Text: Thomas Dunn English, “Two Open Letters From Dr. English to Mr. Ingram [Letter II],” Independent (New York, NY), vol. XXXVIII, whole no. 1951, April 22, 1886, pp. 4-5


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[page 4, column 1, continued:]

TWO OPEN LETTERS.

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FROM DR. ENGLISH TO MR. INGRAM.

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LETTER II.

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TO JOHN H. INGRAM.

Sir: — I now propose to consider your reproduction of Poe’s causeless slander of one whose name you affect to conceal under an initial. Poe never made the charge publicly — he feared the resentment of her kinsfolk — and it was by innuendo; but in private letters he shaped and aggravated it; and these, in your eagerness to befoul the dead, you drag from obscurity. Griswold told the truth so far us he told it, about this matter; but not all. This may have been because of ignorance or of a kindness of heart which led him to soften by suppressio veri, which with you seems to be the result of hate or malignity. The misconduct of Poe in the affair brought on our quarrel, and broke up the intimacy of years. I write, then, with knowledge.

Looking back through a long life, of the many acquaintances who have passed away I remember few more worthy of respect [column 2:] and admiration than Elizabeth F. Ellet. She deservedly bore the reputation of a pure and estimable gentlewoman, while her ability as an author was more than respectable. Her “Women of the Revolution,” and other works, were notable contributions to American literature at the time, and still have value. Poe’s attempt to besmirch her spotless character, induced possibly by momentary vexation, was wickedly untrue; and you deserve, for reproducing it, the censure of all lovers of truth and honor.

At the time of Poe’s advent in New York, and for some time afterward, a coterie of literary women used to meet weekly or fortnightly at each others’ houses to discuss literature and “the musical glasses.” Among them were Mrs. Ellet, Mrs. Kirtland, Mrs. Botta (then Miss Lynch), Mrs. Oakes Smith. Mrs. Osgood and others of local celebrity, now forgotten. Each of the hostesses was a mild Mrs. Leo Hunter; and as Poe just then was a lion, paid him a great amount of court. Poe, when not under the influence of liquor, or when you did not cross his opinions, could assume pleasant manners, and, in spite of occasional dogmatism, be an agreeable companion. As he was never opposed in his views by those women, who treated him as an oracle, be put his best self forward, and so became the object of harmless hero worship, which none but a base and vile person could misinterpret. Conspicuous among these admirers was Mrs.. Osgood, with whom he became very intimate, and they paid each other the moat fulsome compliments. With all that, their intimacy, in my judgment, was of the most innocent nature. But the world is censorious, and people — men, women, and Ingrams — began to talk. The result was a flood of scandal, first flowing through the literary circles, and next spreading over the town. I heard of it continually, but gave it no further attention than to brand it as a falsehood. At length it reached the ears of Mrs. Poe. One day her mother came to me, and asked me to do something to sever the connection. “You have more influence with Eddy.” she said, “than any one else; and it’s killing Virginia.” I told her that it would be a delicate matter for me to touch, if it were true; but, as it was without truth, my interference would be impertinent. “You can tell Mrs. Poe, for me,” I said, “to look on it as a wicked falsehood. Mrs. Osgood has a high admiration for Mr. Poe’s ability, so have we all of us,’ and he is flattered by her praises; and that is all there is of it. Their friendship is purely Platonic; and if the matter be let alone, the gossip will die out. Tell her there is nothing in it, and to pay no heed to talkers.” I declined to interfere. Mrs. Clemm tried to argue with me, but I cut her complaints short; and she left me, grumbling, and apparently unconvinced. But what I said must have acted as a placebo, if Mrs. Osgood’s story, which you print, be correct. Still the outside talk did not cease; and the members of the coterie felt obliged to notice what affected one of their own set. They set about it in an awkward way, speaking to Poe directly, and urging him to give less countenance to the scandal by his acts. It was done in the best spirit of friendship, but was impertinent all the same, and Poe took offense at it; for which no one should blame him. But he was as maladroit as the others, and attributed the interference to Mrs. Ellet, of whom, he said, she had better look to her own letters. Here was fresh food for gossip; and the scandal-mongers were off, full cry, on a new scent. It reached the ears of Mrs. Ellet’s brother, who was something of a man, and who sent word to Poe that he must produce those letters for inspection, or own his falsehood. Poe, in a private letter, which you print, makes the charge definite, and says the demand was made after the letters were returned. The statement is untrue, as I have reason to know. For it was after this demand that Poe called at my chambers, There he came, asking me to lend him a pistol to defend himself, saying that he was threatened with violence unless he produced the letters. When I told him to show them, and thus settle the difficulty, he said that he did not choose to be driven to their production. I told him he had no such letters at all, and [column 3:] never had, and advised him to admit the fact, and apologize. He insisted that they were In his possession. His private statement, which you print, of the after demand was an after-invention. It was only one of a series of falsehoods, brought on by his first mis-statement — a statement involving his own dishonor if it had been true. And what confirms this is the sentence in his rejoinder to me, where be says, relating to this affair:

