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.
Last Thursday, the Poe Museum unveiled its most recent major acquisition, the plaster model for Virginia’s first life-sized statue of Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Rudy’s sculpture now on display at the Virginia Capitol.
Retired Philadelphia physician Dr. George Edward Barksdale commissioned this statue for the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond in 1956 because the Commonwealth of Virginia did not have any life-sized statues honoring the author. From this plaster model, a bronze cast was made at a cost of $9,500. After Dr. Barksdale donated the statue to the Commonwealth of Virginia, it was sent to a warehouse until the General Assembly approved a location for it on Capitol Square. In January 1958, the approved an appropriation of $2,500 for the installation, and the sculpture was finally installed on January 30, 1959 and dedicated on the 110th anniversary of Poe’s death—October 7, 1959.
The sculptor, Charles Rudy, studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts before traveling to Europe to continue his training. Among his many public commissions are the bas relief portraits of Benjamin Franklin on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Bridge and the war memorial outside Franklin Field at the University of Pennsylvania. He also created the monumental sculptures of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson on the side of Stone Mountain in Georgia.
The original base for the statue was found in a landfill in the 1970s and is now on display in front of the Poe Museum. The Poe Museum’s new statue is a gift from the James A. Michener Art Museum in Honor of Lorraine Rudy.
Rudy’s plaster statue debuted at the Poe Museum as part of the new exhibit Poe 3D, which features the works of other celebrated sculptors including George Julian Zolnay and Edmund T. Quinn. The exhibit continues until October 19.
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.
The Edgar Allan Poe Museum has recently acquired a life-sized statue of Edgar Allan Poe produced in 1957 by the artist Charles Rudy. The sculpture, which depicts a seated Poe holding a pen and paper, is Rudy’s plaster model for the bronze statue now in the Virginia State Capitol Square. This is the first full-length sculpture to enter the Poe Museum. The piece is a gift from the James A. Michener Art Museum in Honor of Lorraine Rudy.
According to Poe Museum Curator Chris Semtner, “This is a major addition to the Museum’s collection not only because it is one of a few full-length life-sized statues of Poe available but also because it is the model for the first public statue of Poe in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Poe Museum’s founders attempted to fund the creation of a Poe statue in Richmond, Virginia in 1906, but it was not until Philadelphia physician George Edward Barksdale commissioned this statue in 1957 that Richmond received its own Poe statue. Now visitors to the city will be able to see both the finished bronze and the plaster model.”
The Poe Museum is currently conserving the statue (which arrived in thirteen pieces) in preparation for its first public exhibition in the exhibit Poe 3-D, which will run from June 26 to October 19, 2014. The exhibit will also feature busts of Poe by George Julian Zolnay, Edmund Quinn, and others.
The exhibit will open on June 26 from 6 to 9 P.M. during the Poe Museum’s monthly Unhappy Hour, which features live music by Lost Dreads, performances, and refreshments.
Like many businesses, the Poe Museum will be closed Monday in observance of Memorial Day to give our employees a chance to honor those brave men and women who died serving in the US Armed Forces. Monday will also be the 187th anniversary of Poe’s enlistment in the US Army, so this weekend is a great time to visit the Poe Museum to learn more about Poe’s military career. Active duty military will receive $1 off their admission to the Museum.
Poe enlisted in Boston on May 26, 1827, when he was eighteen. Seven months earlier, mounting debt had forced the young author to drop out of the University of Virginia and return to his boyhood home with his foster father John Allan in Richmond. On March 19, Mr. Allan quarreled with Poe and threw him out of the house, so Poe decided to sail for Boston to seek his fortune. It was there he published his first book, a small volume entitled Tamerlane, in June. Only about fifty copies were printed, and they were not distributed.
The above engraving shows Boston Harbor as it would have appeared when Poe was there.
Opinions differ as to why Poe decided to enlist. He may have been inspired by his service, three years earlier, on the Junior Morgan Riflemen entrusted with escorting the Marquis de Lafayette around Richmond during the Revolutionary War hero’s 1824 tour of America. Poe could have been inspired by his childhood hero, the British poet Lord Byron, who joined the Greeks in their battle for independence.
