Text: Richard H. Stoddard, “Edgar Allan Poe,” Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, vol. XLIII, no. 1, January 1889, 43:107-115


­[page 107:]


SOME men are born great, others achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.” The most conspicuous example among these last was the late Edgar Allan Poe. It was my good — or bad — fortune to come in contact with this unfortunate gentleman in my twenty-first year. Here I must premise that I had met those who already knew him, and was to meet those who had known him before and after. I was scarcely twenty when Wiley & Putnam published “The Raven, and Other Poems.” One of my very early friends after Bayard Taylor was Dr. Rufus Wilmot Griswold, from whom I experienced nothing but personal kindness. I knew him before Poe died; was cognizant of his not unfriendly opinion of Poe; was obliged by him with the present of Poe’s sonnet against Tuckerman (“Seldom we find, says Solomon Don Dunce”), and was on terms of boyish intimacy with Mrs. Frances Sargent Osgood. Within a day or two after the death of Edgar Allan, I penned a copy of careless verses (“Miserrimus”) which had more success than they deserved. I mention these facts to show that at this time I was not devoid of knowledge about the author of “The Raven.” But before I go any farther in this direction I must retrace my rambling steps, and relate in as few words as possible my first and last acquaintance with this highly-gifted but ill-balanced man of genius.

A great reader from boyhood, I happened to come across a volume of indifferent verses, written by an English officer, who, if my memory may be trusted, was, or had been, in the service of the East India Company, and who, like others of his class, was tormented with the belief that he was a poet. He was evidently a descendant of the famous Person of Quality who figured among the wits of the time of Charles the Second; who was noted among the beaux of the more polished days of Queen Anne, where he was bantered with mock admiration by Pope and Swift; and who is not entirely unknown now, since he insists on besieging us with rondels, villanelles, and I know not what else in the shape of outworn fripperies. Well, this Major Richardson, true to the tradition that attached to his rank, went and wrote an “Ode to a Grecian Flute.” It struck my fancy, ineffective as it was, for I was then under the spell of Keats. Yes, I was a poet also, and, since my master had written an “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” I must needs write a companion-piece. Like all early writing, it was crude; but there was promise in it. I worked over it, made a copy of it, and sent it to the editor of the Broadway Journal, in which I hoped it might appear. A week or two passed, and, as it did not appear, I went to ascertain its fate. It was a hot afternoon in June, and, with the direction furnished me by the publisher, I sought the residence of Mr. Poe. He received me with the courtesy habitual with him when he was himself, and gave me to understand that my Ode would appear in the next number of his ­[page 108:] journal. The next number appeared, but not my Ode. It was mentioned, however, in “Notices to Correspondents,” and dismissed with the curt remark that the editor declined to publish it unless he could be assured of its authenticity.

Since penning the above lines, I have spent an hour or so in the spacious rooms of the Historical Society, the curator of which endeavored to help me to what I wanted, but with little effect. What he did find, however, was the following lines, which contain, so far as I remember, the first two mentions of my name by Poe. They appeared in the Broadway Journal of July, and are as follows:

“To the Author of the Lines on the Grecian Flute. We fear that we have mislaid the poem.”

And a week later, this: “We doubt the originality of the Grecian Flute, for the reason that it is too good at some points to be so bad at others. Unless the author can reassure us, we decline it.”

I was surprised; any one in my situation would have been surprised. Not write that immortal production! — why, I knew that I had composed it! I thought then, I thought afterwards, and I know now, that Poe was no critic. Of course I called within a few days to authenticate my trifle. It was a forenoon, and a very hot one, in July. I plodded down from the east side of the town, southwardly, westwardly, through Lewis Street, Division Street, and Chatham Street, until I reached Clinton Hall, on the southwest corner of Beekman and Nassau Streets. It was then past noon, and of course the potent editor of the Broadway Journal had gone out to his luncheon, with Briggs, or English, or some other Bohemian with whom he had not yet fallen out. “Not in, sir,” ejaculated the fatuous publisher. I walked away, and cooled myself by wandering in and out of the Park, in that intolerable July afternoon. Returning with my thin blood at fever-heat, I was informed that Poe was in his sanctum. He was awakened either by myself or his publisher, and was in a very stormy mood. When summoned back to earth he was slumbering uneasily in a very easy chair. He was irascible, surly, and in his cups.

