POE AND CHIVERS — Anne Whitehouse
“There’s a fine line between clever and stupid.”
–“This is Spinal Tap”
Poe’s association with Thomas Holley Chivers, a poet who idolized him and wanted above all to be his friend and confidante, sheds illumination on Poe’s character and preoccupations during the same years he was engaged in his skirmishes with Longfellow, which he called as “The Little Longfellow War,” and in which he accused Longfellow of plagiarism.
A minor poet of the South, Thomas Holley Chivers was most likely born the same year as Poe—1809 and survived him by nine years, dying in 1858. In his own day, Chivers was very little known, and upon his death he was almost entirely forgotten. When he was recalled at all, it was as a slavish and second-rate Poe imitator, wholly without originality and blind to his own mediocrity. In retrospect, one can agree that Chivers was blind to his own mediocrity, but not that he was totally without originality. And, indeed, the “plagiarism” or, to put it more kindly, “influence” between the two poets went both ways.
The circumstances of Chivers’ birth were as favorable as Poe’s were unfavorable. He was the eldest of seven children born to a well-to-do landowner who farmed cotton with slaves and constructed his own mill near the newly established town of Washington, Georgia. Although Chivers obtained a medical degree with distinction from Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1830, he seems never to have practiced medicine, relying instead on his family’s support as he pursued a literary career. However, he proudly appended the letters “M.D.” to his author’s signature, and his poems include graphic and medically accurate depictions of illness and death:
He lifted up her hand from off her breast,
And, pressing its cold, pulseless chill with his,
Felt the congealing shock drive back the blood
Recurrent through his tingling veins, as if
Each timid pulse sought rescue in his heart.
And after he had felt her pulseless wrist,
And prest the cold indifference of the palm
Of her unsocial hand with his, he laid,
With cautious ease, the stiffening fingers back.
On the surface, Chivers appears a ridiculous figure, overblown, self-dramatizing, prey to spiritualist tendencies, utterly lacking in a sense of humor, histrionic, and bombastic. A teenaged marriage had ended in disaster, when his wife summarily left him and refused to let him see his child. His biographer said that she was swayed by slander about him spread by friends of hers.. The cause remains unknown; however, there was a scandal that caused him to flee his hometown in 1828 and not return there to live until 1835. He never had any further contact with his first wife or child, and in his will they were summarily cut off with a dollar. The lasting effects of this unhappy episode were a self-identification with Byron and Byron’s own disastrous marriage, scandal, and flight into exile, and a tendency to seek outlets for his suffering in verse.
One of Chivers’ first actions upon returning home in 1835 to Oaky Grove, as he named the family estate, was to submit some of his poems to the newly founded Southern Literary Messenger, edited by Poe. The poems were rejected. The Messenger’s March issue (I, 387) contained the following notice in the column, To Contributors, Correspondents, etc.:
There is a great deal of feeling in many of the communications sent to the
publisher by T.H.C., M.D.; but to our poor taste, there is not much poetry. We
question whether the Doctor will not find the lancet and pill-box of more profit in
that warm region to which he has emigrated, than the offerings of his prolific
muse. The poetical manufacture depends more upon the quality than the quantity
of its fabrics for success.
Whether or not Poe composed these comments—the first discoverable mention of Chivers in any periodical—is open to dispute, but as the editor, Poe was evidently aware of Chivers as early as 1835. While Chivers continued to submit his work, the Southern Literary Messenger did not change its policy of rejecting his poetry, although in 1844, it did publish his prose article, “Shelley.”
The first time that Chivers contacted Poe personally was five years after his first submission, in 1840. In the intervening years, Chivers’ life had changed a great deal. In 1837, in New York City, he married Harriet Hunt of Northampton and Springfield, Massachusetts. The bride was 16 years old, the groom 28. He had met her earlier that year in Springfield, where he had traveled to get books bound. For the next several years, Chivers and his young bride lived a peripatetic life supported by his father, residing in Philadelphia, New York City, and Middletown, Connecticut. Chivers continued to write and at last began to publish his poems in magazines and periodicals. On June 12, 1839, his daughter Allegra Florence was born in Middletown. A son, Eugene, was born a year later. Chivers was convinced that prophecy of their births had appeared to him in a vision eight years previously. As a poetic inspiration and muse for Chivers, Allegra took the place of his beloved mother, who had died the previous year.
