POE AND THE WOMEN

04

Rufus Griswold: an investigation of 19th century women poets must go through him—and Poe.

The female poet was a major literary force in 19th century America, and this happy circumstance lingered in the early 20th century, with poets like Edna Millay and Dorothy Parker, but that dream faded as modern tastes took hold, and men dominated the profession once more.  The names of those 19th century women poets are forgotten and no renaissance of any note has been attempted in America in the name of the female poet.  Influential male writers—Walt Whitman, Henry James, and Mark Twain, to name a few, were not impressed by female versifiers and made it known they thought women poets were silly.  The ‘Pound Era’ wiped out ‘The Poetess’ for good, as even Millay was abused by the Pound clique, and the whole lot of 19th century female poets fell into neglect—most readers today can only name Emily Dickinson.

Modernism wanted nothing to do with the Romantic or Victorian spirit in poetry—and as a direct result, woman’s poetry, one could say, became a casualty of the 20th century, too.

From the introduction to American Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology, (Rutgers 1992) the editor, Cheryl Walker, writes:

Given the almost total neglect accorded nineteenth-century popular women poets, it is a pleasure to be able to show through an anthology that these writers were neither all alike nor without merit.

The ability to earn significant amounts of money by publishing poetry in the popular media certainly provided an impetus for women to write verse. Until relatively recently, however, it was assumed that women were composing  their poems in isolated cottages or garrets, cut off from the mainstream of literary life. In Literary Women, for instance, Ellen Moers asserted: “Women through most of the nineteenth century were barred from the universities, isolated in their own homes, chaperoned in travel, painfully restricted in friendship. The give-and-take of literary life was closed to them.” The Bronte sisters and Emily Dickinson were taken to be typical of woman’s lot. Today, in contrast, we know that Emily Dickinson was very much the exception among  American women poets. By and large, literary women on this side of the Atlantic were not isolated from each other, secretly composing in the upstairs bedroom, but were actively involved with a world simultaneously social and intellectual. One feature of this world was the literary salon.

As early as 1830, Lydia Sigourney was earning an income by selling her productions to over twenty periodicals.

…literary life in America was an arena distinctly more favorable to women in the late nineteenth century than it had been in its earliest decades. In an 1887 memoir of Lydia Sigourney, John Greenleaf Whittier reflected: “She sang alone, ere womanhood had known/The gift of song that fills the air today.” By the 1870s the many minor poets who found their way into the popular magazines were about equally male and female.

Today it is fashionable to decry market forces, but women poets in the 19th century benefited from the rise of industry and capitalism.  Female poetry grew with America’s growth.  Enlightenment and Romantic ideals helped women, as well.  Henry James and Walt Whitman may not have taken 19th century women poets seriously, but Edgar Allan Poe did.  Poe was also a casualty of 20th modernist criticism, his rich legacy swept aside by the impatience of gum-chewing, jazz age critics.   Little brass poems and ‘let’s wow ’em’ experimental poems rejected the old sublime, which lingered, but by the 1930s was dead, hauled off by a little red wheel barrow.  American poetry became odd, and women poets who had written in the old ways were forgotten.  Radio was the sentimental masterpiece now, not books of poems.  With radio and film, women were pretty and sang, they were dolls to movie tough-guys, not poets anymore.

What’s really odd is how much 19th century women’s poetry and Edgar Poe go hand in hand.  You can’t read an account of 19th century woman poets without running into Poe at every turn; Poe, more than any other figure in the 19th century, reviewed and supported women poets, was worshiped by them at the literary salons.  Not only that, the greatest anthologist of woman poets in the 19th century, a Poe rival for the attention of literary women, but  a man known today only because of Poe—not for his literary efforts on behalf of women—is Rufus Griswold, who almost single-handedly mauled Poe’s reputation, putting into circulation the false rumors of the lonely drug fiend and alcoholic in his obituary in Horace Greeley’s Tribune.  Elizabeth Oakes-Smith, a prominent poet in Cheryl Walker’s anthology, quoted by Herman Melville and married to a famous humorist, wrote now-suppressed magazine articles of how Poe was beaten and murdered.  Fanny Osgood, another well-known American poet of this time, her husband a reputed portrait painter, supposedly had an affair with Poe.  Helen Whitman, still another poet of note in the 19th century, was going to marry Poe until Greeley and Griswold conspired to put an end to it.