“It is not my purpose to deny any part of the conversation represented to have been held privately [the italic’s are Poe’s] between this person and myself. The details of the conversation, as asserted, I shall not busy myself with attempting to comprehend.”

That very conversation, which occurred in the presence of a third party, taxed him with the false assertion of possessing compromising letters. He did not dare to make the assertion publicly. He said nothing publicly about the demand having been made after surrender. But you sink him deeper in the mire, by printing private letters wherein he replaces innuendo by assertion, and states an untruth which in public he fears to utter.

Your attack on Burton is very unjust. Burton was not alone an actor of admitted eminence, but a clever writer. You assume that Poe gave him no cause of complaint, and that the publisher’s action was captious and arbitrary. Now, as you have summoned George R. Graham, who is still living, as a witness in Poe’s favor, let me tell you his tale about Poe and Burton, as told by Graham to me, in the office of the Daily Journal, at Newark, in the presence of Mr. Joseph Atkinson, then editor-in-chief of that paper. Substantially, it is this:

Burton bad been away for some weeks, playing a star engagement, and left it with Poe to get out the Magazine for the month. On his return, be found that no copy had been given out, and that the number was not printed. Burton taxed Poe with the neglect, and Graham happened to be present at the time. Poe denied at first, but when pressed to the wall, turned upon Burton with a stream of coarse and vulgar abuse. According to Graham it was a most disgusting exhibition. Mr. Graham is one of your own witnesses. Will you attempt to discredit him?

I admit an impartiality of injustice in your book. You hold up Poe, as well as his antagonists, to ridicule and censure. Although you affect to believe Poe a saint, you needlessly expose and degrade him. No one of the general public would else have known that he repaid Graham’s kindness by a lampoon called “The Literary Life of Thingum Bob;” or that, after having held up Wilmer to ridicule as one going about “with a bullet-headed cane in one hand and a bullet-headed child in the Other,” he pretended a friendship for the man. His fortune-hunting matrimonial efforts would have been unknown but for your industry. It is fortunate that you did not have the knowledge of Poe’s career possessed by me and others. Not content with pelting your idol with mud, you endeavor to drag him from his pedestal, by destroying his literary reputation. Then you indulge in sneers here and there; endeavor to show that “The Bells “ — a poem peculiarly Poe’s in conception and execution — was prompted by Mrs. Shew; point out the fact that the main idea of “William Wilson” is that of Calderon’s “Et Enceptada,” as though the originality did not lie in the mode of treatment. The story of the Angel and Hermit in Parnell’s poem is to be found in the Gesta Romanorum; Gower, Spenser and others delved in the same mine; and Shakespeare has reproduced in his “Pericles” the incidents and almost the language of the story of “Apollonius of Tyre,” to be found In the English version published by Bohn, at pages 259 to 299. What then? I repeat that, in these cases, the originality lies in the treatment.

Your crowning and unwarrantable offense against Poe is your labored attempt to strip him of the credit due for his most distinctive piece of art, “The Raven.” You try to show that Poe is indebted for his versification, his refrain and even his general idea to the “Isadore” of Albert Pike; and this you strive to sustain through a number of weary pages. Where the form of meter came from is evident [column 4:] enough as I shall show; but everything else is distinctively Poe’s own.