Responding to a prospectus for Penn Magazine, a new periodical that Poe sought to launch, Chivers wrote Poe, praising his project as “infinitely above any other undertaking.” Although he advised Poe the critic not to “lay aside the pruning-knife for the tomahawk,” he asserted confidently, “There can be no equivalent given to a man for the payment of divine thought.”
However, Chivers enclosed no monetary “equivalent,” and Poe did not bother to answer the letter. Indeed, so far was Poe from heeding Chivers’ advice that the following year he took his tomahawk to Chivers, attacking while backhandedly praising him in the “Chapter on Autobiography” of Graham’s Magazine in December 1841. Poe’s essay referred to Chivers’ unpublished poems that he as editor had rejected; consequently, he was critiquing work that not one of his readers save the author himself could have read.
Dr. Thomas Holley Chivers of New York is at the same time one of the best and
one of the worst poets in America. His productions affect one as a wild dream—
strange, incongruous, full of images of more than arabesque monstrosity and
snatches of sweet, unsustained song. Even his worst nonsense (and some of it is
horrible) has an indefinite charm of sentiment and melody. We can never be sure
whether there is any meaning in his words…Yet there are as fine individual
passages to be found in the poems of Dr. Chivers as in those of any poet
Chivers protested in a letter. Ignored, he wrote again, this time hopefully including some poems for submission to Graham’s Magazine. When Poe at last responded in 1842, it was to offer an apology framed by a request.
Among all my correspondents there is not one whose good opinion I am more
anxious to remain than your own….The paper had scarcely gone to press before I
saw and acknowledged to myself the injustice I had done you—an injustice,
which it is my full purpose to repair at the first opportunity. What I said of your
grammatical errors arose from some imperfect recollections of one or two poems
sent to the first volume of the Southern Literary Messenger. But in more important
respects, I now deeply feel that I have wronged you by a hasty opinion. You will
not suppose me insincere in saying that I look upon some of your late pieces as
the finest I ever read. I allude especially to your poems about Shelley, and the one
of which the refrain is “she came from Heaven to tell me she was blest.’’ Upon
reading these compositions I felt the necessity of our being friends. Will you
accept my proffer of friendship?
Having extended an olive branch, Poe now extended his empty hand. Plans for Penn Magazine were being revived. Poe referred back to Chivers’ first letter to him nearly two years earlier, which he had never answered.
As I have no money myself, it will be absolutely necessary that I procure a
partner who has some pecuniary means. I mention this to you, for it is not
impossible that you yourself may have both the will and ability to join me.
Poe was now Chivers’ supplicant, and Chivers determined to enjoy it. In response, Chivers wrote that his praise of Poe to his Southern friends had led them to claim him “a fit subject for the Insane Hospital.” Chivers promised that in spite of Poe’s reputation, he would try to find subscribers for the magazine, but made no commitment of financial backing. However, he let Poe infer that he was now a wealthy man; he informed Poe that his father had died, and the estate was to be divided.
Poe replied, accepting three of Chivers’ poems for Graham’s Magazine and attempting to attract Chivers’ support with promises of a large subscribership and a position of influence. He praised Chivers’ long elegy, “The Mighty Dead,” while declining to publish it on account of its length.
The dance between the two might have continued for some time in this vein, with Poe offering publication in return for Chivers’ pledges of financial support, had not tragedy struck Chivers’ life at the core, obliterating all thoughts of literary magazines and editorships. On his birthday, October 18, 1842, Allegra Florence, his beloved three-year-old daughter, was struck by a virulent form of typhoid and died. Helpless to check the rapid spread of the disease, Chivers imagined that at his daughter’s deathbed he heard the identical music that had accompanied his vision of her eight years before her birth. Heartbroken, he returned to Georgia for her burial, remaining there with his family and seeking solace in composing a rhapsody in her memory, “The Lost Pleiad,” that eventually grew to 823 lines.
