Edgar Allan Poe lived at the perfect time in history to be able to observe and to write about many of the most dramatic technological changes that had taken place in world history. Scientist Sir Alfred Russell Wallace called the nineteenth century “The Wonderful Century” because of its “marvelous inventions and discoveries,” which he regarded as immensely superior to anything which had been developed up until that time by “our comparatively ignorant forefathers”(1). Suddenly, within the span of a few decades, the introduction of new Industrial Age technologies such as electricity, telegraphic communications, cross-country railroads, photography, astronomy, and high- speed printing presses dramatically altered the culture and lifestyle of the American public in ways in which few people who lived at the time could ever have expected. In 1903, Sir Norman Lockyer, the then President of the British Association echoed Wallace’s remarks, stating that, “The nineteenth century will ever be known as the one which the influence of science was first fully realized in western countries; the scientific progress was so gigantic that it seems rash to predict that any of its successors can be more important in the life of a nation” (Nature). By the time that Poe started writing professionally (in the early 1830s), the literacy rate was higher than it had previously ever been in America, and the average person could read and understand most articles written in the newspaper. A person could travel to distant parts of the country by rail, and communicate almost instantly via the telegraph to almost anyone in the United States. Through the development of the daguerreotype (an early prototype of photography), people could obtain realistic and long lasting images of their family members to remember for generations. Many of those taken at that time may still be clearly visible today. The introduction of a new class of highly powerful telescopes and microscopes also demonstrated that the Universe of space and the unseen space within objects are much more expansive than anyone had previously imagined.
Peter Swirski argues that it is essential for our present understanding of nineteenth century culture to explore popular writers like Edgar Allan Poe because his “writing may be a suitable barometer of the role that science and philosophy had on nineteenth century society. Poe’s science narratives are perhaps most important because he was the first American authors who was able to distill the important information and ideas that were developed by professional scientists and publish them to a national and international audience in the form imaginative poems, non-fiction essays and journalistic stories, fiction, and science fiction stories.
The next entry of the “Poe and Science” blog will discuss how a studying the stories of the non-professional science writer helps us to have a better understanding of nineteenth-century society. Please send comments or questions to [email protected] or [email protected]
Lockyer, Sir Norman. “Inaugural Address as President of the British Association.” Nature. 10 September 1903: 439.
Swirski, Peter. Between Literature and Science: Poe, Lem, and Explorations in Aesthetics, Cognitive Science, and Literary Knowledge. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2000.
Wallace, Alfred Russell. The Wonderful Century: Its Successes and Failures. Toronto: George N. Morang, 1898 (digital reproduction).
Last Sunday, the Poe Museum was proud to host a talk by award-winning authors Mary SanGiovanni and Brian Keene. Guests came from as far away as Pennsylvania and Illinois to meet the authors and hear their insights into the continuing relevance of Poe’s fiction.
Since the Poe Museum’s mission is to “interpret the life and influence of Edgar Allan Poe for the education and enjoyment” of the public, Keene and SanGiovanni helped support this mission by speaking about Poe’s influence on today’s writers. SanGiovanni began by discussing the impact of Poe’s short story “The Masque of the Red Death” on horror fiction. She provided a fascinating overview of the themes and imagery of the story and drew parallels between these and the recurrent themes found in modern psychological horror and cosmic horror.
After SanGiovanni’s talk, Keene spoke about Poe’s novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, its inspiration for his own writing, and its influence on later writers. He traced the influence of this novel on Herman Melville, Jules Verne (who wrote a sequel to it), and H.P. Lovecraft (whose novel At the Mountains of Madness borrows from it). Keene continued by describing how At the Mountains of Madness helped inspire John W. Campbell’s novel Who Goes There which has been adapted into three films, the second of which is John Carpenter’s 1982 movie The Thing, which Keene considers the most important horror film of the 1980s. The Thing topped Boston Globe’s list of the Fifty Scariest Movies of All Time and was ranked #2 on Moving Arts Film Journal’s list of the Twenty-Five Greatest Horror Films. The film, in turn, was a great inspiration to Keene himself.
The talks were followed by a question-and-answer period in which the authors discussed their own work as well as the international significance of Poe’s literary contributions. A sizeable crowd gathered afterwards to have the authors sign copies of their books. Keene and SanGiovanni also donated some copies of their books to the museum’s gift shop to help support the museum’s educational mission. The Poe Museum would like to thank SanGiovanni and Keene for sharing their insights with our audience.
