Now one of the most valuable books in American literature, this humble volume could have easily ended up in a trash heap or floating down the Hudson River along with several other copies. Ben Hardin, Jr. (1784-1852), the first owner of this first edition of Poe’s third book Poems, scrawled abusive language on the end pages. Ben Hardin, Jr. was a Kentucky lawyer who had likely received the book from his son John Pendleton Hardin (1810-1842, Class of 1832, resigned 1832), one of Poe’s fellow cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point. John Hardin would have been one of the 131 out of the 232 cadets who contributed $1.25 toward the work’s publication in April 1831. Fewer than 1,000 copies were printed, and, judging by the cadets’ response to the book, it is not surprising that only about twenty survive. (Some of those cadets are said to have thrown their copies into the river in disgust.)
Dedication Page of Poems
One of the cadets, Allan B. Magruder, later recalled, “[The book] was a miserable production mechanically, bound in green boards and printed on inferior paper, evidently gotten up on the cheapest scale. The subscription was not fully paid until the book was delivered, and I remember a general expression of indignation at the inferior quality and condition of the book.”
Another cadet, Thomas W. Gibson, added, “The book was received with a general expression of disgust. It was a puny volume, of about fifty pages, bound in boards and badly printed on coarse paper, and worse than all, it contained not one of the squibs and satires upon which his reputation at the Academy had been built up.”
Ben Hardin, Jr., the owner of the Poe Museum’s copy, wrote on the front page, “This book is a damn cheat. All that fills 124 pages could have been compiled in 36.” Beneath this, someone wrote “lie.” Below that is written, “Calliope [the Greek muse of epic poetry] is a cheat/ any how–.”
What little critical notice the book attracted was not overwhelmingly favorable, either. In the May 7, 1831 issue of the New-York Mirror, the reviewer (probably George P. Morris), complains that Poe’s poetry is incomprehensible:
The poetry of this little volume has a plausible air of imagination, inconsistent with the general indefinitiveness of the ideas. Every think in the language betokens poetic inspiration, but it rather resembles the leaves of the sybil when scattered by the wind. The annexed lines, which close a short poem, entitled the “Doomed City,” are less incomprehensible than most in the book, although the meaning is by no means perfectly clear…It sometimes happens that poetry, at first sight unintelligible, is discovered, upon a repeated and more careful examination, to be fraught with the treasure of thought and fancy. The “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” belongs to this class; but we cannot flatter Mr. Poe with any similar hopes respecting his own composition, although it occasionally sparkles with a true poetic expression, and sometimes a conflict of ¬beauty and nonsense takes place, in which the latter seems to have the best of it. It is indeed encumbered by numerous obscurities, which we should be pleased to see either very much brightened or entirely expunged. What is the meaning of this?
In anticipation that the meaning of his poetry would confound some critics, Poe wrote in the volume’s introduction,
Poetry, above all things, is a beautiful painting whose tints, to minute inspection, are confusion worse confounded, but start boldly out to the cursory glance of the connoisseur…A poem, in my opinion, is opposed to a work of science by having, for its immediate object, pleasure, not truth; to romance, by having for its object an indefinite instead of a definite pleasure, being a poem only so far as this object is attained; romance presenting perceptible images with definite, poetry with indefinite sensations, to which end music is an essential, since the comprehension of sweet sound is our most indefinite conception. Music, when combined with a pleasurable idea, is poetry; music without the idea is simply music; the idea without the music is prose from its very definitiveness.
By the time Poems was released in April 1831, Poe was living in New York after having been expelled from West Point in February. Even though Poe was no longer at the academy, he remained the subject of the cadets’ scorn and ridicule for some time after his departure. As Gibson recalled, “For months afterward quotations from Poe formed the standing material for jests in the corps, and his reputation for genius went down at once to zero. I doubt if even the ‘Raven’ of his after-years ever entirely effaced from the minds of his class the impression received from that volume.”
After the commercial failure of Poems, Poe still considered himself primarily a poet and continued to write poetry, but he would not publish another volume of his poetry for fourteen years when he issued The Raven and Other Poems in 1845.
Listing from Chamberlain Catalog
The Poe Museum’s copy of Poems eventually entered the collection of scientist Jacob Chester Chamberlain (1860-1905) who worked in Thomas Edison’s laboratory during the early 1880s and contributed to Edison’s pioneering work with electric lighting. The book was #706 in the auction of Chamberlain’s collection on February 16, 1909 at the Anderson Auction Company in New York when the formerly $1.25 book sold for $315. The piece next entered the library of book collector Walter Thomas Wallace of South Orange, New Jersey. He sold his collection at auction on March 22-24 at the American Art Galleries in New York. This time, the book sold for only $140. The next owner was the California psychologist John Wooster Robertson, whose special interest in Poe led him to compile a bibliography of Poe first printings and to write the book Edgar A. Poe: A Psychopathic Study. Robertson donated Poems, along with the rest of his large collection of Poe first editions, to the Poe Museum in 1927.
Listing from Wallace Catalog
Although some readers in Poe’s time could not appreciate it, Poems is now considered one of Poe’s most important collections. Among the soon-to-be classic poems first printed in this volume are early versions of Poe’s classics “To Helen,” “Lenore” (under its original title “A Paean”) and “Israfel.” Poe’s biographer Arthur Hobson Quinn summed up the significance of the book as follows:
If the volume of 1829 [Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems] contained poetry unlike any that had as yet appeared in the United States, the volume of 1831 gave us in “To Helen,” “Israfel,” “The Doomed City,” “The Valley Nis” and “Irene,” poetry of a kind that had not yet been written in the English language.
The Poe Museum is fortunate Ben Hardin, Jr. decide not to discard his copy of Poems. Thanks to collectors like Robertson, Wallace, and Chamberlain, the book has been preserved for future generations to study and enjoy. That is why this first edition of Poems is the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month.
Walter Wallace Bookplate in Poems
Every object in the Poe Museum tells a story. Each artifact or piece of ephemera helps us interpret the story of Edgar Allan Poe’s life and influence. The July Object of the Month is no exception. The Cornwell Daguerreotype is a distinctly arresting image of Poe taken at a low point in the author’s life, four days after a suicide attempt. His fiancée Sarah Helen Whitman, who owned the original, which she named the “Ultima Thule” Daguerreotype, pronounced it “wonderful” and told Poe’s biographer John H. Ingram that it had been taken “after a wild distracted night . . . and all the stormy grandeur of that via Dolorosa had left its sullen shadow on his brow.” One of four copies made directly from the original plate, this tiny daguerreotype (an early type of photograph made on a light-sensitive silver-plated piece of copper) has long been one of the most important artifacts in the museum’s collection. The image serves as an especially poignant document of Poe’s brief and troubled life. (Click here to learn more about the circumstances under which it was taken.) But this is only the beginning of the daguerreotype’s story. If it had not been for one woman’s determination, the piece might never have entered the collection.
Our account begins in 1933, when the world was still mired in the Great Depression. Early that year, the United States unemployment rate peaked at 25%, a drought plagued the heartland, over 5,000 banks had failed, and hundreds of thousands of Americans were homeless, struggling for survival in makeshift shanty towns. The Poe Museum (then known as the Poe Shrine) was not immune to this global crisis. To conserve energy, the Museum closed all but one of its four buildings and turned off its oil burner. Instead it heated one room in the Old Stone House with a wood stove. Before a December board meeting, the Poe Shrine’s secretary Mary Gavin Traylor wrote the museum’s president, Richmond News Leader Editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Dr. Douglas Southall Freeman, for permission to at least use the oil burner during the meeting. If not, she added, “we will rock along with the fourth of a cord of oak and pine blocks and the small load of kindling donated to us…”
To save money, Dr. Freeman instructed the museum’s hostesses to take off one month for every three months of work. His note ended “If things are not better in spring, we will have to reduce the force by one.”