Chivers wrote Poe a grief-stricken letter about his daughter’s death but made no mention of Penn Magazine or any financial commitment, and Poe did not respond. Two more letters sent by Chivers in the following year were ignored. In May 1844, Chivers wrote again, this time with a potential offer: “I expect to receive my part of my father’s estate in July, and should like to unite with you, provided it would be to my interest to do so.”
Spurred by Chivers’ mention of money, Poe replied in July, apologizing for not having answered his previous letters, because, he claimed, he had misfiled them. The magazine, Poe wrote, was now to be called The Stylus, and it was sure to be a success. Poe then sought to flatter Chivers by asserting that “I have lately been lecturing on ‘American Poetry’ and have drawn profuse tears from large and intellectual audiences by the recital of your ‘Heavenly Vision’—which I can never weary of repeating.”
However, when Chivers’ financial commitment was not forthcoming, Poe declined to answer his letters of August 6 and September 24, although Graham’s Magazine accepted two more of his poems.
If Chivers ever seriously considered joining Poe in a literary business venture as a major investor and fellow editor, their meeting in New York City the following spring of 1845 changed his mind. This was the same period that Poe’s “Little Longfellow War” was being waged in the pages of the Broadway Journal.
Chivers had traveled to New York to oversee the printing, at his own expense, of The Lost Pleiad, his new volume of poems featuring the eponymous title poem. Coming from his printers in Nassau Street, Chivers met Poe, who was thoroughly drunk. In spite of his fanatic interest in spiritualism and the occult, Chivers was a Southern Baptist by upbringing and a strict teetotaler, and he was shocked by Poe’s condition. On the way home, he and Poe met Lewis Gaylord Clark, editor of the Knickerbocker Magazine, whom Poe tried to attack. Clark managed to extricate himself and flee, and Chivers accompanied Poe home, delivering him safely to his mother-in-law, Mrs. Maria Clemm, and his young wife, Virginia, at their lodgings not far away at 154 Greenwich Street by Chivers’ own account:
The next day, when I called to see him, he was not to be found. On the next, when
I called, he was in bed pretending to be sick, but with nothing in the world the
matter with him—his sole object for lying there being to avoid the delivering of
the Poem which he had promised…I then hired a carriage and took him out to
At last Chivers was treated to the literary conversation with Poe that he had longed for. During the drive, they discussed Tennyson, Keats, Shelley, Beddoes, and others. Poe recommended to Chivers Elizabeth Barrett (Browning)’s Drama of Exile. (Later that year, Chivers would write two sonnets in praise of this volume; one, “On Reading Miss Barrett’s Poems,” was published by Poe in the Broadway Journal in December 1845.)
Chivers desired a literary friendship with Poe, but Poe’s interest in Chivers was limited to how he might benefit financially from their association. Poe had no objection to accepting poems or writing reviews to help further this goal. Chivers’ collection, The Lost Pleiad, with its agonized, interminable title poem on the death of Allegra, followed by shorter lyrics, elegies, and laments, was published on July 18, 1845. Poe’s review appeared in the Broadway Journal on August 2. It was as favorable a commentary as he ever wrote about Chivers, although again the compliments were back-handed, as he portrayed Chivers as a diamond-in-the-rough, writing for an audience that was exclusively himself, too simple to be influenced by the reigning poets of the day (poets they had discussed at length, to Chivers’ delight, just months before during their carriage ride). To insist on the excellence of Chivers’ poems, Poe maintained, was to ignore convention, which he was willing to do:
This volume is evidently the honest and fervent utterance of an exquisitely
sensitive heart which has suffered much and long. The poems are numerous, but
the thesis is one—death—the death of beloved friends. The poet seems to have
dwelt among the shadows of tombs, until his very soul has become a shadow….
The tone of the composition is, in these latter days, a marvel, and as a
marvel we commend it to our readers…. Is it not, indeed, a miracle that today a
poet shall compose sixty or seventy poems, which there shall be discoverable no
taint—absolutely none—of either Byron, or Shelley, or Wordsworth, or Coleridge
or Tennyson? In a word, the volume before us is the work of that rara avis, an
educated, passionate, yet unaffectedly simple-minded and single-minded man,
writing from his own vigorous impulses—from the necessity of giving utterance
to poetic passion—and thus writing not to mankind, but solely to himself. The
whole volume has, in fact, the air of a rapt soliloquy….
