Text: John E. Reilly, “The Image of Poe in American Poetry,” Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, 1976


­ [title page:]



Professor of English, College of the Holy Cross,
Worcester, Massachusetts

­[page ii:]

‘Tis said that Poe took too much wine,

And critics have tried hard to show it;

To contradict the charge be mine —

A little “t” made Poe — a poet!

An anonymous epigram

­[page 1:]


Before beginning my paper, I wish to express my gratitude to the Edgar Allan Poe Society and to the Enoch Pratt Free Library for honoring me with the opportunity to speak today. Because I have an interest in the evolution of Poe’s reputation, an interest in which my paper participates, I am sensitive to the special significance of our gathering on this occasion. The dedication of the memorial over Poe’s grave here in Westminster Churchyard on November 17, 1875, was both a milestone and a turning point in the fortunes of his posthumous reputation: it marked the beginning of the recovery of his name from the hands of those who sought to defame him immediately after his death. Because this year, 1975, is the centennial of those ceremonies, I will be pleased if the paper I am about to read serves in at least some small way as a kind of rededication.


* Because I am preparing to publish an annotated checklist of American drama, fiction, and poetry devoted to Poe, a checklist which will cover all the items touched upon in this paper, I will not burden the text here with bibliographical footnotes.

­[page 2:]

The evolution of Edgar Allan Poe’s reputation is a remarkable chapter in the annals of American literary history. In some respects it resembles a Poe hoax on a grand scale. At its heart lies the image of Poe, a fascinating synthesis of fact and fiction, of man and legend. Sown in no small measure by Poe himself, this image germinated in his lifetime and throve for more than half a century after his death. Ironically, the image was cultivated not only by admirers of Poe but also by his detractors, especially by those enemies who in their efforts to assassinate his character unwittingly rendered his image more fascinating and thereby assured it a long and hardy life. Only with the emergence of the historical Poe at the hands of scholars in recent decades has there been a substantial measure of success in laying the old image, the legendary one, to rest.

What kept the old image alive for so many decades, what lent it its remarkable vitality, was its tremendous impact upon the American imagination, an impact far greater than one man or even the image of one man alone could produce. The image of Poe stirred some of the deepest feelings in an age of Romantic sentimentalism and vestigial Puritanism, an age which responded not so much to the image of that one man as to what it represented. Poe became a type or symbol of an aggregate of Romantic myths, myths such as the Casanova, the poète maudit, the unalienated artist, the aesthetic victim of a utilitarian culture. In a word, he became a kind of cis-atlantic Byron, a native American scandal and a cause célèbre, creating much the same effects in this country that Lord Byron had created throughout the western world a generation earlier. And the response to Poe, like the response to Byron, was essentially an expression of some of the deepest feelings that prevailed. Whether as villain or later as victim, whether as sinner or later as saint, Poe represented to the imagination the embodiment of something fundamental to an age. That his real life and character could not support this burden is irrelevant. It was the impact upon the imagination that mattered.

No record of this impact is more vivid than the poetry devoted to Poe, the poetry he has provoked or inspired from as early as 1830 to the present. Totalling almost three hundred items, a figure which includes none of the countless parodies of Poe’s verse except those parodies which comment explicitly upon him or his work, it is a vast quantity of material largely overlooked even by Poe specialists. Considered individually, these poems represent a response to the prevailing image of Poe. Considered as ­[page 3:] a body, they provide an historical record of the impact of Poe, rather of the impact of the image of Poe, upon the American mind.


Poe was the subject of at least three dozen poems or passages in poems written during his lifetime. Much of this verse is of special interest because it is the work of men and women who knew him personally and thereby represents the immediate impact of the man himself. Most of the poetry, indeed all but two or three of the poems, was written during the half-decade between the publication of “The Raven” early in 1845 and Poe’s death in 1849. For good or for ill, this was the period in Poe’s life when he achieved the kind of notoriety that moved his contemporaries to respond to him in verse.

Almost half of this response in verse is the work of three literary women with whom Poe was emotionally involved. They were Frances Sargent Osgood, Sarah Helen Whitman, and Jane Ermina Locke. For anyone who comes to Poe’s affairs of the heart through legend rather than through fact, Mrs. Osgood’s poems will be a distinct disappointment. Popular poetess and wife of a New York portrait artist, she met Poe for the first time in March of 1845, and they exchanged poetic sentiments in the pages of his Broadway Journal throughout the remainder of the year. Poe’s contribution to what Mrs. Osgood called their “little poetical episode” was two poems he resurrected from earlier flirtations and an original trifle entitled simply “A Valentine.” The identity of Mrs. Osgood’s contributions to the exchange is uncertain. The problem here is that the Broadway Journal carried a total of twelve of her poems after she met Poe, and it is difficult to ascertain which refer to him, difficult because the tendency in her verse is to focus not upon the person Mrs. Osgood addresses but upon the various personae she adopts. She is now the “other woman” in a romantic triangle, now the bashful virgin, now the coy flirt, and now the faithful woman ruined and scorned. With few exceptions her correspondent remains a shadowy figure, the conventional paramour who furnishes Mrs. Osgood with the occasion for assuming a variety of sentimental postures. Even in the half dozen or so poems that can be identified as concerning Poe, Mrs. Osgood has distorted the facts of her relationship with him in the interest of exploiting the melodramatic potentialities of ­[page 4:] her own role. A good example is “So Let It Be,” a poem carried in the Journal on April 5 over Mrs. Osgood’s pseudonym “Violet Vane.” Alluding to “every memory of the past,” a fact entirely out of keeping with the several days she then had known Poe, Mrs. Osgood casts herself in the pathetic role of the aggrieved party in a romantic triangle, one presumably created by Virginia (Poe’s wife), Poe, and herself. Mrs. Osgood takes Poe to task for neglecting her:

Perhaps you think it right and just,

Since you are bound by nearer ties,

To greet me with that careless tone,

With those serene and silent eyes.


So let it be! I only know,

If I were in your place to-night,

I would not grieve your spirit so,

For all God’s worlds of life and light!


I could not turn, as you have done,

From every memory of the past;

I could not fling, from soul and brow,

The shade that Feeling should have cast.


Oh! think how it must deepen all

The pangs of wild remorse and pride,

To feel, that you can coldly see

The grief, I vainly strive to hide!

Then portraying Poe as the sun, Virginia as a satellite (a “star” which reflects light), and herself as a withering wildflower, Mrs. Osgood complains that Virginia should not begrudge her just one “ray” of Poe’s affection:

The happy star, who fills her urn

With glory from the God of Day,

Can never miss the smile he lends

The wild-flower withering fast away.

