Text: John Henry Ingram, “Edgar Allan Poe’s Lost Poem ‘The Beautiful Physician’,” Bookman (New York, NY), vol. XXVIII, no. 5, January 1909, pp. 452-454


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[page 452:]

EDGAR ALLAN POE’S LOST POEM “THE BEAUTIFUL PHYSICIAN”

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It was toward the close of 1846. Through the medium of the daily papers particulars of Edgar Poe’s illness and poverty and news of the approaching death of his young wife were made public. One redeeming feature of all this misery was the fact that the paragraphs obtained for him new friends and the advantage of their aid. Mrs. Nichols, wife of Dr. Nichols (inventor of “The Food of Health”), was acquainted with the Poes and aware of their straitened circumstances, but having no spare time herself to devote to the invalids, made their case known to her friend, Mrs. Shew.

Mrs. Shew, the daughter and grand-daughter of well-known physicians, was a doctor herself, and accustomed to devote a great portion of her time and money to the poor and necessitous. Introduced to the Poe household, she watched over the poet’s wife in the last few months of her existence with the most affectionate care, and not only provided her, but also the other two members of the family, with the necessaries of life. In the words of Mrs. Nichols, Mrs. Shew “was most kind and tender, and always went to them with her heart and hands full of blessing.” “She was so good to my daughter,” said Mrs. Clemm. “She tended her while she lived as if she had been her dear sister, and when she was dead she dressed her for the grave in beautiful linen.” On January 30, 1847, Poe’s young wife died, but Mrs. Shew, in fulfillment of her promise to the dying woman, continued to befriend the desolate husband and minister to his wants, so that it is not to be wondered at, as Mrs. Nichols remarks, “that he regarded Marie Louise Shew as an angel.”

After the loss of his young wife Edgar Poe fell into an apathetic states and for some time was nearly unconscious of what was going on about him. His illness [column 2:] was severe; indeed, during the remainder of his life he never seemed to thoroughly regain a healthy tone of body or mind. During the earlier period of his illness Mrs. Shew continued her watchful care of the poet, and how invaluable and needed was her aid the following letter to her from Mrs. Clemm will show:

MY DEAR SWEET FRIEND: I write to say that the medicines arrived the next train after you left to-day, and a kind friend brought them up to us that same hour. The cooling application was very grateful to my poor Eddie’s head, and the flowers were lovely, not frozen as you feared they would be. I very much fear this illness is to be a serious one. The fever came on at the same time to-day (as you said it would), and I am giving the sedative mixture. . . . Eddie desires me to return the last box of wine you sent my sweet Virginia. . . . The wine was a great blessing to us while she needed it, and by its cheering and tonic influence we were enabled to keep her a few days longer with us. The little darling always took it smiling, even when difficult to get it down. But for your timely aid, we should have had no last words — no loving messages — no sweet farewells, for she ceased to speak (from weakness) but with her beautiful eyes. . . . Eddie has quite set his heart upon the wine going back to you, thinking and hoping you may find it useful for the sick artist you mentioned as convalescent and in need of delicacies. . . . We look for you in an early train to-morrow, and hope you will stay as long as possible. What we should do without you now is fearful to think. Eddie says you promised Virginia to come every other day for a long time, or until he was able to go to work again. . . .

MARIA CLEMM.

During a short interval of healthier body and mind Poe tried to express his intense gratitude to Mrs. Shew for her kindness to his deceased wife, as well as to himself, by addressing some glowing lines to “M. L. S.,” to her to whom he owed [page 453:]

The resurrection of deep-buried faith

In Truth — in Virtue — in Humanity.

These lines were published in the Home Journal (New York) in March, but they contained expressions of such vehement and impassioned feeling that it was not deemed suitable for their recipient to allow them to be publicly addressed to her by name; the poem was, therefore, issued under the thin veil of her initials. Subsequently, the lines were misleadingly included in Poe’s Works amongst the Poems of Early Life.

Edgar Poe’s illness was of a lengthy and intermittent character. During the whole period Mrs. Shew continued not only to attend to him medially but alternatively with Mrs. Clemm, to nurse him day and night and by such attentions, as she informed us, “I saved Mr. Poe’s life at this time.” In order to have her diagnosis of the patient’s case confirmed, she took him to Dr. Mott, a famous New York physician of that period, and, as she records in her diary, “I told the doctor that at the best, when Mr. Poe was well, his pulse beat only ten regular beats, after which it suspended, or intermitted (as doctors say). I decided that in his best health he had lesion of one side of the brain, and as he could not bear stimulants or tonics without producing insanity I did not feel much hope that he could be raised up from brain fever brought on by extreme suffering of mind and body — actual want and hunger and cold having been borne by this heroic husband in order to supply food, medicine and comforts to his dying wife — until exhaustion and lifelessness were so near at every reaction of the fever, that even sedatives had to be administered with extreme caution.”

