The world of Poe scholarship has produced countless books, papers, and scholarly articles; but rarely has it produced a work of art. While the written works of Poe scholars like Burton Pollin (1916-2009) and Thomas Ollive Mabbott (1898-1968) have contributed greatly to our understanding of Poe’s life and work, the sculpture of Richmond schoolteacher Edith Ragland (1890-1989) has provided posterity an invaluable resource for understanding Poe’s life in Richmond. As meticulously researched as some academic papers, Ragland’s model reconstructs the city Poe knew in a way words alone cannot. That is why the model is the Poe Museum’s Object of the Month for March 2015.
According to an undated manuscript written by Poe Foundation co-founder Annie Boyd Jones (d. 1947), the sculptor Edward Valentine (1838-1930) proposed the project. Valentine studied sculpture with August Kiss in Germany before enjoying a celebrated career in Richmond. In addition to sculpting the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis for Richmond’s Monument Avenue and the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee for the National Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol, Valentine produced “The Recumbent Lee” for Washington and Lee University. Valentine was also a historian with a special interest in Edgar Allan Poe. In 1875, he became one of the privileged few to be able to interview Poe’s last fiancée Elmira Royster Shelton. In 1898, he and his brother, Mann S. Valentine II, founded the Valentine Museum, which owned a number of Edgar Allan Poe letters in addition to a portrait of Poe’s foster mother Frances Allan. After retiring from sculpting in 1910, he devoted much of his remaining years to the study of Richmond history and the presidency of the Valentine Museum. By 1922, the eighty-four-year-old Valentine took an interest in the newly opened Edgar Allan Poe Museum, speaking at its opening ceremony as well as donating a portrait of Poe’s foster mother to the Museum’s collection.
Mr. and Mrs. Archer Jones
One evening in 1924 or 1925, Mrs. Jones spent several hours talking about old Richmond in Mr. Valentine’s parlor. He told her he had spent the last sixty years researching a book about Richmond history but had accumulated so much information he could not edit it sufficiently to publish it. As she was leaving, he pointed out a photograph of a photograph of a model of old Paris and exclaimed, “Wait a minute girl; here’s what you do. Make a model of Richmond in Poe’s Time and place it in the [Poe Museum’s] Old Stone House!”
Edward Virginius Valentine in his studio
Mrs. Jones offered to manage the project if he would sculpt it, but he replied, “Oh go away girl, you know I can’t work anymore, but you are an enthusiast—you will get it done…Now go ‘long and make it.”
As soon as she returned home, she told her husband, Archer G. Jones, who enthusiastically supported the idea. She later recounted, “I could see his inventive mood creeping into his eyes.”
The first obstacle to constructing the model was finding an artist to do the work. The solution came one day when Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941) visited the Poe Museum. Borglum was an accomplished sculptor who would later rise to fame for his carving of the presidential monument at Mount Rushmore. The party accompanying Borglum to the Poe Museum included Julia Sully (1870-1948, granddaughter of Poe’s friend, the painter Robert Matthew Sully, 1803-1855) and the young teacher Edith Ragland. During the course of the afternoon, Mrs. Jones mentioned her idea for the model of Richmond to Sully, who recommended Ragland for the project. Jones asked Ragland to build the model, but Ragland replied, “I would not know the first or the remotest way to go about.”
“Nonsense,” Sully answered, “You model beautifully. None of us knows how to go about it, so will all learn together.”
In this spirit of collaboration, Edward Valentine and City Hall supplied Ragland Photostats of maps at no charge, and the Poe Museum paid the Virginia State Library for Photostats of more maps. Valentine provided his notes on Richmond history, city directories, and Virginia Mutual Insurance records. Ragland also consulted Samuel Mordecai’s (1786-1865) 1856 book Richmond in By-Gone Days, an account of life in the city during the first half of the nineteenth century.
Ragland Sculpting the Model
Archer Jones insisted that a model of Richmond needed to accurately reflect the city’s hills, so he suggested carving the topography out of wood. According to the Poe Foundation board minutes for March 18, 1925, “Miss Ragland found that she needed some knowledge of engineering in order to make the correct elevations in her model so she set to work to study that subject.” She built the model on three connected stretcher tables covered with blocks of wood nine inches thick. With the assistance of surveyors, she chiseled those blocks into the hills and valleys of 1840s Richmond.
She also wrote to artists to determine which materials to use. Because she had been advised the technique would waterproof the model, Ragland covered the piece with asphaltum, a substance similar to tar. To this, she added a thin layer of plaster. When the plaster dried, she applied a layer of lead white gesso. She modeled the houses and churches from clay and let them air dry rather than firing them. She fashioned trees from pieces of sponge and wire. She then colored them with oil paint.
Ragland built the model in the Poe Museum’s Old Stone House. Upon completion, the model measured approximately eighteen feet wide and six feet deep and represented the city from about Fifth Street to Twenty-Eighth Street and from the James River to Marshall Street. This includes depictions of such sites as Poe’s boyhood home Moldavia, Poe’s mother’s grave at St. John’s Church, and the Virginia State Capitol. The most impressive aspect of the model’s creation is that it was constructed in a room measuring only nine feet wide, leaving the artist about one and a half feet of clearance on each side. Ragland, herself, was self-deprecating when speaking of her accomplishment. In a 1976 interview with Denise Bethel, Ragland humbly recalled that the work was fairly easy because the insurance records and maps told her exactly what structures to place on each block. She boasted that some old-timers told her she had even reproduced the correct trees in the right places.