What is certain is that Poe enlisted for five years under the alias Edgar A. Perry. Maybe Poe used this name because he was still hiding from debt collectors. Maybe he was ashamed because the class-conscious young gentleman considered himself to be of the class of people who be officers rather than enlisted men (who, in Poe’s time tended to be immigrants and the poor). We may never know because Poe did not publicly admit to enlisting. In his autobiographical memo, he fabricates a story about trying to join the Greek Wars of Independence.
The poet was assigned to Battery H of the First Artillery at Fort Independence, Boston Harbor. In July, Poe became a clerk and would spend much of his time filing paperwork. His desk job probably relieved him of many of the tasks required of other enlisted men, including guard duty and fort maintenance. Poe’s battery went to Fort Moultrie, South Carolina, in November. It was there that Poe advanced to the position of artificer, the most technically demanding job in the army of his day. It was also one of the most dangerous because he would be responsible for mixing explosives. Poe excelled and soon attained the rank of regimental sergeant major, an accomplishment which usually took about seventeen years.
By the time his battery was assigned to Fortress Monroe in Virginia (pictured above), Poe had already decided to end his enlistment early in order to study at the United States Military Academy at West Point. This would be a highly unusual move because no enlisted man in the previous decade had become a West Point Cadet. Fortunately, Poe had the support of his officers. He wrote John Allan that an officer had agreed to discharge him on the condition that he reconcile with Allan.
Back in Richmond, Poe’s devoted foster mother Mrs. Allan was dying. Poe was unable to reach the city until the night after her burial. During this visit, he was able to reconcile briefly with Allan, who would seek recommendations on Poe’s behalf in order to gain him admittance to West Point. Poe returned to Fortress Monroe and promptly hired a substitute to serve the remainder of his enlistment for him.
Poe’s officers provided Poe recommendations that attest to his exceptional service. J. Howard, Lieut. 1st Artillery wrote, “…he at once performed the duties of company clerk and assistant in the Subsistent Department, both of which duties were promptly and faithfully done. his habits are good, and intirely free from drinking…”
Bt. Capt. H. W. Griswold described Poe as “exemplary in his deportment, prompt & faithful in the discharge of his duties…” and “highly worthy of confidence…”
Lt. Col. W. J. Worth added Poe’s “deportment has been highly praise worthy & deserving of confidence. His education is of a very high order and he appears to be free from bad habits in fact the testimony of Lt. Howard & Adjt. Griswold is full to that point — Understanding he is thro’ his friends an applicant for cadets warrant, I unhesitatingly recommend him as promising to acquit himself of the obligations of that station studiously & faithfully.”
Among those writing recommendations for Poe was Andrew Stevenson, Speaker of the House of Representatives. Eventually they secured Poe an appointment to West Point (pictured below), and arrived there on June 20, 1830. Poe soon wrote Allan, “Upon arriving here I delivered my letters of recommn & was very politely received by Capn Hitchcock & Mr Ross — The examination for admission is just over — a great many cadets of good family &c have been rejected as deficient…James D Brown, son of Jas Brown Jr has also been dismissed for deficiency after staying here 3 years…Of 130 Cadets appointed every year only 30 or 35 ever graduate — the rest being dismissed for bad conduct or deficiency the Regulations are rigid in the extreme…”
Poe performed well in his classes, attaining the seventeenth highest score in Mathematics and third in French among the eighty-seven fourth-classmen; but he soon decided he did not belong there. Once again, he was deep in debt. Mr. Allan had never paid the substitute, who had written Allan on the subject, unfortunately enclosing a letter in which Poe blames Allan’s delay in paying on his drunkenness. Poe would later explain in his autobiographical memo, “The army does not suit a poor man—so I left West Point abruptly.”
In a January 3, 1831 letter to John Allan, Poe writes, “You sent me to W. Point like a beggar. The same difficulties are threatening me as before at Charlottesville — and I must resign… I have no energy left, nor health. If it was possible, to put up with the fatigues of this place, and the inconveniences which my absolute want of necessaries subject me to, and as I mentioned before it is my intention to resign. For this end it will be necessary that you (as my nominal guardian) enclose me your written permission. It will be useless to refuse me this last request — for I can leave the place without any permission — your refusal would only deprive me of the little pay which is now due as mileage…From the time of writing this I shall neglect my studies and duties at the institution — if I do not receive your answer in 10 days — I will leave the point without — for otherwise I should subject myself to dismission.” Poe had made up his mind to get himself expelled.
