Text: Hervey Allen and Thomas Ollive Mabbott, “Introduction,” Merlin: Together with Recollections of Edgar A. Poe (1941), pp. xiii-xvi (This material is protected by copyright)


[page v:]


WHILE Poe was at the University of Virginia, the parents of his fiancee, Sarah Elmira Royster, concluding that the poet would not inherit the fortune of his foster father, broke up the affair in melodramatic fashion. They intercepted most of the lovers’ letters, and persuaded Elmira to accept another suitor, Mr. A. B. Shelton, whom she later married. Poe returned to Richmond to find John Allan angry at his gambling debts, and unwilling to pay them. He also found himself unable to win back the lady — although the renewal of his engagement with Elmira over twenty years later (when Mr. Shelton and Virginia Poe had both died) suggests that the affection of Poe and his first fiancee was deep and real. The doubly unhappy situation led Poe to leave home to seek his fortune. But, being a poet, and an admirer of Byron, Poe made his broken heart the basis of his narrative poem, Tamerlane, which he promptly published at Boston, about July 1827.(1)

Edgar Poe was not the only writer who seized upon the story of Elmira for imaginative treatment. His brother, William Henry Leonard Poe, made it the basis of a wild prose tale, The Pirate.(2) And even before this, Lambert A. Wilmer, obviously an [page vi:] associate of Poe’s brother at Baltimore, where both were regular contributors to a quarto weekly newspaper, the North American, founded on Edgar Poe’s romance the poetic drama, Merlin.

Until now, despite the interest that attaches to it as the first imaginative treatment of Poe’s career by any writer save himself, Merlin has been practically inaccessible. Like the Pirate, though published after Tamerlane, Wilmer’s play is founded less on Edgar Poe’s book than on direct knowledge of his adventures, doubtless obtained by W. H. Poe from his brother, by letter or word of mouth. Both Baltimore productions include details not referred to in Poe’s allegorical treatment.(3)

W. H. Poe called the hero of the Pirate “Edgar Leonard” (after his brother and himself), but called the heroine “Rose.” Wilmer gave his hero a stock romantic name, but gave the real name Elmira to the heroine. He and W. H. Poe emphasized the financial handicap of the hero, to which Edgar Poe did not refer directly. Wilmer represents his hero as considering suicide. This I think was a “touch from life,” for W. H. Poe represents his pirate as seeking death in vain. Edgar Poe had written John Allan, on March 19, 1827, “If you fail to comply with my request [for money] — I tremble for the consequence,” a clear hint of suicide. I think Edgar’s wild language had terrified his brother. As for the suicidal tendency of Poe — it really was not serious. Several times in later life he spoke of suicide. T. W. White once wrote a friend he feared Poe might kill himself, and the poet wrote Mrs. Whitman of having taken a dose of laudanum. But I know of no actual attempt, for it is clear the dose of laudanum was really taken as medicine, properly enough according to the medical ideas of the day. In retrospect one can [page vii:] always say that a man who did not kill himself, nor seriously attempt suicide, had no strong suicidal tendency. But this would not have been clear at the time, and one feels that Wilmer, genuinely moved by the situation, made in Merlin a poetical plea against suicide, taking the excellent position that a situation may right itself. When we recall the ultimate renewal of the poet’s engagement, there is a coincidence in Wilmer’s hitting the mark. More immediately, there was in the character of Marcus an allegorical offer of Wilmer’s friendship to Poe. This friendship was to be accepted.

Wilmer’s play appeared in three instalments, each of a single act, in the columns of the Baltimore North American for August 18, 25, and September 1, 1827.(4) It was also republished separately, for in the North American for September 22, is the following advertisement:

Merlin, a drama, is printed in pamphlet form, and may be had at the office of the Baltimore North American. Sept. 21, 1827.

The printer was no doubt the publisher of the paper, Samuel Sands, at the North East corner of Gay and Water Streets, opposite the Exchange. The text was probably from the same types used in the paper, and may have made a book of 16 or 24 pages. The price was not mentioned, and the circulation was probably small, for no copy has been found of the original edition, though the book is said to have received favorable notice at the time.

Wilmer added to the second and third instalments brief lists of errata. In reprinting our text from photostats of the original newspaper, I have made the, corrections he demanded, and corrected [page viii:] a few obvious misprints he did not mention. Otherwise the spelling, punctuation, and abbreviation are preserved .(5)

The play requires little annotation. Wilmer chose a traditional figure in the enchanter, and like Spenser, followed traditions that represent him as mainly beneficent.(6) Tennyson followed a different set of stories, but Wilmer took no poetic license in representing Merlin as still dwelling in Wales (to which he says he will return at the end of the play), and able to visit the banks of the Hudson, which Wilmer substituted for the James of Poe’s experience. The play has echoes of Shakespeare and Milton, but no direct quotations. Its chief interest lies in its treatment of Poe’s adventures.