In the “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship,” previously reviewed by Poe, occur the following stanzas:

With a murmurous stir uncertain, in the air the purple curtain

Swelleth in and swelleth out around her motion. lest pale brows;

While the gliding of the river sends a rippling noise forever

Through the open casement whitened by the moonlight’s slant repose.

 

Said he:Vision of a lady, stand there silent, stand there steady.

Now I see it plainly, plainly; now I cannot hope or doubt —

There, the brows of mild repression — there, the lips of silent passion,

Curved like an archer’s bow to send the bitter arrows out.’

 

Ever, evermore the while in a slaw silence she kept smiling,

And approached him slowly, slowly, in a gliding, measured pace;

With her two white hands extended, as if praying one offended,

And a loot of supplication, gazing earnest in his face.”

In “The Raven,” we have:

And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain

Thrilled me — flied me with fantastic terrors never felt before ;

So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,

‘ ’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber-door —

Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber-door; —

This it is, and nothing more.’

* * * * * * *

“Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,

In there stepped a stalely raven of the Saintly days of yore;

Not the least obeisance made he; not an instant stopped or stayed he;

But with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber-door —

Perched upon a boot of Pallas Just above my chamber-door —

Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

 

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,

By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,

Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,’ I said, art sure no craven,

Ghastly, grim and ancient raven wandering from the Nightly shore —

Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!’

Quoth the raven ‘Nevermore.’ ”

No man of correct judgment will accuse Poe of plagiarism because of this unconscious imitation. He was too often engaged in detecting fancied thefts or imitations in others to lay himself deliberately open to similar charges. In writing his favorable criticism of Mrs. Browning’s fine poem, its cadence was fixed on his mind. The scene where Lady Geraldine visits the despairing poet, who mistakes her for a phantom formed of his love and sorrow, had also expressed itself on Poe, and formed the groundwork of the “Raven”; but this was unknown to himself, and even the lines reproduced from memory in nearly their original shape, he evidently thought his own. But the merits of “The Raven,” as a work of art and genius, are not detracted from by the unconscious borrowing. They do not consist in meter alone, nor in a happy form of expression, happy as much of it is. The weird story, the language in keeping with the subject, on the verge of the grotesque, but never leaving the bourne of the terrible; the admirable way in which the most trivial incidents are invested with interest, the management of the accessories shown without diverting the mind from the narrative; the gradual approach to the climax, and the qualities of the poem as a whole, make It one of the most original and striking in the language. You strive to pick it to pieces piecemeal. That is very much like employing a foot-rule and a tape measure in an examination of the Apollo Belvidere.

I might, if so disposed, have relieved Griswold and others of much of your unjust attacks, and I could readily show that they have been the object of unfounded calumny; but this would involve the exposure of some facts to Poe’s discredit, which you have been unable, in your search among garbage, to find. Therefore. I forbear. The public, outride of scandalmongers, care nothing about Poe’s Indefensible acts as a man. It la not their affair that he got drunk at times, lied at times, [page 4:] and did now and then mean things — driven to the last by poverty. There are his works; and the best of those they can read and enjoy. Biography is the history of an individual and his contemporaries. It should be, if written at all, a record of facts, which your work is decidedly not. There never has been but one biography, that of Johnson. You appear to possess two of the qualities of Boswell; but in two you are lacking. You are conspicuously inexact, and you do not write with clearness and force.

In conclusion, let me defend Poe from one more of your slanders. You endeavor to show that he was an opium eater. Both from our intimacy of years, and as a practicing physician of forty-seven years standing, I know that the charge up to the time of our quarrel, and for some time after, was without foundation, and I do not believe he acquired the habit in the few months before death, that intervened.

THOMAS DUNN ENGLISH.

NEWARK, N. J.


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Notes:

None.

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[S:0 - IND, 1886] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Two Open Letters [Letter 02] (T. D. English, 1886)