Mrs. Osgood closes the poem in the posture of transparent stoicism:

But if you deem it right and just,

Blessed as you are in your glad lot,

To greet me with that heartless tone,

So let it be! I blame you not! ­[page 5:]

There is none of this posturing in the poetry devoted to Poe by Sarah Helen Whitman, the Providence, Rhode Island, widow who came literally within hours of marrying him. Mrs. Whitman’s first poem to Poe was a valentine message she addressed to him in 1848. It is, in effect, a fan letter from an admiring reader who invites him to become a personal friend. Poe responded by sending Mrs. Whitman a copy of his early poem “To Helen’ (“Helen, thy beauty is to me . . .”) and then by composing an original poem for her, also entitled “To Helen” (“I saw thee once — once only . . .”). Mrs. Whitman, in turn, acknowledged with verses of her own, and the two poets met for the first time in September. Their subsequent stormy courtship, which has been described in detail by almost all of Poe’s biographers, ended abruptly with Poe’s return to New York from Providence late in December of 1848. Mrs. Whitman made gestures toward a reconciliation by means of two poems, the first published in February and the second in June of 1849, but Poe made no response. When Mrs. Whitman addressed her next poem to him, she seems to have realized that additional efforts to regain him would be futile. This realization brought not bitterness but what she called “a resigned and passionless despair.” Entitled simply “Lines,” the poem was first published in Graham’s Magazine for November of 1849, the month after Poe’s death, but it was dated September, the anniversary month of their first meeting:

Dost thou remember that September day

When by the Seekonk’s lonely wave we stood,

And marked the languor of repose that lay,

Softer than sleep, on valley, wave, and wood?


A trance of solemn rapture seemed to lull

The charméd earth and circumambient air,

And the low murmur of the leaves seemed full

Of a resigned and passionless despair.


Though the warm breath of summer lingered still

In the lone paths where late her footsteps passed,

The pallid star-flowers on the purple hill

Sigh dreamily “we are the last! the last!”


I stood beside thee, and a dream of heaven

Around me like a golden halo fell!

Then the bright veil of fantasy was riven,

And my lips murmured “fare thee well! — farewell!” ­[page 6:]

I dared not listen to thy words, nor turn

To meet the pleading language of thine eyes,

I only felt their power, and in the urn

Of memory treasured their sweet rhapsodies.


We parted then, forever — and the hours

Of that bright day were gathered to the past —

But through long wintry nights I heard the flowers

Sigh dreamily, we are the last! — the last!

The “September day” Mrs. Whitman celebrates in this poem is a synthetic occasion created out of Poe’s stormy departure from her home on December 23 and a tranquil stroll they had taken along the banks of the Seekonk River on his first visit with her three months earlier. This synthesizing is a kind of tampering with time and place, and it represents a step in the process of sublimation whereby Mrs. Whitman was to translate the frustrated courtship into a spiritual union with Poe that transcended or destroyed time, place, and even death. Before she could address another poem to him, Poe was dead.

Although all the poems Mrs. Whitman devoted to Poe tell us something of her image of him, none is more revealing than the first one, the valentine message. Playfully addressed to Poe in the character of his raven, the valentine contains two stanzas which rank among the most perceptive observations ever made upon him, observations which are even more extraordinary in the light of the early date of their composition. They reveal that Mrs. Whitman appreciated Poe’s place in the nineteenth century and that she recognized the role of his art as an instrument of protest against the facile optimism of those contemporaries whom Mrs. Whitman dismisses in her poem as mere popinjays and parrots:

Midst the roaring of machinery,

And the dismal shriek of steam,

While each popinjay, and parrot,

Makes the golden age his theme,

Oft, methinks, I hear thee croaking,

“All is but an idle dream.”


While these warbling “guests of summer”

Prate of “Progress” evermore,

And, by dint of iron foundries,

Would this golden age restore,

Still, methinks, I hear thee croaking,

Hoarsely croaking, “Nevermore.” ­[page 7:]

This passage warrants much closer scrutiny than space affords here. Let it be noted, at the very least, that Mrs. Whitman’s admiration of Poe was grounded upon an unparalleled appreciation of the real stature of the man and of his art. Jane Ermina Locke was neither as popular a poet as Mrs. Osgood nor as perceptive a person as Mrs. Whitman. She did, nevertheless, come closest to approximating the stereotype of the

woman for whom Poe had an immense personal appeal. Four years older than he, mother of seven, and wife of a municipal functionary in Lowell, Massachusetts, Mrs. Locke pursued and persecuted Poe as he alternately encouraged and scorned her. She entered his life by means of a poem, one which she wrote in sympathetic response to reports of the destitution of the Poe family at Fordham that were carried in the public press late in 1846. Entitled “An Invocation for Suffering Genius,” her poem laments the neglect of a “master” poet who lies “deep in despair . . . on a low and sorrowing bed.” Though not published at the time, a copy of the “Invocation” reached Poe and, in turn, led to a correspondence in which he deliberately and indiscreetly encouraged Mrs. Locke’s interest in him. In her second poem, called “The True Poet” and dated shortly before their first meeting on a visit she made to his cottage at Fordham in June of 1848, he had now become her “poet of the heart,” the solitary and anguished one of “angel gifts” whose only “guerdon” is his hope for “Immortality.” Mrs. Locke wrote “The True Poet” on June 1, but before it made its appearance in the New York Evening Post two months later, not only had she met Poe for the first time but he had traveled to Lowell at her invitation to deliver a public lecture on July 10. Mrs. Locke’s sense of triumph must have been exquisite. Had she not lured to Lowell a poet of national reputation? And was not this “glorious devil,” as Mrs. Osgood described him, a guest at Wamesit Cottage, the Locke family residence near the banks of the Concord River? Though the presence of Mrs. Locke’s husband and their young children as well as the public nature of Poe’s presence in Lowell must have precluded intimacies of any kind during his visit, Poe did make a very intimate impression upon Mrs. Locke’s lively imagination, an impression she made an attempt to convey in a long and frenzied poem entitled “Ermina’s Tale.” Dated August, 1848, the “tale” is Ermina’s (i.e., Jane Ermina Locke’s) impassioned account of a “trance-like” experience in which the “void” of her ­[page 8:] “lonely” soul was filled by the “mortal form” (i.e. Edgar Poe) of her “ideal”:

I stood a moment statue-like, — as still —

Palsied — consuming with the unveiled sight;

Then rushed my idol worship but to fill

In the full maddening splendor of that light.


I felt his clasp, as lip to lip he pressed,

Listened, beguiled as to an angel’s tone,

To his impassioned words; — then sank to rest,

In trance divine my heart upon his own!


Can I recal[l] it now? — no — noah, no,

The flame hath touched it, and the glory wrought;

Vapor of incense in empurpled glow,

Hath rapt [sic] with wild delirium every thought.

This “one blossom of my heart,” this “late love’s / Full dream,” has passed, Ermina laments. “Henceforth,” she continues through an appropriate allusion,

the “Raven’s” beak my heart shall bear;

And the strange flapping of his ebon wings,

Fan my sad spirit to a deep despair

Wild as the “nevermore” it ceaseless sings!

Presumably the sense of resignation with which “Ermina’s Tale” closes suggests that Mrs. Locke was even then aware that while Poe was a guest at her home in July he had abandoned whatever interest, pretended or otherwise, he had in his ardent, middle-aged hostess for a genuine infatuation with Mrs. Locke’s attractive, young neighbor, Mrs. Nancy Richmond — Poe’s “dearest Annie.” Poe described Mrs. Locke’s reaction to his sudden change of heart when he complained some months later that he had “incurred the unrelenting vengeance of that worst of all fiends, ‘a woman scorned.’ ” Mrs. Locke herself, however, sounded more like a disenchanted devotee than a fiend when she addressed herself to Poe in a poem entitled “The Broken Charm.” It was carried in the Boston Museum in February of 1849. “ ’Twas all a dream,” she wrote, looking back upon her infatuation,

— a mirage on the day,

The fancy of my own bewildered brain;

And now, as the fond vision clears away,

I weep that it can gather ne’er again. ­[page 9:]


Not that I thought to clasp thee as mine own. —

But I had robed thee with such holiness,

And round thy form a veil of glory thrown,

I can but weep before the false impress.


