Text: Mukhtar Ali Isani, “Poe and ‘The Raven’: Some Recollections,” Poe Studies, June 1985, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, 18:7-9


[page 7, column 2, continued:]

Poe and “The Raven”:
Some Recollections

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

On November 4, 1905, Hayden Church, a free-lance correspondent of the Los Angeles Times,(1) wrote a column from London describing an interview with “a former citizen of the United States” who, as a seven-year-old child, knew Edgar Allan Poe. One of the last eyewitness accounts of Poe, this interview was published in the Los Angeles Times on November 18, 1905 (sec. 2, p. 6), but hitherto has not been noted in scholarly literature. It is especially interesting because it provides a rare and detailed description of the poet reading ‘‘The Raven.” Because the description of the witness and his family is not adequate to identify them among the friends and acquaintances of Poe and thus to authenticate the account, the burden of persuasion rests on evidence of the judgment and accuracy of the interviewing journalist and on the agreement of this ‘‘former citizen’s” account with those of others who knew or were acquainted with the poet.

Although Church was not a prominent figure in his thee, enough information is available to charaterize him as a responsible columnist. His interview for the Los Angeles Times was one of a number of irregular but frequent contributions which appearecl uncler his name, bearing [page 8:] standing headings suggesting editorial recognition of his literary knowledge.” Still writing from Britain, he later made a more substantial mark in journalism as a London correspondent for the New York Times, contributing a steady output of feature articles over two decades. His career reached its height in the 1930s, but he continued writing until the mid-forties, retaining his interest in literary figures, contemporary and classic, British and Continental, including Byron, Hardy, Thackeray, Dickens, and Bernard Shaw.(3) While we may never discover the identity of the gentleman from Aberdeen who remembered hearing Poe recite, we can reasonably believe his recollections as recorded in the Los Angeles Times. Hayden Church’s long and respectable career as a journalist and his lasting interest in literary matters vouch for his reliability as a recorder of history and recommend him as a judge of the veracity of men who had known well-known writers.

The Times description of Poe reading “The Raven” is believable. While there are differences of opinion on Poe as an elocutionist, the bulk of the evidence shows that Poe read poetry well and that his reading of “The Raven” was especially forceful and dramatic, usually earning a favorable reception. Early biographers, referring to Sarah Helen Whitman’s mention of one of Poe’s earliest readings of “The Raven,” record without demurral her statement that Poe “electrified” his audience at a gathering of the intellectual elite in New York shortly before the poem’s publication.(4) Poe himself felt that even at the unfortunate Boston Lyceum reading of October 1845, he received satisfactory recognition, being “very cordially applauded.“(5) “The Raven,” according to one observer at that event, was read with “thrilling effect” and was “something well worth treasuring in memory.“(6) Young Thomas Wentworth Higginson and his companions went away that night feeling they had been under the spell of a magician.‘ Poe’s reading elsewhere left a Mrs. Clarke, an admiring Virginian, at a loss for words. It was “altogether peculiar and indescribable,” she declared. Referring to the reading of “The Raven,” she recalled, “Poe had a wonderful voice — rich, mellow and sweet. . . . I have never heard anything like it.“(8) Although biographers who knew Poe and his circle have not devoted much space to Poe as an elocutionist, more often than not they agree that he read well. Even Thomas Dunn English, who had cause to dislike Poe, writes that he recited passages of poetry “with telling effect.” There was vraisemblance in Poe’s reading of his poetry, writes William Fearing Gill. Eugene Didier agrees: on the lecture platform, Poe “completely fascinated his audience,” and whenever he was persuaded to recite “The Raven” at social gatherings, “it was the opinion of those who heard him that it was a thrilling, an enthralling, an overpowering exhibition of fervid frenzy and mental exaltation. Once heard it was never forgotten.“(9)

The Hayden Church article gives us a description demonstrating that Poe read “The Raven” with extraordinary feeling and dramatic flair, even though the cautious reader cannot help but ask how much time and subsequent knowledge may have improved upon the witness’ childhood memories in this account. The section pertaining to Poe (other portions concern Emerson and Whitman) is presented below: [column 2:]


(Special Correspondence of The Times)

LONDON, Nov. 4. — A former citizen of the United States, living in retirement at Aberdeen, has fascinating memories of Edgar Allan Poe, and uncommonly interesting recollections of Walt Whitman, Longfellow and other American literary giants of the past. When interviewed the other day he asked to have his name withheld, but the reminiscences which he gave of the Golden Age of American literature are well worth quoting.

A Harvard man, this veteran s youth was spent in Brooklyn, N. Y, where his father s house seems to have been a great resort of the most famous American writers of their day. Poe especially was not only a regular visitor but on such terms of intimacy with the family that he was in the habit of dropping in at all sorts of unexpected times. And it is rather pleasant to hear that frequent as were his visits, these friends never saw him in a condition which raised even the faintest suspicion of over-indulgence, even at the time when his habits were most irregular.

Seen from the eyes of a boy of seven, Poe proved an unusually attractive figure.

