Text: William F. Gill, “Chapter 06”, The Life of Edgar Allan Poe, New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1877, pp. 128-179


[page 128:]




On “The Northern Monthly’ — Engagement on the “Mirror” — Testimony of the Poet Willis — First Anonymous Publication of “The Raven” — The Authorship repealed by Poe’s Recitation at a Soirée — Mrs. Browning’s Commendation — Conflicting Opinions as to its Origin — Gilfillan’s Malevolent Recklessness — The Americans of a Quarter of a Century ago — Poe’s Intentional Concealment of Motive — Personal Romances — Testimony of Intimate Personal Friends — Discrepancy of the Poet’s Reading of “The Raven “with his Printed Analysis of it — Origin of Imaginative Compositions — Anecdote of Beethoven — The Clue to “The Raven “ — Analysis of “The Raven “ — Where “The Raven “was written — Mrs. Brennan’s Reminiscences — The “Raven” Room — Insufficient Revenue of the Poet — Price paid for “The Raven” — J. R. Lowell’s Criticism — Lecture in Boston — The Poet’s Mischievous Propensity — Griswold’s Ridiculous Charges — Reply to Boston Criticisms — E. P. Whipple’s Testimony — The Poet’s Social Life — Character of Intellect — Conversational Powers — Mrs. Osgood’s Impressions — Failure with “The Broadway Journal” — “Literati” Papers — The Dum-English [[Dunn-English]] Quarrel — The Garbling of Poe’s Work by Griswold.

IN the autumn of 1844 [[the spring of 1843]], Poe accepted an offer from “The Northern Monthly” [[“The Saturday Museum”]] to become associate editor of that magazine, and removed to New York. While he [page 129:] was connected with this periodical, his life, giving a brief but faithful sketch of the poet, was published in its columns, with a portrait which did Poe’s intellectual head more justice than the caricatures presented in most of the published editions of his works. Griswold makes no mention of this “Life,” of the existence of which he must have been aware. It was, we doubt not, too favorable to its subject, to suit the purposes of the falsifier.

The metropolis was not then the great centre for periodical publications that it has come to be now, and Poe found but scanty return for his efforts, while his position was necessarily humbler than that which he had occupied as editor-in-chief of “Graham’s.”

To eke out his slender means, he accepted, in the autumn of this year, a subordinate position upon “The Mirror,” a daily journal conducted by N. P. Willis and George Morris.

The poet Willis, alluding to his connection with “The Mirror,” writes, —

“Some four or five years since, when editing a daily paper in this city, Mr. Poe was employed by us, for several months, as critic and sub-editor. [page 130:]

This was our first personal acquaintance with him. He resided with his wife and mother at Fordham, a few miles out of town, but was at his desk in the office from nine in the morning till the evening paper went to press. With the highest admiration for his genius, and a willingness to let it atone for more than ordinary irregularity, we were led by common report to expect a very capricious attention to his duties, and occasionally a scene of violence and difficulty. Time went on, however, and he was invariably punctual and industrious. With his pale, beautiful and intellectual face as a reminder of what genius was in him, it was impossible, of course, not to treat him always with deferential courtesy, and, to our occasional request that he would not probe too deep in a criticism, or that he would erase a passage colored too highly with his resentments against society and mankind, he readily and courteously assented — far more yielding than most men, we thought, on points so excusably sensitive. With a prospect of taking the lead in another periodical, he, at last, voluntarily gave up his employment with us, and through all this considerable period, we had seen but one presentment of the [page 131:] man — a quiet, patient, industrious and most gentlemanly person, commanding the utmost respect and good feeling by his unvarying deportment and ability.”*

Poe was engaged upon “The Mirror” for six months, and during this time, in addition to his “fag” work upon the paper, he produced several of his most remarkable works, notably his masterpiece in poetry, “The Raven,” which was first published in the February number of “The American Review,” over the nom de plume of “Quarles,” and immediately arrested general attention.

Poe had at this time the entrée of the select social circle of the metropolis, and frequently attended, sometimes with his fair young wife, the weekly receptions held at the residence of a prominent poetess in Waverly place. At one of these soirées at the request of the accomplished hostess, lie recited “The Raven,”with an effect that fairly electrified the assemblage. From this time the authorship of the poem, of course, became known, and the laurel leaves of fame were showered thickly upon the hitherto comparatively unappreciated author. [page 132:]

Mr. Willis reprinted the poem over Poe’s name, and gave it a send-off in the following enthusiastic words: “We regard it as the most effective single example of fugitive poetry ever published in this country, and it is unsurpassed in English poetry for subtle conception, masterly ingenuity of versification, and consistent sustaining of imaginative lift.”

Mrs. Browning, in a private letter written a few weeks after its publication in England, says, “This weird writing, this power which is felt! has produced a sensation here in England. Some of my friends are taken by the fear of it, and some by the music. I hear of persons who are haunted by the ‘Nevermore,’ and an acquaintance of mine who has the misfortune of possessing a bust of Pallas cannot bear to look at it in the twilight. Then there is a tale going the rounds of the newspapers about mesmerism,* which is throwing us all into ‘most admired disorder’ — dreadful doubts as to whether it can be true, as the children say of ghost stories. The certain thing about it is the power of the writer.”

One of Poe’s relentless biographers, evidently [page 133:] referring to the source of the inspiration of “The Raven,” has presumed recklessly to write that his wife Virginia died a victim to the neglect and unkindness of her husband, “who,” he writes, “deliberately sought her death that he might embalm her memory in immortal dirges.”

Other writers have reiterated this cruel fabrication, and Gilfillan, fiendishly ascribing to the poet passions controlled by the presence of art until they resembled sculptured flame, writes that he caused the death of his wife that he might have a fitting theme for “The Raven.” As the lamented Virginia died more than a year after the publication of “The Raven,” this ingenious theory, it appears, rests upon a purely imaginary basis.

As it is well known that Poe was very tenacious of his literary reputation, and acutely appreciative of the honors that belong to fame, it has been deemed not a little remarkable that he should have put forth what he must have known to have been a remarkable poem, anonymously, and at a time, too, when his name was most prominently known to the literary world. But it must be remembered that Poe lived in an epoch [page 134:] when minds of his stamp were not only not understood nor sympathized with, but were absolutely ridiculed by the world at large.