So the spent pilgrim in a grief divine

Bends to the earth, as break upon his view

The mournful ruins of some fallen shrine,

Whose hallowed shade had cheered the desert through.


So the poor Pagan rises from his god,

With eye unfilmed and sees [it] soulless clay;

Then with fresh tears reconsecrates the sod,

And groans in anguish as he turns away!

The groans of Mrs. Locke’s anguished disappointment in Poe were equalled by the almost lyric wrath vented against him by his enemies, especially by his enemies among the literati of Boston and New York. Since Professor Sidney Moss has ably related the circumstances behind Poe’s remarkable success at cultivating hostility, perhaps all we need do here is to cite a few instances when this hostility toward him achieved the pitch of poetry. Poe’s attacks upon Longfellow earned him the ire of Cornelia Wells Walter, editress of the Boston Evening Transcript. Though she took no credit for composing it herself, she published a seven-line mock epitaph of Poe in the Transcript in March of 1845:

There lies, by Death’s relentless blow,

A would-be critic here below;

His name was Poe

His life was woe.

You ask, “What of this Mister Poe?”

Why nothing of him that I know;

But echo, answering, saith — “Poh.”

Miss Walter aimed a steady stream of epithets at Poe throughout the remainder of 1845, and when the Broadway Journal floundered financially in December, she burst into doggerel in honor of the occasion:

To trust in friends is but so so,

Especially when cash is low;

The Broadway Journal’s proved “no go” —

Friends would not pay the pen of Poe. ­[page 10:]

It was the publication of his Literati papers in 1846 that, above all else, brought down upon Poe the wrath of formidable antagonists in New York. Their attacks were aimed at his private as well as his professional life, but the former proved to be more vicious because the destitution of the Poe family at that time rendered him vulnerable to the insidious equation of poverty with evil. Four scurrilous lines in Hiram Fuller’s New-York Mirror for September 19, 1846, bear witness to the lengths, or depths, to which Poe’s persecutors pursued him:

P—— money wants to ‘buy a bed,’ —

His case is surely trying;

It must be hard to want a bed,

For one so used to lying.

Two months later Lewis Gaylord Clark’s Knickerbocker Magazine carried an equally scurrilous comment upon Poe’s plight in the form of another announcement of his death. He is again charged with lying and with public intoxication and is equated with Aristarchus, the Greek critic and grammarian who is said to have deliberately starved himself to death. Probably written by Clark himself, the poem is entitled “Epitaph on a Modern ‘Critic” ’ and bears the subtitle “ ‘P’oh’ Pudor!” ’ — evidently meant to be a pun upon pro pudor: “for shame”:

‘Here Aristarchus lies!’ (a pregnant phrase,

And greatly hackneyed, in his earthly days,

By those who saw him in his maudlin scenes,

And those who read him in the magazines.)

Here Aristarchus lies, (nay, never smile,)

Cold as his muse, and stiffer than his style;

But whether Bacchus or Minerva claims

The crusty critic, all conjecture shames;

Nor shall the world know which the mortal sin,

Excessive genius or excessive gin!

Somewhere between the extremes of personal abuse such as this and the “idol worship” of Jane Locke there is a cluster of poems and passages in poems that can pass as genuine literary criticism of Poe, some of it favorable and some of it adverse. Perhaps the earliest is a ten-line passage from a pseudonymous critical satire published in Baltimore in 1830. The satirist is simultaneously impressed, presumably by Al Aaraaf which was published a year earlier, and disturbed by the youthful poet’s unorthodoxy: ­[page 11:]

Next Poe who smil’d at reason, laugh’d at law,

And played a tune who should have play’d at taw [i.e., marbles],

Now strain’d a license, and now crack’d a string,

But sang as older children dared not sing.

Eight years later, Poe was in the process of moving to Philadelphia after eighteen fruitless months of trying to establish himself in New York when Atkinson’s Saturday Evening Post for August 11, 1838, carried a critical tribute entitled “Ode XXX — To Edgar A. Poe.” It was a timely gesture on the part of Poe’s friend Lambert A. Wilmer. One of a series of imitations to which Wilmer signed himself “Horace in Philadelphia,” “Ode XXX” (which is in fact an imitation of Horace’s thirty-first ode) had the effect of announcing to the readers of the Post that a neglected genius was about to become a fellow-Philadelphian. Wilmer foresees a bright future for Poe:

So thou, dear friend, shalt haply ride

Triumphant through the swelling tide

With fame thy cynosure and guide.


So may it be, — tho’ fortune now

Averts her face, and heedless crowds

To blocks, like senseless Pagans, bow; —

Yet time shall dissipate the clouds,

Dissolve the mist which merit shrouds,

And fix the Laurel on thy brow.


There let it grow; and there ’twould be

If justice rul’d and men could see.

In concluding, Wilmer suggests that Poe might expedite justice were he to resume the kind of slashing criticism which he practiced as editor of the Southern Literary Messenger. The suggestion is couched in two allusions, one classical and one Biblical:

But reptiles are allow’d to sport

Their scaly limbs in great Apollo’s court.

Thou once did whip some rascals from the fane

O let they [[thy]] vengeful arm be felt again.

Wilmer proved to be at least in part a prophet: Poe’s “vengeful arm” was felt again — first through Burton’s and Graham’s in Philadelphia and subsequently through the Mirror and the ­[page 12:] Broadway Journal in New York; and “time” did, indeed, dissipate the clouds of obscurity that surrounded him. But whether it was “merit” that thereby shone unshrouded or whether it was something less commendable was a subject upon which Poe’s contemporaries disagreed.

Among those who believed it was “merit” was the author of a pseudonymous satire published in three installments in Park Benjamin’s New World in March and April of 1845. Entitled “The Pressgang. A Vision. By Snarles,” the satire purported to be a dream vision of a “Literary War” among some twenty-odd daily and weekly newspapers published in New York. The second installment, carried in the New World on April 19, offered a caricature of the Broadway Journal commending it for its critical courage and integrity. Though Poe had been associated with the Journal only two months at the time, unmistakable echoes of his recently published “The Raven” suggest that “Snarles” was complimenting him specifically:

Then with step sedate and stately, as if thrones had borne him lately,

Came a bold and daring warrior up the distant echoing floor;

As he passed the Courier’s Colonel [i.e., James Watson Webb of the Courier and Enquirer ], then I saw The Broadway Journal,

In a character supernal, on his gallant front he bore,

And with stately step and solemn marched he proudly through the door,

As if he pondered, evermore.

With his keen sardonic smiling, every other care beguiling,

Right and left he bravely wielded a double-edged and broad claymore,

And with gallant presence dashing, ’mid his confreres stoutly clashing,

He unpityingly went slashing, as he keenly scanned them o’er,

While with eye and mien undaunted, such a gallant presence bore,

As might awe them, evermore.

Neither rank nor station heeding, with his foes around him bleeding, ­[page 13:]

Sternly, singly, and alone, his course he kept upon that floor;

While the countless foes attacking, neither strength nor valor lacking,

On his goodly armor hacking, wrought no change his visage o’er,

As with high and honest aim, he still his falchion proudly bore,

Resisting error, evermore.