We know that Poe liked Merlin, though we do not know when he first saw it. He certainly made Wilmer’s acquaintance early (the latter in 1843 said “in boyhood”), and almost certainly in 1829. If Poe did not give Wilmer a copy of the 1827 printed version of Tamerlane, he did give him at some time a manuscript version of the poem and of some of the other contents of the book, the readings of which are intermediate between the printed versions of 1827 and 1829. Most of this manuscript is now in the Pierpont Morgan Library. And in a review of Wilmer’s novel, Emilia Harrington, Poe praised a poem called To Mira by Wilmer, printed in the Southern Literary Messenger for December, 1835, which had previously been [page ix:] printed as To Mary, in the Baltimore North American, September 29, 1827. Said Poe, “Mr. W. has written many other similar things. Among his longer pieces we may particularize Merlin, a drama — some portions of which are full of the truest poetic fire.”(7)

Considering the intimate connection of Poe with the play, we may not think it improbable that in the song in Merlin, III, iv, especially lines 42 ff.:

And O thus forever

Shall true love be blest,

Then lovers be constant,

And fear not the rest,

we may have the inspiration of lines 88-91 of the second part of Poe’s Al Aaraaf

(O! how, without you, Love!

Could angels be blest)?

Those kisses of true love

That lull’d ye to rest:

It is not absolutely impossible that in The Raven itself (into which Poe poured an immense amount of reminiscence), we have an unconscious or half echo of what is perhaps the best passage in Merlin.(8)

We may briefly synopsize what is known of the later career of Wilmer and his relations with Poe. Wilmer wrote an entertaining but rambling sketch of himself in his book, Our Press Gang, Philadelphia, 1860, but he confined himself largely to his journalistic adventures, and showed a capacious but none too accurate memory, with a positive dislike of exact dates. [page x:]

Wilmer was born in Maryland,(9) about 1805. He obtained a classical education and studied law; but before commencing to practice in Baltimore, he went to Elkton to edit a newspaper. Then he worked for the Philadelphia Saturday Evening Post, and the Washington U. S. Telegraph. About 1832 he was a founder of the Baltimore Saturday Visiter, and apparently knew Poe. But Wilmer had withdrawn from the paper before the celebrated prize contest of 1833, and although the issues of the paper that relate to Poe’s success with the MS Found in a Bottle are preserved, the files for the years of Wilmer’s editorship have not yet been recovered. Wilmer returned to Elkton, became a justice of the peace, married, edited the Cecil Courant, but by sometime in 1835 seems to have been in Baltimore again, where he started a weekly called The Kaleidoscope, which failed. He stated that his acquaintance with Poe lasted about twelve years-perhaps 1831-1843, but his accuracy on such a point is doubtful. Either in 1835, as he seems to say, or in 1837, as Woodberry thought, or at both times, Wilmer considered starting a magazine with Poe.

“About 1839-40” he went to Philadelphia, and was there editor, sub-editor, or reporter for many periodicals, including the Saturday Evening Post, Saturday Chronicle, and Godey’s Lady’s Book, to which Poe contributed, but not necessarily during the editorship or connection of Wilmer. From 1840 to 1858, his Philadelphia newspaper connections are listed in my foot-note.(10) He also furnished news to papers in other cities. [page xi:]

In the midst of all this work, Wilmer gave his attention to poetry, writing satires, bitter, vigorous, and sometimes very coarse, in the manner of Pope, on American poets, journalists, and politicians. In 1849 he published a grammar, and late in the fifties, retiring from active journalism, he wrote a life of DeSoto, and finally, a denunciation of corrupt journalism, Our Press Gang.(11) He died at Brooklyn, N. Y., on December 21, 1863. His severity as a crusader militated against his reputation. He is mentioned by few literary historians, and his letters were rarely sought or preserved by collectors. T. S. Arthur was a friend of Wilmer, as was John Tomlin, but he did not correspond [page xii:] with Griswold, Duyckinck or Kennedy. Known letters are listed in a note(12) and printed as Appendix (d).

In Graham’s Magazine for August, 1841, Poe reviewed favorably Wilmer’s stinging satire on American literature, The Quacks of Helicon, a book that Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints plans to reissue, as showing the attitude of those who did not see in every native goose a swan. But although Poe wrote his friend Snodgrass on July 12, 1841, that he thought the Quacks “really good — good in the old fashioned Dryden style,” even Poe thought Wilmer’s “fable for critics” too severe. In December, 1841, Poe noticed Wilmer kindly in his Autography article in Graham’s. Apparently the two were on intimate terms on October 3, 1842, when Wilmer wrote John Tomlin of Jackson, Tennessee:

I believe the tightness of the times and the uncertain state of the currency have prevented Poe’s Magazine enterprise and my own, — at least for the present.