The poems of Dr. Chivers abound in what must undoubtedly be considered
as gross demerit, if we admit the prevalent canons of criticism. But it may safely
be maintained that these prevalent canons have, in great part, no surer
foundation than arrant conventionality. Be these things as they may, we have no
hesitation in saying that we consider many of the pieces in the volume before us
as possessing merit of a very lofty—if not of the very loftiest order.
Writing from Georgia, Chivers professed to be pleased by the review, claiming that it not only boosted his own reputation, but Poe’s as well: “My Poems have been spoken of in the very highest terms in this state by all who have seen them. Several papers have republished your notice, at the same time that you were spoken of in the highest terms.”
Since their meeting that past spring in New York, a tone of admonition had entered Chivers’ correspondence. In August, Chivers wrote of sending Poe fifty dollars at the same time warning him against alcohol: “What would God think of that Angel who should condescend to dust his feet in the ashes of Hell?” Requesting the money, Poe assured Chivers, “I have not touched a drop of the ‘ashes’ since you left N.Y.–& I am resolved not to touch a drop as long as I live.”
Chivers’ reply, in the tone of the intimate friend he longed to be, was skeptical:
You say “I am resolved not to touch a drop, etc.” Did you mean by this that if you
touched many drops that you would not be impinging upon your promise? Give
your wife and Mrs. Clemm my most earnest desire for their welfare and
happiness. My wife sends them both her sincerest love. Send me any paper that
contains anything of yours….I have been trying to send you some peaches, but
never could find the opportunity. I am writing this letter in great haste and on
bad paper…as I have scarcely time before the mail is closed….God bless you.
Again, Poe let the correspondence flag. His next appeal to Chivers was desperate. He was borrowing to try to buy the Broadway Journal; $140 was needed by January 1, 1846:
For Heaven’s sake, my dear friend, help me now if you can—at once—for now is
my time of peril. If I live until next month I shall be beyond the need of aid. If you
can send me the $45, for Heaven’s sake do it, by return of mail—or if not all, a
How much money, if any, did Chivers send Poe is unknown. It seems probable that he did send Poe modest sums, but, gullible as Chivers may have been to the claims of spiritualists and self-deluded about his poetry, he was no fool when it came to money, and if he had ever harbored the slightest intention of going into the literary business with Poe, that idea went out of his head forever when he witnessed firsthand the effects of Poe’s alcoholism.
But Chivers had never wanted to be Poe’s business partner. His hints and suggestions were carrots that he dangled before Poe to try to get what he really wanted—Poe’s friendship, his literary camaraderie, and his good opinion. The closest he came was the letter from Poe that he received the following summer. The two men had lost track of each other, and Chivers’ letters had gone astray, until, at last, in July 1846, six of his letters reached Poe at once, now living in the Fordham Cottage in the Bronx, with his tubercular wife and mother-in-law. It was to be the last of his many addresses. Moved by Chivers’ regard and concern, Poe penned an atypically emotional response, for once making no mention of money, although he was certainly destitute:
Your professions of friendship I reciprocate from the inmost depths of my heart.
Except yourself I have never met the man for whom I felt that intimate sympathy
(of intellect as well as soul) which is the sole basis of friendship. Believe me that
never, for one moment, have I doubted the sincerity of your wish to assist me.