Just two years later, in April of 1847, Godey’s Magazine carried a tribute to Poe in a poem by Alonzo Lewis, the gentle “Lynn Bard” of Lynn, Massachusetts:

I read thy “song of the Raven,” Poe:

The thrilling notes of its magic flow

Sunk into my heart, like the summer rain

In the thirsty earth, till it glowed again.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

And many a heart in this dark, cold world,

From its throne of sweet affection hurled,

As it cons that strange, wild ballad o’er,

Will sigh for its own loved, lost Lenore.

“The Raven” prompted still another favorable response in a poem printed the following year in Nathaniel Parker Willis’s Home Journal. Entitled “One of Our Poets,” the poem was the work of Miss Frances A. Fuller who, as Mrs. Frances Fuller Victor, later became the widely known author and historian of the Pacific northwest. Like many other readers of Poe’s poetry and fiction over the years, Miss Fuller equated the poet with his narrator and imagined Poe brooding in his chamber, “haunted” by his lost “Lenore”:

Oft my fancy draws the picture, and for evermore he seems

Sitting silent in his chamber, brooding o’er his wondrous dreams;

Sitting motionless and weaving visions in his mighty brain —

Visions soft, and pure, and glowing, and with scarce and earthly stain —

Weaving into them his being, all its pleasures and its pain. ­[page 14:]

The critical poetry which was unfavorable to Poe complained as much about what Lamber [[Lambert]] Wilmer had called his “vengeful arm” as it commented upon the quality of Poe’s poetry and his fiction. One of these complaints, entitled “To a Querulous Critic,” consisted of sixty-three lines of dimeter doggerel cast in the form of an open letter to Poe signed with the pseudonym “Mustard Mace.” Printed in Neal’s (Philadelphia) Saturday Gazette in May of 1846, it opens with a warning to Poe to ease up in his criticism:

Dictator Poe,

Of Scribbler’s Row!

(I name you so

Because you show

You’re fain to crow

O’er every foe

Who will not go

Your feet below.)

Beware lest you

A storm may brew

That harm may do

Yourself unto,

And you may rue,

And learn to sue,

For quarter too.

What has Poe accomplished, “Mustard Mace” asks rhetorically, that warrants his high-handed treatment of his fellow writers:

What have you wrought

In things of thought

To give you claim

To extra fame?

You’ve growl’d and fought;

Much further — aught?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Your Raven’s fine

In many a line;

Yet I opine

The various Nine

Have wreaths to twine

For brows that shine

More bright than thine. ­[page 15:]

Go, take your place

With modest grace

Among your race.



In his A Fable for Critics, James Russell Lowell also complains of the severity of Poe’s criticism, specifically admonishing him for, as Lowell put it, flinging “mud-balls at Longfellow.” But Lowell is more generous than “Mustard Mace” toward Poe as a poet. Lowell grants that Poe had “written some things quite the best of their kind, / But the heart somehow seems all squeezed out by the mind.” A Fable was published in October of 1848, and three months later Poe came under still another critical attack in verse, this time by Augustine J. H. Duganne in a lampoon called “A Mirror for Authors.” The popular illustrator F. O. C. Darley furnished an appropriate cartoon of an Indian brandishing tomahawk and scalping knife to accompany Duganne’s caricature:

With tomahawk upraised for deadly blow,

Behold our literary Mohawk, Poe!

Sworn tyrant he o’er all who sin in verse —

His own the standard, damns he all that’s worse;

And surely not for this shall he be blamed —

For worse than his deserves that it be damned!

Duganne throws a number of other charges at Poe: that he was a critical bully and an egotist; that he was adept at detecting plagiarism because he practiced the art himself; that he had a kind of mad obsession with analysis; and finally, that his poetry lacked fresh inspiration — or at least this is what Duganne’s closing couplet seems to charge: “The mystic fates alone can tell how often he / Means to dress up old flame in new cacophony!”

Duganne’s treatment of Poe itself lacked freshness. But it also lacked something even more essential: it lacked good timing. Published in Holden’s Dollar Magazine in January, 1849, it followed too closely in the wake of Lowell’s overwhelmingly successful A Fable for Critics. But it lacked good timing, too, because by January of 1849, Poe’s personal as well as his professional straits had so reduced him that he no longer was a sporting target for any form of abuse. At that moment, which proved to be less than ten months before his death, Poe was far more to be pitied than to be censured. ­[page 17:]


The event of Poe’s death in October of 1849 prompted a flurry of poetic tributes, some of which were the work of loyal friends. One of the first to appear in print was eight lines of verse by E. H. N. Patterson, the young Illinois editor who had been making plans to collaborate with Poe on the publication of the Stylus. Patterson praises Poe as a kind of mystic whose spirit had “Communed with saintly souls, and caught / Many a golden vision which it brought / Back from the Dream-Land of its Heavenward flight.” Mrs. Osgood, who herself was to survive Poe by only seven months, mourned him in her poem “The Hand That Swept the Sounding Lyre.” One of her finest performances, it pictures Poe as an Israfel whose life was one of “wo,” “despair,” and “grief” but whose poetry will survive in the hearts of the living:

Love’s silver lyre he play’d so well

Lies shatter’d on his tomb;

But still in air its music-spell

Floats on through light and gloom,

And in the hearts where soft they fell,

His words of beauty bloom

For evermore!

Mrs. Whitman composed two poems. The first, written a month after Poe’s death and entitled “The Phantom Voice,” is a more or less conventional elegy which dwells upon her memories of him. He now survives for her, she says, as

A wild, unearthly melody,

Whose monotone doth move,

The saddest, sweetest cadences

Of sorrow and of love.

Mrs. Whitman’s second poem, originally called “To Him ‘Whose Heart-Strings Were a Lute’ ” but subsequently retitled “Resurgemus,” is not a conventional response to death but instead a reflection of Mrs. Whitman’s conviction as a Spiritualist that death had enhanced the vitality of her relationship with a spirit now released:

I mourn thee not. — No words can tell

The solemn calm that tranced my breast

When first I knew thy soul had passed

From earth to its eternal rest. ­[page 17:]

Poe’s life was fraught with “doubt and darkness,” and “Few were the hearts,” Mrs. Whitman continues obviously alluding to herself, who understood the music of his “weird harp,” who learned the “mystic language” of his eyes, or who knew

The proud, high heart, that dwelt alone

In gorgeous palaces of wo,

Like Eblis on his burning throne.

The closing stanzas of “Resurgemus” reveal the aura of sanctity Mrs. Whitman cast over her association with Poe’s spirit: she will keep a vigil for him at the shrine which is his tomb until her death unites them in heaven:

There may thy wondrous harp awake,

And there my ransomed soul with thee

Behold the eternal morning break

In glory o’er the Jasper Sea.

Whether they were conventional or otherwise, unmixed tributes such as these are misleading to the extent that they fail to represent the impact of Rufus Griswold’s denunciation of Poe. The shadow of this denunciation falls across the entire length of Poe’s posthumous reputation. At no period, however, were its hues deeper, its effects more pervasive, than during the first decade or so following his death. Griswold launched his attack with his notorious “Ludwig” obituary notice published in the New York Tribune on October 9, the very day upon which Poe was buried in Baltimore, and he reaffirmed and amplified the notice less than a year later with his “Memoir” of Poe, a malicious document bearing the authority and impregnability of literary executor. Other enemies of Poe did not hesitate to follow Griswold’s lead, and a peculiarly moralistic age accepted, if it did not frankly welcome, Griswold’s image of a notorious derelict whose “career is full of instruction and warning.”