A notation in the financial records reads, “Personnel has been reduced to one lady for five hours in the morning and one lady for five hours in the afternoon at very small wage but positively all that could be paid…There was a loss in the ‘nest egg’ for the endowment at the time of the bank failures. Have not had heat or a phone since the depression…”
In early 1933, just when the museum’s situation was at its bleakest, Christine Smith Rawson of Bradford, New Hampshire contacted Ms. Traylor at the Poe Museum. Rawson was in need of money and owned a rare daguerreotype she knew would be of interest to the museum. Though she admitted she had no idea how much the piece was worth, she offered it to the museum for $500. This is the equivalent of $8,895 in today’s dollars. At a time of bank failures and staggering unemployment, this seemed like an impossible sum, but Traylor believed the Poe Museum needed this artifact. Before she attempted to acquire it, however, she would need to learn more about the piece. In order to learn something about the provenance (or history) of the piece, she quizzed Rawson about what she knew of the plate’s origin. Rawson had received it from her uncle John Clarke Turner, who had been given it by a Dr. Cornwell of New London, Connecticut. More research revealed that Dr. Cornwell had been a poet who had published a number of poems in the Poet’s Corner of the New London Telegram, and that Turner was editor of the Poet’s Corner. Through this connection, the two writers became friends, so, shortly before his death, Cornwell gave his cherished daguerreotype to his friend.
That the daguerreotype had once been owned by Cornwell was also recorded by Edmund C. Stedman, who had borrowed it from him in 1880 to have it reproduced as a wood engraving by Timothy Cole. The engraving appeared as an illustration for an article about Poe in the May 20, 1880 issue of Scribner’s Monthly. A footnote in the article notes,
The frontispiece-portrait in the present number of SCRIBNER is reproduced, on an enlarged scale, from what is thought to be the last daguerreotype obtained of the poet. The editor is indebted to the kindness of Dr. H. S. Cornwell, of New London, for the use of this picture, and for the facts establishing its authenticity. It was taken by the late Mr. Masury, of Providence, R. I., and Mr. Cornwell makes it probable that Poe sat for it within a year or two of his death in 1849. The lines of the neck and chin are not so heavy as in the Bendann daguerreotype, but my comments on the latter otherwise apply to this picture. The unusual development of Poe’s forehead in the regions where the analytic and imaginative faculties are thought to hold their seat, is here shown as in no other likeness of the poet. Mr. Cornwell writes of it:
“The aspect is one of mental misery, bordering on wildness, disdain of human sympathy, and scornful intellectual superiority. There is also in it, I think, dread of imminent calamity, coupled with despair and defiance, as of a hunted soul at bay.”
Timothy Cole’s woodcut reproduction of the daguerreotype can be seen below.
During Traylor’s investigation, she learned that a biography of Cornwell, John Sylvester Cornwell, A Memoir by Ellen Morgan Frisbie, had been published in 1906. She was able to find a copy in the Library of Congress and took notes on any information relevant to her search. She found that Cornwell was born in 1831 and died on 1886. A passage on page two reads, “Our poet numbered among his friends, Sarah Helen Whitman, the brilliant woman who at one time was the fiancée of Poe and they frequently exchanged poems in the course of their correspondence.”
Sarah Helen Whitman
On page sixteen, she learned, “From 1873 to 1880, The New London Telegram enjoyed a reputation for printing very good poetry. The Poet’s Corner was under the supervision of John C. Turner and was frequently graced by Dr. Cornwell’s compositions.”
On the same page, she found another passage: “One of the Doctor’s most cherished possessions was an old daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe whom he so much admired. It is now the property of Mr. Turner, to whom it was presented by the poet some little time previous to his death.”
Once she had traced the ownership of the plate to Dr. Cornwell, she could only speculate on how he had acquired it. The fact that he had corresponded with Sarah Helen Whitman was an important clue because she had been the owner of the original plate from which this copy had been made. From Stedman’s footnote, she knew that Cornwell had acquired his daguerreotype in Providence, the city in which Whitman lived. It had even been made in the same studio that had taken the original. Because daguerreotypes were made directly on a light-sensitive plate without the use of a negative, copies were made by carefully photographing the original. Since Mrs. Whitman owned the original, she probably authorized the making of this copy. She is thought to have made the copy in the Pierpont Morgan library for her friend Caleb Fiske Harris and that she had the copy now in the Fales Library for one of her correspondents Sarah E. Robbins.
Given the exceptional quality and clarity of the image in Lawson’s daguerreotype, it was believed the plate was the original, but this was easily dismissed by comparing it with the other copies. Aside from the Robbins daguerreotype, they all have Poe’s part on the same side. At the time of production of the plate, the images in daguerreotypes were reversed. If Lawson’s plate had been the original, it would be a mirror image of the other copies.
Later investigations revealed that the pattern on the daguerreotype case was produced in limited quantities around 1853. If the case is original to the plate, this would support the plate being dated to before 1860, the year Sarah Helen Whitman’s daguerreotype, from which it was copied, disappeared from her home.
Having established the provenance of the piece as well as she could, Traylor decided to find out if $500 was a reasonable price to pay for it. She wrote to Brown University, the Pierpont Morgan Library, and other owners of Poe daguerreotypes to ask what they had paid for their pieces. When these institutions were unable to provide any useful information, she wrote University of Virginia professor and Poe authority Dr. James Southall Wilson for his opinion. He answered, “I would not pay more than three hundred dollars for the picture offered you and…I believe…such an offer would be accepted.”
Armed with this information, Traylor brought the matter to the Poe Museum’s board but was told that the museum simply did not have any money for the purchase. Seeing how passionate she was about not letting the institution miss the chance to acquire what she believed to be the most important of the very few daguerreotypes made of Poe, the board eventually authorized her to try to raise the $500 on her own.
Traylor started contacting her wealthy friends for donations. One of her typical fundraising letters expresses her passion about acquiring the plate:
Some time ago, a rare find was brought to the Shrine in the hope that we would buy it, the Board met and regretfully had to say “no fund,” much as they felt it was a splendid thing for us to acquire. I was so filled with the realization of its importance and determined that it should not escape the Shrine that I asked permission to try to get a number of subscribers to a fund, so that they as a group might present it to the Shrine…”
Within a few months, Traylor was able to get commitments totaling $290. Among the twenty donors were Granville Valentine with $25, John Stewart Bryan with $25, Ambassador Alexander Weddell with $50, Dr. Douglas Freeman with $15, and James Rindfleisch with $50. Among the many who found themselves unable to contribute was novelist Ellen Glasgow, who wrote, “It would be splendid if the Poe Shrine could buy this daguerreotype, and I regret that I am unable to contribute toward the purchase.”
When she wrote back to Lawson that she could not possibly pay more than $300 for the daguerreotype. Lawson responded by suggesting Traylor pay $300 up front and the final $200 in one year.