Of the Americans of this period, Powell, in his “Living Authors,” aptly and ably writes, America is jealous of her victories by sea and land, is proud of advantages with which she has nothing to do, such as Niagara, the Mississippi, and the other wonders of nature. An American points with pride to the magnificent steamboats which ride the waters like things of life.

“Foreigners sometimes smile at the honest satisfaction, even enthusiasm, which lights up the national face when a few hundred troops file down Broadway to discordant drums and squeaking fifes. But all their natural feeling and national pride stops here. So far from the American public taking any interest in their own men of genius, in the triumphs of mind, they absolutely allow others openly to conspire and put down every attempt to establish a national literature.

“The Americans are a shrewd and far-seeing people, but they are somewhat too material. How can America expect her young authors to vindicate her national glory when she treats them with indifference and neglect?” [page 135:]

To the constituency so graphically described by Powell, the genius of Poe was forced to address itself or remain silent forever. That he met its cold, hard, unsympathetic reception with the fierce disdain that found its outlet in his scathing criticisms of the typical men of the time, is not to be wondered at, nor is it less surprising that he should shrink from laying bare the secrets of his soul to those so incapable of comprehending their depths.

When, therefore, in his silent vigils, enthralled by the imaginative ecstasy which often possessed and overpowered him, he conceived and wrought out this marvellous inspiration, what wonder is it that his delicate sensibility should prompt him to conceal from the rude gaze of his material audience the secret springs of his inner consciousness, by printing his chef d‘œuvre over an assumed name, and hedging its origin about with the impenetrable veil of fiction.

Had “The Raven” been, as he described in his paper, “The Philosophy of Composition,” a product of art simply, and not of inspiration, his ambition for fame would infallibly have led him, not only to claim the poem openly from the outset, [page 136:] but to have preluded it with the descriptive analysis, using the verse as an illustration of the alleged philosophy of the composition. To his intimates, Poe frequently spoke of the exalted state, which he defined as ecstasy, in which he wrote his poems of imagination. From one of his nearest friends, who knew him in prosperity and adversity, in sickness and health, we learn that none of Poe’s romances were more fictitious than his romances about himself and his writings, and his accepted analysis of “The Raven” is confessedly as thorough a specimen of plausible fabrication as is his familiar story of “The Facts in the Case of Monsieur de Valdemar.” Like all persons of a highly wrought condition, he resented the slightest approach from the world at large, and from practical people in particular, to the inner citadel of his soul, and he knew well .

how to use his invincible weapons of defence.

Many admirers of the poet’s genius will doubtless prefer that the origin of the inspiration of “The Raven” shall remain enshrouded in the chiaro-oscuro of the mystic suggestiveness of the verse.

But in a much wider circle, there unquestionably [page 137:] exists a pardonable desire to learn the true source of this wonderful poem, that, written in any age in any language, would have given to its author a world-wide fame.

Postulating the opinions which we venture to advance here, upon the result of a process of psychological introversion, which conclusion is confirmed by several of Poe’s most intimate acquaintances now living, strengthened by a chain of conclusive circumstantial evidence, we have arrived at a theory of the origin of the poem that has received the approval of Mr. George R. Graham, and others of Poe’s friends.

A letter received from Mr. Graham, May 1st, 1877, in this connection, will be read with interest, from the writer’s near and friendly intimacy with the poet.

W. F. GILL, Esq.

DEAR SIR: From my near acquaintance with Edgar A. Poe at the time “The Raven” was written, I have no doubt that your theory as to the source of the inspiration of The Raven is in the main correct. It was his foible to mislead and mystify his readers.

His published analysis of “The Raven” is a good specimen of his capability in this kind of fiction.

Your impression that the poet was accessible to fear, is [page 138:] entirely correct He was singularly sensitive to outside influences, more so than most imaginative men.

His organization, as I have always said, was extremely delicate and fine. Hence his impressibility, and subjection at times to influences which would not have a feather’s weight with ordinary men.

Even when absorbed in writing, I noticed that a sudden breath of air, a noise unheard by others around him, would startle him.

He disliked the dark, and was rarely out at night when I knew him. On one occasion he said to me, “I believe that demons take advantage of the night to mislead the unwary” — “although, you know,” he added, “I don’t believe in them.”

The mysteries of his inner life were never revealed to any one, but his intimates well understood that to mystify his hearer was a strong element of his mind.

Yours very truly,  

New York, May 1, 1877.

It is a singular fact that Poe’s reading of “The Raven” in private, was totally at variance with the reading of it as a mere composition.

Had it been constructed, as described by him in his essay on composition, his reading would, unquestionably, have been in accordance with this description, for Poe was too good an elocutionist to fail to adequately voice his conceptions. [page 139:]

As a mere composition, it is impossible to give to the reading of the poem a tithe of the vraisemblance which attaches to it, when rendered according to the theory of its foundation upon an actual experience of the poet.

But for Poe’s evident intent to conceal his authorship of the poem, there would be but little expectation of finding any clue to the source of its inspiration. But the fact of the deliberate and exceptional concealment evidences conclusively enough that there was, in the poet’s own experience, some basis of fact whereon his imaginative structure was erected.

That some of the most exquisite imaginative fabrics ever constructed have been wrought from the suggestions afforded by some special experience, or by a chance incident or circumstance, there are many familiar examples to demonstrate.

Beethoven’s beautiful “Moonlight Sonata” was suggested by a romantic incident during the composer’s sojourn at Bonn. Mrs. Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was a special inspiration which came to her, after witnessing a romantic moonlight march of the troops during the war of the American rebellion. [page 140:]

In seeking for the clue to “The Raven,” we find, in recalling the situation of the poet at this time, that he was living at Bloomingdale, New York.

While at this place, and previous to the appearance of “The Raven,” his child-wife, Virginia, whom he loved with a purity and intensity that was little short of adoration, was prostrated by a serious illness, which had previously afflicted her, and for weeks her life hung by a thread. Animation was at times, indeed, seemingly suspended, and on one dreary December night, the poet was agonized to find her cold and breathless, apparently dead.

