Fairfield assures us that he has the evidence of Poe’s literary contemporaries on this matter — gentlemen who were in the habit of meeting him at midday for a cozy chat in Sandy Welch’s cellar. And did not these gentlemen assure him that the poem was produced line by line, stanza by stanza, and submitted by Poe, piecemeal, to the criticism and emendation of the Ann-st. clique? — gentlemen who doubtless “know a hawk from a handsaw when the wind was southerly,” and who suggested many valuable alterations and substitutions. One of these gentlemen, says Mr. Fairfield, has even pointed out to me particular instances of phrases that were incorporated at his own suggestion, “showing that ‘The Raven’ was a kind of joint-stock operation in which many minds held small shares of intellectual property.” After this we may not hope that the gentlemen who assisted at the incubation of this remarkable fowl in Sandy Welch’s cellar will come forward in a body to claim their respective shares in this piece of joint-stock property, thus setting at rest forever all questions as to “Who wrote ‘The Raven?” “Was ‘The Raven’ a Persian fowl?” “Whence came the manuscript found in Mr. Shaver’s barn?” and other interrogations of like import which have from time to time agitated the purlieus of Parnassus.

Having disposed of “The Raven,” Mr. Fairfield applies his scalpel to Poe’s wonderful poem of “Ulalume,” calling it, in his haphazard way, “his last poem — a mere rigmarole in rhyme, exhibiting in its elaborate emptiness the last stages of mental decrepitude and decay.” “Thus sang he, then died,” exclaims this careful and conscientious commentator. On the contrary, “thus sang he,” then wrote “Eureka,” “The Bells,” “Annabel Lee,” and other of his most memorable poems. But when an “alienist” — I believe that is the correct word — mounts his hobby and rides rough-shod in pursuit of an epileptic subject to illustrate a favorite theory, he cannot be expected to pay much attention to such hard facts as happen to lie in his way.

The critic does not, in this instance, accuse the unhappy author of plagiarism; does not even remotely insinuate that the poem has been slicked up in Sandy Welch’s cellar. It was altogether too rough a specimen for the contemporaries to have taken stock in. If Mr. Fairfield, who is not without poetic insight, had thought less of his theory and more of his subject, he might have better apprehended what he is pleased to call the geist of the poem; might have seen that it was not the “low-hanging moon,” but Venus “Astarte” — the crescent star of hope and love, that, after a night of horror, was seen in the Constellation Leo:

“Coming through the lair of the Lion

As the star-dials hinted of morn.”

He might have seen the forlorn heart hailing it as a harbinger of happiness yet to be, hoping against hope, until, when the planet was seen to be rising over the tomb of a lost love, hope itself was rejected as a cruel mockery, and the dark angel conquered. He might have also discerned in this “empty rigmarole of rhyme” something of that ethical quality which an eloquent interpreter of Poe’s genius, in the July number of The British Quarterly, finds in this strange and splendid phantasy. Like the Episychidian of Shelley, it is a poem for poets, and will not readily give up “the heart of the mystery” to aliens and “alienists.”

When I compare the disparaging tone of this article with a paragraph from the same writer which appeared in The Boston Radical for April, 1871, I am perplexed to account for the discrepancy. “‘The Raven,’ The Ancient Mariner,’ and ‘Queen Mab,’ in their ghostly energy and magnificence of beauty, in their subtile etheriality of imagery, in the weird burst of moaning minor of their cadences, are among the most powerful creations of the imagination, and are, in ratio to their power, remarkable for a certain sublimation of the subjective, and dependent upon it for their effect.” And again: “In the fiction of Brontë, Hugo, Poe, Hawthorne, Dickens, and other masters of the century, we find an intense subjectivity.” How happens it that one of the masters of the century is now labeled, “A Mad Man [column 3:] of Letters.” His “sublimation of the subjective” is now “epileptic egotism.” “He was an egotist to the core.” “In his ‘Eureka’ there is scarcely an original thought. Poe did not think, he was simply a dreamer.” “Sent to college, he found his work interfering with his dreams. Hence he ran away (!) and afterward tried to atone for his lack of mental culture by cunning devices and feats of the solve-a-puzzle kind. He was incapable of honest work.”

If this piece of amateur surgery is a specimen of “honest work,” one must needs borrow sop’s lantern to find out its honesty.

S. H. W.

Providence, Sept. 29, 1875.




The following unsigned editorial notice appears in the same issue, on p. 4, col. 2:

Mr. Francis Gerry Fairfield could scarcely have expected that on the eve of the dedication of the Poe monument in Baltimore, his theory that the poet was the victim of cerebral epilepsy would pass unchallenged. We print in another column a caustic reply to his essay, in which he is represented as mounting his hobby and riding roughshod over the facts of the case. Whether there was method in the madness or madness in the method, one thing is certain: in regard to the “hard facts” of that mysterious career, Mr. Fairfield’s critic knows whereof she speaks.


[S:0 - NYDT, October 13, 1875] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Poe, Critic and Hobby (Sarah H. Whitman, 1875)