Poe’s murder in 1849 coincided with Griswold’s anthology, Female Poets of America, (1849) and we can’t help but feel that this anthology was Griswold’s attempt to woo women away from Poe with the promise of publication and fame.  Important women poets were in a position to defend Poe, and, in the case of at least one (Oakes-Smith), to give evidence on how Poe really died.  Was Griswold’s anthology a way to keep the women silent?  Keep quiet about Poe and Uncle Rufus will make your poetry live forever.

When Poe gave Griswold power over his posthumous works, in the year of his death, 1849, Poe sealed his fate, and the circle closed in around him.

Was 19th century women’s poetry essentially killed by the same forces that killed Poe, and his reputation, and ushered in the rule of the Modernist Men’s club, Pound and Ford Madox Ford and radical, militaristic, fascist, gold-digging, Golden Dawn crazies who hated American democracy?  The virtuous woman, the respected woman of Letters, was a horror to men like Pound, Eliot, and Ford, who used women in various ways.   The proud, independent, 19th century poetess was an ideal that faded away in the gaudy light of modernism.

The trail is pretty clear: the chauvinist Emerson (who despised Poe) , the chauvinist Whitman (inspired by Emerson) Henry James (sneered both at literary women and Poe;  Emerson was a family friend of the James family) and T.S. Eliot (had issues with Poe, Romanticism, and women; Eliot’s grandfather was Unitarian preacher friend of Emerson’s).

The sordid tale is even more bizarre, if that’s possible.  Margaret Fuller, associate of both Emerson and Horace Greeley (Fuller and Greeley were roommates for years) alarmed the literary salon community by getting together a posse of belles to demand at Poe’s cottage door supposed love letters he had from a married woman, causing Poe to subsequently seek to arm himself against enraged men folk. Fuller’s gambit took place in 1847, two years before Poe’s death, and was just the sort of fearful incident that began to make Poe persona non grata in higher literary circles, and easier to push aside as potential allies were scared into silence.  Unfortunately, in any literary network, the rival phenomenon plays an ugly role, as one reputation may eclipse others—one is only a good a writer as rivals permit one to be.   This was especially true in Poe’s day, when Letters was judged by a more universal standard of ‘Western Tradition’ transparency and democratic popularity: there was one mode of excellence and a writer was original, or not, within that mode, even as comic or tragic, domestic or worldly subjects were chosen.  There was no hiding behind experimental differences—there was no way to do that and call oneself an artist in the community’s eyes.  This made literary rivalries especially cut-throat in Poe’s day, and Poe strove to make himself part of the mainstream of American Letters, which included women poets.  Poe was not one of the producers/publishers of literature; he was merely the best of the writers.  The action taken against him by Margaret Fuller must have really shaken Poe’s reputation.  Two years later, Greeley and Griswold finished the job Fuller had begun, as their Tribune obituary hit the streets hours after Poe’s mysterious murder.  1845 saw Poe gain worldwide fame with “The Raven,” and the salon circuit was good to him as late as 1847, but as Poe’s enemies poured on the drunk/sexually immoral slanders, his salon-fame flower faded by 1848.  Poe turned his attention to comosogony (“Eureka”) as his social star fell behind the hills.  Cheryl Walker again:

Women participated in literary salons from the eighteenth century onward, and in several notable cases they supervised these social occasions themselves, holding salons for the great and near great in their homes. One of the most famous was the New York salon run by Anne Lynch (later Botta) which entertained writers such as Poe, Emerson, Frances Osgood, Rufus Griswold, Margaret Fuller, the Cary sisters, and Elizabeth Oakes-Smith. Edith Thomas’s career was launched at one of Botta’s evening entertainments.  Such salons were often inbred and typically thrived on gossip, but they also played a significant role in establishing networks of literary inter-relationships.  In her autobiography, Elizabeth Oakes-Smith gives a fascinating account of one evening at Emma Embury’s during which Frances Osgood sat adoringly at the feet of Poe and guests engaged in witty repartee. She remarks: “I remember Fannie Osgood and Phoebe Cary rather excelled at this small game, but Margaret Fuller looked like an owl at the perpetration of a pun, and I honored her for it.”