In his lonely, silent vigils in what was, to all intents and purpose, the presence of death, many strange imageries and much bitter self-accusation naturally came to him. Although uniformly kind and tender to his wife, he had been weak and erring from his unfortunate susceptibility to drink, and an exaggerated sense of wrong done to his lost loved one, through his weakness, not unnaturally came to him at this time, exciting the most irrational remorse. His unreasoning, agonized repining, undoubtedly took such complete possession of him as to completely surcharge his [page 141:] mind with the imaginative reveries “that no mortal ever dared to dream before;” and in picturing to himself his wife as departed, his remorse also forbade him any hope of meeting her in the distant Aidenn of the future. With the added factor of some fugitive bird, or domestic pet (the Poes always kept them) breaking in upon his wild reveries with some slight interruption which the poet’s distorted fancy exaggerated into some supernatural visitant, an adequate basis for his masterpiece is found.

That this suggestion of the possible origin of “The Raven” is at least plausible, an analysis of the construction of the poem, coupled with the peculiar characteristics of the poet, will perhaps evidence.

Like many persons of an imaginative, nervous temperament, Poe was susceptible, in certain moods, to a positive sense of the supernatural. This sense he has defined in his letters describing visions suggesting singular fancies.

In his normal state, he did not possess the element of fear; but when his mind was overwrought to the extent that it frequently was, he was susceptible to impressions that at other times would have affected him very differently. [page 142:]

We find this dread of the supernatural barely hinted at in the first verse, wherein his weariness and loneliness are principally depicted.

The second verse simply describes his isolation, and his sorrow for his lost love. The train of thought inspired by his breathing his hopeless sorrow, is quickly followed by the self-accusation of his remorse for his past, and the vision of an accusing fate dawns upon him, as he recalls the sharp sound that interrupted his loneliness, and strange terrors overcome him.

He is, in fact, beside himself with fear and, as a person in such a state would be likely to do, he endeavors to allay his imaginative dread by ascribing them to some commonplace cause:

“ ’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door, —

Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door:

This it is, and nothing more.”

He nerves himself up to the effort required to throw off his supernatural terror, and opens the door to discover the cause of the noise. He finds nothing but the darkness. His fears, not having been dispelled, as they would have been had he at this time discovered some practical cause for [page 143:] the interruption, are naturally confirmed, and new visions are inspired, and the supposed mysterious visitant takes the form of the spirit of his lost one.

In an ecstasy of dread and excitement, he returns to his lonely watch, only to be again interrupted by a similar noise at the window.

To his delight and surprise, his mysterious visitor takes the welcome form of a truant bird, or some other pet, that has escaped, and returned after the house was closed for the night.

His supernatural dread immediately gives place to a sense of relief at the material presence of his dumb visitor, and, pacified for the moment, his imaginative fears take flight, and he sits down and merrily chaffs his unexpected guest, glad of any means of occupying his attention and taking his mind off* from the morbid imaginings that had possessed it. But under all the would-be blithesome colloquy with his visitor, his fancy will revert to the hopeless dread that has overpowered him, and like the haunted criminal in MM. Erckmann and Chatrian’s drama of “The Bells,” his imagination coins but one word in answer to his every query; and as Matthias Kant, in the [page 144:] play, is pursued everywhere by the weird jingle of the bells, so the mocking “Nevermore!” seemed to hover in the air, sounding the knell of his lost hopes.

The refrain is not, however, to our mind, invested with any supernatural suggestiveness in the earlier portions of the poem. Were it so, the poet would have indicated it in the verse. On the contrary, he writes, —

“Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,

Though its answer little meaning, little relevancy, bore:”

clearly indicating that his impression was simply one of surprise, not, at first, of fear.

This idea is confirmed in the opening line of the twelfth stanza of the poem:

“But the raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,”

which clearly evidences that, up to this point, the impression produced by the appearance of the bird, had not excited any other emotions than the very natural ones of surprise and amusement. But immediately after this, the poet permits himself to do a very hazardous thing for his peace of mind, for he betook himself “to linking fancy [page 145:] unto fancy” until, at the end of the next stanza, we find him just where he was at the beginning, the lighter train of thought suggested by the entrance of his visitor having merged itself in the reminiscences of his lost Lenore, with whom, for the first time in the course of the interview, it occurs to him to connect the bird.

Nothing, it seems to us, is at once so natural and ingenious as the manner of the leading up, in the verse, to this necessary connection of the bird with the subject of the poet’s imageries.

The careless, blithesome opening line of the twelfth stanza, already quoted, is in such bold contrast to the sad, closing line of the next stanza that it seems inexplicable that these opposing ideas could have been so congruously reconciled by so simple a device as the deft placing of the “cushioned seat” with its “violet velvet lining.”

From this point, the atmosphere of the scene changes, and becomes merged in the supernatural; the changes of the atmosphere being clearly indicated by the lines, —

“Then me thought the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer

Swung by seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.” [page 146:]

The bird, no longer a bird to the distorted vision of the poet, assumes to his gaze the shape, first, of an angel, then of an avenging demon.

In one moment of rhapsody, he grasps with frantic joy at the fitful hope of “Nepenthe “for his remorse, only to be cast down to the depth is of despair by the re-action which succeeds this stillborn hope.

Invested by the poet’s fancy with the spirit of prophecy, the bird from that moment assumes to him the form of a Nemesis, and replies to his plaints with the oracular solemnity of a remorseless fate. There are no bounds to the mental anguish depicted in the stanza beginning, —

“Be that word our sign of parting,”

and no limit to the abject despair portrayed in the following, the closing, stanza.

In voicing his imaginary conception in verse, it is not singular that Poe should have selected the raven as typical of his fateful visitor; for the raven has, for ages past, been renowned as symbolical of ill-omen, and for the purposes of the narration of the story, a talking bird was indispensable. [page 147:] What other than the raven could have been effectively employed?

The refrain “Nevermore!” was not less obviously selected, as suggestive, both in sense and sound, of the poet’s fateful inspiration.

It will, we think, be conceded that the spontaneity which is an all-pervading characteristic of such of the poems as are known to have been inspired by some actual person, such as “To Helen,” “Annabel Lee” and “For Annie,” exists not less palpably in “The Raven.” Like these others, it sings itself, to a strange melody, it is true, but not less naturally or truly, and with an exalted beauty of rhythm that seems born of a special inspiration.

