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?

“A TERRIBLE CONJUNCTION:” MARRIAGE AND AMERICAN POETRY


“A poet should not marry” –old saying.

The unhappy marriage, or the marriage that never happened, is the marriage of American poetry.

Emerson’s livelihood came from marrying a woman he knew was dying and suing his wife’s family for the fortune after her death.

Longfellow found his wealth in marriage, and sorrow when his wife and the mother of his children burned to death while melting wax to seal a letter.

Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman never married.

After the death of Edgar Poe’s wife, his life was marked by marriages that never quite happened.

Also, Poe’s immense reputation was ruined in 1846 by rumors involving love outside the marriage contract.

Whitman (Helen, not Walt) almost married Poe until others got in the way, including the most powerful media mogul in the U.S. at the time, editor and owner of The New York Tribune, Horace Greeley.  Imagine CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, the New York Times and the New York Post combined: that was Horace Greeley.   Unfortunately for Poe, Greeley was friends with Rufus Griswold.

In a stunning letter Horace Greeley wrote to Griswold in January, 1849 :

“Do you know Sarah Helen Whitman ? Of course you have heard it rumored that she is to marry

Poe. Well, she has seemed to me a good girl, and— you know what Poe is.

Now I know a widow of doubtful age will marry almost any sort of a white man, but this seems to me a terrible conjunction.

Has Mrs. Whitman no friend within your knowledge that can faithfully explain Poe to her ? I never attempted this sort of thing but once, and the net product was two enemies and a hastening of the marriage; but I do think she must be deceived. Mrs. Osgood must know her.”

Poe scholars have been beating the bushes recently for the real story behind the scandalous relationship of Poe and Frances Osgood, and what’s coming out is that their relationship was no dime-store romance or starry-eyed love affair, but something far more complicated.   It turns out Osgood was probably, like Elizabeth Ellet and Margaret Fuller, more foe than friend.

The middle-aged Poe was the kind of tied-to-his-desk, scornful genius who had no interest in the sort of tawdry relationship which his enemies (and the gullible with their dime-store imaginations) have drawn up for him.  True, Poe recited poems in his soft, charismatic voice at literary salons, and as steward of American Letters he did take an interest in a literary society which included women, but he was not a romantic in life; he was an editor looking for a magazine and an American who hated in his blood puffery and British “ill will” towards the United States.  Poe even wrote in a ‘throwing-off-the-gloves’ mood, that America would take its quarrel with Britain “into Africa,” which is quite an ambitious, multi-layered, and belicose thing to say.  That stern anglophile, Emerson, must have been appalled.

Britain and America’s divorce was still an ugly one in the middle of the 19th century. Poe’s famous quarrel with his own northern brethren—New England writers—is not nearly as important as has been claimed.

Poe, in fact, was always reaching out to Boston authors.

In 1842, Poe wrote to the abolitionist poet James Russell Lowell: “Dear Sir,  Learning your design of commencing a Magazine, in Boston, upon the first of January next, I take the liberty of asking whether some arrangement might not be made, by which I should become a regular contributor.”  Lowell’s magazine was launched, and Poe was a regular contributor— while Lowell’s unprofitable venture lasted.   Poe and Lowell remained good friends.

As editor of Graham’s, on at least two separate occasions, Poe asked Longfellow to contribute to the magazine.

Poe wrote to Joseph Snodgrass in 1841, “You are mistaken about The Dial.  I have no quarrel in the world with that illustrious journal, nor it with me.”

It wasn’t New England that was the problem; Poe did resent, but more in the name of democracy, Northern monopoly in American Letters—a reasonable  complaint.  The larger shadow was that Britain was in a cunning position to enjoy U.S. difficulty on the slavery issue—which, after Poe’s murder—did blow up into the holocaust of civil war: a divorce inside of a divorce.  The American civil war gave birth to a creature of Poe-like dimensions in politics: poet and Poe fan Abraham Lincoln.

The best known marriage in 19th century Letters occured in Europe, when Elizabeth Barrett, who had been corresponding with Poe, eloped with Robert Browning.   Later, we can see by reading the letters, that Elizabeth Browning, with many others in Europe, hoped for a divorce between south and north in America over the slavery issue; to those like Barrett Browning, this was a simple moral issue; to others, and this would include those like Poe and Lincoln, it was more complicated and meant loss of unity, and thus a destruction of, the United States.

Margaret Fuller eloped with an Italian count in Italy after dallying with the hearts of Hawthorne and Emerson (though Emerson was like Poe; women found it impossible to dally with a heart of high seriousness set against mere romance).

In a letter on Poe to Elizabeth Barrett Browning just after Poe’s death, Fuller, friends with Emerson and Horace Greeley—the publisher of Griswold’s “Ludwig” obituary—shows herself to be Griswold-like:  “…several women loved him, but it seemed more with passionate illusion which he amused himself by inducing than with sympathy; I think he really had no friend.”