Poe’s roommates, Thomas Pickering Jones of Tennessee and Thomas W. Gibson of Indiana, would both be court martialed and expelled. Jones was charged with drunkenness while Gibson’s offenses included not only drunkenness but also setting fire to a building. Although Poe would also be expelled after only nine months, the list of charges does not include anything as dramatic as pyromania or drunkenness. He was charged with “gross neglect of duty” and “disobeyance of orders. The record recounts that Poe “did absent himself from all his Academical duties between the 15th & 27 Jan’y 1831, viz. absent from Mathematical recitation on the 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 24, 25 & 26th Jan’y 1831” and that “after having been directed by the officer of the day to attend church on the 23d January 1831, [Poe] did fail to obey such order…” He was found “Guilty.”
Poe left West Point on February 19, but his aspirations for a military career continued. Less than a month later, he wrote Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, Superintendent of the U. S. Military Academy, West Point, “I intend by the first opportunity to proceed to Paris with the view of obtaining, thro’ the interest of the Marquis de La Fayette, an appointment (if possible) in the Polish Army . . . . The object of this letter is . . . to request that you will give me such assistance as may lie in your power in furtherance of my views. A certificate of ‘standing’ in my class is all that I have any right to expect. Any thing farther — a letter to a friend in Paris — or to the Marquis — would be a kindness which I should never forget.”
Of course, Poe was unable to join the Polish Army, but, as mentioned earlier, he would tell his biographers he went to join the Greeks instead.
A month after writing Thayer, Poe published his third book of poetry. Poems of Edgar A. Poe is dedicated to the U.S. Corps of Cadets, and 139 of the 232 those Cadets paid $1.25 each to finance the book’s publication. Learn more about the Poe Museum’s copy of this book here.
Though his military career was over by the time he was twenty-two, Poe would proudly wear his West Point great coat for the rest of his life. He is wearing it in the below daguerreotype taken the year before his death.
Some scholars believe the highly technical training Poe received as an artificer may have inspired his disciplined and technical poetry. His knowledge of projectiles and the calculations required to make them hit their intended target may also have played a part in his science fiction tale “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” and his cosmological essay Eureka.
For further reading about Poe’s time in the Army, we recommend the book Private Perry and Mister Poe by William F. Hecker. You can also visit the Casemate Museum at Fort Monroe near Hampton, Virginia.
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.
One of the most cherished possessions of the Providence Athenaeum is a volume of the American Review with Edgar Allan Poe’s faint signature written in pencil under the anonymous poem “Ulalume.” That poem is the Poe Museum’s Poem of the Week, which was recommended to us by one of the Museum’s Facebook followers.
Poe visited the Providence Athenaeum in 1848 while courting the poet Sarah Helen Whitman. The two poets spent time among the stacks discussing literature and love (and apparently also vandalizing library books).
“Ulalume” had been written the previous year, in the fall of 1847. Poe’s wife had died that January, and Poe’s own health had suffered. In June, the minister and teacher of public speaking, Reverend Cotesworth P. Bronson, and his daughter Mary Elizabeth Bronson visited Poe and his mother-in-law Maria Clemm at their cottage in Fordham, New York. Poe’s poem “The Raven” was an international hit, and Poe even had to apologize to Mary for not having a pet raven.
It was Rev. Bronson who would eventually commission Poe to write to read at lectures on elocution. According to his daughter, Bronson asked Poe “to write something suitable for recitation embodying thoughts that would admit of vocal variety and expression.” About a month later, in October, Poe wrote to Bronson that the poem was ready, and Mary encountered Poe’s mother-in-law, who informed her Poe “had written a beautiful poem — better than anything before.” Poe visited Bronson and showed the poem to Mary, who read it out loud to him.