On May 15, 1933, Traylor answered,
The Shrine cannot, for the board on such things, distinctly said, as much as they would like to have it, they could not with financial circumstances such as they are, purchase it. The financial circumstances are worse than they were, for as I told you we lost heavily in the American Bank not opening its doors. The Shrine cannot take on any obligation. Then there is no one left to make you a note but me, and the Heavens in their high sky are not further away than such a possibility is far from me. Who could make a note, the group of people I have approached, have contributed $5 and $10 dollars each, each doing in doing that, all that he or she could feel able to do, there would be no chance of asking them to make a note. No one of them, at a time, when to eat and live is of so much more importance than a Poe Daguerreotype, would dream of being responsible for any $200 that might be collected, no individual is taking on responsibilities at this date either. To have a note made out to you is utterly out of the question. To carry on here at the Shrine with what we have is much more important, vital necessity and not in any manner to endanger that, is more important than to endanger that, is more important than to enhance the collection at this moment with no matter how interesting a Poe item, be it a manuscript, daguerreotype or piece of furniture. This is the situation as it exists today. Everybody has marveled that I have been able to get the promise of $300 to be given me…
After pointing out that the daguerreotype is a copy and, therefore, not as valuable as an original, Traylor continues,
I am anxious to have it, you should be able to readily see that. But $300 cash is the extent of my ability…You will not be able to get more elsewhere…Do please just let the group have it for the $300 I have the promise of and let it be presented to the Shrine. I feel you will never regret it, dear Mrs. Rawson…
On May 26, Rawson replied,
I have succumbed to your pleadings and enthusiasm and your unbounded interest in the Poe Shrine. I am going to let you have the picture for $300…Feeling happy that the picture is going to the Poe Shrine and thanking you for your great interest and help…
Now Traylor found herself faced with the task of collecting all the money that had been pledged. She rushed to collect the donation from Ambassador Weddell, who was about the leave the country. His donation alone amounted to one sixth of the total, so missing him before he left would have been the end of her effort. With Weddell and most of the other donors still able to fulfill their pledges, Traylor was able to purchase the plate in time it to go on display at the Poe Museum on October 7, the anniversary of Poe’s death. Thanks to Traylor’s vision and determination, the museum’s guests still able to see this important artifact at the Poe Museum.
The next time you visit the Poe Museum’s Enchanted Garden you might come upon this small plaque placed in memory of Mary Gavin Traylor.
One night a theater critic answered his door to find an actor so angry over a review that he threatened the critic. The actor was a twenty-three year old David Poe, Jr. (1784-?), future father of Edgar Allan Poe. That review is the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month for June.
Although little is known of David Poe’s life, most of what is documented concerns his acting career. Several museums and libraries, including the Poe Museum, hold important collections of newspapers containing notices of his performances in major East Coast cities. These documents provide information about his whereabouts and his uneven acting ability. (In September 1809, the reviewer for The Ramblers’ Magazine and New-York Theatrical Register wrote that David Poe “was never destined for the high walks of the drama; — a footman is the extent of what he ought to attempt: and if by accident like that of this evening he is compelled to walk without his sphere, it would bespeak more of sense in him to read the part than attempt to act it; — his person, voice, and non-expression of countenance, all combine to stamp him — poh! et praeterea nihil.”)
Concerning David Poe’s personal life, we know he was born in 1784 in Baltimore, to David Poe, Sr., who had been an honorary Quartermaster General of Baltimore during the American Revolution as well as a personal friend of the Revolutionary War General Lafayette. David Poe, Sr. had gone deep into debt during the Revolution, but his son intended to rise out of that poverty by becoming a lawyer. Then David Poe, Jr. saw the English-born actress Eliza Hopkins (1787-1811) (pictured below) perform on the Baltimore stage and, according to legend, was so smitten with the young married young woman that he gave up the study of law take up the precarious existence of an actor. After her husband died, David married Eliza in Richmond in 1806, and the couple had three children, William Henry Leonard (1807-1831), Edgar (1809-1849), and Rosalie (1810-1874).
The couple moved to Boston in 1806. Judging by the variety of roles David and Eliza performed, they were both popular with the public, but Eliza, in particular, was a crowd favorite. She specialized in comedic roles, especially tomboys and other children. One of these characters was a young boy named Little Pickle in the farce The Spoiled Child. She had been playing the part since 1796, when she was nine years old, but, as she entered her twenties, she was beginning to get a little old for the part.
The Poe Museum’s Object of the Month, The Polyanthos, was a Boston magazine edited by Joseph T. Buckingham (1779-1861) (pictured above), who also wrote the theater reviews. One of his pithy notices (pictured below) of David Poe reads, “From Mr. Poe’s Barnwell we expected little satisfaction, and of course we were not disappointed.”
Buckingham gives Eliza Poe a more favorable notice (pictured below) for her performance as Jenny in John Vanbrugh’s play The Provoked Husband. He writes, “Miss Jenny by Mrs. Poe was well. The hoyden is Mrs. Poe’s forte.”
Although she had built her reputation playing comedies, Mrs. Poe worked to prove herself in more serious roles. When she he played Cordelia in William Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear. Buckingham did not think she was up for the part. His notice in The Polyanthos reads, “We know not which is more laughable, the absurd, preposterous conduct of the managers in giving the character of Cordelia to a lady who is so totally inadequate to its representation: or to the ridiculous vanity which prompted her to accept it…Mrs. Poe as Cordelia, has once received our approbation, and has again deserved it. But we notwithstanding prefer her comedy.”
The reviewer for Columbian Centinel also thought Mrs. Poe better suited for comedies when he wrote, “Of Mrs. Poe in Cordelia we would speak with the strictest delicacy and tenderness. Her amiable timidity evidently betrayed her own apprehension, that she had wandered from the sphere of her appropriate talent; while her lovely gentleness pleaded strongly for protection against the rigid justice of criticism. She was so obviously exiled from her own element by the mere humor of authority that we cannot in charity attempt any analysis of her performance.” He at least added, “Mrs. Poe had one credit and that of no mean value—she did not mutilate the language of Shakespeare.”
The Emerald’s theater critic wrote, “Cordelia by Mrs. Poe, was interesting but the part was not suited to her voice.” Despite the critics’ opinions, the play was a hit. She was soon cast as Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
The same season, Buckingham wrote the review that would prompt an angry visit from David Poe. Eliza Poe had been working hard to outgrow the juvenile roles that had made her famous, but she was asked to play on March 4, 1807 Little Pickle in The Spoiled Child, a part she had outgrown years earlier. Not only was the twenty-year-old Eliza playing a child, but the child just happened to be a boy. In the pages of The Polyanthos, Buckingham indelicately pointed out the inappropriateness of the casting by writing, “Mrs. Poe was a very green Little Pickle. We never knew before that the Spoiled Child belonged to that class of being termed hermaphroditical, as the uncouthness of his costume seemed to indicate.”
This joke at his wife’s expense drove David Poe to action. According to Buckingham’s much later account in his 1852 book Personal Memoirs and Recollections of Editorial Life, “The theatrical criticisms are all my own. Some of them are severe, but I am not aware that any were unjust. The players, however, at least some of them, were of a different opinion. One of them, during a representation of Sheridan’s farce, — The Critic — paid off the score, by invoking the mercy of the editor of the Polyanthos! Mr. Poe — the father of the late Edgar A. Poe, — took offence at a remark on his wife’s acting, and called at my house to chastise my impertinence, but went away without effecting his purpose. Both he and his wife were performers of considerable merit, but somewhat vain of their personal accomplishments.”