We’ll just print one poem from the anthology of 19th century American women poets, a brief lyric by Anne Lynch Botta, the salon hostess mentioned above.  Do 19th century women poets who can write like this deserve to be forgotten?  This poem contains many merits: artistic unity, descriptive power, force of imagery, and a symbolism which is not static, but unfolds as we read the poem:

LINES on an incident observed from the deck of a steamboat on the Mississippi river

Where the dark primeval forests
Rise against the western sky,
And “the Father of the Waters”
In his strength goes rushing by:

There an eagle, flying earthward
From his eyrie far above,
With a serpent of the forest
In a fierce encounter strove.

Now he gains and now he loses,
Now he frees his ruffled wings;
And now on high in air he rises;
But the serpent round him clings.

In the death embrace entwining,
Now they sink and now they rise;
But the serpent wins the battle
With the monarch of the skies.

Yet his wings still struggle upward,
Though that crushing weight they bear;
But more feebly those broad pinions
Strike the waves of upper air.

Down to earth he sinks a captive
In that writhing, living chain;
Never o’er the blue horizon
Will his proud form sweep again.

Never more in lightning flashes
Will his eye of terror gleam
Round the high and rocky eyrie,
Where his lonely eaglets scream.

Oh majestic, royal eagle,
Soaring sunward from thy birth,
Thou hast lost the realm of heaven
For one moment on the earth!

Perhaps this is not a ‘great poem’ to a 21st century professor bent over it in a library, but imagine a 19th century salon, where poems live in a rich, down-to-earth, social atmosphere: one part gossip, one part entertainment, one part noble tradition.  Would this poem not be perfect?

THE LION AND THE LITTLE DOG: “I BELIEVE HIM TO BE THE BITTEREST ENEMY I HAVE IN THE WORLD”

One of Poe’s killers, a cousin and Baltimore journalist, Neilson Poe.  Note the arrogant sneer.  Neilson kept watch for days while Poe died, notifying no one.

We do not claim to have solved the murder of Edgar A. Poe.  The mystery has baffled everyone and lies under many layers.  We have reached a point in Poe history, however, where the drinking binge, the ‘cooping’ theory, the rabies death, and other absurdities have been disproven.  The field lies open before us at last; a real investigatin of the facts seems, for the first time, possible.

We assume murder in Poe’s case.  The manner of Poe’s end was violent and secretive.  Accidents tend to come to light but murders do not. Poe’s murderers not only covered their tracks, but a story grew over the victim replicating perfectly in death the slander which dogged his life.  Since slander is a kind of murder, libel a kind of killing, especially among those with literary reputations, the key to solving Poe’s murder is to follow the thread of those who told the story of his death.

The most helpful person in chasing away the fog of rumor is undoubtedly John Evangelist Walsh, whose book Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Poe, St Martin’s, 2000, is the first treatment of Poe’s death which actually succeeds as a piece of detective work.

Walsh was not satisfied to itemize the rumors of Poe’s death and then add his own vague speculation.  Walsh chased down the origin of the rumors themselves.   For too long the stories have distracted us from the story-tellers.

Let us begin by quoting three prophetic letters written by Poe: 1) pertaining to the city of Baltimore—where Poe met his end, 2) the journalism scene in Baltimore and 3) Poe’s cousin Neilson Poe, who was in charge of Poe’s imprisonment and death.   Two of the letters are to Dr. Joseph Snodgrass, a Batlimore physician, poet, essayist and editor, who traded some literary favors with Poe and managed to elicit many private confessions from him.  Studying the correspondnce, which was hot and heavy between Poe and Snodgrass in  1839 and then trails off to end for good in 1842, just after Poe left his editorship at Graham’s—succeeded by Griswold—we can see that Snodgrass is playing Poe, attempting to elicit as much private opinion from the great poet as he can.  Poe pleads too much to the man;  clearly they are not friends,  though Snodgrass held out that possibility.  The two men had a common enemy in Burton, of Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, a kind of Ricky Gervais figure from England; Burton was pushing the ‘drunk’ slander hard against Poe and it was to Snodgrass that Poe made his famous defense on that count: “My sole drink is water.”   In that same letter Poe writes to  Snodgrass, who will eventually turn into a Griswold figure, “You are a physician, and I presume no physician can have difficulty in detecting the drunkard at a glance.”   A bit ironic that it is this very Snodgrass who becomes the one man to describe to the world Poe’s condition when Poe is found, helpless, by some odd coincidence, close to  Snodgrass’s residence.  If Snodgrass were a friend, our guess is that Poe would not have felt the need to argue his case as he does. In the final letter which exists between the two men, Poe gives vent to his negative feelings for Griswold.  The “friendship” between Snodgrass and Poe quickly fades away and Snodgrass suddenly appears, five years later, an assassin,  to libel and entomb.