The house where “The Raven “was written, stands on a rocky and commanding eminence, a few hundred feet from the comer of Eighty-fourth street and the St. Nicholas boulevard, formerly the Bloomingdale road. It is a plain old-fashioned, double-framed dwelling, two stories high, with eight windows on each side and one at either gable.

It has a pointed roof, flanked by two tall brick chimneys. [page 148:]

Old and weather-beaten, it now arrests the attention of the passer-by in a neighborhood where most of the houses are of modem construction.

No date can be found for the erection of this quaint building, but it is known that nearly a hundred years ago it gave shelter to General Washington and his officers.,

A Mrs. Mary Brennan, who occupied the house for forty-seven years, knew it as bearing a reputation for antiquity before she moved into it.

To Mrs. Brennan it was that Poe, in the early part of the spring of 1844, applied for rooms during the season.

At that time the house was located among the picturesque surroundings of primeval trees, and the beauty of the place had not then been marred by rock-blasting and street-cutting.

Virginia and Mrs. Clemm were, of course, with the poet. They lived together in “The Raven room during the day, and at night the mother-in-law retired to a small chamber down stairs.

Poe called Virginia “Diddy [[Sissy]],” and Mrs. Clemm “Muddie.”* They received no visitors, and took their meals in their room by themselves. [page 149:]

[[The House where “The Raven” was written. And The Room where “The Raven“ was Written]]

His landlady recalls the poet as a shy, solitary, taciturn person, fond of rambling alone through the woods or of sitting on a favorite stump of a tree down near the banks of the Hudson River. There she has often observed him gesticulating wildly, and loudly and excitedly soliloquizing. She speaks of him as eccentric, and yet as very quiet and gentlemanly in his manners. He wore, at this time, a small moustache, which he had a habit of nervously twirling.

The “Raven “room had two windows in front, and two at the back, facing the woods.

When not at his favorite seat by the river’s brink, he would place himself at one of the front windows, and with Virginia by his side, watch for hours the fading glories of the summer evening skies.

At this time, although engaged upon “The Mirror,” and writing for several magazines, his revenues were pitifully small. He was able to pay for his board, but, beyond that, his needs were but scantily met.

The “Raven” room is little altered since the time Poe occupied it. It has a modem mantelpiece, painted black and most elaborately carved. [page 150:]

Poe’s name may be found in fine letters cut upon one side of it. His writing-table stood by one of the front windows, and, while seated before it, he could look down upon the rolling waters of the Hudson and over at the Palisades beyond. It was a fitting dwelling for a poet, and though not far from the city’s busy hum, the atmosphere of solitude and remoteness was as actual, as if the spot had been in the heart of the Rocky Mountains.

Poe finished “The Raven” in the winter of 1844, and remained with Mrs. Brennan most of the time, until the middle of the following summer, when he removed to the city proper.

It is gratifying to be able to record that during the entire period of Poe’s stay at this house he carried himself with exemplary correctness, for the reason, undoubtedly, that he was far removed from the social temptations which so frequently beset him in other places.

One of the most amusing Griswoldisms to be found in the reverend doctor’s memoir of Poe is his allusion to the public’s appreciation of the poet, and to the compensation paid him for his work.

“It is not true,” he says, “as has been frequently [page 151:] alleged since Mr. Poe’s death, that his writings Were above the popular taste, and therefore without a suitable market in this country. His poems were worth as much to magazines as those of Bryant and Longfellow (though none of the publishers paid him half as large a price for them), and his tales were as popular as those of Willis, who has been commonly regarded as the best magazinist of his time.”

Dr. Griswold’s parenthesis is as neat a specimen of a Hibernianism as can be instanced. But the doctor’s reputation among those who knew him best, was not that of a logician. In fact, a gentleman of the highest culture, a contemporary of Griswold, now living in New York, speaks of him as one of those characters in whom the habit of lying had come to be in such a degree a second nature, as to be excusable on the ground of the falsifier’s personal irresponsibility for what was not always a conscious act.

Poe got ten dollars for “The Raven,” not, in those times, it would seem, a sum so absolutely insignificant as has been alleged by some of his biographers, for, it must be remembered, it appeared anonymously as originally published. [page 152:]

Still, considering the artistic merits of the poem, the material quid pro quo was not munificent, although the author was unquestionably repaid ten-fold in the rich fruits which it brought to him in what was more precious than silver or gold.

The fame which “The Raven” gave to him also justified bringing out a new and improved collection of poems, including his masterpiece, issued by Messrs. Wiley & Putnam, and also two different selections from his “Tales;” but the prices of books were then so low, and the reading public so limited, that he reaped but little pecuniary advantage from these volumes.

In “Graham’s Magazine” for February, 1845, appeared a portrait of Poe, accompanied by a biographical sketch by Professor James Russell Lowell. That this is the ablest and most notable of the many sketches of Poe that have appeared, goes without saying, for no other writer as gifted with every attribute that goes to make the poet and the critic, has ever taken pen in hand in the name and for the weal of Poe.

Of the poet’s earlier poems, Professor Lowell writes, “We call them the most remarkable boyish poems that we have ever read. We know of [page 153:] none that can compare with them for maturity of purpose and a nice understanding of the effects of the language and metre.” Of the lines “To Helen,” he says, “The grace and symmetry of the outline are such as few poets ever attain. There is a smack of ambrosia about it.”

On his analysis of Poe’s genius, Lowell writes, — “Mr. Poe has two of the prime qualities of genius: a faculty of vigorous, yet minute, analysis, and a wonderful fecundity of imagination. The first of these faculties is as needful to the artist in words, as a knowledge of anatomy is to the artist in colors or in stone. This enables him to conceive truly, to maintain a proper relation of parts, and to draw a correct outline, while the second groups, fills up and colors. Both of these Mr. Poe has displayed with singular distinctness in his prose works, the last predominating in his earlier tales, and the first in his later ones. In judging of the merit of an author, and assigning him his niche among our household gods, we have a right to regard him from our own point of view, and to measure him by our own standard. But in estimating the amount of power displayed in his works, we must be governed [page 154:] by his own design, and, placing them by the side of his own ideal, find how much is wanting. We differ from Mr. Poe in his opinions of the objects of art. He esteems that object to be the creation of beauty, and perhaps it is only in the definition of that word that we disagree with him. But in what we shall say of his writings, we shall take his own standard as our guide. The temple of the god of song is equally, accessible from every side, and there is room enough in it for all who bring offerings, or seek an oracle.