I have never been able to get a sight of your critique on the Q. of H. in the Guardian. The copy you sent fell into the hands of Poe, who lost or mislaid it before I could set eyes on it. I was vexed at this circumstance, as I intended to have the article copied into some of our city papers.

But at length there was a quarrel. On May 20, 1843, Wilmer wrote Tomlin:

Edgar A. Poe (you know him by character, no doubt, if not personally) has become one of the strangest of our literati. He and I are old friends, have known each other from boyhood, and it gives me inexpressible pain to notice the vagaries to which he [page xiii:] has lately become subject. Poor fellow! he is not a teetotaller by any means, and I fear he is going to destruction, moral, physical and intellectual.

Poe heard of this, and obtained the letter from Tomlin. Since Poe was spreeing badly at the time, his anger was unjustified, but he raged in a letter to Tomlin (Woodberry’s Life of Poe, 1909, II, 41 ff.) and in a note in his Marginalia (Democratic Review, December, 1844) against his former friend. Wilmer was a severe judge, and a fighter, but in his severity he was just. He concluded that Poe’s sufferings and temperament were an excuse. After Poe died, Wilmer became one of his staunchest defenders. Texts of his defenses of Poe, so far as now known, are printed below, with brief introductions in brackets.

The friendship obviously was very important in Poe’s development; from Wilmer perhaps he got the idea of being a reviewer, and by him he must have been encouraged in his passion for high literary standards and in his dislike for quackery, which Wilmer shared. Wilmer got less from Poe, although his Somnia, 1848, shows the influence of Poe’s poetry.


The help of Mrs. Lewis Chase, Mrs. Mabbott, and Miss Jane Mabbott is gratefully acknowledged for search of files of the Sunday Mercury.

In conclusion, thanks are due to many librarians who have replied to many queries, especially L. H. Dielman, and Oscar Wegelin; to W. Bird Terwilliger; and finally, to the discoverer of Merlin’s connection with Poe, Hervey Allen.


New York, April 9, 1941



[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page v:]

1.  The love affair is discussed by all recent biographers of Poe; see my introduction to the reprint of Tamerlane, Facsimile Text Society, New York, 1941, pp. viii if., and on the date of publication, pp. xxx, and lxv. Obviously it appeared between the “deadlines” of the July and August issues of a monthly magazine, late in June or early in July. It should also be remembered that Poe’s love for Elmira inspired some of his later poems to some extent; Annabel Lee has some relation to its renewal, although his love for Virginia Poe has perhaps a share in that poem too.

2.  The Pirate, signed “W.H.P.,” appeared in the Baltimore North American, November 27, 1827. It is reprinted by Hervey Allen and myself in Poe’s Brother, New York, 1926, pp. 55-59. This book contains almost all the known writings of W. H. Poe, except the brief poems given in Gill’s Life of Edgar Allan Poe, and in London Notes and Queries, November 28, 1931.

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

(3) See my Tamerlane, pp. xii — xv, for the possible visit of Edgar to Baltimore on his way from Richmond to Boston in 1827. It is rather unlikely that Poe met Wilmer at this time, even if he really visited Baltimore. It may be added there are no sure echoes of Tamerlane in Merlin, though the reference to the envy of the angels (Merlin, III, iv, 2) may possibly echo Tamerlane (1827), VI, 11, “ ‘Twas such as angel minds might envy.”

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

4.  Volume I, no. 14, p. 110; no. 15, p. 118; no. 16, p. 126: numbers without contributions by W. H. Poe, whose work, however, appeared in the issue of August 1s, September 22, etc., while other writings of Wilmer appeared fairly regularly at the same period. We use the file of the paper in the New York Public Library, which is complete, like that in the Maryland Historical Society. The only other file known, in the Library of Congress, lacks a few pages.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page viii:]

5.  Corrections are as follows, readings of our volume being given first, after references to act, scene and line of the play. WILMER’S ERRATA: I, i, 46, fears (tears); I, iii, 2, Blasting (Blasted); II, i, 2, dank (dark). — Em-TORIAL CHANGES: I, ii, Stage directions, Megxra (Megara); I, ii, 24, lurid (luvid); I, ii, 38, thoughtless (thougtless); III, ii, 36, annul’d (anuul’d); III, iii was misnumbered ii; III, iv, 22, in in (in). The punctuation, even though at times erratic, is retained exactly.