These excerpts from three letters in 1839 require no preface; they speak much of the literary life in which Poe lived:

The reception of the paper convinced me that you, of whom I have long thought highly, had no share in the feelings of ill will toward me, which are somewhat prevalent (God only knows why) in Baltimore  –Poe to Snodgrass, Sept. 11, 1839

It is always desirable to know who are our enemies, and what are the nature of their attacks.  I intend to put up with nothing that I can put down (excuse the pun) and I am not aware that there is any one in Baltimore whom I have particular reason to fear in a regular set-to.  I would take it as a great favor if you would let me know who edits the “Sun”  –also who the editors of the other papers attacking me–and should be thankful for any other similar information.   –Poe to Beauchamp Jones  Aug. 8, 1839  [The “Sun” is the Baltimore Sun]

I felt that N. Poe, would not insert the article editorially.  In your private ear, I believe him to be the bitterest enemy I have in the world.  He is the more despicable in this, since he makes loud professions of friendship.  Was it “relationship etc” which prevented him saying any thing at all of the 2 or 3 last Nos. of the Gentleman’s Mag?  I cannot account for his hostility except in being vain enough to imagine him jealous of the little literary reputation I have, of late years, obtained.  But enough of the little dog.   –Poe to Snodgrass, Oct. 7, 1839  on his cousin, Neilson Poe

Dr. Joseph Snodgrass of Baltimore is perhaps even more important than Neilson Poe in the case of America’s greatest literary murder case.  Snodgrass is not only the recipient of Poe’s letter which calls N. Poe my “bitterest enemy,” Snodgrass, with Neilson and Henry Herring— uncle by marriage to Edgar and Neilson and also ill-disposed to the poet—stole away, essentially imprisoned, and after his death, buried in secret haste, the great poet before the world knew what had occured.  Snodgrass, a doctor, and Herring, a relation and a wealthy man, rather than taking Poe into their homes, put him unconsious into a carriage to be taken to a little bare room with iron bars.  What Poe’s actual condition was when found, what happened to him before he was found, and what happened to him after he was found, is unknown.  Dr. Snodgrass and Dr. Moran completely contradict each other on Poe’s condition, so it’s safe to say no one “helping” Poe during his last days can be said to be reliable in the least.

Poe urged two things on thinkers: be detectives and don’t overlook the obvious.  Herring, a man who disliked Poe and refused to allow the poet in his home, showed up at Ryan’s where Poe was found on Oct. 3 at the same time as Snodgrass.  Who summoned Herring? Snodgrass was summoned (supposedly…or was he?)

All Poe biography through the 19th century to the middle  of the 20th, relies on a crackpot ‘cooping’ theory employed initially by a few men, a theory Walsh explodes by reading newspaper accounts of the actual election during which this supposed election ‘cooping’ took place and also by tracing the theory itself to an editor in Richmond, John Thompson, who originally bought into the ‘drunken debauch’ theory before he changed his mind, years later, after prominent author Elizabeth Oakes Smith published her theory that Poe was assaulted, and came up with—out of the blue, and well after the fact—his absurd ‘cooping’ idea.

The ‘cooping’ theory states that Poe was captured by ruffians, beaten and drugged in order to vote various times, a theory without witnesses that such a thing happened to Poe, or that such a thing occured—at allto anyone.

The testimony of Snodgrass gets into print, like the ‘cooping’ theory, years after Poe’s death.   According to Snodgrass, Poe was found in Baltimore by a Joseph Walker.

Poe scholar John Evangelist Walsh believes the ‘cooping’ idea was invented in reaction to the prominent author Elizabeth Oakes Smith’s assault charge, which she published on three separate occasions over 20 years.