It was inevitable that Griswold’s venom would find its way into the poetry prompted by Poe’s death. Little of this poetry, however, is either openly hostile to Poe or frankly partisan. The most hostile is a poem entitled “Miserrimus.” It was by R. H. Stoddard, one of those persons who, as Lambert Wilmer described them, nursed their wrath against Poe in silence until he was securely in his grave. Dated October 17, 1849, and carried in the New York Tribune on the twenty-seventh, “Miserrimus” follows the “Ludwig” line by labelling Poe a man whose “faults were many” and whose “virtues few,” ­[page 18:]

A tempest, with flecks of the Heaven’s blue!

He might have soared in the morning light,

But he built his nest

With the birds of Night!

Stoddard closes “Misserimus” on a note of sanctimonious exhortation:

Let us forget the path he trod,

And leave him now

To his Maker, God!

One of the few partisan poems explicitly defending Poe made its appearance anonymously in the semi-weekly Supplement to the New York Tribune less than six weeks after that paper carried the Ludwig notice. Entitled simply “Edgar A. Poe” and dated “Chicago, October, 1849,” the poem responds explicitly to one of Griswold’s charges by insisting that “It is not true, ‘the Poet had no friends.’ ” After paying tribute to Poe as the spokesman for every “spirit crushed by time and grief,” the anonymous partisan prophesies quite inaccurately that

many a friend, around the grave of Poe,

Will help to plant the willow o’er his head,

Shading his Harp and him, low sleeping there;

And, with a lynx-eyed jealousy, will watch

And shield from weaker pens his memory.

Another poet who came to Poe’s defense was Thomas Holley Chivers, the Georgia Transcendentalist and Swedenborgian. Chivers, who unabashedly cast himself in the role of America’s Shelley mourning the passing of her Keats, penned an epitaph “immediately after Poe’s death” which he intended “to have engraved upon his Tomb Stone.” The epitaph pictures Poe as a prophet and a scourge now lying beyond the reach of those who scorned him:

Like the great Prophet in the Desert lone,

He stood here waiting for the GOLDEN MORNING;

From death’s dark Vale I hear his distant moan —

Coming to scourge the World he was adorning —

Scorning, in glory now, their impotence of scorning.

And now, in Apotheosis divine,

He stands, enthroned upon the Immortal Mountains,

Of God’s eternity, forever more to shine — ­[page 19:]

Star-crowned; all purified with oil-anointings —

Drinking with Ullalume [sic] from out th’ Eternal Fountains.

Most of the poems prompted by Poe’s death are neither openly hostile nor wholly defensive but are, instead, mixed tributes which assume some middle position. Though they accept Griswold’s grim picture, they acknowledge Poe’s genius, or they find in him some personal virtues mitigating the darker shades of Griswold’s portrait, or they seek extenuating circumstances which render Poe more victim than villain. All these mixed tributes appear to have been born of a fascination for the figure of one man, as Nathaniel Parker Willis described the prevailing image of Poe, “inhabited by both a devil and an angel.” Ironically, it is this fascinating figure unwittingly promoted in no small measure by Griswold himself that endowed Poe’s image with much of the vitality it enjoys in some quarters even today.

A number of these mixed tributes appeared in print during the first few months following Poe’s death. One of the earliest was written by C. D. Stuart, a co-editor of the New York Sun. Published in the New York Tribune on October 16, the poem opens with the thought that perhaps death was for Poe not untimely, but Stuart quickly shifts to an expression of grief:

Not for thyself too soon — the shaft,

The subtle shaft of Death, was strung!

Yet for our sake, upon the bow

’T were better had the arrow hung;

For we do miss thee, as when stars

Which brightly flashed upon our sight —

Fade out behind heav’n’s cloudy bars,

And leave us dark and shrouded night.

A mixed tribute of special interest appeared in Willis’s Home Journal on October 27 over the initials “E. S.” It was the work of Ermina Starkweather (i.e., Mrs. Jane Ermina Locke). Entitled simply “Requiem,” the poem distinguishes between the bard whose harp was “of the mightiest tone” and the man whose “errors” should now be forgotten. A special feature of “Requiem” is Mrs. Locke’s regret that there were friends of the deceased poet, and no doubt she considered herself at the forefront, who tried in vain to redeem him: ­[page 20:]

Had the prayers of those availed him,

O’er whose path his shadow fell,

Darkening with its raven pinions

Life’s dim way, it had been well.

The Home Journal for November 17 carried another mixed tribute. This one, called “On the Death of Edgar A. Poe,” was written by Sarah Tittle Bolton, a poetess of Indianapolis who is now remembered, if at all, as the author of “Paddle Your Own Canoe.” Presumably accepting Griswold’s assertion that Poe’s works are “a reflection and an echo of his own history,” Mrs. Bolton rummaged through “The Raven,” “The Haunted Palace,” and “Ulalume” to piece together a gloomy but sympathetic picture of Poe as the “lost one” whose “wild and wayward heart” is now “safely moored” not only from “sorrow’s tempest” but from the ravages of his own “ ‘evil’ Genius”:

If a “living human being,” ever had the gift of “seeing,”

The “grim and ghastly” countenance his “evil” Genius wore —

It was thee, “unhappy master, whom unmerciful Disaster

Followed fast and followed faster, till” thy “songs one burden bore —

‘till the dirges of” thy “hope one melancholy burden bore

Of never — nevermore.”

This idea that Poe was the victim of his own genius is made even more forcefully in a poem published in the Richmond Enquirer on January 29, 1850, over the pseudonym “The Bard of Baltimore.” The “Bard” was Henry Clay Preuss, a man who seems to have been better known as a political writer than as a poet. Preuss addresses Poe as a kind of Faustian or Byronic figure:

With bold and fearful power, thou didst tear

The mystic veil from all life’s hidden things:

And then thy rebel soul was doomed to bear

The penalty which too much knowledge brings;

Life’s brighter lights to thee grew dark and drear —

The mortal drooped, though perched on angel’s wings;

And now, with all the gifts of Genius blest,

Thou didst but ask of Death the boon of rest!

The flurry of verse prompted by the event of Poe’s death soon subsided, but mixed tributes continued to appear, though with diminishing frequency, throughout the 1850’s and into the ­[page 21:] first half of the following decade. In 1856, for example, John Reuben Thompson, editor of the Southern Literary Messenger at the time of Poe’s death, hailed him as the sad victim of his own talent:

Unhappy Poe, what destiny adverse

Still hung around thee both to bless and curse!

The Fairies’ gifts, who on thy birth attended,

Seemed all with bitter maledictions blended.

Three years later, young Thomas Bailey Aldrich, one of the rising generation of American poets, resketched what by then had become the established image of the dead author:

Ah, much he suffered in his day:

He knelt with Virtue, kissed with Sin —

Wild Passion’s child, and Sorrow’s twin,

A meteor that had lost its way!

And even in the midst of a patriotic Confederate poem written in 1863 to celebrate the cultural triumphs of the South, the poet Paul Hamilton Hayne confessed to reservations about Poe. He was a man, Hayne wrote, “Whose genius lives in realms of Blight, / Yet oft towards the Infinite / Essays to rise on wings, on might.”