Our next author talk will take place on October 15 at 6 P.M. when the Virginia Literary Festival Presents: An Evening with Clay McLeod Chapman. Click here for a complete list of upcoming events.
Clay McLeod Chapman, our October speaker
Edgar Allan Poe had many enemies during his life–there is no questioning this—but only one man held the significant title of being Poe’s “bitterest enemy.” Was it Rufus Griswold, Poe’s literary executor, you may ask? No. Maybe, John Allan, Edgar’s foster father who butted heads with the poet until Allan’s death? Not quite. Who, you may inquire, was named Edgar Poe’s bitterest enemy? His own cousin, Neilson Poe.
Born with his twin sister, Amelia, to Jacob and Bridget Poe, in Baltimore on August 11, 1809, Neilson (pronounced “Nelson”) was grandson of George Poe Sr.(Frank 278, 281; Silverman 82; Thomas xxxviii, 6). Although there are no significant accounts of Neilson’s childhood, we know that at age eighteen he joined the staff of William Gwynn’s Baltimore Gazette and Daily Advertiser, beginning a three year apprenticeship as a journalist (Thomas xxxviii). Two years later, in 1829, made acquaintances with his second cousin, Edgar.
Later Neilson became the owner and editor of the Frederick Examiner, a semiweekly newspaper in Frederick, Maryland, where Edgar applied for a job in 1831 after Neilson had left. In 1834, Neilson acquired the Baltimore Chronicle, an influential Whig daily. The next year marked the beginning of the Neilson and Edgar rivalry (Thomas xxxviii).
In 1835, Edgar received word that Virginia Clemm, his future wife, was to be taken in by her cousin, Neilson and his wife, her half-sister, Josephine. This struck a deep chord in Edgar’s heart and he frantically pleaded with his Aunt, Maria Clemm, to not send Virginia to his second cousin’s residence, regarded Neilson as a rival for Virginia’s affection. He allegedly thought the plan was “cruel” and a betrayal that “wound[ed him] to the soul” (Frank 280, 281; World of Poe). Edgar went on to explain to Maria in his letter,
Oh think for me for I am incapable of thinking. Al[l of my] thoughts are occupied with the supposition that both you & she will prefer to go with N. [Neilson] Poe. I do sincerely believe that your comforts will for the present be secured — I cannot speak as regards your peace — your happiness. You have both tender hearts — and you will always have the reflection that my agony is more than I can bear — that you have driven me to the grave — for love like mine can never be gotten over. It is useless to disguise the truth that when Virginia goes with N. P. that I shall never behold her again — that is absolutely sure. Pity me, my dear Aunty, pity me. I have no one now to fly to. I am among strangers, and my wretchedness is more than I can bear. It is useless to expect advice from me — what can I say? Can I, in honour & in truth say — Virginia! do not go! — do not go where you can be comfortable & perhaps happy — and on the other hand can I calmly resign my — life itself. If she had truly loved me would she not have rejected the offer with scorn? Oh God have mercy on me! If she goes with N. P. what are you to do, my own Aunty? (You can read the rest of the letter here.)
Edgar won the dispute and successfully “saved” Virginia from their cousin Neilson. It is said Neilson had not known why Virginia and Maria turned down his offer until years later when he was shown, by Maria, the letter Edgar had written (World of Poe). Also, according to Kenneth Silverman in Edgar A. Poe: A Biography, Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance, “…Neilson meant to rescue Muddy from her poverty, but he also reportedly hoped to prevent Virginia from marrying at so young an age, keeping open the possibility of her marriage to Edgar a few years later, if they both still desired it.” For some reason, Edgar believed he would never see Virginia again had she gone to stay with Neilson and Josephine (104).
The cousins did not keep in close contact after this. In 1833, Neilson’s daughter, Amelia Fitzgerald, was born. This particular Poe child, out of seven siblings, was significant in relaying information to Poe scholars later on in her life, giving information about Edgar to biographers, John Ingram and George Woodberry (Frank 278).