Poe next tried to sell the poem to the editor of the Union Magazine. The editor rejected the poem after showing it to the young poet Richard Henry Stoddard, who told her he could not understand it.
Around this time, Poe received a visit from more of his literary friends, including the author and health reformer Mary Gove, who later recalled for the Sixpenny Magazine that the group “strolled away into the woods, and had a very cheerful time, till some one proposed a game at leaping. I think it must have been Poe, as he was expert in the exercise. Two or three gentlemen agreed to leap with him, and though one of them was tall, and had been a hunter in times past, Poe still distanced them all. But alas! his gaiters, long worn and carefully kept, were both burst in the grand leap that made him victor. . . . I pitied Poe more now. I was certain he had no other shoes, boots, or gaiters. Who amongst us could offer him money to buy a new pair? . . . When we reached the cottage, I think all felt that we must not go in, to see the shoeless unfortunate sitting or standing in our midst. . . . The poor old mother looked at his feet, with a dismay that I shall never forget.”
Maria Clemm told her that Poe could afford a new pair of shoes if Gove would only convince George Colton, editor of the American Review, to buy “Ulalume.” Clemm implored her, “If he will only take the poem, Eddie can have a pair of shoes. [Colton] has it — I carried it [to him] last week, and Eddie says it is his best. You will speak to him about it, won’t you?”
It was Colton who had first bought “The Raven” in 1845 after it had been rejected by other magazines. Poe had published other work in the American Review, but, a few months before he wrote “Ulalume,” the magazine had declined to publish his essay “The Rationale of Verse.” This time, however, Colton agreed to buy the poem and paid Poe enough for “a pair of gaiters, and twelve shillings over,” according to Gove’s account.
The poem appeared in the December issue under the title “Ulalume: A Ballad” and dedicated “To ____ ____ ______.” The dedication could apply to his friend and nurse Marie Louise Shew or one of the other women associated with him at the time. As the American Review had done with Poe’s poem “The Raven,” “Ulalume” was printed unsigned. When Poe sent the poem to N.P. Willis to request that he publish it in the Home Journal, Poe asked him to keep the author’s name a secret because he did not want “to be known as its author just now.” Poe even requested that Willis introduce the poem “with a word of inquiry as to who wrote it.”
Willis granted Poe’s request and printed the poem with this introduction: “We do not know how many readers we have who will enjoy as we do, the following exquisitely piquant and skilful exercise of rarity and niceness of language. It is a poem which we find in the American Review, full of beauty and oddity in sentiment and versification, but a curiosity, (and a delicious one, we think,) in its philologic flavor. Who is the author?”
Some readers, like Poe’s friend George W. Eveleth immediately recognized the poem as the work of Poe. The Saturday Courier reprinted “Ulalume” on January 22 under the heading “Poe’s Last Poem” with an explanation that “We copy the following poem, partly, because Willis has called attention to it, but principally, because we have a word or two to say in relation to Edgar A. Poe, who is undoubtedly its author. No other American poet, in the first place, has the same command of language and power of versification: it is in no one else’s vein — it is too charnel in its nature; while Mr. Poe is especially at home in pieces of a sepulchral character.”
Eight months later, Poe was visiting the Providence Athenaeum with Sarah Helen Whitman. In some copies of the Broadway Journal, he initialed some of the unsigned articles he had written for the magazine. Whitman then asked him if he had ever read the poem “Ulalume.” She later recounted, “To my infinite surprise, he told me that he himself was the author. Turning to a bound volume of the Review which was in the alcove where we were sitting, he wrote his name at the bottom.”
The confusion over who wrote the poem continued. In November, the Daily Journal reprinted “Ulalume” under Poe’s name with a comment that another paper had recently misattributed the poem to N.P. Willis.
There was also some confusion over the meaning of the poem. When she told him she could not understand it, Poe told Jane Scott Mackenzie that he had written it so that not everyone would understand it.
In the summer of 1849, Poe was giving a reading of some of his poetry on the veranda of the Hygeia Hotel at Old Point Comfort, Virginia when the subject of “Ulalume” came up. One of those present, Susan V.C. Ingram, later recalled in the February 19, 1905 issue of the New York Herald that Poe “remarked that he feared that it might not be intelligible to us.” She continued, “I was not old enough or experienced enough to understand what the words [of “Ulalume”] really meant . . . I did, however, feel their beauty, and I said to him when he had finished, ‘It is quite clear to me, and I admire the poem very much.’”