“I always went to him,” he says, “with the utmost confidence, and I have most vivid recollections of going and looking up into his face and pleading, ‘Mr. Poe, will you oblige me by reciting The Raven‘? Never once did he refuse, and many and many a time I heard ‘The Raven’ declaimed by its author in a manner possible to the author alone. Leaning against his chair, or, perhaps, oftener, sitting on his knee, I was able not only to catch the very tones of his voice, but to note the changing moods as reflected on his expressive face. The impression remains with me today. It was the most weird experience one could imagine. Poe had a very melodious voice, which when he wished, had a considerable amount of resonance. He would begin, and — but I can‘t describe his elocution. He wrote the poem, and, as he recited it, he seemed to be giving to every line the shade of meaning it had in his own imagination when he had first conceived it. He carried you along with him from first to last as he worked steadily towards the climax. His voice took many a strange inflection of tone, especially at the close of each verse. ‘Nevermore‘, as he uttered it, was a word full of deep meaning. Now it was said as if in interrogation, again in indignant anger, and yet again in a croaking whisper. At the close of the verse next to the last he shrieked the ‘Nevermore‘, and there followed a striking pause. Beginning thc last verse his voice got lower and lower, until at the last it was almost inaudible. As he uttered in a soft, weird voice the lines,

‘And my soul from out that shadow

that lies floating on the floor,

Shall be lifted — nevermore,‘(10)

he seemed to be oblivious to all his surroundings. His deepset, dark eyes were fixed on the floor, and after he concluded the poem he sat motionless and speechless for some minutes, gazing as with rapt vision on something unseen to others. The effect, more particularly as he heaved a deep-drawn sigh at thc close, was indescribable.“(11)

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




1 - The name of Hayden Church does not appear in the personnel files of the Los Angeles Times or the New York Times, suggesting that he was a free-lance writer. However, the National Union Catalog, relying on a passage in a British periodical, describes him as “a member of the New York Times staff in London.” See also the editorial introduction for Church’s “Bernard Shaw at 89,” Compass, 2 (1946), 96. l would like to thank the staffs of the two newspapers for their help. [page 9:]

2 - In 1906, the column “Of Things Literary” was nearly always written by Church. Variant titles are “Literary Gossip” and “Chat of the Bookmen.” He also contributed articles for “Gossip of the Foreign Stage,” which became his principal column in 1907. All his contributions bear the dateline “London” and the description “Special Correspondence of the Times,” the latter indicating publication by special arrangement. In 1905, Church published only two signed articles in the Los Angeles Times, but during the following two years he published twenty-three. Similarities in style and subject matter suggest that a number of unsigned articles bearing a London dateline may also be by Church.

3 - The New York Times Index lists signed feature articles by Church beginning in 1929 and ending in 1946. Seventeen bear his name between 1930 and 1932. The absence of articles from 1934 to 1942 suggests that he turned to some other paper during this period. Evidently, he liked interviews. His interview with Shaw, reprinted in England, is listed in the National Union Catalog.

4 - Sarah Helen Whitman, Edgar Poe and His Critics (New York: Rudd and Carleton, lS60), pp. 21-22. Later, she indicated that the reading may have taken place after the publication of the poem, and that the reaction of the audience was conveyed to her by a lady from Providence, and not the hostess, Ann Charlotte Lynch (later Mrs. Botta). See John Carl Miller, Poe’s Helen Remembers (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia, 1979), p. 123. To Mrs. Whitman, Poe’s reading was “a never-to-he-forgotten memory“ — Miller, p. 205.

5 - “Editorial Miscellany,” Broadway Journal, 2 (November 1 1845), p. 262.

6 - John H. Ingram, Edgar Allan Poe: His Life, Letters and Opinions (New York: Ward, Locke, Bowden and Co., 1891), p. 268.

7 - Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Henry Walcott Boynton, A Reader’s History of A‘nerican Literature (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Co., 1903), pp. 213-215.

8 - Susan Archer Weiss, The Home Life of Poe (New York: Broadway Publishing Co., 1907), p. 160. On Poe as a reader of poetry see also Sarah Heywood’s recollections of Poe’s lecture on “The Poetic Principle” at Lowell, Massachusetts, where she declares that “everything was rendered with pure intonation and perfect enunciation, marked attention being paid to the rhythm: he almost sang the more musical versifications“ — Ingram, p. 389.

9 - Thomas Dunn English, “Reminiscences of Poe,” Independent, 48 (October, 1896), 449. William Fearing Gill, The Life of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: W. J. Widdleton, 1878), pp. 138-139. Eugene L. Didier, The Poe Cult and Other Poe Papers (New York: Broadway Publishing Co., 1909), pp. 60, 250.

10 - Poe recognized the dramatic in “The Raven.” Mrs. Clarke recalls one recitation in which “he shut out the daylight and read by an astral lamp on the table“ — Weiss, p. 160. For a reading arranged for the employees of The Broadway Journal in 1845, he selected the Shakespearean actor James Murdoch to read the poem. See my “Reminiscences of Poe by an Employee of the Broadway Journal,” Poe Studies, 6 (1973), 34.

11 - Poe’s reading of “The Raven” was heartfelt, according to Mrs. Clarke: “when he was through all of us that had any tea whatever spared our comments and let our thanks be brief, for he was impatient of both.” She also states that he never read “The Raven” unless he felt in the mood for it — Weiss, p. 160.


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]