“Mr. Poe,” I ventured to remark, meekly, “I saw you two or three weeks ago, and I read in your paper that you doubted my ability to write ——”

“I know,” he answered, starting up wildly. “You never wrote the Ode to which I lately referred. You never ——” But the reader may imagine the rest of this unfortunate sentence. I was comminated, and threatened with condign personal chastisement. I left quickly, but was not, as I remember, downcast. On the contrary, I was complimented, flattered. The great American Critic had declared that I could not write what I had written. The thing was so good and so bad that if he had possessed the least critical insight he would have known that the stripling before him was the penman of the lines.

Do I blame Poe? The gods forbid! With a race of hardy New England sailors behind me, and behind him a stock of hard-drinking Marylanders, his father an inefficient player, and his mother a fairly good English actress and vocalist, — who am I, pray, that I should censure anybody? I remember here two or three thoughts of our ­[page 109:] Master. One which Sir Walter liked so much, even in the mouth of Iago:

Tush, man, the wine she drinks is made of grapes.

Another, from “Hamlet:”

There’s nothing good or bad,

But thinking makes it so.

And, best of all,

In Nature’s infinite book of secrecy

A little I can read.

But before I go on, I must go back, — very far back. Born in Massachusetts, of good English and Scottish blood, as the name signifies, I always knew how to read; always hated hymns and pitied their writers; and, after many hardships, reached New York in my eleventh year. My first incentive to verse was Robert Burns; my second, the death of a sickly Methodist boy; my third, Keats. But before these came Shakespeare, Milton, and Byron. And the influence of Keats was greater than all in my nonage. I devoured “Endymion,” of which I repeat by heart many glorious passages after more than forty years, and which I strove to imitate, as my dead-and-gone Ode will show, if I can ever recover it. This roundabout journey ought to bring me back to Poe, who was only at his best (as it seemed to me) in his smaller verses; who was not a critic; and who, like others whom I knew before, and have known since, and expect to know to the end, was constitutionally unveracious. He, and they, perhaps, were unconscious. At any rate, the infirmity was hereditary, and therefore unavoidable.

But to Poe, of whom I probably know all that is discoverable. A mathematician in his stories, which are marvels of ratiocination, he was a dunce respecting the lives of himself and his parents. He claimed to be a Southern writer, but he was ushered into the world, not in Richmond, not in Baltimore, but in Boston. He furnished Griswold with three dates of his birth, all supposititious, and the last impossible, in that his mother must have been dead two years! And so with all the fanciful facts of his too short life. But, to go back for the second or third time, I have known many men and women who knew Poe, casually or closely, and their combined recollections have agreed in the main with my own. He was not of the race of Chaucer, for he was not gracious, and was without honor; nor of the race of Wyatt, Surrey, Sidney, and Spenser. He was of a different, a lower race than Daniel, Drayton, Jonson, and Shakespeare; and was akin to the later dramatists. If the reader of this rambling paper doubts the correctness of this off-hand observation, he should, out of respect to Poe and myself, read, if he can, “Politian,” which was absurdly ambitious.

Oblivious of what I may have said, but fully conscious of what I mean to say, Poe was a curious compound of the charlatan and the courtly gentleman; a mixture of Count Cagliostro, of Paracelsus, ­[page 110:] who was wisely named Bombastes, and of Cornelius Agrippa, — the three beings intermoulded from the dust of Apollonius of Tyana and Elymas the Sorcerer. His first master in verse was Byron, in prose Charles Brockden Brown, and later Hawthorne. Most men are egoists; he was egotistical. His early poems are exquisite, his later ones are simply melodious madness. The parent of “Annabel Lee” was Mother Goose, who in this instance did not drop a golden egg. Always a plagiarist, he was always original. Like Molière, whom he derided, he took his own wherever he found it. Without dramatic instinct, he persuaded himself (but no one else) that he was a dramatist. The proof of this assertion is his drama of “Politian,” which was never ended, and which should never have been begun.

