Text: Mukhtar Ali Isani, Mukhtar Ali Isani, “Some Sources for Poe’s ‘Tale of the Ragged Mountains’,” from Poe Studies, vol. V, no. 2, December 1972, pp. 38-40


[page 38, column 1:]

Some Sources for Poe’s
“Tale of the Ragged Mountains”

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


Poe’s debt to Macaulay in “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” (Godey’s, April 1844) has given rise to charges of plagiarism (1), but, ironically, the tale serves more suitably as evidence of Poe’s substantial preparatory research and of careful and legitimate use of historical matter. Macaulay’s review of G. R. Gleig’s Memoirs of the Life of Warren Hastings is only one part of Poe’s pool of information related to the Benares insurrection. He also found useful matter in the Memoirs themselves, in the eyewitness accounts of this insurrection with a storybook air, and in the speeches of Sheridan at the epical trial of the governor-general — a trial which became a major public event of its time, lasted for nine years, and brought a ruler of millions to his knees.

Poe’s choice of an Oriental element for his tale appears to have been influenced by the contemporary vogue of Orientalism in America. Only in this case, Poe was not writing an Oriental tale, though he may for a while give this impression. As Sidney Lind and G. R. Thompson have shown, there is a level of this story which, if allowed, will dupe or hoax the reader (2). Poe’s Orientalism is a lure, the claims to authenticity skillfully diverting the reader from the more mundane truth that the story is a tale of Charlottesville, with a psychological explanation of the exotic cover. Thompson has also made a case for the tale as a burlesque of Edgar Huntly (3). But I suggest that Poe included the Indian episode both as a diversionary element and as a spoof upon the current taste for Orientalism, which, in the early 1840’s, was approaching a climax.

The fiction-like events of the Benares affair make Poe’s choice especially apt. In August of 1781 (4), forced by a depleted exchequer, Governor-General Hastings went to Benares to extort illegal tribute from its rajah, Chair Singh. Receiving the plea of poverty, he boldly ordered the rajah’s confinement within the Shivala Ghat palace overlooking the Ganges but could spare only two platoons of sepoys to guard the royal prisoner, and, accidentally, even these were issued no ammunition. As the angry natives rose to their ruler’s succor and destroyed the trapped detachment, Chait Singh fashioned a rope out of the turbans of his followers, lowered himself from the palace, and made his escape in a boat waiting on the Ganges below. Hastings’ main party was never truly besieged but, surrounded by a hostile populace, it was in grave danger until a relieving force arrived. The insurrection was quickly crushed and the rajah driven into exile, but - the charge of unethical conduct at Benares, leveled at Hastings by Sheridan, Burke, and others, was to prove one of the most damaging to the governor-general at his trial by Parliament. [column 2:]

Poe went back to Macaulay’s essay of 1841 primarily for the description of Benares and for a review of historical information clearly in the public domain. The story forming in his mind called for the protagonist to describe the city “with the minutes” accuracy” (V, 175). Macaulay’s Indian experience (1834-1837) and the immediate availability of his description made him a logical source, of which Poe made liberal yet legitimate use. The Englishman’s brief history of the Benares affair also suggested the direction for further research.

To divert and spoof at the same time, Poe needed a historical background capable of sustaining imaginative interpolations. Macaulay led him to Gleig, and Gleig suggested the inclusion of a daring assault at Benares. Poe’s Templeton recalls that Oldeb was an officer in Hastings’ party who made a “rash and fatal sally” (V, 175) into the besieging crowd, apparently in the effort to relieve the embattled guard at the palace. Macaulay writes of no “fatal sally,” but Gleig, in his three-volume Memoirs of the Life of Warren Hastings, describes a sortie made from Hastings’ headquarters:

The tumult in the palace soon became known both to Mr. Hastings and the inhabitants of the city, and the former directed two additional companies to support and reinforce the detachment on duty, while the latter ran in great crowds to intercept these supplies and assist the rebels. Unfortunately, the officer in command of the reinforcement held the rabble to whom he was opposed somewhat too cheap. He marched straight towards his point, through narrow streets, commanded on either side by numerous windows, and was with his people utterly destroyed ere he could penetrate to the precincts of the palace (5).

It is on this statement that Poe based his account of the “frantic sally from the kiosk,” in which the participants, “bewildered and entangled among the narrow streets of tall overhanging houses, into the recesses of which the sun had never been able to shine,” meet death at the hands of the “rabble” (6). As much history as could be appropriated for purposes of fiction Poe effectively made his own. He perpetuated an error but, one suspects, knowingly and with an eye to his bantering purpose, for his other sources, including Hastings, provide no corroboration. At Benares, an unsuccessful sally was indeed made from Hastings’ headquarters to supply and reinforce the troops in the palace, but, though greatly decimated, the relieving force suffered neither annihilation nor the loss of its commander, Lieutenant David Birrell (7).