Whether David Poe had wanted to challenge the critic or merely to argue with him, he left without achieving his goal. David and Eliza Poe would continue to perform on the Boston stage for a couple more years, and their second son Edgar was born there on January 19, 1809. A few months later, David made another one of his nocturnal visits, this time to his cousin George Poe, Jr., who would write about it in a letter dated March 6, 1809:
[David Poe] did not behave so well. One evening he came out to our house — having seen one of our servants…he had me called out to the door where he told me the most awful moment of his life was arrived, begged me to come and see him the next day at 11 o’clock at the Mansion house, [s]aid he came not to beg, & with a tragedy stride walked off after I had without reflection promised I would call — in obedience to my promise I went there the next day but found him not nor did I hear of him until yesterday, when a dirty little boy came to the door & said a man down at the tavern desired him to bring that paper and fetch back the answer — it is only necessary for me to copy the note here that you may see the impertinence it contains
Sir, You promised me on your honor to meet me at the Mansion house on the 23d — I promise you on my word of honor that if you will lend me 30, 20, 15 or even 10$ I will remit it to you immediately on my arrival in Baltimore. Be assured I will keep my promise at least as well as you did yours and that nothing but extreem [sic] distress would have forc’d me to make this application — Your answer by the bearer will prove whether I yet have “favour in your eyes” or whether I am to be despised by (as I understand) a rich relation because when a wild boy I join’d a profession which I then thought and now think an honorable one. But which I would most willingly quit tomorrow if it gave satisfaction to your family provided I could do any thing else that would give bread to mine — Yr. politeness will no doubt enduce you to answer this note from Yrs &c
D. POE JR.
To this impertinent note it is hardly necessary to tell you my answer — it merely went to assure him that he [need] not look to me for any countenance or support more especially after having written me such a letter as that and thus for the f[uture] I desired to hear not from or of him — so adieu to Davy —
In spite of the desperate tone of his letter, David Poe, Jr. did not give up the acting profession at the time. He continued to keep up a busy schedule of performances, and his reviews were gradually improving. Eliza Poe was winning over audiences with her mature dramatic performances by the time the growing family moved to New York in 1809. The then twenty-two year old actress even played Little Pickle again.
David Poe’s last notice, in the October 20, 1809 issue of The Ramblers’ Magazine, reads, “It was not until the curtain was ready to rise that the audience was informed that, owing to the sudden indisposition of Mr. Robertson and Mr. Poe, the Castle Spectre was necessarily substituted for Grieving’s a Folly.” His whereabouts after his “sudden indisposition” are unknown. He seems to have abandoned his wife and children sometime between then and July 26, 1811 when a letter in the Norfolk Herald reported that Eliza Poe had been “left alone, the only support of herself and several small children — Friendless and unprotected…” The place and time of David’s death are unknown, but a number of different dates and locations appear in Poe family records and elsewhere.
Poe’s mother continued to win over audiences until her death in Richmond at the age of twenty-four in 1811. Though Poe could barely remember his mother, he grew up bearing the stigma of having been the son of an actress, a disreputable profession at the time. Even his foster father John Allan referred to Poe in a letter as “that devil actress’s son.” Poe, however, was proud of his mother’s accomplishments and wrote in the July 19, 1845 issue of the Broadway Journal, “The writer of this article is himself the son of an actress — has invariably made it his boast– and no earl was ever prouder of his earldom than he of his descent from a woman who, although well born, hesitated not to consecrate to the drama her brief career of genius and of beauty.”
The Polyanthos ceased publication in 1814, but J.T. Buckingham continued to edit other literary magazines including The New-England Magazine. In 1833, he received a letter from a young writer named Edgar Allan Poe which reads,
I send you an original tale in hope of your accepting it for the N. E. Magazine. It is one of a number of similar pieces which I have contemplated publishing under the title of ‘Eleven Tales of the Arabesque‘. They are supposed to be read at table by the eleven members of a literary club, and are followed by the remarks of the company upon each. These remarks are intended as a burlesque upon criticism. In the whole, originality more than any thing else has been attempted. I have said this much with a view of offering you the entire M.S. If you like the specimen which I have sent I will forward the rest at your suggestion — but if you decide upon publishing all the tales, it would not be proper to print the one I now send until it can be printed in its place with the others. It is however optional with you either to accept them all, or publish ‘Epimanes’ and reject the rest — if indeed you do not reject them altogether.
Buckingham must not have thought much more of Edgar Poe’s story than he did of Edgar’s father’s acting. He declined to publish “Epimanes,” which would not appear in print until the Southern Literary Messenger published it three years later. Edgar Poe probably never knew how Buckingham had insulted his mother and incurred the wrath of his father. Today the Poe Museum’s issues of The Polyanthos serve as evidence of the acting talent of Poe’s mother and of the fiery temper of his father.
Just this morning I was asked how Poe would feel about the exaggerated image of himself in today’s popular culture. After all, the Poe Myth most people “know” bears only a passing resemblance to the hard-working, innovative author who changed the face of literature almost two centuries ago. Would he be offended that some of the less reputable text books and biographies portray him as a madman or that his ghost was a character on the cartoon Southpark?
The Poe Museum’s Object of the Month might help shed some light on Poe’s own relationship with the mythmaking that continues to grow up around him. This month’s Object of the Month is Poe’s Autobiographical Memo.
The memo is only the lower half of a letter. The upper portion, now housed in the Boston Public Library, is addressed to the editor and anthologist Rufus W. Griswold (1815-1857) and dates to May 29, 1841. The half of the address on the back of the Boston letter matches perfectly with the half on the back of the Poe Museum’s fragment (below), confirming that they were once a single sheet. In the Boston half of the letter, Poe writes that he is sending a selection of his best poems, among which is “The Haunted Palace.” Griswold, the recipient, is preparing an important new anthology to highlight the best American poetry, so Poe has included not only some examples of his poetry for the collection but also this memo. Poe writes, “As I understood you to say chat you meant to preface each set of poems by some biographical notice, I have ventured to send you the above memo — the particulars of which (in a case where an author is so little known as myself) might not be easily obtained elsewhere.”
Verso of Memo
The Poe Museum’s half of the letter reads:
Memo. Born January 1811. Family one of the oldest and most respectable in Baltimore. Gen. David Poe, my paternal grandfather, was a quarter-master general, in the Maryland line, during the revolution, and the intimate friend of Lafayette, who, during his visit to the U.S., called personally upon the Gen’s widow, and tendered her in warmest acknowledgements for the services rendered him by her husband. His father, John Poe married, in England, Jane, a daughter of Admiral James McBride, noted in British naval history, and claiming kindred with many of the most illustrious houses of Great Britain. My father and mother died within a few weeks of each other of consumption, leaving me an orphan at 2 years of age. Mr. John Allan, a very wealthy gentleman of Richmond Va, took a fancy to me, and persuaded my grandfather Gen Poe to suffer him to adopt me. Was brought up in Mr. A’s family, and regarded always as his son and heir—he having no other children. In 1816 went with Mr. A’s family to G. Britain—visited every portion of it—went to school for 5 years to the Rev. Doctor Bransby, at Stoke Newington, then 4 miles from London. Returned to America in 1822. In 1825 went to Jefferson University at Charlottesville, Va, where for 3 years I led a very dissipated life—the college in that period being shamefully dissolute—D’Dunglison of Philadelphia; President. Took the first honors, however, and came home greatly in debt. Mr. A refused to pay some of the debts of honor, and I ran away from home without a dollar on a Quixotic expedition to join the Greeks, then struggling for liberty. Failed in reaching Greece, but made my way to St Petersburg, in Russia. Got into many difficulties, but was extricated by the kindness of Mr. H. Middleton, the American consul at St P. Came home safe in 1829, found Mrs. A. dead, and immediately went to West Point as a Cadet. In about 18 months afterwards Mr A. married a second time (a Miss Patterson, a near relative of Gen. Winfield Scott) – he being then 65 years of age. Mrs A and myself quarreled, and he, siding with her, wrote me an angry letter, to which I replied in the same spirit. Soon afterwards he died, having had a son by Mrs A. and, although leaving a vast property, bequeathed me nothing. The army does not suit a poor man—so I left West Point abruptly, and threw myself upon literature as a resource. I became first known to the literary world thus. A Baltimore weekly paper (The Visiter) offered two premiums—one for best prose story, one for best poem. The Committee awarded both to me, and took occasion to insert into the journal a card, signed by themselves, in which I was very highly flattered. The Committee were John P. Kennedy (author of Horse-Shoe Robinson) J.H.B. Latrobe, and Dr. J.H. Miller. Soon after this I was invited by Mr T.W. White proprietor of the South. Lit. Messenger, to edit it. Afterwards wrote for New York Review at the invitation of Dr Hawks and Professor Henry, its proprietors. Lately have written articles continuously for two British journals whose names I am not permitted to mention. In my engagement with Burton, it was not my design to let my name appear—but he tricked me into it.