There is not one word you say that I do not see coming up from the depths of your
Chivers continued to hope that he might save Poe, or at least reform him. The following winter, he wrote Poe a heartfelt letter, offering him a home and support for the rest of his life:
My dear friend,
As I have not written to you in a long time, perhaps you would like to hear from
me. In the first place, I am well and hearty, and long to see you. I received the
paper containing your letter and the notice of your writings some time ago. I was
delighted with your letter—that is, with the idea that you had got well again and
hope from the bottom of my heart that you may remain so. I am sorry for your
wife, because she suffers pain, but am sorrier for you, because from what you say,
she is nigh to the Angels, and you are recovering your strength to fight against the
Devil, and poetry with his emissaries—fools. If you come to the South to live, I will
take care of you as long as you live, although if ever there was a perfect mystery
on earth, you are one—and one of the most mysterious. However, come to the
South and live with me, and we will talk all these matters over at our leisure. I do
not intend this for a letter but just scratch it down to let you know that I am still in
the land of the living, which, perhaps, you would just as soon not know as to
know. What do I care for that—that is your own fault, if it be so—not mine. …
Believe me, the true friend of Edgar A. Poe; and if you don’t believe it, it will make
no difference—I will still be your friend….Yours forever, Thomas H. Chivers
P.S. I do not pretend this for a letter, but write to let you know that New York is
not the place to live in happiness. I have lived there. I know all about it. Come to
the South. The stage is coming. Farewell! T.H.C.
If Poe had accepted Chivers’ offer, it would have meant living a life of sobriety far from the urban milieus he had always inhabited, his welfare dependent upon the patronage of a man whom he regarded as his intellectual and artistic inferior. He could face none of this. But neither could he be honest with Chivers about his real reasons, not if he ever expected to get any more money out of him. Their correspondence slacked off.
In the following year, tragedy visited Chivers again, when he and his wife lost their three remaining children, Eugene, Ada, and Thomas, Jr. all dying within four months of each other in early 1848. To assuage his grief, Chivers sought solace in writing and in forays into the occult, including mesmerism, a therapeutic hypnotism of the day, whose practitioners claimed to be clairvoyant. Chivers became an enthusiastic follower of Andrew Jackson Davis, the “Poughkeepsie Seer,” a young messianic figure who was reputed to heal the sick by his mental powers. From September 1848 through June 1849, Davis edited a paper, The Univercoelum, or Spiritual Philosopher, which published fourteen of Chivers’ poems and three pieces of prose, including a scene from his “Via Coeli, or the Way to Heaven,” a drama recounting the vision of Allegra Florence and Eugene Percy as angels before they were born.
Meanwhile, Poe was pursuing his own investigations into the physical geometry of the astronomical universe and its relation to God, which he expressed in Eureka: A Prose Poem (1848). About Davis, he had remarked ironically in Graham’s Magazine: “There surely cannot be ‘More things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of’ (oh, Andrew Jackson Davis!) ‘in your philosophy.’” Like Chivers, Poe had attended the lectures of the Poughkeepsie seer, and in 1846, he had paid him a visit. In his autobiography, Davis described their interview:
His remarkable face bore traces of feminine mental characteristics; but upon his
spacious brow there sparkled the gems of rare endowments. In his critical eye,
however, I observed an ominous shadow! Thinking to myself, I said, “This
person’s talent immolates his genius.” At length he informed us that his name was
“Edgar A. Poe.”
A month after Poe published Eureka, Chivers published Search After Truth; or, A New Revelation of the Psycho-Physiological Nature of Man. In tribute to Poe, Chivers named the questioner in his book “Politian,” a reference to Poe’s early verse drama, scenes of which had first appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger in 1835 and 1836.
Poe’s “Politian” had been inspired by the “Kentucky tragedy” of the 1820s, a lurid true crime story involving seduction, revenge, murder, suicide, and execution. The melodramatic case involved a prominent politician, Col. Sharpe, Solicitor General of Kentucky, later elected to the legislature, who had seduced a young woman, Ann Cooke. Some years later, living in disgrace and retirement, Ann Cooke had fallen in love with a young man, Beauchamp. They married, and Beauchamp vowed vengeance against Sharpe. For several years, the Colonel managed to evade Beauchamp, but at two o’clock in the morning of November 6, 1825, the day Sharpe was to sit in the state legislature, Beauchamp called him to his door and stabbed him to death.
Beauchamp was arrested; all manner of irregularities attended his trial; at length he was condemned to death, and his execution was set for July 7, 1826. Allowed to share his cell the night before he died, his wife smuggled in laudanum and a sharpened knife. When the laudanum failed to kill them, they stabbed themselves. She succeeded in suicide; he did not, and was hanged, while the home-guards, at his request, played “Bonaparte’s Retreat from Moscow.”