“In his tales, Mr. Poe has chosen to exhibit his power chiefly in that dim region which stretches from the very utmost limits of the probable into the weird confines of superstition and unreality. He combines, in a very remarkable manner, two faculties which are seldom found united: a power of influencing the mind of the reader by the impalpable shadows of mystery, a nd a minuteness of detail which does not leave a pin or a button unnoticed. Both are, in truth, the natural results of the predominating quality of his mind, to which we have before alluded, analysis. It is this which distinguishes the artist. [page 155:] His mind at once reaches forward to the effect to be produced. Having resolved to bring about certain emotions in the reader, he makes all subordinate parts tend strictly to the common centre. Even his mystery is mathematical to his own mind. To him x is a known quantity all along. In any picture that he paints, he understands the chemical properties of all his colors. However vague some of his figures may seem, however formless the shadows, to him the outline is as clear and distinct as that of a geometrical diagram. For this reason’ Mr. Poe has no sympathy with Mysticism. The Mystic dwells in the mystery, is enveloped with it; it colors all his thoughts; it effects his optic nerve especially, and the commonest things get a rainbow edging from it. Mr. Poe, on the other hand, is a spectator ab extrà. He analyzes, he dissects, he watches

—— ‘with an eye serene,

The very pulse of the machine,’

for such it practically is to him, with wheels and cogs and piston-rods, all working to produce a certain end. [page 156:]

“This analyzing tendency of his mind balances the poetical, and, by giving him the patience to be minute, enables him to throw a wonderful reality into his most unreal fancies.A monomania he paints with great power. He loves to dissect one of these cancers of the mind, and to trace all the subtle ramifications of its roots. In raising images of horror, also, he has a strange success; conveying to us, sometimes by a dusky hint, some terrible doubt which is the secret of all horror. He leaves to Imagination the task of finishing the picture, a task to which only she is competent.

‘For much imaginary work was there;

Conceit deceitful, so compact, so kind,

That for Achilles’ image stood his spear

Grasped in an armed hand; himself behind

Was left unseen, save to the eye of mind.’

“Beside the merit of conception, Mr. Poe’s writings have also that of form. His style is highly finished, graceful, and truly classical. It would be hard to find a living author who had displayed such varied powers. As an example of his style, we would refer to one of his tales, ‘The House of Usher,’ in the first volume of his [page 157:] ‘Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque.’ It has a singular charm for us; and we think that no one could read it without being strongly moved by its serene and sombre beauty. Had its author written nothing else, it would alone have been enough to stamp him as a man of genius, and the master of a classic style. In this tale occurs, perhaps, the most beautiful of his poems.

“The great masters of imagination have seldom resorted to the vague and the unreal as sources of effect. They have not used dread and horror alone, but only in combination with other qualities, as means of subjugating the fancies of their readers. The loftiest muse has ever a household and fireside charm about her. Mr, Poe’s secret lies mainly in the skill with which he has employed the strange fascination of mystery and terror. In this his success is so great and striking as to deserve the name oif art, not artifice. We cannot call his materials the noblest or purest, but we must concede to him the highest merit of construction.”

Of his abilities as a critic, Lowell says, —

“As a critic, Mr. Poe was aesthetically deficient. Unerring in his analysis of dictions, [page 158:] metres and plots, he seemed wanting in the fac ulty of perceiving the profounder ethics of art. His criticisms are, however, distinguished for scientific precision and coherence of logic. They have the exactness, and at the same time the coldness, of mathematical demonstrations. Yet th stand in strikingly refreshing contrast. with the vague generalisms and sharp personalities of the day. If deficient in warmth, they are also without the heat of partisanship. They are especially valuable as illustrating the great truth, too generally overlooked, that analytic power is a subordinate quality of the critic.

On the whole, it may be considered certain that Mr. Poe has attained an individual eminence in our literature which he will keep. He has given proof of power and originality. He has done that which could only be done once with success or safety, and the imitation or repetition of which would produce weariness.”

After six months of service with “The Mirror,” Poe accepted an offer from Mr. C. H. Briggs to join him in conducting a new literary gazette, “The Broadway Journal.” He wrote many important criticisms for the columns of “The Broadway,” [page 159:] among which the more notable were a paper, on Mrs. Browning’s (then Miss Barrett’s) poems, and an essay on plagiarism. The latter was not in his best vein nor his best mood, and, we doubt not, from private letters that we have seen, that he sincerely regretted the animus which he permitted himself to bring to this article.

In March of this year (1845), he delivered his lecture on “The Poets and Principles of Poetry” before the Society Library of New York.

The New England Lyceum had, even at this early period, begun to bud, and the favorable mention of the poet’s poetic lecture drew forth an invitation to deliver a poem before the Boston Lyceum.

Apropos of Poe’s acceptance of this invitation, and the circumstances incident to its fulfilment. Dr. Griswold devotes considerable space to an elaborate misstatement of the affair. Our lecture managers and lecture public were more exacting twenty-five years ago, on some points, than at the present time. Now it suffices for a reputable celebrity to show himself upon the rostrum. Provided he does not occupy too much time (one [page 160:] hour or an hour and fifteen minutes is about the fashionable limit), he maybe sure of copious applause, of fervent congratulations from beaming managers, and a plethoric purse upon retiring. Then O insatiable manager and exacting public! the best literary work expressly performed for the occasion was demanded, or woe betide the celebrity who failed to meet these requirements!

Poe was probably fully conscious of this, and, not unlike other geniuses in the history of the literary world, was driven well-nigh frantic in contemplation of his task of the “written-expressly-for-this-occasion poem.” It ended as most of these unequal contests between inspiration and necessity have ended time and time again. The day arrived, and no new creations had been evolved from the goaded and temporarily irresponsive brain. He went to Boston to fill his engagement, nerved to meet the ordeal by a spirit which brought him compensation for his anxiety, — a spirit which Mr. E. P. Whipple, the distinguished essayist, at that time immediately associated with Poe, most aptly describes as intellectual mischief. He could not do what he had been invited to do: well, he would make them believe [page 161:] that he had filled the demand, if he could, and then honestly own up, and let them laugh at him and with him over the juvenile poem he gave.