Though interest in Poe had been winding down through the 1860’s, a voice from the past was heard in a poem by Sarah Helen Whitman printed in the magazine Old and New for July of 1870. In 1853 Mrs. Whitman had collected an edition of her poetry which included seventeen poems devoted to Poe: six written while he lived, two written shortly after his death, and nine more over the next two or three years. In 1860 she defended him in her Edgar Poe and His Critics, a little book which, in the words of one twentieth-century commentator, “still remains not only a convincing personal tribute but also one of the most sympathetic and brilliant interpretations of his poetry and fiction.” And now, in 1870, Mrs. Whitman addressed her eighteenth and last poem to Poe. Entitled “The Portrait,” it records a change in her attitude toward him. “After long years” she gazed once more upon “that face, magnetic as the morning’s beam.” It “thrilled” her “slumbering memory,” but it failed to evoke the intensely personal associations of her destiny with his that characterized the poetry she had addressed to him during the years immediately following his death, her expectation that she would share eternity in union with him. Instead his destiny is now his own: ­[page 22:]

Sweet, mournful eyes, long closed upon earth’s sorrow,

Sleep restfully after life’s fevered dream!

Sleep, wayward heart! till on some cool, bright morrow,

Thy soul, refreshed, shall bathe in morning’s beam.

This poem not only records the change in Mrs. Whitman’s attitude toward Poe, but it suggests the attitude at large that prevailed at the close of the 1860’s. He was no longer the vital presence to those who had known him or the vital issue to those who had become embroiled in the heated controversy which followed upon his death. There was a revival at hand, however, and Mrs. Whitman prophesied it in the closing stanza to her poem:

Though cloud and sorrow rest upon thy story,

And rude hands lift the drapery of thy pall,

Time, as a birthright, shall restore the glory,

And Heaven rekindle all the stars that fall.


The restoration of Poe’s “glory,” to borrow Mrs. Whitman’s phrase, was the work of a generation that had come of age twenty years after his death, a new generation anxious to reevaluate the old issues surrounding him in the light of new facts, but largely in the light of new attitudes. Poe’s defamers had had their day, had had their opportunity to swathe the man in dark legend; now the partisans, the Poe cult, as Eugene Didier labelled it, would have theirs. But the figure they venerated was in many ways scarcely less legendary; indeed, in many ways it remained unchanged. Denunciation gave way to atonement. Like Chatterton and Keats before him, Poe became the figure of the artist neglected and scorned. Blame for his faults rested not with him but with the society that had misunderstood and mistreated him. For its scorn and its neglect that society would now atone by belated recognition of his genius in a series of public testimonials beginning in 1875 with the dedication of the monument at his grave in Baltimore and culminating in 1909 with the centennial celebration of his birth, a celebration which Charles Alphonso Smith aptly called Poe’s “coronation.” Ironically, no one deserves more credit for the coronation of Poe than his chief defamer, Rufus W. Griswold. ­[page 23:]

The shift in Poe’s public posture from villain to victim marked no decline in the feeling he was able to evoke. On the contrary, his image assumed even greater emotional potential. The fascination of his romantic figure now was enhanced by the charm of pity and the spirit of a cause celebre [[célèbre]]. Poetry devoted to him responded accordingly. It heralded the revival of interest, participated in each of the public testimonials, and with the arrival of the centennial it rose to a veritable chorus of hosannas to welcome the triumph of immortal genius over defamation and neglect.

The critic William Winter furnished the memorial poem recited as a part of the first public testimonial to Poe. It was the ceremonies marking the dedication of the monument in Westminster Churchyard in Baltimore on November 17, 1875. The thought of Poe carried Winter beyond the edge of tears:

With dews of grief our eyes are dim;

Ah, let the tear of sorrow start,

And honor, in ourselves and him,

The great and tender human heart!

Winter’s picture of Poe is as legendary as any concocted by his defamers:

Through many a night of want and woe

His frenzied spirit wandered wild —

Till kind disaster laid him low,

And Heaven reclaimed its wayward child.

Most characteristic of the new attitude is Winter’s conviction that atonement is finally being made for the shabby treatment afforded Poe in the past:

One meed of justice long delayed,

One crowning grace his virtues crave: —

Ah, take, thou great and injured shade,

The love that sanctifies the grave!


God’s mercy guard in peaceful sleep,

The sacred dust that slumbers here;

And, while around this tomb we weep,

God bless, for us, the mourner’s tear!


And may his spirit, hovering nigh,

Pierce the dense cloud of darkness through,

And know, with fame that cannot die,

He has the world’s affection, too! ­[page 24:]

Though the spirit of Poe may have had Winter’s affection, there is reason to doubt that Winter had come to terms with the dead poet’s life: Miss Sara Sigourney Rice, the woman who had organized the ceremonies, was obliged to deliver Winter’s poem because the eulogist himself was among the conspicuous hosts of American literary figures who somehow found themselves unable to be in Baltimore that November day,

When the record of the Baltimore exercises was published in 1877, several poems not a part of the ceremonies were appended. One of them, written by Paul Hamilton Hayne, is especially noteworthy because it shows how the new attitude toward Poe could convert even the darkest shadows of the legend into a sympathetic portrait. Hayne reasserts the Manichean-like interpretation of Poe’s psyche that had been promoted by his defamers:

Two mighty spirits dwelt in him:

One, a wild demon, weird and dim,

The darkness of whose ebon wings

Did shroud unutterable things:

One, a fair angel, in the skies

Of whose serene, unshadowed eyes

Were seen the lights of Paradise.

According to Hayne’s scenario, Poe gave himself over in turn to each of these spirits until the “wild demon” reigned unchallenged. But the rout of the “fair angel” was not, as Poe’s defamers had insisted, the fault of Poe himself. He was the victim, not the villain, the victim “sapped by want, and riven by wrong”; and his immortal poetry is a response “In concords far too sweet to die, / Wedding despair to harmony.” Hayne’s closing stanza reveals the new role Poe was assuming: he is now the “type” or symbol of the innocent victim of a “fate remorseless.”

The second public testimonial was the dedication of the Actors’ Monument to Poe in New Tork [[York]] ten years after the Baltimore ceremonies. Once again William Winter was called upon to furnish the memorial poem. Although he waxed as emotional about his subject in 1885 as he had a decade earlier, Winter still seems to have been having difficulty coming to terms with Poe’s life. For the Baltimore occasion he had labelled Poe heaven’s “wayward child.” For the New York ceremonies he prefaced his poem with a brief “speech” disavowing any intent to justify what ­[page 25:] he called Poe’s “outward and visible life.” This disavowal not withstanding, Winter’s poem did not entirely avoid what he considered the questionable side of his subject. He tried instead to excuse Poe as a person who must not be judged by conventional moral standards:



Oh, if he sinned he suffered! Let him rest,

Who, in this world had little but its pain!

The life of patient virtue still is blest —

But there be bosoms powerless to restrain

The surging tempests of the heart and brain;

Souls that are driven madly o’er the deep,

Their passions fatal, and their struggle vain;

Men that in nameless grief their vigils keep,

With marble lips, and eyes that burn but cannot weep.

That William Winter was making at least some progress toward coming to terms with Poe the man is suggested by the fact that in 1885 he did appear at the ceremonies to deliver the poem he had composed.

There was still one more public testimonial before the turn of the century. It was the unveiling of George Julian Zolnay’s bust of Poe at the University of Virginia on the semi-centennial of his death in 1899. The “Memorial Poem” on this occasion was not the work of William Winter but of Robert Burns Wilson of Frankfort, Kentucky. Like Zolnay’s bust, Wilson’s poem expresses the prevailing image of Poe: “ ‘poor, struggling, suffering, longing’ — and misunderstood”:

His faults were such

As thousands live and die with, unobserved,

But, being his faults, because of his mind’s light,

They loomed like towers upon a sunset hill.