In the summer of 1838, Edgar contacted his cousin, imploring for financial assistance, to which Neilson declined. He, too, was having monetary issues during this time. He sold his Chronicle on December 2 of that next year, due to financial debt. In 1840, he left the business he had been practicing since eighteen and commenced the practice of law, where he remained the rest of his life (Thomas xxxviii). It is said Neilson corresponded with Edgar in August 1845 in one surviving letter, which, according to “The World of Poe” online,
…is very civil, but decidedly cool. He [Edgar] responded to his cousin’s evident friendly overtures with a bland courtesy, assenting that it was indeed a pity that their two families were estranged, but he showed no sincere desire to amend that situation. The letter also indicated that Neilson and his family were unaware that for the past three years, Virginia had been battling a hopeless illness (which Poe always mysteriously called “the accident”)–a striking sign of just how alienated they were from her life. (You can read this letter here.)
Edgar’s death four years later would come as a shock and blow to Neilson who, despite not being on the best of terms with his cousin throughout their lives, still maintained concern for Edgar during his dying days. When word reached him that his cousin was in the hospital, Neilson visited Edgar and, despite being considered “the little dog” by his writer cousin, sent a change of linens and called again the next day to check on Edgar (Silverman 434). Despite the efforts to help Edgar, Poe died and Neilson began preparing for the funeral. He attended Edgar’s funeral on October 8, 1849, and provided the hack and hearse (Thomas 848).
After his cousin’s death, and despite their rivalry (which, may have been more on Edgar’s part than Neilson’s) Neilson spoke well of his cousin with supportive comments. Going back to just after the release of Edgar’s 1829 volume, Neilson predicted that “Our name will be a great one yet,” because of Edgar’s writings (World of Poe; Silverman 82). Despite their quarreling at times, Neilson never seemed to hold such hatred against his cousin as one may perceive. In fact, Neilson attended Poe’s November 17, 1875 memorial tribute and eulogized him. He also paid for an Italian marble headstone; however, this was destroyed in an accident transporting it to the cemetery (Frank 281; Thomas xxxviii; Find A Grave). He also intended to write a memoir of his cousin in 1860, but it is said,
…[he] made some collection of facts, but never wrote anything. He belongs, so his friends say, to the class of dilatory men, who plan and never do…He talks very freely about his cousin. I have not found him reticent; but I do not think the Poes [sic] fully appreciate the genius of Edgar (Miller 52).
Despite this “unappreciative” nature, it seems Neilson did genuinely hold some reverence for his cousin.
The rest of Neilson’s life seems straightforward regarding his family and career. In 1878, he was appointed Chief Judge of the Orphans’ Court of Baltimore, a position he held until two months before his death, January 3, 1884. He had seven children living at the time of his death; two daughters and five sons (Thomas xxxviii). He also was, notably, the grandfather of the six Poe brothers who played football at Princeton University between 1882 and 1903 (Find A Grave). Neilson’s other notable achievements include being director of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, as well as director of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad for a short time (Find A Grave). He was associated with the Baltimore Chronicle, and had accomplished being a journalist, publisher, editor and lawyer (Frank 281).
Whether now you see Neilson as Poe’s “bitterest enemy”, or believe that he was a misunderstood journalist and lawyer, Neilson Poe goes down as being one of the most curious Poe relatives. What made Edgar despise his cousin? Was it jealousy, greed, or a great misunderstanding leaving a stubborn Eddy loathing his cousin until his death? You decide!
Like many businesses, the Poe Museum was closed on July 4th for Independence Day. As we observe the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, we might not realize that Poe would have celebrated the holiday, too.
At the time of Poe’s birth in 1809, only thirty-three years had passed since America had declared its independence from England. Such Founding Fathers as the author of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson and the nation’s second president John Adams were still alive. In fact, Poe would enter Jefferson’s University of Virginia while its founder was still residing at nearby Monticello. (Jefferson’s death occurred while Poe was at the University–on July 4.)
David Poe's Grave
The spirit of the American Revolution was ever present during Poe’s childhood. His grandfather, David Poe, Sr. had been honorary Quartermaster General of Baltimore during the Revolution and a friend of the Marquis de Lafayette. In Richmond, Poe would have attended Sunday services at Monumental Church with John Marshall, who had served in the Continental Army long before becoming Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Poe would have also seen the “Virginia Giant” Peter Francisco, who fought the British with distinction at the Battle of Brandywine, the Battle of Germantown, the Battle of Stony Point, and other battles before witnessing Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. Both Marshall and Francisco are buried at Richmond’s Shockoe Hill Cemetery along with Poe’s foster parents and a number of his friends. Another Revolutionary War hero living in Richmond during Poe’s time was the “Hero of Stony Point” Major James Gibbon.