What did he look like? may be asked by the reader of this gossipy paper. When I met him for the first time in the front parlor of the third story of the old house in East Broadway, he was dressed in black from head to foot, except of course that his linen was spotlessly white. I did not observe this at the time, though I recall it now, for the most noticeable things about him were his high forehead, dark hair, and sharp black eye. His cousin-wife, always an invalid, was lying on a bed between himself and me. She never stirred, but her mother came out from the back parlor, and was introduced to me by her courtly nephew.

“Your poem will appear, sir, next week.”

Breathing a benediction upon the three, I stole down-stairs, and rambled slowly home. I saw Poe once again, and for the last time. It was a rainy afternoon, such as we have in our Novembers, and he stood under an awning waiting for the shower to pass over. My conviction was that I ought to offer him my umbrella and go home with him, but my conviction was a false one. I left him standing there, and there I see him still, and shall always, — poor, penniless, but proud, reliant, dominant. May the gods forgive me! I never can forgive myself.

Poe’s constitutional inability to distinguish between veracity and unveracity has produced a plentiful harvest of imitators, who have carried, and still carry, invention into downright falsehood. That most of their falsehoods have been levelled against me, has never pained me, or pained me only for their sake. Mr. James Hannay, a sound-hearted but hot-headed Scot, honored me by comparing me to the curs of Constantinople, which are not admitted to the cemeteries where the followers of the Prophet slumber under the protection of their white turbans. Mr. Ingram and Mr. Rossetti have both, I believe, paid their common disrespects to me. Others among my own countrymen have expressed their ill opinion of me in books, in magazines, in newspapers; some manfully over their signatures, others under noms de guerre. These curs roam at large under the alleys of cypress where the shadow of Poe wandered with his more shadowy Psyche.

When Poe had ruined the Broadway Journal, as he would have ruined the Southern Literary Messenger, and as he at last succeeded in ruining his own life, he began — as we all remember, or ought to — a series of papers on “The Literati” in Godey’s Lady’s Book. Hercules at the feet of Omphale never twirled from her distaff such flimsy threads, as ­[page 111:] this needy poet with two sickly women on his lap. He praised everybody whom he liked, and dispraised all who, he fancied, did not like him. He was generous to Bayard Taylor, who deserved all the good words bestowed upon his magnificent verse: he was more than generous to the gentlewomen whom he, his wife, or his aunt loved and admired; notably so to Mrs. Osgood, Mrs. Oakes Smith, and others of the tuneful sisterhood. But he was mean, he was stingy, he was parsimonious in the scanty words which he doled out to Bryant, to Lowell, to Longfellow; while to Hawthorne, his greatest master, he was miserly in the extreme. And he believed himself to be a critic. So, also, did Iago.

Like that of most men of talents, and all men of genius, the earliest work of Poe was his best. This truth was contradicted by the first works of Shakespeare, which were wrought out painfully, but proven by the early sonnets of Milton, which are still unsurpassed, and gloriously so by “L’Allegro,” “Il Penseroso,” and “Comus.” The balance trembles in this scale in which posterity has weighed most earlier and all later British poets. But with regard to Poe there was no doubt. The lines to “Helen,” “Fairy-Land,” — in short, all his first songs, — are perfection; containing and embracing

The glory which was Greece,

And the grandeur which was Rome.

Several years ago I undertook to write an accurate memoir of our most subtle writer of psychological tales, and the most melodious of our lyrists. To fit myself for this task, I consulted the Southern Literary Messenger. I read, by the help of Griswold, the juvenilia of Poe, of which I knew a little, but not enough. I found his first story, his first poem, and later on the versicles which he wrote and re-wrote, over and over again, selling them each time as the latest effusions of his pen. His invention was boundless, his execution limited, scanty, and sparse. He repeated himself thrice in his lines “To F. S. O. ,” and bettered them each time. It was the same with his stories, which he repeated many times, over and under many pen-names. This strange fact was known to his foes, and his friends, who conceded it, his friends being his worst foes, and his worst foes the kindest of his few friends. But I have, or ought to have, noted these before in my casual jottings down for a biography of Poe. Griswold, who was greatly maligned, was the life-long friend of Edgar Allan. He loaned him moneys when he could ill afford to lose them, yet to loan was to lose, with Poe. Another friend was Horace Greeley; others were Chas. F. Briggs (“Harry Franco”), Thomas Dunn English (whom Poe bitterly but cleverly maligned), George R. Graham, L. A. Godey, John Sartain, Mrs. Kirkland; all men and women most kindly disposed towards this unkindly person, who loved no one, not even himself, his wife, nor the devoted mother of both; who might have said more truly than Timon, —

I am misanthropos, and hate mankind.