Dr. Griswold makes a labored effort to show that Poe’s failure to meet his engagement to the letter was due to cares, anxieties, and “feebleness of will.” The charge of feebleness of will, applied to Poe in his strictly literary capacity, is perhaps one of the most sapient bits of analysis of which the reverend and profound doctor has delivered himself. As regards Dr. Griswold’s mention of the assistance of Mrs. Osgood, desired by Poe, it is so manifestly absurd that the biographer’s ingenuity and invention fail to enlist any credence in this bit of fiction.

The literary world of Boston, twenty-five years ago, was marked by characteristics that rendered it anything but liberal and indulgent. Had Poe had the fortunate tact to disarm his audience by “owning up” at the outset, and in advance, deftly knuckling, as he might have done, to its boasted literary acumen and perceptiveness, all might have been well. But he chose rather to indulge his mischievous propensity, to his cost, as it afterwards proved. In his card in “The Broadway [page 162:] Journal,” the poet, in acknowledging his confbs8ion to a company of gentlemen at a supper which took place after the reading, truly says, in closing, We should have waited a couple of days.” He should indeed have waited; . for among the company was a pitcher that could not contain the water, and the premature leak, being made public, naturally aroused a storm of indignant criticism upon the poet’s assumption. His long poem had been applauded to the echo, and the reading of The Raven “afterwards had sent the audience home in the best of spirits. Poe was too frank and impulsive to keep the joke to himself, and, finding that he had not taken in all of the men with brains who received him, he, without a word of solicitation, made a clean breast of it.

The joke was too good to keep. It was very speedily ventilated, and of course got to newspaporial headquarters in a very short time. The poet was accordingly pretty thoroughly scarified by the outraged puritanical press of proper Boston, and had the temerity to reply in the columns of “The Broadway,” of which he had become, in October, 1845, the sole proprietor. [page 163:]

His account is worth reproducing, as Griswold has made some special contradictions of the poet’s statements, which cannot be permitted to stand. Poe’s reply is founded upon a paragraph which appeared in “Noah’s Sunday Times,” based upon an article in the “Boston Transcript” severely commenting upon “the poem.”

“Our excellent friend, Major Noah, has suffered himself to be cajoled by that most beguiling of all beguiling little divinities. Miss Walter, of ‘The Transcript.’ We have been looking all over her article with the aid of a taper, to see if we could discover a single syllable of truth in it — and really blush to acknowledge that we cannot. The adorable creature has been telling a parcel of fibs about us, by way of revenge for something that we did to Mr. Longfellow (who admires her very much), and for calling her ‘a pretty little witch’ into the bargain. The facts of the case seem to be these: We were invited to ‘deliver’ (stand and deliver) a poem before the Boston Lyceum. As a matter of course, we accepted the invitation. The audience was ‘large and distinguished.’ Mr. Cushing* preceded us [page 164:] with a very capital discourse. He was much applauded. On arising we were most cordially received. We occupied some fifteen minutes with an apology for not ‘delivering,’ as is usual in such cases, a didactic poem; a didactic poem, in our opinion, being precisely no poem at all. After some further words — still of apology — for the ‘indefiniteness’ and ‘general imbecility’ of what we had to offer — all so unworthy a Bostonian audience — we commenced, and with many interruptions of applause, concluded. Upon the whole, the approbation was considerably more (the more the pity too) than that bestowed upon Mr. Cushing. When we had made an end, the audience, of course, rose to depart; and about one tenth of them, probably, had really departed, when Mr. Coffin, one of the managing committee, arrested those who remained, by the announcement that we had been requested to deliver ‘The Raven.’ We delivered ‘The Raven’ forthwith — (without taking a receipt) — were very cordially applauded again — and this was the end of it — with the exception of the sad tale invented to suit her own purposes, by that amiable little enemy of ours. Miss Walter. We shall [page 165:] never call a woman ‘a pretty little witch’ again as long as we live.

“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. The Bostonians are very well in their way. Their hotels are bad. Their pumpkin pies are delicious. Their poetry is not so good. Their common is no common thing — and the duck-pond might answer — if its answer could he heard, for the frogs. But with all these good qualities, the Bostonians have no soul. They have always evinced toward us, individually, the basest ingratitude for the services we rendered them in enlightening them about the originality of Mr. Longfellow.

“When we accepted, therefore, an invitation to ‘deliver’ a poem in Boston, we accepted it simply and solely because we had a curiosity to know how it felt to be publicly hissed — and because we wished to see what effect we could produce by a neat little impromptu speech in reply. Perhaps, however, we overrated our own importance, or the Bostonian want of common civility, which is not quite so manifest as one or two of their editors would wish the public to [page 166:] believe. We assure Major Noah that he is wrong. The Bostonians are well-bred, as very dull persons generally are. Still, with their vile ingratitude staring us in the eyes, it could scarcely be supposed that we would put ourselves to the trouble of composing for the Bostonians anything in the shape of an original poem. We did not. We had a poem of about five hundred lines, lying by us — one quite as good as new — one, at all events, that we considered would answer sufficiently well for an audience of Transcendentalists. That we gave them; it was the best that we had for the price, and it did answer remarkably well. Its name was not ’ The Messenger Star.’ Who but Miss Walter would ever think of so delicious a little bit of invention as that? We had no name for it at all. The poem is what is occasionally called a ‘juvenile’ poem, but the fact is, it is any thing but juvenile now, for we wrote it, printed it, and published it, in book form, before we had completed our tenth year. We read it verbatim from a copy now in our possession, and which we shall be happy to show at any moment to any of our inquisitive friends. We do not, ourselves, think the poem a remarkably [page 167:] good one; it is not sufficiently transcendental. Still it did well enough for the Boston audience, who evinced characteristic discrimination in understanding, and especially applauding all those knotty passages which we ourselves have not yet been able to understand.