6.  The title of a later play by Wilmer, Gloriana, or the Enchantress of Elba, mentioned by James Rees, Dramatic Authors of America, Philadelphia, 1845, p. 139, suggests Spenserian influence on Wilmer. It was “printed in a weekly newspaper,” not named. Besides this and Merlin, Rees mentions three unprinted plays by Wilmer, a tragedy, The Lombards, 1832; The Excursion, a farce; and Orpheus and Eurydice, a burletta. Did Wilmer suggest to Poe that he try his hand at the tragedy Politian?

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page ix:]

7.  S.L.M., II, 192 (February, 1836) — the earliest definite mention of Wilmer as author of the play we have met. The first person to notice that the play was founded on Poe’s life was Hervey Allen, in 1926.

(8) Compare with Merlin, I, iv, 17, 19; “And now, when [death] no doubt would be most welcome, . . . Like other friends he leaves thee in thy need,” and the tenth stanza of The Raven; “Other friends have flown before — On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before.”

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

9.  Some old compilations say in Kent County, but Wilmer called Baltimore his “native city” in Our Press Gang, p. 39, and from the author of a grammar this may be significant. The D.A.B. omits Wilmer, and I have found no record of his birthday or names of his family, though M. E. Wilmer, publisher of The American Sibyl, may be his daughter. His own middle name is said to have been Allison (a name common among Maryland Wilmers) but this has not been verified from any early source. Wilmer, an Episcopal, wrote on spiritualism in Sunday Mercury, 1854.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page x, running to the bottom of page xi:]

10.  Public Ledger (1840?); Daily Chronicle; Evening Express (1842); Evening Mercury; Daily Keystone; Daily Sun; National Eagle; American Banner; Temperance Pledge; Daily Pennsylvanian (for which he wrote [page xi:] police news); and the Sunday Mercury. With the last he was connected for many years, and in his death notice, published in its issue for Dec. 27, 1863, copied in Baltimore Sun, Dec. 28, mention is made of Wilmer’s “autobiography under the signature Verdicus” in the columns of the Mercury. This document has not been found in the fragmentary surviving files of the paper thus far consulted. Wilmer was connected with papers he did not mention in Our Press Gang. Mr. W. Bird Terwilliger tells me that the Visiter, Aug. 25, 1832, says Wilmer was at that time editor of the Baltimore Morning Chronicle, and that the Baltimore Monument, Oct. 29, 1836, (edited by McJilton and Creamer, friends of Wilmer) names him as editor at some time of the Fells’ Point Eastern Express.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page xi:]

11.  The following is a list of Wilmer’s separate publications, all printed at Philadelphia, and in verse, unless otherwise noted: t, Merlin, Baltimore, 1827; 2, Confessions of Emilia Harrington, Balt., 1827 (novel); 3, Quacks of Helicon, 1841; 3a, Prospectus (of a magazine, prose broadside), 1842 (?); 4, Recantation, 1843; 5, Preferment, 1848; 6, Somnia, 1848; 7, English Grammar, 1849 (prose); 8, American Sibyl, 1852; 9, Liberty Triumphant, 1853; 10, Life . . . of Ferdinand De Soto, 1859 (prose); 11, Our Press Gang, 1860 (prose). A copy of No. 8 is at Harvard, of No. 9 at Brown; both are excessively rare. No. 3a is known doubtfully from a reference in a letter of Wilmer, March 2, 1842. It may not have been printed separately. Posthumous books are: 12, The Victim Bride, 1873 (copy at LC), novelette from Sunday Mercury, May 14-July 9, 1854; 13, Led Astray (novel of uncertain date, mentioned in Am. Catalog, 1876, as by author of Victim Bride), copy not yet located.

A verse satire, The Poets and Poetry of America, by Lavante, Phila., 1847, republished in 1887 with ascription to Poe, is sometimes ascribed to Wilmer. It is certainly not Poe’s, but the ascription to Wilmer is highly doubtful.

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

12.  1, To Tomlin, March 2, 1842, MS at Columbia University; it makes clear Wilmer’s magazine project of 1842 was distinct from Poe’s; 2, To same, Oct. 5, 1842, known only from printed text in Holden’s Magazine, II, 648, Nov., 1848; 3, To same, May 20, 1843, MS at Boston Public Library, published in full Passages from the Correspondence of R. W. Griswold, Cambridge, 1898, p. 143. Poe preserved this, but apparently destroyed Wilmer’s letters to himself; 4 and 5, To Editor of Phila. Press, Dec. 28 and 31, 1859, MSS at Pennsylvania Hist. Soc., Gratz Collection.






[S:0 - LAW41, 1941] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Merlin: Together with Recollections of Edgar A. Poe (T. O. Mabbott) (Introduction)