This memo is evidence of Poe’s own process of mythmaking. He begins the account by saying he was born two years later than he really was. Then he emphasizes that his family was one of the “oldest and most respectable in Baltimore” when his grandfather was an Irish immigrant who had lost most of his money supporting the Patriots during the American Revolution. His boast of staying at the University of Virginia for three years and graduating with “first honors” is also a bit of a stretch. Although he was one of the top French students, he only stayed at the University one term before leaving because he could not afford to pay either his tuition and board or the gambling debts he incurred while trying to pay those expenses.
Poe continues with a fanciful account of a journey to Europe to join the Greek Wars of Independence that ends with Poe being imprisoned in St. Petersburg, Russia. By his account, Poe returned to the United States in 1829. In reality, Poe enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1827 in Boston and was stationed at Fort Independence, Fort Moultrie, and Fort Monroe before hiring a substitute in 1829.
Despite those fabrications, there are some facts in Poe’s account. He really did win a prize for Best Short Story from the Baltimore Visiter, but he was not awarded the prize for poetry. The judges decided that the same person should not be allowed to win both prizes in the contest, so they gave the poetry prize to someone else.
Rufus W. Griswold
The year after Poe sent Griswold this memo, Griswold published the anthology The Poets and Poetry of America, which was a hit and went through numerous editions during the nineteenth century. Over eighty poets were featured in the collection. Griswold included three of Poe’s poems, “Coliseum,” “The Sleeper,” and “The Haunted Palace.” (This was still three years before Poe would publish “The Raven.”) Griswold’s introduction included much of the information Poe had provided him:
THE family of Mr. POE is one of the oldest and most respectable in Baltimore. DAVID POE, his paternal grandfather, was a quartermaster-general in the Maryland line during the Revolution, and the intimate friend of LAFAYETTE, who, during his last visit to the United States, called personally upon the general’s widow, and tendered her his acknowledgments for the services rendered to him by her husband. His great-grandfather, JOHN POE, married, in England, JANE, a daughter of Admiral JAMES McBRIDE, noted in British naval history, and claiming kindred with some of the most illustrious English families. His father and mother died within a few weeks of each other, of consumption, leaving him an orphan, at two years of age. Mr. JOHN ALLAN, a wealthy gentleman of Richmond, Virginia, took a fancy to him, and persuaded General POE, his grandfather, to suffer him to adopt him. He was brought up in Mr. ALLAN’s family; and as that gentleman had no other children, he was regarded as his son and heir. In 1816 he accompanied Mr. and Mrs. ALLAN to Great Britain, visited every portion of it, and afterward passed four or five years in a school kept at Stoke Newington, near London, by the Reverend Doctor BRANSBY. He returned to America in 1822, and in 1825 went to the Jefferson University, at Charlottesville, in Virginia, where he led a very dissipated life, the manners of the college being at that time extremely dissolute. He took the first honours, however, and went home greatly in debt. Mr. ALLAN refused to pay some of his debts of honour, and he hastily quitted the country on a Quixotic expedition to join the Greeks, then struggling for liberty. He did not reach his original destination, however, but made his way to St. Petersburg, in Russia, where he became involved in difficulties, from which he was extricated by Mr. MIDDLETON, the American consul at that place. He returned home in 1829, and immediately afterward entered the military academy at West Point. In about eighteen months from that time, Mr. ALLAN, who had lost his first wife while POE was in Russia, married again. He was sixty-five years of age, and the lady was young; POE quarrelled with her, and the veteran husband, taking the part of his wife, addressed him an angry letter, which was answered in the same spirit. He died soon after, leaving an infant son the heir to his vast property, and bequeathed POE nothing. The army, in the opinion of the young cadet, was not a place for a poor man, so he left West Point abruptly, and determined to maintain himself by authorship. The proprietor of a weekly literary gazette in Baltimore offered two premiums, one for the best prose story, and the other for the best poem. In due time POE sent in two articles, and the examining committee, of whom Mr. KENNEDAY, the author of “Horse-Shoe Robinson,” was one, awarded to him both the premiums, and took occasion to insert in the gazette a card under their signatures, in which he was very highly praised. Soon after this, he became associated with Mr. THOMAS W. WHITE in the conduct of the “Southern Literary Messenger,” and he subsequently wrote for the “New York Review,” and for several foreign periodicals. He is married, and now resides in Philadelphia, where he is connected with a popular monthly magazine.
The book launched Griswold’s career, and he would edit a number of anthologies including the first posthumous collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s complete works.
Poe, however, was not a fan of Griswold’s anthology. He thought too much space had been allotted to minor poets like Griswold’s friend Charles Fenno Hoffman, who had 45 of his poems included. In a November 1842 review in the Boston Miscellany, Poe complained that Griswold was biased in his selections in favor of New England authors, had left out a few important poets, and had included a few poets Poe would “ have treated with contempt.” This was fairly tame for one of Poe’s reviews. After all, he had attained national fame and earned himself the nickname “The Tomahawk Man” for his scathing literary criticisms.
Poe reserved his harshest condemnation of The Poets and Poetry of America for his lectures, beginning with a November 21, 1843 lecture in Philadelphia that would be repeated in other cities. The November 29 issue of the Citizen Soldier recalled of Poe’s lecture, “The subject, ‘American Poetry,’ was handled in a manner, that placed all the pseudo-critics, the Rev. Mr. Rufus Griswold, Esq. among others, to the blush, and showed the audience, how a man born a poet, could describe the true nature and object, [a]s well as the principles of poetry. The sentences of the Lecturer were vigorous, energetic and impassioned, his criticisms scathingly severe in some cases, and des[e]rvedly eulogistic in others.”
After a repeat of this lecture in Wilmington, Delaware, the Delaware State Journal reported that “the book and its author were handled by the critical Lecturer in not the most gentle manner” and that Poe had complained that “an extravagant proportion of space allotted to personal friends — altho’ inferior poets — (as in the case of Mr. Hoffman) — while superior merit has been put off with a single page.”
Poe in 1842
Poe’s lecture was a popular success, but this did not endear him to Griswold, who harbored resentment towards Poe that lasted long after the poet’s death. In fact, Griswold would write an obituary of Poe that was so harsh that he felt the need to publish it anonymously. It begins, “EDGAR ALLAN POE is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it. The poet was well known, personally or by reputation, in all this country; he had readers in England, and in several of the states of Continental Europe; but he had few or no friends; and the regrets for his death will be suggested principally by the consideration that in him literary art has lost one of its most brilliant but erratic stars.”