In 1926, tragedy struck when Annie Jones’s husband committed suicide for financial reasons. Mrs. Jones decided that, once complete, the model would be presented to the Museum in his memory.
When Ragland completed her model in 1927, the Poe Foundation’s president, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and journalist Douglas S. Freemen reported to the Foundation’s board, “This is undoubtedly a work of charm, art and beauty. It is the creation and expression of experts—in invention, engineering, research and execution—but as a map of Richmond complete accuracy is most desirable.” He stressed that the gift would not be accepted by the Poe Foundation “until its accuracy at every point is beyond question.”
The minutes of the January 1928 meeting of the Poe Foundation’s board state that the model’s “accuracy is now vouched for by City engineers and surveyors, by Mr. E. V. Valentine, Dr. Stanard [editor of The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography] and other authorities, and that it ties up with Mordecai—except where he himself is inaccurate.” Dr. Freeman moved that the board formally accept the model into the Poe Museum’s collection, and the motion passed. So accurate was the model that Richmond historian Mary Wingfield Scott was able to create a key that identified most of the houses and buildings. In all, the model contains twenty-two identifiable taverns and hotels, fifteen churches, at least twelve public buildings, and the homes of several “distinguished citizens.”
The Model in 1937
The model was on continuous display in the room of it construction for forty years. In 1963, the Poe Museum renovated a neighboring building for the display of the model. In order to move the model, city workmen cut it into three pieces. Then six off-duty Richmond policemen, five off-duty firemen, and four other city employees volunteered to move the pieces to their new exhibit space. Several buildings and trees detached from the model in the six-hour process.
Ragland returned to the work on her model, reconnecting the three segments and reattaching the fallen houses. The Poe Foundation agreed to pay her $600 for her work in addition to cab fare from her home to the Museum three days a week for three months. Mrs. R. S. Reynolds donated a custom-built glass case for the model. The work was complete (for a second time) by December 6, 1964 when she appeared in a Richmond Times-Dispatch photograph (below) with her freshly restored masterpiece nearly four decades after she began work on it. To protect the work from further damage, Mrs. R. S. Reynolds donated a large glass case to protect it.
Ragland with Repaired Model in 1964
The model’s story continued well after Ragland completed her work. In 1981, an anonymous donor concerned by the object’s apparent state of deterioration offered to pay for its restoration. President of the Richmond Jaycees and graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts, Sergei Troubetzkoy conducted the repairs and repainting. Because the model remained on display during this process, he was only able to work on it while the Museum was closed and when he was not working at his day job. As a friend of Edith Ragland’s, Troubetzkoy knew of some details she had intended to include if time had allowed, so he added fences and other buildings he could document. Although he planned to do so, he was unable to add the fence around Capitol Square.
In 1999, the model was almost lost when a fire started in the room housing it. In fact, much of the room was destroyed. The tables underneath the piece were severely damaged, and firemen shattered its glass case. Smoke and water caused additional harm. In the wake of the fire, the Museum called conservators to assess the damage. The wood and paint had cracked. Several houses had again become detached. Additionally, a thick layer of dust and spiders had built up on the model in the years before the fire.
In consultation with 1717 Design Group, the Museum decided to reinstall the model in a new case facing the opposite direction. In order to rotate the model, a volunteer cut it into two pieces using the 1964 cuts as a guide.
With the guidance of historic object conservation specialist Russell Bernabo, artist Chris Semtner and art historian Michelle Dell’Aria cleaned and repaired the model over the course of six months. They first divided the surface into a grid of twelve-inch squares. Each square was carefully dusted into a tiny vacuum attachment. Pieces of rubber sponge were then used to remove grime that was not loosened by the dusting. Only when needed and when it could be performed without damaging the paint layer, wet cleaning was performed using a mixture of alcohol and water. In the course of their work, the conservators found that the original paint was often too unstable to clean but that a previous restorer’s applications of acrylic paint could be cleaned without damaging the surface. Additionally, they observed that the base layer of asphaltum had bled through the plaster and paint to discolor the topcoat. They glued houses back in place and reattached flaking paint and plaster using a solution of B-72 and xylene. In painting was conducted only sparingly. When this work was complete, they reattached the two halves of the model and filled and in-painted the seam.
Carpenters carefully removed the model from its damaged original tables and attached it to a new custom-made table and built a new case around it. In order to make the piece easier for guests to view, the Museum enlisted a team of volunteers from Open High to tilt the model to a twenty degree angle while the carpenters secured it in place. The model was then displayed with one side against the wall. Because the long ends of the model were not perpendicular, the Museum added extensions to allow the long end to sit flush against the back wall.
Museum guests were able to watch the entire conservation process through a large window in the gallery and to ask the conservators questions. Seeing a large dead spider perched atop one of the houses, a guest commented, “If the spiders were that big in Poe’s time, no wonder he wrote the kind of stories he did.”
After this major conservation project, the model received occasional cleanings using soft brushes and vacuums. The most notable of these was conducted in 2008 with the help of volunteers from Hampton Hotels’ Save-a-Landmark program.
Over ninety years after Edith Ragland began her masterpiece, this model of Poe’s Richmond remains a highlight of the Poe Museum’s collection—a resource to visiting historians as well as a favorite with the Museum’s youngest visitors. Like few other historical documents, Ragland’s model helps the viewer visualize the city, its topography, and its structures as Poe would have known them.
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.
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.