Text: Richard Henry Stoddard, “Some Myths in the Life of Poe,” Independent (New York), June 24, 1880, vol. XXXII (whole no. 1647), pp. 1-2


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THE life of no American poet, I may say the life of no English poet, with which I am acquainted has been so productive of myths as that of Poe. They began to grow while he was alive — if not by his direct procurement, at least, by his tacit sanction; and after his death they burgeoned out magnificently. They may almost be said to have been sown before he was born; for the life of his parents, particularly of his mother, is wrapped in obscurity. His earliest biographer, Dr. Griswold, writing in 1850, the year after his death, told us that she was an English actress, whose prettiness and vivacity more than her genius for the stage, made her a favorite, and that her name was Elizabeth Arnold. The first appearance of Miss Arnold in America was traced by Ireland, in his “Records of the New York Stage.” It was in 1797, when she was a member of a company of comedians engaged by a Mr. Salee for the City Theater, Charleston, S. C. This company lay over on their arrival at New York, and played an engagement at the old John Street Theater; and among the pieces represented by them was “The Spoiled Child,” in which she filled the part of Maria. Nine years later (July 16th, 1806), she appeared in New York again, at the new Vauxhall Garden, in the part of Priscilla Tomboy. She was now Mrs. Poe, and in the parlance of theatrical criticism evinced talent both as a singer and an actress. Mr. Poe appeared two nights after as Frank in “Fortune’s Frolic,” and was considered a stick. The next mention of Mrs. Poe is a curious one, in that it refers to her parentage. It occurs in The Polyanthos for September, 1806 — a little monthly periodical devoted to theatricals and published by Mr. Joseph T. Buckingham, from 1805 to 1814. Here it is: “The Boston Theater, it is expected, will open in a short time. Mr. and Mrs. Poe, Mr. and Mrs. Dykes, and a Mr. Turnbull are engaged. Mrs. Poe is the daughter of Mrs. Arnold, formerly of the Boston Theater. We understand she is to fill the parts made vacant by the departure of Mrs. Dudley. Report speaks favorably of her talents.” The next number of The Polyanthos chronicled the début of Mr. and Mrs. Poe at the winter campaign of the Boston Theater, which commenced on the 13th of October. “Morton’s favorite comedy of ‘Speed the Plow’ was selected for the first night’s performance. The parts of Henry and Miss Blanford were filled by Mr. and Mrs. Poe, from the Virginia theaters, their first appearance in Boston. Estimating the talents of this couple by comparison, we might say the same characters have been more ably sustained on our boards. A first performance, however, does not always afford a criterion by which merit may be estimated. Mr. Poe possesses a full, manly voice, of considerable extent, his utterance clear and distinct. The managers will undoubtedly find him a useful and the town a pleasing performer of the Henrys, Charles Stanleys, etc. Of the talents of Mrs. Poe we are disposed to judge favorably.” Mr. Buckingham’s judgment [column 3:] of Mrs. Poe was not favorable enough to suit her husband, to whom he devoted a short paragraph forty-six years later, in his “Personal Memoirs and Recollections of Editorial Life” (Boston; 1852). “Mr. Poe, the father of the late Edgar A. Poe, took offense at a remark on his wife’s acting, and called at my house to, ‘chastise my impertinence,’ but went away without effecting his purpose. Both he and his wife were performers of considerable merit; but vain of their personal accomplishments.” The last mention of Mrs. Poe in Boston, with which I am acquainted, occurs in The Boston Gazette for 1809, and concerns her playing at the Boston Theater, from January 5th to May 12th, at first in pantomime and minor parts, but afterward in what may be called the leading ladies of the drama. On the 17th of April, for example, she played Juliet, and the 17th and 21st of the same month Ophelia. Between these dates, on the 24th of February, she played Mariella in “A Bold Stroke for a Wife,” besides singing a favorite song. For reasons to be stated hereafter, I give the dates of Mrs. Poe’s performances in Boston during this engagement: January 5th, 9th, 12th, 20th; February 10th, 13th, 24th; March 10th, 13th, 20th, 24th; April 3d, 7th, 10th, 15th, 17th, 21st, 24th; and May 1st, 8th, and 12th, 1809.