When Poe was fifteen, he was honored to serve on the honor guard selected to escort the Marquis de Lafayette on the latter’s 1824 tour of Richmond. Poe must have known about the friendship between his grandfather (who had died in 1816) and the Frenchman. While in Baltimore during the same United States tour, Lafayette visited Poe’s grandfather’s grave. According to J. Thomas Scharf’s Chronicles of Baltimore (1874):
“The next day he [Lafayette] received visitors at the Exchange and dined with the corporation, &c., &c., and in the evening visited the Grand Lodge; after which he attended the splendid ball given in Holliday Street Theatre, which had been fitted up for the occasion. After the introduction of the surviving officers and soldiers of the Revolution who resided in and near Baltimore, to General Lafayette on Friday [October 8, 1824], he observed to one of the gentlemen near, ‘I have not seen among these my friendly and patriotic commissary, Mr. David Poe, who resided in Baltimore when I was here, and of his own very limited means supplied me with five hundred dollars to aid in clothing my troops, and whose wife, with her own hands, cut out five hundred pairs of pantaloons, and superintended the making of them for the use of my men.’ The General was informed that Mr. Poe was dead but that his widow [Elizabeth Cairnes Poe] was still living. He expressed an anxious wish to see her.
“The good old lady heard the intelligence with tears of joy, and the next day [October 9, 1824] visited the General, by whom she was received most affectionately; he spoke in grateful terms of the friendly assistance he had received from her and her husband: ‘Your husband,’ said he, pressing his hand on his breast, ‘was my friend, and the aid I received from you both was greatly beneficial to me and my troops.’ The effect of such an interview as this may be imagined but cannot be described. On the 11th General LaFayette left the city with an escort for Washington.”
Being surrounded by reminders of the American Revolution during his childhood might have influenced his decision to enlist in the United States Army when he was eighteen, but he hired a substitute to serve the remainder of enlistment after just two years.
Poe would have observed the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence during his lifetime. Celebrations of one kind or another had been taking place since 1776 when, on July 8, Philadelphians hearing a public reading of the Declaration of Independence started shooting into the air, lighting bonfires, and exploding fireworks (although the name Independence Day was not used until 1791). Before long, similar celebrations were being held throughout the young nation, and they increased in popularity after the War of 1812. By Poe’s time, Independence Day celebrations could include parades, cannon fire, bonfires, the ringing of bells, drinking, and fireworks, but the day did not become a national holiday until 1870. Unlike the Poe Museum’s employees, Poe worked on Independence Day. We know this because there are business letters written by him dated July 4.
The Poe Museum will reopen at 10 A.M. on July 5 and will be open its regular hours the rest of the weekend.
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.
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.
Ever wonder what the Master of the Macabre was like when he was three years old? Edgar Allan Poe is one of the world’s most recognizable writers, but his early years are shrouded in mystery and legend. In recent years renowned Poe scholar Richard Kopley has uncovered new discoveries about Poe’s early years including interesting and entertaining stories about Poe has a teenager and as a three-year-old. The Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia is pleased to host Dr. Kopley’s talk, “Two New Stories about Poe in Richmond” on Sunday, May 18 at 2 P.M. Don’t miss this opportunity to know Edgar Allan Poe in a whole new way. The talk is included in the price of Poe Museum admission and is free to Poe Museum members. For more information, please contact the Poe Museum at 804-648-5523 or [email protected]
Richard Kopley, Distinguished Professor of English at Penn State DuBois and former President of the Poe Studies Association, has spent decades scrutinizing the life and works of Edgar Allan Poe. His recent studies of collections of rare, unpublished documents has led to the discovery of new facts about Poe’s early years in Richmond.
About Richard Kopley:
Richard Kopley is Distinguished Professor of English at Penn State DuBois, where he teaches both literature and writing. An expert on American Romanticism, he has published extensively on Edgar Allan Poe (including Edgar Allan Poe and the Dupin Mysteries [Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, 2011]) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (including The Threads of The Scarlet Letter: A Study of Hawthorne’s Transformative Art [University of Delaware Press, 2003]). He has spoken on Poe and Hawthorne at scholarly conferences throughout the United States and around the world—in Spain, Holland, Italy, Poland, Russia, and (by DVD) Japan. He has also served as president of the Poe Studies Association and of the Nathaniel Hawthorne Society. And he has published, as well, on Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Herman Melville. His scholarly work has been characterized by a blend of close reading and archival study.