“From the time the fever came on,” continued Mrs. Shew, “until I could reduce his pulse to eighty beats, he talked to me, and often begged me to write his fancies for him.” Amongst the pencilled memoranda which Mrs. Shew took down from the poet’s rambling chatter was the skeleton, or rough verbal draft, of a poem intended to commemorate the care and kindness of his lady doctor, [column 2:] which he entitled “The Beautiful Physician.”

When he recovered his health, as far, indeed, as he did ever regain it, Mrs. Shew gave him the jottings she had made of the poem, and these he eventually revised and prepared for publication. He showed the completed poem to Mrs. Shew and told her that a publisher had offered him twenty dollars for it. The lady was startled, as the lines were so personal and flattering, and as she feared it would be recognised whom they were intended for, she begged Poe to let her have them and defer their publication for a time. Upon receiving the poem Mrs. Shew gave their author twenty-five dollars for his manuscript. She dreaded the ordeal of “The Beautiful Physician’s” publication at that time because, as she explained to us, “I was about to be married again, and to a man who had old-fashioned notions of woman and her sphere.”

“If this poem, ‘The Beautiful Physician,’ could be found complete now it would greatly delight you,” she remarked. “The poem was written in a singular strain: a verse (i.e., stanza) describing the doctor watching the pulse, etc., etc., and ending with a refrain of two lines, describing the nurse. It was very curious, as it was a picture of a highly wrought brain in an over-excited state. In every verse (i.e., stanza) was the line:

“The pulse beats ten and intermits;

and in the refrain of the last verse, where he describes me holding my watch and counting, were the words

“So tired, so weary,

and after I had brought the pulse to the desired 80 beats (as low as I dared give sedatives) I rested, and he did also, trying his best to sleep for my sake. In the refrain, as I said before, he adds:

“The soft head bows, the sweet eyes close,

The faithful heart yields to repose.

You may imagine it was perfect as he revised it afterward.

“My impression is,” says Mrs. Shew, “that ‘The Beautiful Physician’ was given to Griswold,” but if that had been [page 454:] the case we may be sure that it would have seen the daylight long before now.

In subsequent correspondence Mrs. Shew informed us that her son Henry had furnished her with a clue as to where the poem might be found, adding: “He says you shall have the poem and a letter of Poe’s referring to it, which I had forgotten. He thinks it is safe in a desk,” which desk was believed to be at Pierrepont Manor, the residence of Mrs. Shew’s father.

Mrs. Shew’s son Henry was very fond of the poem of “The Beloved Physician,” and was accustomed to repeat parts of it from memory. She states: “Sometimes when I arrived home at nights, after a long walk in the rain, a voice up the stairway would repeat from it the lines:

“The pulse beats ten and intermits:

God nerve the soul that ne’er forgets

In calm or storm, by night or day,

Its steady toil, its loyalty.

And often in the early morning,” adds Mrs. Shew, “I have found upon my table or desk fresh flowers with ‘for the Beautiful Physician,’ pinned on by a young lady friend, as she passed by to her morning lessons at the parish school, where she taught a class of little girls to write. She thought it would suit for my epitaph, and said it should be upon my tomb.”

When revised and ready for publication “The Beautiful Physician” consisted of nine stanzas. In lines of the refrain [column 2:] the word “nerve” was varied with “shield, guide,” and so forth.

Alas, neither the poem nor the letter concerning it could be found, and now our kind correspondent and friend has passed away! Of all the many noble women who esteemed Edgar Poe and sorrowed for him, none was so thoroughly disinterested as was Marie Louise Shew. “I was to him a friend in need and a friend indeed, but he was so eccentric and so unlike others, that I had to define a position. It hurt his feelings, and after he was dead, I deeply regretted my last letter to him.”

Our readers may fail to discover any trace of Poe’s genius in the few lines recovered and herein printed from memory of “The Beautiful Physician,” but could the revised and completed poem be discovered, something worthy of their author would doubtless be the result. Of Mrs. Shew’s bona fides no doubt my be entertained. Not only did Poe inscribe to her the “Lines to M. L. S.,” already referred to, and a further poem in the following year of still higher calibre, in which he speaks of “they dear name as text,” and also write to her many long letters full of expressions of the most devoted gratitude, but he also wrote at her house the first draft of his poem of “The Bells,” and as she had suggested the theme and the opening lines of each stanza, he styled it her poem and headed the manuscript, “The Bells, by Mrs. M. L. Shew.”

John H. Ingram.


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Notes:

None.

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[S:0 - BKMN, 1909] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Edgar Allan Poe's Lost Poem: The Beautiful Physician (J. H. Ingram, 1909)