Without knowing Griswold had written the obituary, Poe’s mother-in-law appointed him Poe’s literary executor and tasked him with compiling Poe’s complete works. In a final act of vengeance, Griswold included in this anthology a memoir of Poe designed to portray Poe as a madman and drug addict, a false portrayal which has since formed the basis of Poe’s popular image. Among the falsehoods promoted in Griswold’s account was Poe’s own account of going to Europe to fight the Turks. Griswold assumed this memoir would destroy Poe’s reputation, but it made Poe even more popular than he had been during his lifetime. The legend of Poe, which the author played a part in shaping, has grown into a caricature that even he would scarcely recognize.
When asked this morning what Poe would think about his distorted posthumous reputation, I was reminded of Poe’s fictitious autobiography, of how proud he sounded in his letters home from West Point when he wrote that a rumor had spread that he was the grandson of Benedict Arnold, and of how many successful hoaxes he had perpetrated during his lifetime. Was Poe’s autobiographical memo just another of his literary hoaxes, like “The Balloon Hoax” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar?” Would Poe have been offended by Griswold’s smear campaign against him, or would he be just a little pleased to see how it helped him become an enduring literary legend? With or without the Poe legend, we would not remember him at all if it were not for the power of his stories and poems to captivate and inspire generations of readers to this day.
The Poe Museum’s manuscript was given to the Poe Museum by Griswold’s grandson, Roger Griswold, in 1949. It is on display this month in the Elizabeth Arnold Poe Memorial Building.
For the Poe Museum’s April 2014 Object of the Month, we have selected these candelabra which once belonged to the subject of three of Poe’s poems, “To M.L.S.,” “To Marie Louise,” and “The Beloved Physician.” In A June 1848 letter, Poe described her as “the ‘Beloved Physician,’… the truest, tenderest, of this world’s most womanly souls, and an angel to my forlorn and darkened nature.”
Marie Louise Shew
Born in 1821 in Henderson, New York, Marie Louise Barney was the daughter of a country doctor. By the time she was twelve, she started accompanying her father on medical rounds. At about age sixteen, she married Dr. Joel Shew. Mrs. Shew would study at the Jefferson County Institute before she and her husband opened a water cure clinic in their home in 1843. The following year she wrote the book Water-Cure for Ladies: A Popular Work on the Health, Diet, and Regimen of Females and Children, and the Prevention and Cure of Diseases; with a Full Account of the Processes of Water-Cure. In the years ahead, she would promote women’s health through exercise, good diet, fresh air, and abstinence from alcohol and tobacco.
The author and women’s health reformer Mary Gove Nichols (1810-1884) introduced Mrs. Shew to Edgar Allan Poe, whose wife was suffering from tuberculosis. According to Nichols’s account in the February 1863 issue of Sixpenny Magazine, “The autumn came, and Mrs. Poe sank rapidly in consumption…There was no clothing on the bed, which was only straw, but had a snow-white counterpane and sheets. The weather was cold, and the sick lady had the dreadful chills that accompanied the hectic fever of consumption. she lay on the straw bed, wrapped in her husband’s great coat, with a large tortoise-shell cat in her bosom…The coat and the cat were the sufferer’s only means of warmth, except as her husband held her hands and her mother her feet…As soon as I was made aware of these painful facts, I came to New York and enlisted the sympathies and services of a lady whose heart and hand were ever open to the poor and miserable. A feather bed and abundance of bed clothing and other comforts were the first fruits of my labor of love. The lady headed a private subscription, and carried them sixty dollars the next week. From the first day this kind lady saw the suffering family of the poet, she watched over them as a mother watches over her babe. She saw them often and ministered to the comfort of the dying and the living.”
The extent to which the Poes appreciated Mrs. Shew’s assistance is evident in Edgar Allan Poe’s letters to her. He wrote her on January 29, 1847, “Kindest–dearest friend–My poor Virginia still lives, although failing fast and now suffering much pain. May God grant her life until she sees you and thanks you once again! Her bosom is full to overflowing–like my own–with a boundless–inexpressible gratitude to you. Lest she may never see you more–she bids me say that she sends you her sweetest kiss of love and will die blessing you[.] But come–oh come to-morrow! Yes, I will be calm–everything you so nobly wish to see me. My mother sends you, also, her ‘warmest love and thanks.’”
Virginia Poe would succumb to tuberculosis the following day. According to Mrs. Shew’s account in a March 28, 1875 letter to John H. Ingram, “The day before Mrs. Poe died I left to make some arrangements for her comfort. She called me to her bedside, took a picture of her husband from under her pillow kissed it and gave it to me. She opened her work box and gave me the little jewel case I mentioned to you.”
After Mrs. Poe’s death, a portrait of her was painted while she still lay in bed. Some believe Mrs. Shew, an amateur artist, may have painted it because she is the only person present at the time of Mrs. Poe’s death who is known to have had any artistic training. Whether or not Mrs. Shew painted this important image is unknown, and the fact that she is not known to have mentioned the portrait in her many surviving accounts of Poe makes it unlikely.
A couple weeks after Virginia Poe’s death, on Valentine’s Day, Edgar Poe wrote the poem “To M.L.S.,” which would appear in the March 13, 1847 issue of the Home Journal.
OF all who hail thy presence as the morning —
Of all to whom thine absence is the night —
The blotting utterly from out high heaven
The sacred sun — of all who, weeping, bless thee
Hourly for hope — for life — ah! above all,
For the resurrection of deep-buried faith
In Truth — in Virtue — in Humanity —
Of all who, on Despair’s unhallowed bed
Lying down to die, have suddenly arisen
At thy soft-murmured words, “Let there be light!”
At the soft-murmured words that were fulfilled
In the seraphic glancing of thine eyes —
Of all who owe thee most — whose gratitude
Nearest resembles worship — oh, remember
The truest — the most fervently devoted,
And think that these weak lines are written by him —
By him who, as he pens them, thrills to think
His spirit is communing with an angel’s.
Poe’s health declined dramatically after his wife’s death. In her letters, Shew claims to have “saved Mr. Poe’s life” by tending to him during this time. She continues, “I made my diagnosis & went to the great Dr. Mott with it. I told him that at best when he was well, Mr Poe’s pulse beat was only 10 regular beats after which it suspended or intermitted (as doctors say). I decided that in his best health, he had lesion on one side of the brain, and as he could not bear stimulants or tonics, without producing insanity, I did not feel much hope that he could be raised up from brain fever…”
In the poem, “Beloved Physician,” written in April of that year, Poe refers to Shew’s diagnosis. Although Poe was offered $20 for the poem, Mrs. Shew recalled that she “asked him to wait a little, and I gave him a check for $25, as everybody would know who it was about, and it was so very personal & complimentary, I dreaded the ordeal, as I was about to be married to a man who had old fashioned notions of woman & her sphere – (a foolish idea of mine born of my great love for this man -but which proved my great loss for I never amounted to anything afterwards, having lost all my individuality from that hour).” Unfortunately, the poem is lost, and the fragments that remain were recalled by Mrs. Shew years later.
The pulse beats ten and intermits;
God nerve the soul that ne’er forgets
In calm or storm, by night or day,
Its steady toil, its loyalty.
[. . . ]
[. . . ]
The pulse beats ten and intermits;
God shield the soul that ne’er forgets.
[. . . ]
[. . . ]
The pulse beats ten and intermits;
God guide the soul that ne’er forgets.
[. . . ]
[. . . ] so tired, so weary,
The soft head bows, the sweet eyes close,
The faithful heart yields to repose.