That evening, Poe transcribed a copy of the poem for her, leaving it under her door with a note that read, “I fear that you will find the verses scarcely more intelligible to day in my manuscript than last night in my recitation. I would endeavor to explain to you what I really meant — or what I really fancied I meant by the poem, if it were not that I remember Dr Johnson’s bitter and rather just remarks about the folly of explaining what, if worth explanation, should explain itself.”
Sarah Helen Whitman believed she understood the poem, and she explained in a letter published in the October 13, 1875 issue of the New York Tribune, “The geist of the poem . . . is . . . “Astarte” — the crescent star of hope and love, that after a night of horror was seen . . .
The forlorn heart [was] hailing it as a harbinger of happiness yet to be, hoping against hope . . . when the planet was seen to be rising over the tomb of a lost love, hope itself was rejected as a cruel mockery . . .”
Here is the Poem of the Week, which we believe, sufficiently explains itself.
The skies they were ashen and sober;
The leaves they were crispéd and sere —
The leaves they were withering and sere:
It was night, in the lonesome October
Of my most immemorial year:
It was hard by the dim lake of Auber,
In the misty mid region of Weir: —
It was down by the dank tarn of Auber,
In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.
Here once, through an alley Titanic,
Of cypress, I roamed with my Soul —
Of cypress, with Psyche, my Soul.
These were days when my heart was volcanic
As the scoriac rivers that roll —
As the lavas that restlessly roll
Their sulphurous currents down Yaanek,
In the ultimate climes of the Pole —
That groan as they roll down Mount Yaanek
In the realms of the Boreal Pole.
Our talk had been serious and sober,
But our thoughts they were palsied and sere —
Our memories were treacherous and sere;
For we knew not the month was October,
And we marked not the night of the year —
(Ah, night of all nights in the year!)
We noted not the dim lake of Auber,
(Though once we had journeyed down here)
We remembered not the dank tarn of Auber,
Nor the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.
And now, as the night was senescent,
And star-dials pointed to morn —
As the star-dials hinted of morn —
At the end of our path a liquescent
And nebulous lustre was born,
Out of which a miraculous crescent
Arose with a duplicate horn —
Astarte’s bediamonded crescent,
Distinct with its duplicate horn.
And I said — “She is warmer than Dian;
She rolls through an ether of sighs —
She revels in a region of sighs.
She has seen that the tears are not dry on
These cheeks where the worm never dies,
And has come past the stars of the Lion,
To point us the path to the skies —
To the Lethean peace of the skies —
Come up, in despite of the Lion,
To shine on us with her bright eyes —
Come up, through the lair of the Lion,
With love in her luminous eyes.”
But Psyche, uplifting her finger,
Said — “Sadly this star I mistrust —
Her pallor I strangely mistrust —
Ah, hasten! — ah, let us not linger!
Ah, fly! — let us fly! — for we must.”
In terror she spoke; letting sink her
Wings till they trailed in the dust —
In agony sobbed; letting sink her
Plumes till they trailed in the dust —
Till they sorrowfully trailed in the dust.
I replied — “This is nothing but dreaming.
Let us on, by this tremulous light!
Let us bathe in this crystalline light!
Its Sybillic splendor is beaming
With Hope and in Beauty to-night —
See! — it flickers up the sky through the night!
Ah, we safely may trust to its gleaming,
And be sure it will lead us aright —
We safely may trust to a gleaming
That cannot but guide us aright
Since it flickers up to Heaven through the night.”
Thus I pacified Psyche and kissed her,
And tempted her out of her gloom —
And conquered her scruples and gloom;
And we passed to the end of the vista —
But were stopped by the door of a tomb —
By the door of a legended tomb: —
And I said — “What is written, sweet sister,
On the door of this legended tomb?”
She replied — “Ulalume — Ulalume! —
’T is the vault of thy lost Ulalume!”