That Griswold was not the enemy of Poe was demonstrated by the fact that he collected and edited his verse and prose for nothing. The ­[page 112:] papers, if they are still extant, of the late Mr. J. S. Redfield, prove this, as well as the testimony of Mr. J. C. Derby, Mr. Cornelius Mathews, Mr. John Sartain, and other common friends of all. But about the last days of Poe, and his journey to and from Richmond, — on these points I have many authentic missives, which have been carefully preserved in the identical envelopes wherein their communications reached me. To these memoranda (should I discover any serious blunders) I shall refer when this tortuous scribblement returns to me in type. Let me say here that “The Bells” was sold thrice, and paid for every time; that “Annabel Lee” was sold twice, and was printed by Griswold before it could appear either in Sartain’s Magazine or in the Southern Literary Messenger, and when it possessed no literary value whatever. The files of the Tribune for October or November, 1845, will show this, as well as my own poor verse, for which I did not receive either a penny or the doubtful compliment of the editor’s “thanks.” But I had one friend there, — Bayard Taylor.

Thirty years ago I was living in Brooklyn, where I met — not, I think, for the first time — a lady of that city, who wrote what she considered poetry, of which she had published two or three pretentious volumes. She was the heroine of Poe’s sonnet “Seldom we find,” wherein the initials of her name were cleverly concealed, in a sliding downward scale. This stellar scintillation whose twinkles have been extinguished, had one of her books illustrated by good artists, and her portrait painted by the best-known artist of forty years ago, which portrait faced the title-page of one of her great booklets, with, I imagine, a specimen of her ragged penmanship.

I called by invitation one evening at the domicile of this songstress, who met me and my wife attired in a low-necked dress of flaming crimson tarlatan, and with dishevelled ringlets of the kind that once were called golden. She began her disjointed chat with the remark, “I am but a child,” which certainly she was not (if she had ever been!), and introduced her husband, who was playing cards in his dressing-gown, and unslippered. He was a good fellow, as I suppose, but he did not pretend to be a boy, though he was less elderly than his bedizened worser half. Turning from these modern antiques of the Wardour Street pattern, we were introduced to Mrs. Clemm, who for business purposes all round was the guest of this clever couple. She was less elderly than I had expected, and was clad in black bombazine, with the regulation widow’s cap and white frills. She began by assuring me that she had often heard her Eddie speak of me (which I doubted); and she also declared solemnly that she had often heard the convenient Eddie speak of the stripling who accompanied me (which was an impossibility). She gravely regretted to the pair of us her inability to supply any more autographs of her darling, but stated that she managed to manufacture them, since she could perfectly imitate his chirography. And all this as though it redounded to her credit! Then she glanced back, and told me of the long winter nights in which he had made her walk up and down on the little porch of their cottage at Fordbam, until her teeth chattered and she was nearly frozen. Her dear Eddie was a trifle inconsiderate. But up-stairs, just over where ­[page 113:] we listened to the old dame’s prattle, was the study of her hostess, — a small room, with a barred wicket, and I have no doubt many passwords. Inside there was a large blackboard, whereon were inscribed in the whitest of chalk the inspirations of this gifted creature, in two or three languages and several dialects. Among those which I happen to recollect were such Orphic utterances as “Sic transit gloria,” “Lasciate esperanza voi che entrate,” “Eurekem tokalos,” “Quoth the Raven, Nevermore.” It was thus that singers were shapen thirty years ago!