Dr. Kopley has edited much—Poe’s Pym: Critical Explorations (Duke University Press, 1992), Prospects for the Study of American Literature (NYU Press, 1997), Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (Penguin, 1999)—and co-edited much, as well—Prospects for the Study of American Literature (II) (AMS Press, 2010), Poe Writing / Writing Poe (AMS Press, 2013), and the journal Resources for American Literary Study (Penn State Press, 1992-2001; AMS Press, 2002-present).
He has written fiction as well as scholarship—his short story “A Dream” appeared in the Poe Review (2003) and “The Hideous and Intolerable Bookshop” in Lighthouse Anthology 2 (Alma Press, 2012). His children’s picture-book, The Remarkable David Wordsworth, which tied for runner-up for the Barbara Karlin Award (given by the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrated), has been published by Eifrig Publishing (2013). It has been nominated for three additional awards. A second children’s book, “Kenny and the Blue Sky,” is being considered for publication.
Dr. Kopley has served in an administrative capacity at Penn State—he has been the disciplinary coordinator for English beginning in 1994 and continuing, on and off, through the present. And he was the Interim Director of Academic Affairs at Penn State Worthington Scranton in 2006-07. He has also organized, or helped to organize, many scholarly conferences, from the 1988 conference on Poe’s novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, on Nantucket Island, to the 2010 conference on Hawthorne, in Concord, Massachusetts. He is now co-organizing the 2015 Fourth International Conference on Edgar Allan Poe, in Manhattan.
His new book manuscript if “The Enduring Center in Literature.” It takes him beyond American Romanticism to later literature in both the United States and England. The book shows what may be considered a beautiful formal patterning among selected works of American and British literature.
His subsequent book will be a biography of Poe in Richmond, based on an extensive series of letters than he has collected offering stories about Poe told by his best friend from childhood.
Dr. Kopley is a book collector, specializing in Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, and Lewis Carroll. He has been a member of the Grolier Club since 2005.
He is married and lives in State College, Pennsylvania. He and his wife, Amy Golahny, have two grown children, Emily and Gabe.
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.
In observance of National Poetry Month, the Poe Museum will profile a different poem each week in April. The first is one of Poe’s last poems and a favorite of the Poe Museum staff. Poe scholar called “Eldorado” the “noblest of Poe’s poems, the most universal in implication, and the most intensely personal. It is utterly simple, yet rich in suggestion and allusion.” Poe’s biographer Arthur Hobson Quinn, however, thought the poem “is mainly interesting because it reveals once more Poe’s inspiration for a poem through current American events.”
El Dorado is a mythical city of gold hidden somewhere in South America. In the sixteenth century, the Conquistadors searched for it in vain, and the name eventually became synonymous with unattainable goals and treasures. “Eldorado” is not the first time a reference to the city had appeared in Poe’s poetry. In his 1844 poem “Dream-Land,” one stanza reads:
For the heart whose woes are legion
‘Tis a peaceful, soothing region —
For the spirit that walks in shadow
O! it is an Eldorado!
But the traveller, travelling through it,
May not — dare not openly view it;
Never its mysteries are exposed
To the weak human eye unclosed;
So wills its King, who hath forbid
The uplifting of the fringed lid;
And thus the sad Soul that here passes
Beholds it but through darkened glasses.
By the time Poe wrote “Eldorado” in 1849, Eldorado (shortened to one word) was a nickname for California, where fortunes were made and lives, lost during the California Gold Rush. Whether or not Poe ever considered joining the Gold Rush, he wrote his friend F.W. Thomas in February 1849, “I shall be a littérateur, at least, all my life; nor would I abandon the hopes which still lead me on for all the gold in California.” The poem was first published a couple months later in the April 21, 1849 issue of Boston’s The Flag of Our Union. Here is the text:
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long,
Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.
But he grew old —
This knight so bold —
And o’er his heart a shadow
Fell, as he found
No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado.
And, as his strength
Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow —
‘Shadow,’ said he,
‘Where can it be —
This land of Eldorado?’
‘Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride,’
The shade replied, —
‘If you seek for Eldorado!’
We will be profiling a different poem each week during National Poetry Month, so, if you have a favorite Poe poem you would like us to feature, let us know.