Then my heart it grew ashen and sober
As the leaves that were crispéd and sere —
As the leaves that were withering and sere —
And I cried — “It was surely October,
On this very night of last year,
That I journeyed — I journeyed down here! —
That I brought a dread burden down here —
On this night, of all nights in the year,
Ah, what demon hath tempted me here?
Well I know, now, this dim lake of Auber —
This misty mid region of Weir: —
Well I know, now, this dank tarn of Auber —
This ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.”
Said we, then, — the two, then, — “Ah, can it
Have been that the woodlandish ghouls —
The pitiful, the merciful ghouls,
To bar up our way and to ban it
From the secret that lies in these wolds —
From the thing that lies hidden in these wolds —
Have drawn up the spectre of a planet
From the limbo of lunary souls —
This sinfully scintillant planet
From the Hell of planetary souls?”
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.
Virginia’s first literary museum, the Poe Shrine (now the Edgar Allan Poe Museum) opened in 1922 with a weekend of events held in its newly planted Enchanted Garden. Two years later, the Poe Shrine commissioned the London firm Raphael Tuck and Sons, Publishers to the King and Queen, to immortalize the Garden in a series of post cards. The artist S. Shelton produced the series pictured here.
Enchanted Garden and Old Stone House of the Edgar Allan Poe Shrine, Richmond, VA in April
Enchanted Garden and Old Stone House of the Edgar Allan Poe Shrine in June
The Loggia and Enchanted Garden. The Edgar Allan Poe Shrine, Richmond VA
A number of letters between the Poe Shrine and Raphael Tuck and Sons attest to the level of accuracy and detail expected by the Shrine’s board. In addition to containing several photographs of the site, the board’s letters stressed the importance of such details as the names and colors of the flowers as well as the “atmosphere and charm of this quaint little garden.”
Today, as the Garden Club of Virginia begins its historic restoration of the Enchanted Garden, the landscape architects Rieley & Associates have found these prints especially useful in their planning. While the Museum owns several black-and-white photos of the original garden—and even a card catalog of the first plantings—Shelton’s paintings show the color schemes and provide a more complete idea of the founders’ intentions.
Ninety years after Shelton painted these pictures, the Poe Museum has grown to encompass three more buildings to house Poe artifacts, the Enchanted Garden is still the heart of the complex. In about a month, the spring flowers will be in bloom, and the Garden Club’s restoration will be well underway. Pay the Poe Museum a visit or check this blog for the latest updates. If you are an artist and are inspired by these post cards to paint or draw your own pictures of the Enchanted Garden this spring, you will not want to miss out on our upcoming exhibit Painting the Enchanted Garden. Click here to learn more about this opportunity.
You never know who you will meet at the Poe Museum. Since it opened in 1922, it has welcomed some of the world’s leading authors, artists, and actors. Thirty-nine years ago, in February 1975, the actor Vincent Price visited the Museum, where he was treated to a lunch in his honor. A horror film legend, Price starred in several adaptations of Poe’s works, including “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “Tales of Terror.”
The February 11, 1975 issue of the Richmond News Leader reported that, in addition to visiting the Poe Museum, Price gave a lecture and dramatic reading at the Women’s Club where he drew “loud applause for his readings of such Poe classics as ‘The Raven.’”
The reporter Joy Propert describes Price during his visit as “conservatively dressed in a dark suit, light blue shirt and a red and blue paisley tie.” Of his appearance, Propert adds, “Price has carefully waved gray hair and a small mustache that seem appropriate for a voice that can change instantly from dulcet to sinister tones.” Price is quoted as telling the Women’s Club, “I love playing the villain…It’s boring playing good men.”
When asked about Poe, Price tells the reporter, “He was born with a demon called genius, and his poems show an inner despair in much the same way as some contemporary art.”
The raven that appears in the above photo with Price is still at the Poe Museum.
In honor of Price’s 100th birthday in 2011, the Poe Museum hosted a special exhibit in honor of the man who introduced generations of audiences to Poe’s works through the medium of film.
Vincent Price Life Mask
Above is a life mask of Vincent Price from the Poe Museum’s collection. The Museum also holds several posters for Vincent Price’s Poe movies and related items like this Vincent Price figurine.