“As regards the anger of ‘The Boston Times,’ and one or two other absurdities — as regards, we say, the wrath of Achilles — we incurred it, or rather its manifestation, by letting some of our cat out of the bag a few hours sooner than we had intended. Over a bottle of champagne, that night, we confessed to Messrs. Cushing, Whipple, Hudson, Fields, and a few other natives, who swear not altogether by the frog-pond — we confessed, we say, the soft impeachment of the hoax. Et hinc illæ iræ. We should have waited a couple of days.”

“It is scarcely necessary to suggest,” writes Griswold, “that this must have been written before he had quite recovered from the long intoxication which maddened him at the time to which it refers; that he was not born in Boston; that the poem was not published in his tenth year, and that the ‘hoax’ was all an after-thought.” [page 168:]

That Poe never composed, or was capable of composing, any kind of writing while under the influence of drink, is well known; and that he had his wits about him in this matter, is sufficiently evident from his general adherence in his reply, to the authenticated facts of the case.

That he was born in Boston, is now universally known to be true, and Griswold could much mor readily have substantiated this fact than we, who, like many others, misled by the reckless misstatements of Dr. Griswold, have been obliged, after a lapse of a quarter of a century, to seek for the true facts, which time has not infrequently obliterated. That the hoax was not an after-thought, we have Mr. E. P. Whipple’s testimony to attest; his account corresponding, as related to us, precisely to that of the poet in his ironical reply to his critics. As to his age when the poem was written, as it has been proved that his other statements were truthful, he should have the benefit of the doubt. There was no plea of illness, as Griswold alleges, as an excuse for delivering the juvenile. It was simply a mischievous conceit upon the part of the poet, which he justified to himself by the contempt in which he held the [page 169:] Boston public, or, as he termed them, the Frogpondians, of that period.

Some agreeable reminiscences of the poet’s social life at this period, as well as faithful impressions of the character of his intellect, have been given by contemporaries of Poe, whose palmiest days were, undoubtedly, passed in the select literary circles of the metropolis which centred about the home of the prominent authoress to whom we have previously alluded.

The author of the monograph, “Poe and his Critics,” writes, quoting from the published comments of a woman of fine genius, prominently known in the social circle in which Poe moved: “It was in the brilliant circles that assembled in the winter of 1845-6 at the houses of Dr. Dewey, Miss Anna C. Lynch, Mr. Lawson and others, that we first met Edgar Poe. His manners were, at these reunions, refined and pleasing, and his style and scope of conversation that of a gentleman and scholar. Whatever may have been his previous career, there was nothing in his appearance or manner to indicate his excesses. He delighted in the society of superior women, and had an exquisite perception of all graces of manner [page 170:] and shades of expression. He was an admiring listener and an unobtrusive observer.

We all recollect the interest felt, at the time, in anything emanating from his pen; the relief it was from the dulness of ordinary writers; the certainty of something fresh and suggestive.

“His critiques were read with avidity; not that he convinced the judgment, but that people felt their ability and their courage. Right or wrong, he was terribly in earnest.” Mrs. Whitman adds, “Like De Quincey, he never supposed anything — he always knew.

“The peculiar character of his intellect seemed without a prototype in literature. He had more than De Quincey’s power of analysis with a constructive nicety and completeness of which the great English essayist has given no indication.”

In evidence of the habitual courtesy and good-nature noticeable to all who knew him in domestic and social life, the same writer narrates an incident that occurred at one of the soirées to which we have alluded: “A lady noted for her great lingual attainments, wishing to apply a wholesome check to the vanity of a young author, proposed inviting him to translate for the [page 171:] company a difficult passage in Greek, of which language she knew him to be profoundly ignorant, although given to rather pretentious display of Greek quotations in his published writings.

“Poe’s earnest and persistent remonstrance against this piece of méchancete alone averted the embarrassing test.”

As a conversationist, the poet possessed a fascination and individuality that compelled the admiration of all who came within its spell.

Even Dr. Griswold is forced to join hands with the poet’s friends in speaking of Poe’s matchless gift, and admits that his conversation was at times almost “supra-mortal in its eloquence;” that “his large and variably expressive eyes looked repose, or shot fiery tumult into theirs who listened, while his own face glowed, or was changeless in pallor, as his imagination quickened his blood or drew it back, frozen, to his heart.”

We cannot, from a reading of this photographic drawing of one of the poet’s most characteristic traits, refrain from thinking that Griswold really understood Poe more truly than he wrote of him, for, as Mrs. Whitman very aptly says in this connection, “These traits are not the [page 172:] possible accompaniments of attributes which Dr. Griswold has elsewhere ascribed to him.”

Of her own impressions of the poet’s gift of speech she writes, “The unmatched charm of his conversation consisted in its genuineness. As a conversationist we do not remember his equal. We have heard the veteran Landor called by high authority the best talker in England, discuss with scathing sarcasm the popular writers of the day, convey his political animosities by fierce invectives on ‘the pretentious coxcomb Albert* and the cunning knave Napoleon,’ or describe in words of strange depth and tenderness the peerless charm of goodness and the na├»ve social graces in the beautiful mistress of Gore house, ‘the most gorgeous Lady Blessington.’

“We have heard the Howadji talk of the gardens of Damascus till the air seemed purpled and perfumed with its roses.

“We have listened to trenchant and vivid talk of the autocrat, to the brilliant and exhaustless colloquial resources of John Neal and Margaret Fuller. [page 173:]

‘We have heard the racy talk of Orestes Brownson, in the old days of his freedom and power, have listened to the serene wisdom of Alcott, and treasured up memorable sentences from the golden lips of Emerson.

“Unlike the conversational power evinced by any of these, was the earnest, opulent, unpremeditated speech of Edgar Poe. Like his writings, it presented a combination of qualities rarely met with in the same person; a cool, decisive judgment, a wholly unconventional courtesy and sincere grace of manner, and an imperious enthusiasm which brought all hearers within the circle of its influence.”

J. M. Daniel, Esq., United States Minister at Turin,* who knew Poe well at this time, says, “His conversation was the very best we have ever listened to. We have never heard any other so suggestive of thought, or any from which one gained so much. On literary subjects it was the essence of correct and profound criticism divested of all formal pedantries and introductory ideas, the kernel clear of the shell. He was not [page 174:] a brilliant talker in the common after-dinner sense of the word; he was not a maker of fine points or a frequent sayer of funny things. What he said was prompted entirely by the moment, and seemed uttered for the pleasure of uttering it.