Snodgrass went to press with his story twice, ten years apart, and only in the second article mentions the mysterious Walker, a type-setter acquaintance, who sent Snodgrass the note that Poe was asking for Snodgrass—who was conveniently located just around the corner from where Poe was discovered wholly by accident in Baltimore.   Walker had died in a drowning accident by the time Snodgrass felt the need to mention the note from Walker summoning him (Snodgrass) to Poe’s dying side, and Snodgrass embellishes the note to say “beastly intoxication” where it actually said “worse for wear.”  We know this because the note itself was found among Snodgrass’s papers in 1881, after Snodgrass died in 1880.   Snodgrass refutes Oakes Smith expliticly in his second article in Beadle’s Monthly.

John Walsh writes in his book, “Midnight Dreary,”

Surprisingly,—even, it can be said, incredibly—more than six years were to pass before a fuller picture of Poe’s last days and hours became available.  In May 1856, a New York City  periodical, Life Illustrated, carried an article by Joseph Snodgrass of Baltimore, an old friend and journalist colleague of the poet.  It revealed Snodgrass to be the one who transported the inebriated Poe from tavern to hospital, and much else of interest besides.   —Walsh, “Midnight Dreary”

We share, as should we all, Walsh’s incredulity at the six years passing, but Walsh manages to overlook what every Poe biographer has—the significant role of Snodgrass in Poe’s manufactured debauchery death, as Walsh blithely refers to Walsh as a “friend,” shutting the door on a world of interest.  Nor does Walsh stop to acknowledge that “inebriated” is a description based on one witness and one witness alone—Joseph Snodgrass—who altered a note in his possession he chose to share with the world—16 years after Poe’s death, and after the death of the note’s author, a misquotation from “worse for wear” (Walker) to “beastly intoxication” (Snodgrass).

Poe was  not “among friends” during his last days.

Snodgrass and Walker were both employed by the Baltimore Sun.

Here is the trail to solving Poe’s murder, and it lies wide open.

Joseph Snodgrass, Henry Herring and Neilson Poe saw to it that Poe was imprisoned with a lunatic named Dr. Moran, on record as the attending physician at the “hospital” where Poe rotted for four days, another unreliable witness who waited 25 years before going public with what he knew, to bask in the spotlight as Poe’s posthumous fame and curiosity about his death grew, supplying all sorts of  hyperbolic “literary” quotes from the dying poet which Poe obviously never uttered.  No autopsy, no death certificate, no communication with the outside world while Poe succumbed in slow agony, a hasty burial attended by Herring, N. Poe and Snodgrass, a minister to say a quick last rites and then 24 hours later, Rufus Griswold’s “Ludwig” article in Horace Greeley’s Tribune.

The manner of Poe’s death fits in perfectly with the actions of a cabal drawing a curtain quickly over his life, and killing him in such a way that even in death he found no martyrdom or honor, but was seen by the world to die as a drunkard, the slander of drink used as a trowel to bury him.

The length of time it took the one real witness to come forward, the odd relationship of the invisible  Joseph Walker and the altered content of his note to the one witness, the “bitterest enemy” keeping public watch over the victim in his last few days with the knowledge of fellow Baltimorean Snodgrass, Poe’s slow death occuring before any of Poe’s friends or loved ones were aware of his fate, his mother-in-law, his fiance, desperately worried and wondering where he was, kept, with the whole world,  in utter darkness even as Poe was being buried and Griswold was in New York penning his libelous notice—if this doesn’t stink to high heaven, nothing does.

BELLES, BELLES, BELLES, BELLES, BELLES, BELLES, BELLES

Let’s examine women poets.

It’s not a happy prospect, because the woman poet has lost her way.

Since mothers sang lullabies, since divas rocked opera houses, since numerous women poets earned a living writing poetry in the 19th century, there has been a falling off.

Not since Edna Millay has there been a truly popular female poet, one who could fill an arena, make headlines, cause vibrations in the popular culture.

Why is this?