In another odd twist, Osgood published a poem in the Broadway Journal in 1845 when Poe was the editor there, called “To the Lady Geraldine,” in which a gossipy woman is attacked.  “Geraldine” is not identified, but “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship” was the name of a famous poem published in 1844 by Barrett, before she met Robert, and in that poem she refers to Wordsworth,—the old poet wished to visit her, but could not, on account of her health—Tennyson, whom she adored, and Robert Browning.   Barrett had not eloped with Robert yet in 1845, and Poe was pictured as one of the many male poets hungering after Barrett’s affection during this time.

Poe dedicated his 1845 Poems to Elizabeth Barrett.

A marriage of sane and profitable domesticity versus insane and passionate divorce (Osgood, for instance, was separated from her painter husband during the time of her Poe-scandal in the period around 1845) was the ruling trope in Letters during the tumultuous pre-Civil War, Poe and Barrett era during the 1840s.   Poe wished for domestic bliss, not wild affairs; he wished for a growing America, not one torn apart by the slavery issue.

As a Southerner acheiving great fame in the North in 1845 and then crashing and burning in scandal in 1846, Poe is a symbol of America’s failed marriage as a nation.

In the 20th century, what does marriage and romance between poets symbolize?

T.S. Eliot’s marriage to an Englishwoman was an impetuous “burning of boats” in Eliot’s own words, to leap from America to England.   Reading “Prufrock,” one is not surpised at the poet’s disastrous marriage.

W.H. Auden marrying—to help someone escape the Nazis.  That might be the most symbolic marriage of the 20th century.

The tragedy of  the English Ted Hughes and the American Sylvia Plath doesn’t transcend what it is; that tragedy and the tragedy of Hughe’s subsequent marriage is a mere festering of flesh: petty, personal, stupid, wrong.

The most famous marriage among the Beats ended in a stupid “William Tell” death.

Further on in American literary history, we have the marriage of American, Jorie Graham, and South African-born Peter Sacks, a relationship best known for something even more petty: an act of foetry with partner Bin Ramke.

How sad that in Letters, the landmark history of marriage is the landmark history of the broken.

Surely happy marriages in Letters exist; we just don’t know about them.

Unfortunately for the muse of love, the “NO” of Maud Gonne, the Irish patriot, refusing the William Butler Yeats of dubious politics, rings more profoundly, down the years, in the annals of literature, than any affirmation.

Had Whitman married Poe, perhaps it would have all been different.

WHITHER THE FEMME FATALE POET?

Elinor Wylie.  Lyrical, with a dash of madness.

Where have they all gone?  Not only does the candle no longer burn at both ends, the one end is hardly flickering.

Great power for the poem, and for the woman, resides in the femme fatale poet.  What killed her, and why has she been allowed to die?

Even if the femme fatale is not the ideal state of things, it elicits a powerful interest in poetry.  Moral objections are moot, since femme fatales will exist and all the negative associations of that genre will exist, whether we want them to or not, and poetry’s involvement can mitigate the unfortunate aspects and also give to the world a heroic and social character for poetry which today it lacks.

In the 1920s, when school chums Pound, H.D., Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams, together with Harvard friends Scofield Thayer, E.E. Cummings and T.S. Eliot, bound together in their modernist ‘Little Magazine’ coterie, which gave itself Dial Magazine Awards, published in Poetry and tooted its tin manifesto horn, Dorothy Parker and Edna St. Vincent Millay were best-selling poets, continuing a tradition from the previous century–when the poetess out-sold the poet.

Before academic solipsism, women’s poetry reflected breast-heaving life: Osgood bitterly reproaching a gossip’s judgment on her friendship with Poe in the pages of the Broadway Journal, Dickinson dreaming of hot romances, Barrett thanking the wooer who snuck her out of her father’s house, Millay hotly turning a cold eye on past sexual flings.

The brittle, sexless poetry of Marianne Moore, the wan, affected imagism of H.D. put an end to the reign of Femme Fatale poetry.

The suicides of Plath and Sexton were sacrifices on the altar of  femme fatale poetry, a reminder of what had been crushed by Pound and Eliot’s modernism.

In Eliot’s wake, Bishop has emerged as the most important female poet of the 20th century, but she’s sexless in comparison to a poet like Millay.

Contemporary poets like Sharon Olds present a domestic, intricately examined sexuality, a far cry from the femme fatale; Jorie Graham had an early opportunity to be a femme fatale, but transformed herself into a foet instead.  Marilyn Chin embraced ethnicity. Mary Oliver has gone the ‘fatalistic love of nature’s creatures’ route.   No femme fatale there, either.

The forgotten Elinor Wylie (d. 1928) wrote wonderful poems.  In “Now Let No Charitable Hope,” one can hear distinctly the frightening yet delicate voice of both Plath and Sexton, the confident whisper of the femme fatale:

Now Let No Charitable Hope

Now let no charitable hope
Confuse my mind with images
Of eagle and of antelope:
I am by nature none of these.

I was, being human, born alone;
I am, being woman, hard beset;
I live by squeezing from a stone
What little nourishment I get.