“In his animated moods he talked with an abstracted earnestness, as if he were dictating to an amanuensis; and if he spoke of individuals, his ideas ran upon their moral and intellectual qualities, rather than upon the idiosyncracies of their active visible phenomena, or the peculiarities of their manner.”

Mrs. Osgood also attests to the matchless charm of his conversation. But it was in his conversations and his letters,” she writes, “far more than in his published poetry and prose writings, that the genius of Poe was most gloriously revealed. His letters were divinely beautiful, and for hours I have listened to him, entranced by strains of such pure and almost celestial eloquence as I have never read or heard elsewhere.”

Of his home life, the same writer pens the following exquisite picture: —

“It was in his own simple, yet poetical, home, that to me the character of Edgar Poe appeared [page 175:] in its most beautiful light. Playful, affectionate, witty, alternately docile and wayward as a petted child, for his young, gentle and idolized wife, and for all who came, he had, even in the midst of his most harassing literary duties, a kind word, a pleasant smile, a graceful and courteous attention. At his desk, beneath the romantic picture of his loved and lost Lenore, he would sit, hour after hour, patient, assiduous and uncomplaining, tracing, in an exquisitely clear chirography, and with almost superhuman swiftness, the lightning thoughts — the ‘rare and radiant’ fancies as they flashed through his wonderful and ever wakeful brain. I recollect one morning toward the close of his residence in this city, when he seemed unusually gay and light-hearted. Virginia, his sweet wife, had written me a pressing invitation, to come to them; and I, who never could resist her affectionate summons, and who enjoyed his society far more in his own home than elsewhere, hastened to Amity Street. I found him just completing his series of papers entitled ‘The Literati of New York.’ ’See,’ said he, displaying, in laughing triumph, several little rolls of narrow paper (he always wrote thus for the press), ‘I [page 176:] am going to show you, by the difference of length in these, the different degrees of estimation in which I hold all you literary people. In each of these, one of you is rolled up and fully discussed. Come, Virginia, help me!’ And one by one they unfolded them. At last they came to one which seemed interminable. Virginia laughingly ran to one corner of the room with one end, and her husband to the opposite with the other. ‘And whose lengthened sweetness long drawn out is that? ’ said I. ‘Hear her!’ he cried, ‘just as if her little vain heart didn‘t tell her it’s herself!’

During that year,” Mrs. Osgood adds, in the same paper, while travelling for my health, I maintained a correspondence with Mr. Poe, in accordance with the earnest entreaties of his wife, who imagined that my influence over him had a restraining and beneficial effect. It had as far as this, — that having solemnly promised me to give up the use of stimulants, he so firmly respected his promise and me, as never once, during our whole acquaintance, to appear in my presence when in the slightest degree affected by them. Of the charming love and confidence that existed between his wife and himself, always [page 177:] delightfully apparent to me, in spite of the many little poetical episodes in which the impassioned romance of his temperament impelled him to indulge, I cannot speak too earnestly, too warmly.”

“The Broadway Journal” proved too heavy a load for the poet’s business inexperience to carry, and he was obliged to retire from it, finally, on the third of January, 1846.

“The Literati of New York,” mentioned by Mrs. Osgood, as well as some of the poet’s tales and sketches, appeared in Godey’s “Lady’s Book.”

These papers made a tremendous local sensation, both in the metropolis and in Philadelphia. Extra editions of the magazine were required to meet the extraordinary demands; the essays were copied far and near, and avalanches of vengeful threats were showered upon the proprietors. In answer to these, Mr. Godey wrote, “We are not to be intimidated by a threat of loss of friends, or turned from our purpose by honeyed words. . . . . Almost every paper that we exchange with has praised our new enterprise and spoken in high terms of Mr. Poe’s opinion.”

Out of the publication of these papers grew a [page 178:] fierce discussion between the poet and Thomas Dunn English, who, like most writers under the fire of remorseless criticism, lost his temper, and published, in reply to Poe’s original criticism in the “Literati” series, a malignant and mendacious retort, which was copied in “The Mirror,” and met by the poet with a suit for damages, in which he recovered several hundred dollars, law being, at least in this instance, kinder to him than literature was wont to be.

Griswold indulges in a ground and lofty tumble on this subject in his memoir. That is to say, he deliberately drags the true statement of the affair in the mire of falsehood, and soars to an altitude of lying that is venturesome even for him.

Griswold states, after mentioning the fact of the publication of English’s card, that Poe’s article was “entirely false in what purported to be its facts;” prefixing this statement with another to the effect that the publication of the “Literati” led to a disgraceful quarrel, and this to a premature conclusion of the papers. The facts are, as may be readily ascertained by referring to the files of “The Lady’s Book,” that Poe’s critique of English, which was the second in the “Literati” [page 179:] series, appeared in the June number, and, far from coming to “a premature conclusion,” they ran on, as had been intended, through the following October, while Mr. Godey, with whom we are led to suppose by Griswold, Poe quarrelled, owing to Mr. Godey’s declination of his personal reply to Dunn English, accepted all regular contributions from the poet, whenever he sent them, and wrote in defence of him in a contemporary magazine of that time.

Those who ascribe Griswold’s misstatements regarding Poe simply to his proclivity for lying, should compare the original” Literati” papers, as they appeared in Godey’s,” with those in the published edition edited by Griswold. They will then find that a startling discrepancy exists in the edited “English” critique, and that the virulent personalities therein appearing, with which Poe is saddled by Griswold, are entirely absent from the original review as it appeared in “Godey’s.”

These papers formed the last important critical work performed by Poe during his residence in the metropolis.


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 131:]

*  We give in facsimile an autograph letter written by Willis to Poe at this time, attesting the kindly, familiar relations existing between them.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 132:]

*  “The Facts in the Case of M. de Valdemar.”

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 148:]

*  Names which Virginia had given to her mother and herself in her childhood.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 163:]

*  Hon. Caleb Cushing, then recently returned from his mission to China.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 172:]

*  The late Prince Consort of Queen Victoria.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 173:]

*  1860.





[S:0 - WFG, 1877] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - The Life of Edgar Allan Poe [Chapter 06] (W. F. Gill, 1877)