100 Great Poems of the Twentieth Century, Mark Strand, editor, Norton, 2005,  is 14% women and 8% American women, Clampitt, Stone, Swenson, Bishop, Moore, H.D., Bogan, and Millay.   H.D. and Moore belonged to Pound’s clique; Moore mentored Bishop who was known also because of her association with Robert Lowell, Swenson worked for New Directions, Bogan, for the New Yorker, Clampitt regularly published in the New Yorker, Stone has been a creative writing teacher for years; Millay is the only one with independent force–and she was viciously attacked by Pound’s champion Hugh Kenner.  Millay had numerous lovers, including Edmund Wilson and George Dillon, Pulitzer Prize for poetry and Poetry magazine editor, but Millay didn’t give to get; she didn’t plot her fame; it came looking for her—because of who she was.  It seems hard to believe Millay is the only American woman poet of whom we can say this.

In David Lehman’s Best American Poetry series, which has existed for 20 years now, only one poet has enjoyed a kind of ‘must be included’ status, and that’s John Ashbery; Ammons until his death, was a close second, and now Billy Collins is almost in that positon, not to mention Richard Howard, Donald Hall, Charles Simic, James Tate, also John Hollander, James Merrill, Thom Gunn, Kenneth Koch, and Donald Justice, while they were alive.   No female poet is even close.   Jorie Graham, Louise Gluck, Rossana Warren, and Rita Dove have no impact beyond academia—nor even within it; for they have no unique  theoretical or rhetorical calling, and women who do, like Vendler or Perloff (pedants who champion men, mostly), are not poets.

When tiny enclaves of mostly male academic pedants decide what poetry should be, is it any wonder po-biz looks the way it does?

Modernist poets Ford Madox Ford and Pound worked for war machines (British, Axis Powers, respectively) and/or were bigotted misogynists like T.S. Eliot…”in the rooms the women come and go/talking of Michelangelo.”

Robert Frost wrote poems mostly of male work— “mending walls” and solo male journeys “stopping by woods” and “road[s] less traveled” —and Frost’s poetry was universally praised and celebrated even as the same sorts of poems by women were declared trivial and dismissed as mere Victorian rhymes.

Frost, (b. 1875) was allowed to continue this Victorian tradition as a hard-nosed Yankee male, to great applause.

Obviously this does not mean we have to reject the poetry of Eliot or Frost.   We mention this only to add perspective on the plight of women poets.

As Muriel Rukeyser (b. 1913) wrote in her poem, “Poem (I Lived In The First Century):”

“I lived in the first century of world wars./Most mornings I would be more or less insane,/The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,/The news would pour out of various devices/Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen./I would call my friends on other devices;/They would be more or less mad for similar reasons./Slowly I would get to pen and paper,/Make my poems for others unseen…”

Rukeyser’s helpless, prosaic, passive address is the voice of a woman in thrall to a technological universe of people who are “unseen;” her poem is flat and prosaic; she is unable to sing in a man’s war-like world.  That’s probably Ezra Pound’s “news” that “pour[s] out of various devices.”  The 20th century was a century of “world wars,” of women’s songs in retreat.

Rukeyser is not a victim in the poem; she is a victim for having to write this sort of poetry at all.

One thinks of Bishop’s poem, “In the Waiting Room” (which takes place in 1918)  in which two helpless females, the young Bishop and her aunt Consuelo—who “sings” from pain—exist in a world of “pith helmets” and naked, “horrifying,” breasts in a National Geographic magazine in the office of a male dentist who remains “unseen.”

Men and technology have conquered.  Women are separate from men, and women are confused and suffering.

The standard explanation for why 19th century women poets are no longer read is:

Women were confined to writing on flowery, “womanly” topics due to the sexism of a male-dominated society.  Therefore, women’s works are worthless to modern audiences.

But this is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

It is not our intention to rewrite history, or tell women what sort of poetry they ought to write; we merely suggest that a popular tradition has been eclipsed by a narrow trope which has taken root and flourished without check, as trends have been known to do.  This unfortunate phenomenon is not less important because it affects poetry only—the issue is a large one even though the illness is marginal, the marginality having been caused by the illness itself.  It is with pride and certainty that poetry no longer pipes and swoons and sings but practices a kind of hit-and-run philosophy in whatever form and shape it pleases; but this pride has led to a great fall; poetry neither contributes to science nor pleases the many—it has no real existence.