I have thrown together in the preceding paragraph all that is known about the parents of Poe; and when I say that it is more than the readers of this paper will find in all the biographies which have misrepresented this myth-generating man, I merely intend to say that I have been luckier in obtaining information than others whom I might name; as, indeed, I ought to be, for I believe I am the last who has thought it worth his while to look into it seriously. I have omitted to mention a myth which has attached itself to the memory of Poe’s mother; a myth which originated at West Point, during his brief sojourn there, and which I have since seen printed as a fact — that he was a descendant of Benedict Arnold; in other words; that his mother was a natural daughter of that traitorous personage. I have also omitted to mention that she is said to have been a Mrs. Hopkins before she became Mrs. Poe; but who Mr. Hopkins was and whether she was his widow, or his divorced or abandoned wife, the reporter of this story has not thought fit to inform us, perhaps because he did not inquire.

To have done with the parents of Poe, Griswold assures us that they died within a few weeks of each other, in Richmond; but he carelessly or cautiously abstains from stating when. His omission is supplied by Mr. John H. Ingram, of England, who has made it his business for several years past to instruct Poe’s countrymen in all that relates to him, beginning with his much misunderstood career and his more misunderstood character — by Mr. Ingram I say, who reproduces Griswold’s account of the death of Mr. and Mrs. Poe, specifying the disease of which they died (consumption); and boldly adding the year of that calamity, 1815. Mr. Eugene L. Didier does better, or worse, than this; for, not content to let them depart from this troubled life within a few weeks of each other; he must needs kill them both at once. “In the winter of 1811,” he writes, “Mr. and Mrs. Poe were performing at the Richmond Theater. On the night of the 26th of December the theater was destroyed [column 4:] by fire. Among the seventy persons who perished in this awful calamity were David Poe and his wife. He had escaped from the burning building; but, in the confusion, his wife became separated from him. Returning to look for her, he was caught by the falling timbers, and died in a vain effort to save his wife, whom he loved better than life.” Mr. William F. Gill (the noblest Poeman of them all), whose ambition it is to excell Mr. Ingram as an instructor of Poe’s countrymen, and who has accepted from himself a perpetual retainer to defend the interests of his much-maligned client — Mr. Gill, I say, has, ruthlessly sacrificed Poe’s father in the same conflagration; but has generously spared his mother, as he could not well help doing, seeing that she was dead before it occurred. Mr. Gill prints in his “Life of Poe” her obituary from the Richmond Enquirer of Tuesday, December 10th, 1811: “Died, on Sunday last, Mrs. Poe, one of the actresses of the company now playing on the Richmond boards. By the death of this lady the stage has been deprived of one of its brightest ornaments; and, to say the least of her, she was an interesting actress and never failed to catch the applause and command the admiration of the beholder.” Mr. Gill, who has borrowed much, and not always wisely, borrowed this paragraph from me. He found it in a little memoir of mine, enlarged from a paper in Harper’s Magazine, for an English edition of Poe’s poetical works, which was published by Messrs. George Routledge & Sons, in 1874, and republished here in the same year by Mr. W. J. Widdleton. He is welcome to it, but he should have borrowed more while he was about it; for he should have let his readers know, as I did mine, that Poe’s father had deserted his mother some time before the birth of her last child, and that she was cared for in her illness by the ladies of Richmond. When David Poe died no one knows.