Poe needed yet more details for the precise setting of the Benares incident than either Macaulay or Gleig provided. Their vague mention of a “building” and “house,” respectively, was inadequate for the story-teller. Few histories note even today that Hastings established his headquarters in the garden of Mahadeo Dass, in the suburbs of Benares. In his search for a description of the immediate setting which would permit Templeton to claim “minutes” accuracy,” Poe turned to Hastings, whose Narrative of the Insurrection (1782) acquired fame during the trial, being discussed, quoted, or cited by both prosecution and defense, as well as by the pamphleteers. Already reprinted in London in the year of its initial publication as A Narrative of the Late Transactions at Benares, the governor-general’s report appeared again in [page 39:] entirety in the Minutes of the Evidence, published in 1788. A few pages after the account of Chait Singh’s escape, Hastings described his “quarters, which stood in the midst of the suburbs of Banaris, and consisted of many detached buildings within one large enclosure, surrounded by houses and trees, which intercepted every other prospect” (8). This was “Mahadew Dass’s garden” (9). Here the stage for battle was set, recalled Sheik Mohammed Amin Meyher, a commander of Chait Singh’s forces whose testimony was appended to the Narrative. “The Gov. General went to the garden of Mehadew Dass, and the Rajah to the Shewallah Ghaut [palace!, his armed people taking their stations in their neighbourhood . . . .” (10)

Whether Poe intended the irony of a party fighting for survival, besieged in a garden of pleasure in the midst of a holy city, is open to conjecture, but in the matter of the setting, the emphatic agreement of Poe’s account with history is not accidental. Bedloe finds himself barricaded within “a species of kiosk” (V, 172). Templeton explains that “the party in the kiosk were sepoys and British officers, headed by Hastings” (V, 175). Throughout the tale Poe uses the word “kiosk” in its precise meaning of garden-house or pavilion. Such emphatic usage and the rarity of the historical information strongly suggest the Narrative as the source for Poe’s accurate reference to the kiosk headquarters of Warren Hastings.

Beyond this point, Poe did not need the backing of history, but the further development of the story is still related to his reading. Burton Pollin has proposed that Poe selected the name “Bedloe” from an earlier reference in Macaulay’s essay to the ease with which in the East a little encouragement “will call forth, in a week, more Oateses, and Bedloes, and Dangerfields, than Westminster Hall sees in a century.”” The proposal is plausible, though the character of Poe’s Bedloe does not agree with that of William Bedloe of English history. The name was suitable for palendromic use and may even have suggested the idea of the reversal. Pollin’s assertion that Poe is indebted to Hugo for the word “sangsue” for “leech” and for the association of this word with death is also reasonable. It is immaterial that India has no serpentine arrows resembling that which entered the temple of Oldeb as he fought near the garden of Mahadeo Dass, but the choice of the ministering hand and of the site for the application of the serpentine leech to the Virginian Bedloe is indeed ironical if we accept the reading that it was the physician himself who needed the treatment for the mind.

With respect to the relationship of mind to body, and “dreams” to reality, some interesting questions arise to which there appear to be no definite answers. Did Poe’s thoughts wander to his reading in Sir William Temple, the fancier of gardens? In his most famous and controversial essay, “Of Ancient and Modern Learning,” Temple wrote of this relationship and linked the Hindu belief in the transmigration of souls with the philosophy of Plato:

They held the transmigration of souls, and some used discourses of infernal mansions, in many things like those of Plato. Their moral philosophy consisted chiefly in preventing all diseases or distempers of the body, from which they esteemed the perturbation [column 2:] of mind, in great measure, to arise; then, in composing the mind, and exempting it from all anxious cares, esteeming the troublesome and solicitous thoughts, about past and future, to be like so many dreams, and no more to be regarded (12).

Did Temple suggest giving Templeton his thoughts of the past and Bedloe the “dream” that should have been disregarded? Certainly a physically weakening Bedloe fell victim to the designs of Templeton’s troubled mind. The physician, who admits to a “not altogether horrorless curiosity” about Bedloe (V, 174), volunteers a statement in his own defense: “I . . . did all I could to prevent the rash and fatal sally of the officer who fell, in the crowded alleys . . .” (V, 175). Yet, nearly half a century later, a memory continues to haunt him, and when his suspicion of the Bedloe-Oldeb relationship appears to be confirmed by the former’s “dream,” he reacts with horror bordering on terror. “He . . . trembled, became fearfully pallid . . . . He sat erect and rigid in his chair — his teeth chattered, and his eyes were starting from their sockets” (V, 173). The subsequent fatal use of the wrong leech, as Professor Thompson argues, is no “accident.”