Broken upon the wheel of his misfortunes,

Toiling, alone, where life’s dark pathway leads

Close by the steep and treacherous brink of hell,

Haunted by spectres, vexed by ceaseless griefs,

His soul went down to death, in loneliness,

A death too pitiful for aught save silence,

Too mournful in its wretchedness for tears. ­[page 26:]

Wilson’s poem also reflects the growing awareness that Poe’s enemies had unwittingly and ironically contributed to the prominence their victim was now enjoying:

Above his dust

Time’s slow impartial hand has made for him

A shaft, memorial, builded of the stones

Which Hate and Envy cast upon his grave.

The unveiling ceremonies at the University of Virginia also included one of a total of at least eight poems devoted to Poe by Rev. John Bannister Tabb. One of Poe’s most vocal champions, Father Tabb did more than defend the dead poet: he launched his own counterattacks. It was he who, back in 1885, was the first to taunt Poe’s critics with the irony that their efforts to destroy his reputation had only served to immortalize his name. Father Tabb made the point in a little fable:

A certain tyrant to disgrace

The more a rebel’s resting-place,

Compelled the people every one

To hurl in passing there a stone;

Which done, the rugged pile became

A sepulchre to keep his name.


And thus it is with Edgar Poe;

Each passing critic has his throw,

Nor sees, defeating his intent,

How lofty grows the monument.

For the unveiling of the Zolnay bust in 1899, Father Tabb hailed “the living light” which had burst forth beneath the “ashes” cursed by Poe’s defamers. And in 1905 when Poe failed for the second time to be elected to the Hall of Fame at New York University, Father Tabb dismissed the decision in a caustic quatrain:

Into the charnel hall of fame

The dead alone should go.

Then write not there the living name

Of Edgar Allan Poe.

Pugnacious as he often was, Father Tabb also composed some of the most moving poetry ever written about Poe. None is finer than his “Poe’s Purgatory,” a poem where the dead poet is made to plead in his own behalf: ­[page 27:]

All others rest; but I

Dream-haunted lie —

A distant roar,

As of tumultous waters, evermore

About my brain.


E’en sleep, though fain

To soothe me, flies affrighted, and alone

I bear the incumbent stone

Of death

That stifles breath

But not the hideous chorus crying “Shame!”

Upon my name.


Had I not Song?

Yea, and it lingers yet

The souls to fret

Of an ignoble throng,

Aflame with hate

Of the exulting fate

That hurls her idols from her temple fair

And shrines me there.

Father Tabb’s poetry spans the closing years of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth, a decade during which interest in Poe mounted steadily. At lease [[least]] eighteen poems appeared in print between the turn of the century and the centennial year. Among them were poems by two of the more eccentric members of the Poe cult, Colonel John A. Joyce and Oliver Leigh, a quatrain by Clifford Lanier, the gifted but now forgotten brother of Sidney Lanier, and a sonnet by the California poet and Bohemian George Sterling. There was also a sonnet by Edwin Arlington Robinson which, because it does not appear in the collected edition of his poems, should be rescued from oblivion. It is entitled “For a Copy of Poe’s Poems” and was published in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine for August, 1906:

Like a wild stranger out of wizard-land

He dwelt a little with us, and withdrew;

Bleak and unblossomed were the ways he knew,

Dark was the glass through which his fine eye scanned

Life’s hard perplexities; and frail his hand,

Groping in utter night for pleasure’s clue. ­[page 28:]

These wonder-songs, fantastically few,

He left us . . . but we cannot understand.

Lone voices calling for a dimmed ideal

Mix with the varied music of the years

And take their place with sorrows gone before:

Some are wide yearnings ringing with a real

And royal hopelessness, some are thin tears,

Some are the ghosts of dreams, and one — Lenore.

The 1909 centennial itself was marked by ceremonies throughout the world. In this country exercises were held principally at the Fordham cottage in the Bronx, at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and at Poe’s alma mater in Charlottesville. One dissenting wag ridiculed the solemnity of the occasion in a delightful parody of “The Bells”:

Hear the tributes paid to Poe!

(Might he know!)

What a world of immortality his celebrants bestow!

Hear the speakers clear their throats

And consult their little notes!

Hear them laud him to the skies!

How they prize, prize, prize

All he wrote;

How they dote

On his “Raven” and his “Bells”;

How they quote

“Ulalume” and all the rest

Of his verse

And rehearse

His catalogue of triumphs with a breast

All a-glow,

Praising Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe,

Poe, Poe, Poe,

Their thrice-inspired Poe,

The only son of genius that we ever had, you know!

So it’s natural to blow

The trumpet blast of Poe,

Of Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe,

Poe, Poe, Poe! —

For perhaps ten days or so,

Of emotion and commotion over Poe! ­[page 29:]

A good deal of this “emotion and commotion” assumed the form of poems, more than three dozen of which made their way into magazines and newspapers or were recited as features at public ceremonies. One of the principal poems at the Fordham cottage exercises was John Henry Boner’s “Poe’s Cottage at Fordham.” Originally published in 1889, Boner’s poem reflects the abiding fascination for a man whose breast was thought to harbor a volatile mixture of the angelic and the demonic:

Here lived the soul enchanted

By melody of song;

Here dwelt the spirit haunted

By demoniac throng;

Here sang the lips elated;

Here grief and death were sated;

Here loved and here unmated

Was he, so frail, so strong.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Proud, mad, but not defiant,

He touched at heaven and hell,

Fate found a rare soul pliant

And rung her changes well.

Alternately his lyre,

Stranded with strings of fire,

Led earth’s most happy choir,

Or flashed with Israfel.

Lizette Woodworth Reese rehearsed the sad tale of Poe’s life in her poem recited as part of the exercises at Johns Hopkins University sponsored by the Edgar Allan Poe Memorial Association. And the late James Southall Wilson resurrected the Manichean image of Poe’s psyche in his poem delivered at the University of Virginia. In keeping with the spirit of the centennial, Professor Wilson awarded the palm to the good angel:

For the angel and devil had fought a fight

Close in the breast of man,

And the angel had won by his music’s might

(This was the good Lord’s plan);

And the soul of him passed like a holy strain

Tunefully up on high,

But the human heart of him woke again

Marvelous melody; ­[page 30:]

Ay, the soul of him passed like a living blast

Musically up to the sky.

Above all these echoes of the past four decades, there arose a clear note which characterized the centennial as Poe’s “coronation” or, if you will, his canonization. It was the conviction that atonement for the defamation and neglect he had suffered was complete and that he now had assumed his proper place among the immortals of literature. As one poem phrased it,

Thy years of grief and bitterness are past,

No longer toll the bells in sorrow’s strain;

But merrily and cheerily

In glad refrain

The silver bells ring worldwide praise at last.

Edwin Markham uttered similar sentiments in “Our Israfel,” his poem delivered at the Fordham cottage ceremonies sponsored by the Bronx Society of Arts and Sciences:

Sing, Israfel: you have your star at last,

Your morning star; but we — we still must live!

So now that all is over, all is past,

Forget, forget — forgive!

