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?”