The key to the story lies in the skill and mental condition of the physician with exotic experience and unusual belief. The name “Templeton,” mentioned neither by Macaulay nor by Gleig, may owe something to Sir William Temple, but it appears to have been suggested also by the numerous references to “Middleton” in the impeachment speeches of Sheridan. The second edition of The Speeches of the Right Honourable Richard Brinsley Sheridan, “Edited by a Constitutional Friend,” had just appeared (1842). Because of the notable part he played in the impeachment of Warren Hastings, Sheridan was an appropriate source to investigate. Perhaps Poe remembered the admiring lines from Byron’s “Monody on the Death of Sheridan” (1816):

When the loud cry of trampled Hindostan

Arose to Heaven in her appeal to man,

His was the thunder, his the avenging rod,

The wrath — the delegated voice of God!

Which shook the nations through his lips, and blazed,

Till vanquished senates trembled as they praised.

Fifty guineas were said to have been paid for a single ticket to hear Sheridan deliver the “Begum Speech” linking Nathaniel Middleton with the wrong-doings of Hastings’ (13). The summing-up speech of June 1788 names Middleton almost as frequently as his friend Hastings. At the time of the Benares affair, Middleton was the British “Resident” (Agent) for Oudh, the principality from which Benares had recently been separated. Allegations connected him with the wrong-doings of Hastings both before and after the insurrection. At the trial, his convenient lapses of memory, for which he became famous, earned him the sobriquet “Memory Middleton” (14). Loth to put illegal orders in writing, declared Sheridan, Hastings had to rely on Middleton’s memory, despite doubts about its adequacy (I, 407). But Middleton’s memory was more than adequate; what he lacked was a sense of honor. Sarcastically, Sheridan allowed that “. . . memory was undoubtedly not the forte of Mr. Middleton . . .” (I, 411). Middleton and Major John Scott, he charged, [page 40:] were the agents of Hastings and the governor-general had in essence encouraged this team of civilian and soldier: “Twain-warriors, ye shall go forth! you find memory, and I’ll find character — and assault, repulse, and contumely shall all be set at defiance!” Thus, “. . . those acts of Mr. Middleton were in reality the acts of Mr. Hastings . . .” (I, 418). Middleton was “the Second-self of Mr. Hastings” (15). “Memory . . . character . . . second-self . . . ,” these qualities associated with Middleton all figure in Poe’s tale, in connection with the similarly named Templeton. Certainly, Templeton is his man of memory. Bedloe as the second-self of Oldeb exists only in Templeton’s mind, the mesmerically induced “dream” of India being only a reflection of the physician’s thoughts. Poe’s story is not about the memory of Bedloe but that of Templeton; it is a tale not of heroic action and its consequences but rather of failure and subsequent rationalization; it is the tale of the guilt-ridden mind of the “healer” creating and killing the second-self of his “dearest friend.” In this light, the fantastic aura of “an Eastern-looking city, such as we read of in the Arabian Tales,” dissolves and the story becomes exactly what the title claims, “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains.”



(1) Macaulay’s essay was published in the Edinburgh Review, 74 (1841), 160-255. An unnamed correspondent of the Literary Era first pointed out some “coincidences” between the essay and Poe’s tale in March 1899 (“Coincidences,” 6 [1899], 70). Over the years, Henry Austin (“Poe as a Plagiarist and his Debt to Macaulay,” Literature [New York], n.s. 2 [1899], 82-84) and others have followed with the charge of “plagiarism,” but only Maurice Le Breton (“Edgar Poe et Macaulay,” Revue Anglo-Americaine, 13 [1935-36], 38-42) has attempted a detailed examination. Recently, the charge has been repeated by Burton R. Pollin (Discoveries in Poe [Notre Dame, Ind.: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1970], pp. 25-26). See also Lawrence Oliphant, “Poe and Macaulay,” T. P.’s Weekly, June 12, 1914; Mary Phillips, Edgar Allan Poe, The Man (Philadelphia: John C. Winston Co. 1926), II, 867; Una Pope-Hennessy, Edgar Allan Poe, 18091849: A Critical Biography (London: Macmillan, 1934), pp. 136-137. Variant spellings of names throughout this essay are as in the original documents.

(2) Sidney E. Lind, “Poe and Mesmerism,” PMLA, 62 (1947), 1078-1085; and G. R. Thompson, “Is Poe’s ‘A Tale of the Ragged Mountains’ A Hoax?” Studies in Short Fiction, 6 (1969), 454-460.