I knew some years since a worthy man of letters, whose self-imposed mission it was to write a life of Beethoven, concerning whom and whose productions he had thought long, and to whom he was brought tonsorially near by the possession of a lock of his white hair. He made a journey to Germany — in some consular capacity, I think — and set about his projected work with such expedition, such divine fury, I may say, that at the end of six years he wrought up an octavo of eight hundred pages, in which he succeeded in bringing the life of the great maestro down to within a year of his birth! I have accomplished rather more than this exhaustive biographer in the column and a half which I have written, for I am now ready to consider an important myth in the life of Poe — his birth. When and where was Poe born? Dr. Griswold says in 1811, and in Baltimore. Mr. James Hannay, Poe’s next biographer, said the same in 1852; and so said all who followed in his footsteps (which were merely Griswold’s) for the next twenty years. I held this opinion myself when I began to write the little paper on Poe in Harper’s Magazine. But something, I have forgotten what, led me to doubt its correctness; for, on referring to that paper, I find that the paragraph relating to Poe’s birthday and birthplace commenced with an “If.” Before I rewrote this paper for English circulation, I was satisfied that Poe was not born in Baltimore, but in Boston; and not in 1811, but in 1809. Precisely how I reached this conclusion I cannot now recall; ­[page 2, column 1:] but I imagine it was through reading and carefully weighing a score or more of letters which were addressed to me at different times by students and admirers of Poe; and which, I am sure, gave me substantial reasons for distrusting the statements of Griswold. If I remember rightly, I settled the date of Poe’s birthday in my own mind on the authority of a memorandum, written in 1860, by Mr. William Wertenbaker, secretary of the University of Virginia, who drew up a brief prècis of Poe’s career as a student while in that institution, and who stated, as a fact within his own knowledge, that he was born on the 19th of February, 1809. Be this, however, as it may, I accepted that date; and, substituting Boston in place of Baltimore, cast my little memoir upon the waters of English criticism. It was abused, I have reason to think, by Mr. Ingram; who, however, was not above helping himself to my facts (to which he was and is heartily welcome) — at least, the one fact that Poe was born in Boston; for he rejected my monthly date, and fixed upon the 19th of January in its stead. He was followed by Mr. Gill, who adopted his day together with my place and year. The same maybe said of Mr. Didier, and I dare say of others, with whose lucabrations I am not acquainted. Why did these gentlemen select the 19th of January as the day of Poe’s birth? They selected it because Poe wrote a story entitled “William Wilson,” which is allowed to be a tolerably accurate history of his school-life in England. William Wilson, they say, was Poe’s alter ego, and if his birthday was the 19th of January, as it certainly is in the story, why, of course, Poe’s birthday was too! This, I conceive, was Mr. Ingram’s exquisite reason for preferring that day to any other. My reason for thinking it was not that day is contained in the dates of the different nights of Mrs. Poe’s appearance at the Boston Theater, in January and February, 1809. I will repeat them: January 5th, 9th, 12th, and 20th; February 10th, 13th, and 24th. I do not see how Poe could have been born on the 19th of January, for the reason that his mother played on the night of the 20th; but I do see that he might have been born on the 19th of February, which occurred in a hiatus of eleven non-performing days, and left a margin of five days in which she might have recovered sufficiently to appear once more. Is this to consider the matter too curiously? I am sure no physician would say so. The next question that occurs is: Did Poe know the date and the place of his birth? To this question no positive answer can be given. If he did not know the day and year of his birth, how could they have been known to his fellow-student, Mr. Wertenbaker? If he did know them, how did he come to write to Dr. Griswold on one occasion that he was born in 1811, and on another that he was born in December, 1813? He was proudly claimed by the South as a Southern author, which he would have been, in a certain sense, if he bad been born in Baltimore. He himself claimed to be a Virginian. Yet he seems to have known better, for in one of his editorials in The Broadway Journal, written in the summer or autumn of 1845, after his return from Boston, where he had made a fiasco in reading “Al Aaraaf,” instead of an original poem, which was expected of him, he declared, patronizingly: “We like Boston. We were born there; and perhaps it is just as well not to mention that we are heartily ashamed of the fact.” This was considered a piece of pleasantry at the time. It has since been ascertained to be a sober fact.