But “Eddie” was more than inconsiderate — he was dishonest — in his treatment of this patroness, who paid him one hundred dollars to review one of her books, and who, on his neglecting to do so, very naturally complained of him. He did not deny her charges, but simply remarked that if he reviewed her rubbish it would kill him. Nevertheless he did review it in the Southern Literary Messenger and in Graham’s Magazine, sending his notes to Bayard Taylor with the request that he would insert as his own production. I had, before I lost it or gave it away, the note in which he made this preposterous request, which was of course complied with, and the tuneful soul of his gushing friend was thus propitiated. So unscrupulous at this period was the needy nature of Edgar Allan Poe. All this came back to me that cool summer night in Brooklyn, when in the shabby back parlor of that ill-conditioned house I hearkened to the mendacious prattle of the forlorn old woman who loved her poor little daughter and the dead child’s dead husband so well. Meanwhile the card-playing went on, with the strumming of an untuned piano somewhere, the jangle of a hurdy-gurdy, whiffs of stale tobacco, and last, but this may be fancy, the clangor of fire-bells several squares away. Home under the glimmer of summer stars; and so to bed, and dreams.

That Griswold meant to be just to Poe, and that, telling much about him and his affairs with questionable discretion now and then perhaps, he intended to deal kindly by him, was believed by Mrs. Osgood, Mrs. Clemm, Miss Lynch, and other gentlewomen who knew both; and was certain to Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Graham, Mr. Willis, Mr. Taylor, and other men who were capable of taking the measure of both. If he intimated too much, he withheld more. Let me pattern after him in this last particular. Wherever Poe went, he was pursued like Actæon by his own hounds. A spoiled child with the Allans in Richmond and England, a gambling student at Charlottesville, a riotous, dram-drinking cadet at West Point, a penniless soldier in Boston, he was the victim of heredity. Griswold was on the right track when he asserted that Poe enlisted as a soldier after his expulsion from West Point, and was later a deserter, but he was at fault in regard to the period of Poe’s enlistment, and erroneous in regard to his alleged desertion, which was mythical. It remained for Mr. Woodberry to recover the clue which enables us to traverse this maze nearly sixty years after its construction, and a clever piece of detective work it was, but not original with him, — whatever may have been his belief, — for it had been employed by the relatives of Coleridge in tracing that young poet, who enlisted in a company of horse, under a feigned name in which his ­[page 114:] baptismal and family initials were preserved, — a service which was remembered by the boyish author of “Tamerlane.” The worst of his trouble began with his discharge, was continued in Baltimore, and terminated for the moment in Richmond; three episodes in his unfortunate career, which have been variously narrated from the time of Griswold down to the present day, but by no one so correctly as Mr. Woodberry. They are so well known that I pass over them without a remark. We are tolerably familiar with Poe’s first residence in New York, whither he went for the purpose of publishing “Arthur Gordon Pym,” with his subsequent residence in Philadelphia, and his connection there with Burton, Graham, and Griswold, and his return to New York, his squabble with Briggs, Watson, and English, and his flitting thence to Fordham, and thence through Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Richmond, and his fatal journey to his cottage in sight of Long Bridge, — the poor but cosey little home which he was destined to see no more. All this has been told, over and over, with what else happened or was supposed to have happened to Poe during the last days and hours of his wild and disorderly life. I was, I believe, the first to make public the last scene in this strange, eventful history. I received the particulars after the appearance of the paper in Harper’s Magazine sixteen years ago, and in consequence of that imperfect paper, my chief authority being Mr. Nelson [[Neilson]] Poe, a surviving cousin of the dead poet, an elderly lady of Richmond who played with him in his boyhood, and Mrs. Sarah Helen Whitman, of Providence. At a later date I came into the possession of certain letters of Poe to Mr. F. W. Thomas, a forgotten novelist, and the replies of Mr. Thomas to these letters, which were painful reading.