Lydia Sigourney’s “The Bell of the Wreck,” Alice Cary’s “To Solitude,” Maria Gowen Brooks’ “Song,” Elizabeth Oakes Smith’s “Ode To Sappho,” Sarah Helen Whitman’s “To Edgar Allan Poe,” Harriet Monroe’s “Love Song,” Elinor Wylie’s “Beauty,” Dorothy Parker’s “One Perfect Rose,” Genevieve Taggard’s “For Eager Lovers,”  Louise Bogan’s “Women,” Sarah Teasdale’s “The Look,” Edith M. Thomas’ “Winter Sleep,” Rose Hawthorne Lathrop’s “A Song Before Grief,” Ellen Wheeler Wilcox’s “Individuality,” Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus,” Emma Enbury’s “Love Unsought,” Ina Donna Coolbrith’s “When The Grass Shall Cover Me,” Mary Maple Dodge’s “Now The Noisy Winds Are Still,” Mary Ashley Townsend’s “Virtuosa,” Frances Harper’s “A Double Standard,” Lucy Larcom’s “A Strip Of Blue,” Amy Lowell’s “Patterns,” Hazel Hall’s “White Branches,” and Anna Hempstead Branch’s “Grieve Not, Ladies” are the kind of strong and beautiful poems by women which are routinely ignored.

Overly sentimental this poetry may often be, but the women authors were not sentimental.  Enduring the hardships of an earlier day, they could hardly afford to be.  Virtues of rhythm, image, unity of effect, and expressiveness shouldn’t be rejected by literary historians for a defect (“sentimentality”) which is, if one looks at the matter objectively, merely  superficial and technical, really.

When a poet ‘plays a part,’ as if ‘on stage,’ for instance, the expressive style adopted should not be measured against a rhetorical style in which the poet is talking as herself, as if across a table from the reader.  Much of the “sentimentality” is due to this approach, this technique, and is not due to any defect or fault, per se, in the soul or sensibility of the 19th century women poet.

Here is one of my favorites from the poems listed above.   Note the simplicity of language, the sturdy rhythm, the confident music, and the plain but exquisite final image:

To Solitude

I am weary of the working,
Weary of the long day’s heat,
To thy comfortable bosom,
Wilt thou take me, spirit sweet?
.
Weary of the long, blind struggle
For a pathway bright and high,–
Weary of the dimly dying
Hopes that never quite all die.
.
Weary searching a bad cipher
For a good that must be meant;
Discontent with being weary,—
Weary with my discontent.
.
I am weary of the trusting
Where my trusts but torment prove;
Wilt thou keep faith with me?  wilt thou
Be my true and tender love?
.
I am weary drifting, driving
Like a helmless bark at sea;
Kindly, comfortable spirit,
Wilt thou give thyself to me?
.
Give thy birds to sing me sonnets?
Give thy winds my cheeks to kiss?
And thy mossy rocks to stand for
The memorials of our bliss?
.
I in reverence will hold thee,
Never vexed with jealous ills,
Though thy wild and wimpling waters
Wind about a thousand hills.

………………………………………...Alice Cary (1820–1871)

ELIZABETH OAKES SMITH: “SHE SENT AN EMISSARY TO ENFORCE THE DELIVERY…HE WAS CRUELLY BEATEN…”

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“…HE REFUSED TO RETURN HER LETTERS, NOR DID SHE RECEIVE THEM UNTIL DR. GRISWOLD GAVE THEM BACK AFTER POE’S DEATH.”

Poet, playwright, journalist, lecturer Elizabeth Oakes Smith, testifying on the murder of Edgar Allan Poe

Smith did not name the offended woman, but Poe scholars know who she is.  Scarriet will investigate all of this further.    A recent work by John Walsh made great strides in solving the mystery of Poe’s death:

“Now the least curious aspect of the Smith charge is the way it was, and has been ignored.   Only when Mrs. Smith had put forward her beating charge [1857] did the cooping idea make its appearance.  At first, Thompson accepted Poe’s death [1849] as did everyone then, as the result of a drunken debauch.  Not until the late 1860s did [Thompson] come out with his cooping theory.  By then, Mrs. Smith had twice stated her own belief in Poe’s having been beaten to death by ruffians who were related to, or agents of, some offended woman.

“John Thompson, it can be seen, in addition to being the originator of the idea, was also the one who, through Stoddard and the influences of Harper’s, then The Southern Magazine, deliberately put it into print.   …if there is no real support, no actual evidence…for the “cooping” theory, then how and why was it ever conceived?”