Later that year, Poe would write the poem “To Marie Louise,” which would appear in the March 1848 issue of Columbian Magazine.
NOT long ago, the writer of these lines,
In the mad pride of intellectuality,
Maintained “the power of words” — denied that ever
A thought arose within the human brain
Beyond the utterance of the human tongue;
And now, as if in mockery of that boast,
Two words — two foreign soft dissyllables —
Italian tones made only to be murmured
By angels dreaming in the moonlit “dew
That hangs like chains of pearl on Hermon hill” —
Have stirred from out the abysses of his heart,
Unthought-like thoughts that are the souls of thought,
Richer, far wilder, far diviner visions
Than even the seraph harper, Israfel,
Who has “the sweetest voice of all God’s creatures,”
Could hope to utter. And I ! my spells are broken.
The pen falls powerless from my shivering hand.
With thy dear name as text, though bidden by thee,
I cannot write — I cannot speak or think,
Alas! I cannot feel; for ’tis not feeling,
This standing motionless upon the golden
Threshold of the wide-open gate of dreams,
Gazing, entranced, adown the gorgeous vista,
And thrilling as I see upon the right,
Upon the left, and all the way along
Amid empurpled vapors, far away
To where the prospect terminates — thee only.
Poe’s health gradually recovered, and he was able to visit Shew at her home in Greenwich Village. According to Shew, Poe told her during such a visit, “I have to write a poem; I have no feeling, no sentiment, no inspiration.” After hearing some nearby church bells, Poe commented, “I so dislike the noise of bells to-night, I cannot write. I have no subject — I am exhausted.”
By Shew’s account, she “took up the pen, and, pretending to mimic his style, wrote, ‘The Bells, by E. A. Poe’; and then . . . ‘The Bells, the little silver Bells,’ Poe finishing off the stanza. She then suggested for the next verse, ‘The heavy iron ¬Bells’; and this Poe also expanded into a stanza. He next copied out the complete poem, and headed it, ‘By Mrs. M. L. Shew,’ remarking that it was her poem; as she had suggested and composed so much of it.” On the manuscript for the poem in the Harry Ransom Center in Texas, Poe has written Shew’s name as the author.
In a March 1929 letter in the Poe Museum’s files, Shew’s youngest sister, Elva P. Barney writes, “My sister also said to me Poe came to my home one Sunday evening seeming despondent saying he had nothing to write about, no subject, and while he sat there the various church bells were sending forth their tones she suggested–the Bells for a topic which he did.” The finished poem reads:
Hear the sledges with the bells —
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the Heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells —
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.
Hear the mellow wedding bells —
What a world of happiness their harmony foretells!
Through the balmy air of night
How they ring out their delight! —
From the molten-golden notes,
And all in tune,
What a liquid ditty floats
To the turtle-dove that listens, while she gloats
On the moon!
Oh, from out the sounding cells,
What a gush of euphony voluminously wells!
How it swells!
How it dwells
On the future! — how it tells
Of the rapture that impels
To the swinging and the ringing
Of the bells, bells, bells —
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells —
To the rhyming and the chiming of the bells!
Hear the loud alarum bells —
What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
In the startled ear of Night
How they scream out their affright!
Too much horrified to speak,
They can only shriek, shriek,
Out of tune,
In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire,
In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire
Leaping higher, higher, higher,
With a desperate desire,
And a resolute endeavour
Now — now to sit, or never,
By the side of the pale-faced moon.
Oh, the bells, bells, bells!
What a tale their terror tells
How they clang, and clash, and roar!
What a horror they outpour
On the bosom of the palpitating air!
Yet the ear, it fully knows,
By the twanging
And the clanging,
How the danger ebbs and flows;
Yes, the ear distinctly tells,
In the jangling
And the wrangling,
How the danger sinks and swells,
By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells —
Of the bells —
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells —
In the clamor and the clangor of the bells!
Hear the tolling of the bells —
What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!
In the silence of the night,
How we shiver with affright
At the melancholy menace of their tone!
For every sound that floats
From the rust within their throats
Is a groan.
And the people — ah, the people —
They that dwell up in the steeple,
And who, tolling, tolling, tolling,
In that muffled monotone,
Feel a glory in so rolling
On the human heart a stone —
They are neither man nor woman —
They are neither brute nor human —
They are Ghouls: —
And their king it is who tolls: —
And he rolls, rolls, rolls,
A Pæan from the bells!
And his merry bosom swells
With the Pæan of the bells!
And he dances and he yells;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the Pæan of the bells —
Of the bells: —
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the throbbing of the bells —
Of the bells, bells, bells —
To the sobbing of the bells: —
Keeping time, time, time,
As he knells, knells, knells,
In a happy Runic rhyme,
To the rolling of the bells —
Of the bells, bells, bells: —
To the tolling of the bells —
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells —
To the moaning and the groaning of the bells.
About the time Poe wrote, “The Bells,” Shew was gradually withdrawing from him. By June she would write him to say she could not see him again. She explained her decision in a February 16, 1875 letter to Ingram. “Mr. Hopkins [a theological student and close friend of Mrs. Shew’s] was a great admirer of Mr. Poe, and often met him at my house, but when the question of pantheism came up, you see he thought him either insane or a hopeless infadel [sic], and . . . he would tell the story of that dreadful night when they took him home to Fordham, Mr. Poe reciting, ‘some unheard of jargon with glorious pathos — or deadly hate’ . . . . Of course I felt he was lost, either way.”
A couple weeks before Shew cut off contact with Poe, her confidant Hopkins read the manuscript for Poe’s book Eureka and wrote the author to voice his objections over the closing paragraphs. In a May 15, 1848 letter to Poe, he writes, “But this is not all. You know well that the great body of Christians regard pantheism as a damnable heresy, if not worse. Such a brand would be a blight upon your book, which not even your genius could efface, and your great discovery would at once be ranked by the majority among the vain dreams of skepticism and the empty chimaeras of infidelity. If published as it now stands, I should myself be compelled to attack that part of it, for I could not in conscience do otherwise.”
Poe answered Shew’s letter, “Can it be true Louise that you have the idea fixed in your mind to desert your unhappy and unfortunate friend and patient. . . . I have read over your letter again, and again, and can not make it possible with any degree of certainty, that you wrote it in your right mind (I know you did not without tears of anguish and regret) . . . . Oh Louise how many sorrows are before you, your ingenuous and sympathetic nature, will be constantly wounded in contact with the hollow heartless world, and for me alas! unless some true and tender and pure womanly love saves me, I shall hardly last a year longer, alone!”
Recalling a recent visit by Shew and Hopkins, Poe continues, “I heard your voice as you passed out of my sight leaving me with the Parson, ‘The man of God, The servant of the most High.’ He stood smiling and bowing at the madman Poe! But, that I had invited him to my house, I would have rushed out into Gods light and freedom!”
Poe died the following year, at the age of forty, on October 7, 1849. His mother-in-law Maria Clemm sold the household items before leaving the cottage in which she, Poe, and his wife had lived. According to the Watertown Daily’s Old Houses of the North Country series, Mrs. Shew assisted Mrs. Clemm by buying some of this furniture and other items and moving them to her father’s home, the Barney homestead in Henderson Township.
In 1850, Shew and her husband divorced, and she married Dr. Roland Houghton. In the 1870s, she corresponded with Poe’s English biographer, John Henry Ingram, providing him much information about Poe’s final years and his wife’s death. She died in 1877 at the age of fifty-five. Her young daughter Mary Houghton Overton, moved to the Barney home in Henderson, taking with her much of the artwork and furniture from Shew’s New York home. Here she lived with Shew’s father and youngest sister Elva Barney.