The year 1845 developed a congeries of Poe-myths. It witnessed the publication of his most important poem, “The Raven,” and the publication of a paper upon his life and writings, by Lowell, in Graham’s Magazine, both bearing the date of February, the birth-month of his thirty-sixth year. It witnessed also — the year I mean — the publication of the first collective edition of his poems. I refer to this volume particularly because it contained an absolute myth in the shape of a prefatory note prefixed to “Poems Written in Youth,” which poems were declared to be the crude compositions of his earliest boyhood, and to be printed verbatim, “without alteration from [column 2:] the original edition, the date of which is “too remote to be judiciously, acknowledged.” I do not perceive the force of any objection that might have been urged against the date of the original edition, least of all against its remoteness; for the more remote it was, or could be made to appear, the younger the writer would have been, or would appear to have been, and, of course, the greater a prodigy. The myth, let me say the falsehood, of this note is that the poems it reintroduced to the world were not printed verbatim, from the original or any other edition; but were altered throughout. Poe’s first venture (which is described as a little volume of forty pages — I have not seen it) was entitled “Tamerlane and other Poems,” and was printed in Boston, in 1827. A portion of it, revised and rewritten, was reprinted by him at Baltimore, in 1829, with a prefatory note of two lines before “Tamerlane,” to the effect that that poem, which was printed for publication, was suppressed, through circumstances of a private nature. I do not take it upon me to assert that it was not so suppressed; but I do not quite see, if it was, how it could have figured, as it did, in the bibliography of Kittell’s “Specimens of American Poetry, with Critical and Biographical Notices,” a voluminous collection of current verse, published in Boston, in 1829, where it was stated to be by a Bostonian. It suited Poe to say, in 1829, that the volume was suppressed. It suited him to say, in 1844, or, to let Lowell say, in 1845, that it soon ran through three editions, and excited high expectations of its author’s future distinction in the mind of many competent judges. If I should be told that he was not responsible for what Lowell wrote concerning him and his life and writings, I reply that he was; for, if he did not furnish Lowell with information for his paper, he had the power of revising and correcting it, for it was sent to him for that express purpose. No, it suited him that this myth should have the currency of Lowell’s name, accompanied by two or three others of the same dimensions: as, that he was graduated with the highest honors of his class; which was not true, for the University of Virginia had made no provision for conferring degrees of any kind when he was a student: as, that he made a boyish attempt to join the fortunes of the insurgent Greeks, which ended at St. Petersburg, where he got into difficulties, through want of a passport, from which he was rescued by the American consul and sent home; which was not true, for he was never in Europe after returning to America from his school-days at Stoke Newington; the adventure in question, or something like it, being merely an exaggeration of a freak in which his erratic elder brother, William Henry Leonard, is believed to have indulged: as, that he obtained a dismissal from the Military Academy at West Point on hearing of the birth of a son to his adopted father; which was not true, for he was dismissed (if expelled be not the proper word) for gross neglect of all duty and disobedience of orders. Another myth in this paper was that the little poem “To Helen,” in which Lowell found a smack of ambrosia, was written when the author was only fourteen! I should like to believe that this charming poem was written at so early an age as I should like to believe that Pope’s “Ode on Solitude” was written at an earlier age (“about twelve,” my edition of Pope says); but, unfortunately, neither Pope nor Poe were remarkable for veracity. The “Ode on Solitude” appeared for the first time (if my memory is not at fault) in a letter of Pope’s, written at the age of twenty-eight; and the lines “To Helen” appeared for the first time in a little volume published by Poe, in New York, in 1831, his twenty-third year. If those myths are not enough for one article, I will add another, which Poe himself promulgated in The Broadway Journal — that his poem of “Al Aaraaf,” which he read before the Boston Lyceum, in 1845, was written before he was ten! That is to say, that the volume in which it was first published, in his eighteenth year, which he claimed was suppressed, and which he afterward claimed passed rapidly [column 3:] through three editions, was finally (I mean primarily) printed and published before he had fully completed his tenth year. Clearly, he was a precocious genius as well as a consummate master of Fiction.



In spite of Stoddard’s reservations, Poe’s birthday is unversally accepted as January 19, 1809.


[S:1 - IND, 1880] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Some Myths in the Life of Poe (R. H. Stoddard, 1880)