In masks outrageous and austere
The years go by in single file;
But none has merited my fear,
And none has quite escaped my smile.

WAS HAWTHORNE’S THE SCARLET LETTER A FICTIONAL TREATMENT OF EDGAR ALLAN POE, REV. GRISWOLD & FANNY OSGOOD?

Did Nathaniel Hawthorne (left) exploit a contemporary, real-life drama in his most famous work?

Two famous poets died in 1850.

One was Margaret Fuller, who died in a shipwreck returning from Italy.   The other female poet was even more famous and more beloved than Margaret Fuller.   She was married to a painter, who painted the oval portaits seen above.  She was widely known in literary circles and was especially close to two men who will be forever linked in history: the anthologist Rufus Griswold and the poet Edgar Poe. (depicted above)

Her name is Frances Sargent Osgood. (depicted above)

Poe (d. 1849) as a dashing poet and a critic sympathetic to women scribblers, Osgood (d.1850) as legendary femme fatale poet and Griswold (d. 1857) Poe’s rival and the best-selling anthologist of his day—these three—helped to create an era that lasted into the 20th century, an era  in which the poetess out-sold the poet.

The Rev. Rufus Griswold’s anthology “Female Poets of America” made him the most powerful man in Letters.

Modernist poetry, more than anything, was about male energy muscling out the Woman’s Muse.   Poe was  libeled and Osgood was forgotten as Ezra Pound’s pedantic, bombastic, Futurist clique took control.

The alleged affair (which may have  produced a child) between Poe and Fanny  hurt Mrs. Osgood’s reputation but Nathaniel Hawthorne was among many literati who came to her defense.

Let’s allow the author of this theory to lay out her fascinating thesis:

“Fanny Osgood was already the most widely written about woman in American literature during the 1840s. Hundreds of stories and numerous poems were written about the Poe-Fanny-Virginia triangle. After their child’s death Fanny’s friends rallied around her to protect her, and the number of stories and poems about her situation increased. Publicly, her reputation suffered; but privately, sympathy was strongly in her court.”

After Poe’s death, and Fanny’s own fatal illness, she came to be regarded as downright saintly by her peers– for having been victimized by society over her relationship with Poe. Fanny Osgood and her plight had become a cause celebre. ‘Fanny worship’ was at an all-time high by the time of her death. Fanny had spent many years living abroad and had many close friends in England. Fanny Osgood was, most certainly, the Scarlet Woman of her time, and therefore, the most deserving of sympathy.

‘Fanny Worship’ was rife in the literary/artistic crowds who adored her. Fanny had spent many years living abroad and had many close friends in England. Fanny’s ‘gypsy life-style’ made her very popular in New York, Philadelphia, Providence, Richmond, Portland and even Saratoga Springs. Fanny also had many friends in her Transcendentalist and ‘Fourierist’ coteries in and around Boston, where both Poe and Fanny were born.

At one time, she and Sarah Helen Whitman were extremely close to Margaret Fuller, another highly controversial figure living and working primarily in the Boston area. Fanny Osgood knew all the people Fuller knew, and that was everyone: The Lowells, the Hawthornes, the Peabodys, the Fields, the Holmes, and surely, both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; but unlike Fuller, who most people (certainly Poe, Lowell and Hawthorne) grew to despise, Fanny was adored as a loving free spirit by virtually everyone.

Under these circumstances, it should not be surprising to learn that Poe, Fanny and their great romantic tragedy were used as characters by some of the greatest writers of their time. One of these was Nathaniel Hawthorne, who indeed, had experimented with Fourierism at Brook Farm, and whose wife, Sophia Peabody, had herself been under the spell of Margaret Fuller, much to Hawthorne’s displeasure.

Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850, within months of Poe’s and Fanny’s deaths. He felt compelled to write the tragedy of these two dear friends, to vent his own fury and sense of helplessness over the great loss he had suffered.

The characters of Hester Prynne and Rev. Dimmesdale are tributes to Poe and Fanny Osgood. The daughter, Pearl, represents Fanny Fay on some level, though Pearl’s personality seems clearly based on Hawthorne’s own daughter, Una, as well as on Fanny’s own childish and mercurial personality. The hideous, predatory Chillingsworth is Rufus Griswold, who was despised by Hawthorne, James Russell Lowell, N.P. Willis and virtually every writer of the time.

It must be remembered that Poe supported and mentored Hawthorne, but there were also bonds between Hawthorne and Fanny Osgood, who indeed, moved in the same circles in the Boston area. The bond between Hawthorne and Poe, between Hawthorne and Fanny Osgood, and their mutual friends provides an answer to, “Why would Hawthorne write a thinly veiled account of the Poe-Osgood melodrama?” For one thing, ‘it made great copy,’ but a close study of the letters and business transactions of the ‘Hawthorne Circle,’ during this period helps us understand that yes, The Scarlet Letter was intended as both a tribute and a requiem, for both Poe and Fanny.”

Cynthia Cirile http://www.10thhousepress.com/fiction.html

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