And in Charlottesville, the poet Charles W. Hubner assured Poe that an enlightened age never again would tolerate the defamation he had suffered:

Forgive, forget the past; rejoice instead,

A saner age now magnifies thy fame;

Nor shall, in all the world, a base hand dare

To fling defilement at thy laurel head.

Though Poe’s critics may not have been silenced permanently, the crescendo of feeling voiced in the poetry of the centennial drowned out the opposition and marked the occasion as a culmination of the sympathy for Poe that had been swelling since the ceremonies at his grave in Baltimore back in November of 1875.


One would image [[imagine]] that the “emotion and commotion” of the centennial would have obviated or at least exhausted whatever need there had been to celebrate Poe in verse. But such was not the ­[page 31:] case. For three full decades after the centennial he continued to be lamented in poetry as a pathetic figure whose works are the painful record of a melancholy but colorful life; and in spite of the fact that the centennial had brought with it at least a just measure of recognition, Poe was mourned time and time again as the neglected genius of American letters.

It was to this pathetic and neglected figure, for example, that Vachel Lindsay addressed his “The Wizard in the Street,” a poem he published in his Village Magazine in 1910. Here, just one year after the centennial, Lindsay could scarcely conceal his outrage at what he felt was the indifference of America to an artist who failed to abide by its narrow moral standards:

Who now will praise the Wizard in the street

With loyal songs, with humors grave and sweet —

The Jingle-man, of strolling players born,

Whom holy folk have hurried by in scorn,

This threadbare jester, neither wise nor good,

With melancholy bells upon his hood?

In a society devoted to utility, Poe is “the useless one” whose “little lacquered boxes” fascinate only “half-grown boys,” while the rest of us, Lindsay charges, turn our backs upon him. Three years after Lindsay published his poem, Poe’s biographer George E. Woodberry evoked once again the image of Poe as a haunted man assailed by “Spectral thoughts — grim foes,” a man whose “heart was torn with / Life’s wan dream, Despair.” A decade later Hervey Allen, another of Poe’s biographers, called him a stranger “in this bourne,” one “Who tarries here protesting and alone,” but whose works of “Beauty” are the offspring of his “discontent.” The year 1930 saw the publication of the grisly passage on Poe in Hart Crane’s The Bridge, the passage where Crane describes him as a poetic miscreant martyred, rent asunder in body and spirit, because he denied “the ticket” of sordidness and triviality of his age. And in 1938, poetry devoted to Poe achieved a minor crescendo of sorts with the publication of The Muse Anthology of Modern Poetry: Poe Memorial Edition. The editors of this ponderous Festschrift describe it as a tribute to “the literary achievements of the foremost poet, author, and critic this country has the honor to acclaim.” The Anthology is made up of a selection of Poe’s own essays and poems, a dozen essays about him, and a collection of 787 poems by various hands. Eighteen of these poems are about Poe, and of this number almost half are ­[page 32:] printed for the first time here in the Anthology. The whole undertaking approaches Poe in much the same spirit that ushered in the revival more than sixty years earlier, a spirit typified in one of the poems, a sonnet by Daniel Henderson entitled “Poe Mansion”:

Make of this house a literary show.

Be reverent about it: tell mankind

That here the poet’s memory is enshrined;

That here lived genius steadfast in its glow.

Say not that world or critic was his foe;

Speak not of the torn heart and suffering mind;

Say not he fed upon the crust and rind:

Avoid the travail in the soul of Poe.


But when like crowding ravens comes the night,

And tempests beat upon the solitude,

What heart is listening? Who has come to brood

Upon the storm rhythms clashing in their height?

This is his hour behind the shaken wall,

This is his hour — and true memorial.

One of several quatrains in the Anthology follows the time-honored practice of lamenting America’s shabby treatment of Poe while he lived:

We do not say the bitter word

Today — for he is dead;

But yesterday he knew and cared,

We said it then instead.

And still another quatrain, this one entitled simply “Consistency,” echoes all those other poems about the stones that had been hurled at Poe:

We honor his greatness, — now he’s dead —

With a shaft of marble over his bones;

True, we long denied him bread

But we never spared our stones.

The Muse Anthology was something more than a minor crescendo in the history of American poetry devoted to Poe: it also proved to be its coda. For the number of poems declined sharply after its publication. Even the centennial of Poe’s death in 1949 ­[page 33:] elicited little more than a ripple of verse, a fact which is striking when we recall that the semi -centennial of his death (1899) was marked by the unveiling of the Zolnay bust amidst a chorus of verse while the centennial celebration of his birth was accompanied by peals of poetry.

There are several possible reasons for the decline in recent years. Perhaps what we like to think of as the clear-sighted realism of our own era, or what probably is our own brand of sentiment, is so out of keeping with the Romanticism that nurtured the old image of Poe that we can no longer respond to it as we once did. Again, perhaps the horrendous events of history — depressions, turmoil, and almost two generations of unceasing war — have created such suffering, suffering in which all of us have been intimately involved, that the alleged miseries of Poe’s life and the injustices perpetrated upon his reputation no longer lay so strong a claim upon our sympathy. Once again, perhaps time itself has caused the decline. After all, the life of Poe is a remote event which, lacking the immediacy that prompts passion, now fails to move us to poetry as it did in the past.

But even if we could respond as we once did to the old image, the progress of Poe studies would seem to militate against it. The decades since the centennial have witnessed the passage of his reputation into the hands of scholars. Once he achieved his “coronation,” Poe became increasingly the subject of careful research. By meticulous probing of his works, his life, and even his psyche, students have gradually pared away decades of accumulated apocrypha until they arrived at what one scholar confidently titled his book: Edgar Allan Poe: The Man Behind the Legend. What has been discovered behing [[behind]] the legend is a man no less a genius, no less an artist, but a human being whose life was far less colorful, far less unconventional and dramatic than either his defamers or his partisans made him out to be. In effect, it has been a process of disenchantment essential to our arriving at the real Poe and his proper place in American letters.

Though no one would seriously regret the unveiling of the real Poe, it is disappointing that the man behind the colorful legend has proved to be a little colorless. This is, perhaps, the penalty of disenchantment. Truth will be served. But in the service of the whole truth, it must not be overlooked that the old image of Poe, the legendary one, played a crucial role in the evolution of his reputation. It endowed his name with vitality and assured his work ­[page 34:] of sustained and active interest. Although largely a figment of the imagination, the old image was virtually the only Poe the world knew for more than fifty years after his death. It kept his name alive at a time when, for example, few persons remembered Nathaniel Hawthorne and fewer knew or even cared that Herman Melville was still among the living. With the fading of the old image, a fading measured by the decline in poetry devoted to him, we now see Poe’s reputation in a phase not unlike the one foretold to Thomas Becket by the Fourth Tempter in T. S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral. The Tempter warns,

And later is worse, when men will not hate you

Enough to defame or to execrate you,

But pondering the qualities that you lacked

Will only try to find the historical fact.

What threatens to be overlooked in our present pondering upon the real Poe is that the legendary Poe, the one celebrated in that vast body of poetry devoted to it, is also an historical fact. It is, moreover, a cultural phenomenon and an aesthetic accomplishment.



This lecture was delivered at the Fifty-third Annual Commemoration Program of the Poe Society, October 5, 1975.

© 1976 and 2010, by The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, Inc.

In the original printing, no page numbers are given. For convenience of reference, page numbers have been assigned here, matching the page breaks in the original.


[S:1 - IPAM, 1976] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - The Image of Poe in American Poetry (J. E. Reilly, 1976)