—John Evangelist Walsh, Midnight Dreary: The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe St. Martin’s, 2000.

Poe’s death is still a mystery, but we at Scarriet have faith that one day the mystery will be solved.  First, the cover-ups and lies need to be cleared away, and that is gradually happening: the drunken debauch, and now the ‘cooping theory’ have been debunked.  There are many odd facts surrounding Poe’s murder.  The oddness of those facts should actually make the solving of the case that much easier, (to steal a little of Dupin’s logic.)

A significant author, a mother, an early champion of women’s rights, a friend of Poe’s, here is a poem by Elizabeth Oakes Smith, which could be a tribute to Shelley.  It sheds no light on Poe’s death, but it does make the whole matter more interesting to know that the source of a theory on Poe’s death is by a very fine poet, and this should also give us pause: why have so many fine writers with connections to Poe been ignored all these years?   Are you getting tired of the Harvard University/F.O. Matthiessen/N.Y. Review of Books view of 19th century American literary history?  Emerson, Emerson, Emerson, Whitman, Whitman, Whitman?  Well, we are, too.

 

The Drowned Mariner
by Elizabeth Oakes-Smith

A mariner sat on the shrouds one night;
The wind was piping free;
Now bright, now dimmed was the moon-light pale,
And the phosphor gleamed in the wake of the whale,
As he floundered in the sea;
The scud was flying athwart the sky,
The gathering winds went whistling by,
And the wave as it towered, then fell in spray,
Looked an emerald wall in the moonlight ray.

The mariner swayed and rocked on the mast,
But the tumult pleased him well;
Down the yawning wave his eye he cast,
And the monsters watched as they hurried past
Or lightly rose and fell;
For their broad, damp fins were under the tide,
And they lashed as they passed the vessel’s side,
And their filmy eyes, all huge and grim,
Glared fiercely up, and they glared at him.

Now freshens the gale, and the brave ship goes
Like an uncurbed steed along;
A sheet of flame is the spray she throws,
As her gallant prow the water ploughs,
But the ship is fleet and strong:
The topsails are reefed and the sails are furled,
And onward she sweeps o’er the watery world,
And dippeth her spars in the surging flood;
But there came no chill to the mariner’s blood.

Wildly she rocks, but he swingeth at ease,
And holds him by the shroud;
And as she careens to the crowding breeze,
The gaping deep the mariner sees,
And the surging heareth loud.
Was that a face, looking up at him,
With its pallid cheek and its cold eyes dim?
Did it beckon him down? did it call his name?
Now rolleth the ship the way whence it came.

The mariner looked, and he saw with dread
A face he knew too well;
And the cold eyes glared, the eyes of the dead,
And its long hair out on the wave was spread.
Was there a tale to tell?
The stout ship rocked with a reeling speed,
And the mariner groaned, as well he need;
For, ever, down as she plunged on her side,
The dead face gleamed from the briny tide.

Bethink thee, mariner, well, of the past,—
A voice calls loud for thee:—
There’s a stifled prayer, the first, the last;—
The plunging ship on her beam is cast,—
Oh, where shall thy burial be?
Bethink thee of oaths that were lightly spoken,
Bethink thee of vows that were lightly broken,
Bethink thee of all that is dear to thee,
For thou art alone on the raging sea:

Alone in the dark, alone on the wave,
To buffet the storm alone,
To struggle aghast at thy watery grave,
To struggle and feel there is none to save,—
God shield thee, helpless one!
The stout limbs yield, for their strength is past,
The trembling hands on the deep are cast,
The white brow gleams a moment more,
Then slowly sinks—the struggle is o’er.

Down, down where the storm is hushed to sleep,
Where the sea its dirge shall swell,
Where the amber drops for thee shall weep,
And the rose-lipped shell her music keep,
There thou shalt slumber well.
The gem and the pearl lie heaped at thy side,
They fell from the neck of the beautiful bride,
From the strong man’s hand, from the maiden’s brow,
As they slowly sunk to the wave below.

A peopled home is the ocean bed;
The mother and child are there;
The fervent youth and the hoary head,
The maid, with her floating locks outspread,
The babe with its silken hair;
As the water moveth they lightly sway,
And the tranquil lights on their features play;
And there is each cherished and beautiful form,
Away from decay, and away from the storm.

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