Many trials have been made in Europe and America to refine and clarify the brilliant qualities of Poe, but none that can be considered entirely successful. Distinguished in verse and prose, he had many masters in the first, and but two, or at most three, in the last. To those who are familiar with the three early versions of “Tamerlane,” his first masters were Coleridge, Scott, and Byron, whose style and manner were caught and exhibited throughout these juvenilia. There is no need to insist upon this open secret, which everywhere betrays itself. Poe’s prose masters were Brown, whose master was Godwin, and Hawthorne, whose masters were both, to which we should probably add a third in the person of the German Hoffmann, whose sources of inspiration were music and wine. It is not likely he would have admitted his obligation to either, for he preferred above all things to be original; but his indebtedness was too great to be cancelled by his own unsupported testimony. But whoever were his masters is a matter of no consequence, since the pupil sometimes bettered their instruction. There is a parade of erudition in his writing, but one need not be a scholar to perceive that his reading was superficial. He had a few pet citations which he wore threadbare. He insisted upon being regarded as a critic; but in the sense that Arnold and Sainte-Beuve are critics, his pretensions are feeble. He was a sure judge of the Beautiful in verse, but, except at rare intervals, mostly in his early lyrics, he never attained it. The most that he captured was a mild loveliness, a pale melancholy, the ­[page 115:] hectic bloom of decay, whose effacing fingers were sweeping away the lines of Beauty.

He was at his worst in lyrics over shadowy women, such as Tennyson sang about in his first book, — Lenores, Annabel Lees, and Ulalumes. His perception of the pathetic was sure, but be failed to distinguish the difference between the terrible and the horrible. “Morella,” found early in the Southern Literary Messenger, is repulsive, but not so much so as “The Case of M. Valdemar,” which is sickening. “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “Ligeia” are gloriously imaginative. Most of his tales, which are fairly described by himself as grotesque and arabesque, and nearly all his poems, were the outgrowth of morbid fancies and diseased hallucinations, — apparitions which surrounded him in his hours of despondency, — spectres which haunted him in his seasons of madness, — were-wolves, ghouls, vampires. Begotten in mania a potu, they were born in the sobriety and sanity of this singular man.

R. H. Stoddard.



In reading this article, it is clear that Stoddard was greatly stung by Poe’s comments in regard to his “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” so much so that it still rankled him more than three decade later. Stoddard’s comment that Griswold “meant to be just to Poe” can hardly be credited, particularly as we are now aware of Griswold’s forgeries, invented to help his case against Poe.

The unnamed “lady of this city [[Brooklyn]]” was Mrs. Anne Estelle Lewis.

The baseless accuation that Poe loved only himself, and therefore did not love Virginia nor have have affection for Mrs. Clemm (hom Poe saw as a surrogate mother) is so ridiculous that even Stoddard makes no attemp[t to substantiate it. It is particularly interesting to see Stoddard’s harsh and very personal remarks of several people after he has criticized Poe for making such comments in “The Literati.” (Apparently Stoddard finds the practice less offensive when it is only the dead who are thus criticized. It is also, of course, quite convenient to attack those who have no recourse for reply, unlike the “victims”s of Poe’s comments.) Stoddard’s low opinion of “Annabel Lee“ certainly would not be widely shared.

Over and over again, in various articles, Stoddard reprints the claim that Griswold’s personal dislike of Poe was disproven by the fact that he edited Poe’s works without payment. That Griswold received no money for his effort may be true — but his payment could easily be asserted as the opportunity to settle old scores.

Stoddard’s claim that Poe was paid multiple times for the same article unfairly implies that Poe was being dishonest. John Sartan replied to at least one of these charges, clarifying the three payments for “The Bells.” For “Annabel Lee,” it is more likely that several people lept on the chance to publish a new Poe poem immediately following his death, and printed what had been given to them only as an autograph. It may also be interesting to note that Stoddard himself wrote and was apparently paid numerous times for what is essentially the same article on Poe (or at least recycling the same material). Among the stories he repeates endlessly is that of Poe declining to print “Ode to a Grecian Flute,” which gives him the chance to give himself a bit of praise from Poe, even if what Poe really felt was that the “good” parts of the poem were not original with Stoddard, a possiblity that Stoddard himself could have aleviated by printing the poem in any of the articles in question, but which he appears never to have done. The poem also does not appear in the collected edition of Stoddard’s Poems (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1852).


[S:0 - LM, 1889] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Edgar Allan Poe (R. H. Stoddard, 1889)