Still living in the Barney home in 1929, Ms. Barney was a member of Richmond’s Edgar Allan Poe Museum. Among the treasures in the home were a Duncan Phyfe sofa used by Poe when he visited Shew’s Greenwich Village home, autographed biographies of Poe, and the “Poe candelabra.” Barney would soon sell the latter to the Poe Museum for $200.
The September 21, 1929 issue of The Times carried an article by Margaret Blakely about the Barney Homestead in Henderson where Barney and Overton were living. “Not long ago, a visitor to the Henderson farmhouse would have noticed immediately upon entering the home, a painting of ‘M.L.S.’ hanging over the fireplace, a pair of graceful Sheffield plate candelabra standing at either side of the portrait. These candelabra were long known in the family as the ‘Poe candelabra,’ and it is believed Mrs. Shew purchased them at the time of Virginia Clemm’s illness in order to assist the poverty-stricken family. Now these candelabra are gone for they were recently sold to the Edgar Allen [sic] Poe shrine of Richmond of which Mrs. Overton is a member…”
Based on their style, these candelabra probably date to the first decade of the nineteenth century. Just how they came into Shew’s possession is not known for certain. The accounts quoted above mention that Shew could have bought them from Poe to assist him financially during his wife’s illness or that Shew bought them from Poe’s mother-in-law after his death. It is also possible that neither of these accounts is accurate. Another legend relates that Poe wrote his poem “The Bells” under their light, but, like most of the stories told about Poe, this is difficult to verify. Given what seem to be exaggerations in some of her accounts of the author’s life, Poe biographers tend to classify Shew as a less than completely reliable source. What is known for certain about her is that she played an important role in Poe’s life before and after his wife’s death.
Today, the two candelabra are on display in the Poe Museum’s Elizabeth Arnold Poe Memorial Building where their gleaming silver recalls the opulence of Shew’s home as Poe would have known it. They also help tell the story of Poe’s relationship with Marie Louise Shew, the composition of a classic poem “The Bells,” and the controversy surrounding his last book Eureka.
To give the public a better idea of the variety of artifacts and memorabilia that makes up the Poe Museum’s world renowned collection, we will be profiling a different object each month. Some of these objects may be long-time favorites like Poe’s bed or Poe’s vest, but others may be lesser known pieces that are rarely, if ever, displayed. When making the list of items to profile, we began by asking which pieces tell stories or reveal unknown aspects of Poe’s life or work. We then considered which objects we wish could receive more attention or more time on display. Finally, we wondered which would be the first item to be profiled.
It made perfect sense to begin with a little known object that nonetheless attracts, repulses, and intrigues many of the guests who see it. Our tour guides regularly point it out on their tours because it is small enough to go unnoticed but too important to miss.
That is why the Poe Museum’s first Object of the Month is a lock of Eliza White’s hair.
Eliza White (ca.1820-1888) was the daughter of Poe’s employer, Thomas White, the owner of the Southern Literary Messenger. What little is known of Eliza White is a mixture of exaggeration, legend, and an occasional fact. Poe’s friend Susan Archer Talley Weiss wrote in her notoriously unreliable 1907 book Home Life of Poe, “When I was a girl I more than once heard of Eliza White and her love affair with Edgar Poe. ‘She was the sweetest girl that I ever knew,’ said a lady who had been her schoolmate; ‘a slender, graceful blonde, with deep blue eyes, who reminded you of the Watteau Shepherdesses upon fans. She was a great student, and very bright and intelligent. She was said to be engaged to Poe, but they never appeared anywhere together. It was soon broken off on account of his dissipation. I don’t think she ever got over it. She had many admirers, but is still unmarried.’”
Susan Archer Talley
According to Weiss, when Poe moved to Richmond in 1835 to work at the Southern Literary Messenger, “Mr. White, as a safeguard from the temptation to evil habits, received him as an inmate of his own home, where he immediately fell in love with the editor’s youngest daughter, ‘little Eliza,’ a lovely girl of eighteen [actually twenty-three]. It was said that the father, who idolized his daughter, and was also very fond of Poe, did not forbid the match, but made his consent conditional upon the young man’s remaining perfectly sober for a certain length of time. All was going well, and the couple were looked upon as engaged, when [Poe’s aunt] Mrs. Clemm, who kept a watchful eye upon her nephew, may have received information of the affair, and we have seen the result…Poe now, at once, plunged into the dissipation which was, according to general report, the occasion of Mr. White’s prohibition of his attentions to his daughter. It was she to whom the lines, ‘To Eliza,’ now included in Poe’s poems, were addressed.”
For her 1906 article “Some Memories of Poe” in Bob Taylor’s Magazine, Tula D. Pendleton interviewed Ms. White’s cousin, Miss Bell Lynes, a niece of Thomas H. White. In the resulting article, Cummings reports that, “Eliza, the handsome young daughter of Mr. White, inspired Poe with great admiration, and it was said that he singed his wings at the candles of her shrine. ‘To Eliza’ is his tribute to this fair girl.”
The poem “To Eliza,” originally published in the Southern Literary Messenger under the title “Lines Written in an Album,” reads:
Eliza! — let thy generous heart
From its present pathway part not!
Being every thing which now thou art,
Be nothing which thou art not.
So with the world thy gentle ways —
Thy unassuming beauty —
And truth shall be a theme of praise
Forever — and love a duty.
Though this poem was likely dedicated to Eliza White at that time, Poe had already written it in the album of his cousin Eliza Herring. He would later dedicate the poem to Frances S. Osgood and publish it under yet another name.
Thomas W. White
Of the supposed love affair between Poe and Ms. White, Pendleton continues, “But Mr. White would hear none of Poe as a suitor for his daughter. Miss White rarely spoke of the poet. ‘But,’ said Miss Lynes, ‘Eliza never married…’ Miss Lynes remembers seeing Poe at a party at her ‘Uncle White’s’ house. He and the fair girl made such a handsome couple that all present remarked upon it. “Mr. Poe was the most enthusiastic dancer I ever saw,” said Miss Lynes, “although he remained cold and calm, showing his delight only in his eyes.”
Poe and White remained friends for the rest of his life. She even visited Poe while he was living in Fordham, New York. In an April 22, 1859 letter to Poe’s friend Sarah Helen Whitman, Poe’s mother-in-law Maria Clemm writes of Eliza White, “She passed many months with us at Fordham, before and after Virginia’s death, but he never felt or professed other than friendship for her.”
If Poe’s relationship with White was not romantic, the two certainly shared an affinity for poetry. White’s poems appeared a number of times in the pages of the Southern Literary Messenger. Here is a poem of hers in the December 1835 issue.
The first mention of this lock of Eliza White’s hair comes from the above mentioned article by Tula D. Pendleton. The author writes of Ms. White, “Her greatest physical charm was her beautiful hair. Miss Lynes showed me a long braid of exquisite texture and of a fairness so extreme that when laid upon her own silver head there was scarcely any perceptible difference of shade. This hair was cut from Eliza White’s head many years before her death, which occurred about ten years ago.”
Pendleton acquired the lock from Miss Lynes and donated it to the Poe Museum in 1922. The piece had not been displayed for several years when the present curator, having read about it in the old accessions book, decided to take it out of storage. As a poet and as a friend of Poe’s, Eliza White deserved to have her story told. In the absence of a surviving portrait of her (since her only known portrait was destroyed in a fire in the nineteenth century) this hair serves as a tangible link to this often overlooked figure in Poe’s life.