(3) See also Boyd Carter, “Poe’s Debt to Charles Brockden Brown,” Prairie Schooner, 27 (1953), 190-196. In the running native with the jingling steel rings and the hyena in pursuit, Thompson and Carter see allusions to the American Indians and to the panther scenes in Edgar Huntly. Poe could have been hoaxingly alluding to the novel but primarily he was adding to the Orientalism of the tale. His source was Macaulay’s reference to the Indian “jungle where the lonely courier shakes his bunch of iron rings to scare away the hyaenas” (p. 233).

(4) The 1780 date given by Poe (V, 175) appears to be a minor error in copying from one of his sources other than Macaulay for the Englishman gives no date for the event. It is possible that Poe relied on the last date in Macaulay’s essay (p. 211) preceding the discussion of the Benares confrontation. All page references to “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” are to The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (New York: Crowell, 1902), V, 163-176.

(5) G. R. Gleig, Memoirs of the Life of the Right Hon. Warren [column 2:] Hastings (London: Richard Bentley, 1841), II, 410.

(6) V, 172. There is a slight possibility that Poe, influenced by Macaulay’s description of Captain Mayaffre’s rash and fatal assault of August 20, or four days after the escape of Chait Singh, telescoped events. But if so it was not by accident, for Macaulay made it clear that Mayaffre s assault took place after the prince had escaped and engaged Hastings in futile correspondence from across the river, and that it was directed at “the insurgents beyond the river,” (p. 214, italics mine), that is to say, at Ramnagar. Bedloe’s assault, of course, takes place at the time of the escape.

(7) Birrell died a major in 1800. Military rolls show neither an Oldeb nor a Bedloe among the officers of the Bengal Army. Nor do records indicate a civilian named Templeton in Hastings’ party. Three officers (Lieutenants Archibald Scott, Jeremiah Symes, and John Stalker) were killed in action at Benares on the day of Chait Singh’s escape, but with the guard at the palace and not in a sally. See Major V. C. P. Hodson, List of the Officers of the Bengal Army, 1758-1843, Part I (London: Constable, 1927), p. 150; Part IV (London: Philmore and Co., 1947), pp. 29, 165, 226; and William Charles MacPherson, Soldiering in India, 1764-1787 (London: Blackwood, 1928), p. 393. The original casualty report will be found in Hastings’ A Narrative of the Insurrection which happened in the Zemeedary of Banaris, in the Month of August 1781 (Calcutta, Printed by order of the Governor-General, 1782), pp. 77-78 of the Appendix.

(8) Hastings, p. 31. In the Minutes of the Evidence Taken at the Trial of Warren Hastings (n.p., 1788), Hastings’ Narrative is reprinted on pp. 109-269. Poe is unlikely to have had access to the many pamphlets whiah appeared during the trial. In any case, an examination of a number of these has revealed no information on the location of the headquarters, suggesting that the presentation of such local detail was, at best, rare.

(9) Hastings, pp. 28, 50.

(10) Hastings, p. 185. See also pp. 181-182, where it is again clearly stated that “the Governor-General and the other English gentlemen . . . resided in Mehadew Dauss’s garden.”

(11) Macaulay, p. 187. See Pollin, p. 26.

(12) The Works of Sir William Temple (London, 1814; rpt. New York: Greenwood Press, 1968), III, 452-453. For Poe’s regard for Temple, see his comment of 1844 in Works, XVI, 2. He is also mentioned in VIII, 323.

(13) It was so powerful a performance, wrote Sheridan’s editor, that “at its conclusion, the whole of the assembly joined in a loud and continued tumult of applause. Of this astonishing oration, Pitt said that it surpassed all the eloquence of ancient and modern times, — that it possessed everything that genius or art could furnish, to agitate and control the human mind. Fox declared, that all he had ever heard, — all he had ever read, — when compared with it, dwindled into nothing, and vanished like vapour before the sun; and Burke pronounced it to be the most astonishing effort of eloquence, argument, and wit, of which there was any record or tradition.” See The Speeches of the Right Honourable Richard Brinsley Sheridan . . . Edited by A Constitutional Friend (London: Henry Bohn, 1842), I, vii.

(14) An example of the ridiculing of Middleton’s memory will be found in Ralph Broome’s satiric verse description of the trial. See Letters f rom Simkin the Second to his Dear Brother in Wales; containing a Humble Description of the Trial of Warren Hastings (London: J. Bell, 1789), pp. 3-4.

(15) Sheridan, I, 422. About Scott, Broome wrote that in a later session “EDMUND went on, to unravel a plot,/ And said SCOTT was HASTINGS, and HASTINGS was SCOTT.” Letter f rom Simkin the Second to his Dear Brother in Wales, for the Year 1790 (London: John Stockdale, 1790) p. 113. The trial speeches of Sheridan were reported also in The History of the Trial of Warren Hastings (London: J. Debrett, 1796), another possible source for Poe. See esp. Part I, pp. 77, 78, 84, 85, 94, 97, 100, 102.


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