It seems likely that Poe was inspired to write “Politian” after Chivers sent him “Conrad and Eudora, or the Death of Alonzo,” his verse drama based on the events of the Kentucky tragedy transposed to Italy, which he had self-published in 1834. The notion that he shared a source of inspiration with Poe pleased Chivers as an additional identification with a man whom he emulated. He later wrote in a letter that “Conrad and Eudora” was in “now in the possession of Mr. Poe, one of the greatest men that ever lived.”
In naming his questioner Politian in Search After Truth, Chivers acknowledged mutual interests with Poe going back many years. Both Eureka and Search After Truth were attempts to reveal and explain the mysteries of the cosmos. Chivers’ vision of a mystical Christianity, a triumph of resurrection to a state of perfect joy and love amid “blissful music” and “melodious impressions” was an attempt to find meaning after the deaths of his children. Although the sources from which they drew and the conclusions they made were entirely different, Chivers and Poe were animated by similar concerns, and their explanations emphasized logical universal systems and the essential value of poetic insight.
Poe’s last reference to Chivers was in a fragment of a letter to his mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, in September 1849, where he reported, “I got a sneaking letter today from Chivers.” “Sneaking” was a telling word choice for Poe, more descriptive of his own behavior than of Chivers. On October 7, 1849, Poe died suddenly, in Baltimore.
Adoring and long-suffering, Mrs. Clemm sought to conceal Poe’s negative comments from Chivers after Poe’s death. It was her own form of “sneaking” behavior. Chivers had always been solicitous of her and her daughter’s welfare, and she appreciated that. After Poe’s death, Chivers was a connection to her son-in-law, someone else who had truly loved him in spite of everything. She recognized the advantages of remaining in contact with Chivers and sought to assure him:
You were one of the few he admired and loved. How often has he recited to me
some of your beautiful poetry, and said, “I would have been proud to have been
the author of this article.” How often has he repeated, with tears in his dear eyes,
that sublime poem of yours, “She came from Heaven to tell me she was blest.”
Yet she also reminded him, “You know, dear Sir, my darling Eddie was not entirely perfect, and when he had indulged in a glass or two of wine, he was not responsible for either his words or actions.”
Chivers had approached Mrs. Clemm because he intended to write Poe’s biography, purported to be “a faithful analysis of his genius as a poet, the publication of many golden letters, (one poem never before published in any of his works), together with some beautiful elegies on his death.” However, the biography was never published, and the manuscript, if it was ever completed, has not survived. Somewhere between conception and execution, Chivers’ project was abandoned.
* * *
In “The Little Longfellow War” of the spring of 1845, Poe portrayed himself as a crusading knight, wielding the lance of his pen in defense of poetry’s honor against such plagiarists as Longfellow. Poe’s examples of Longfellow’s plagiarism seemed dubious then and more far-fetched today. Poe’s accusations were an excuse for the verbal war of wits that played out for several weeks in the pages of the Broadway Journal between him and Outis, Longfellow’s self-proclaimed defender. Outis was Poe’s invention, his desperate and clever attempt to drum up circulation by initiating an attack against a beloved public figure whose rectitude had never been in dispute. Poe, at his best, was a one-man show.
In August 1845, a few months after “The Little Longfellow War,” Poe published his review of Chivers’ collection, The Lost Pleiad. In purporting to praise Chivers, Poe in fact damned him. According to Poe, to ignore the “gross demerits” of Chivers’ poetry would mean foregoing the “prevalent canons of criticism,” which Poe claimed he would be willing to do. But would most readers? In describing Chivers as an “unaffectedly simple-minded and single-minded man, writing from his own vigorous impulses,” Poe sought to depict him as a Southern primitive composing in isolation, an artist in spite of himself.
In fact, Chivers was well versed and well read in his chosen art, and far from isolationist, he craved being part of a literary community. While he had returned to Georgia at the time of The Lost Pleiad’s publication, the collection included poems written when he was living in Philadelphia, New York City, and Middletown, Connecticut, and enjoying the cultural and literary opportunities available in those cities. After he retreated to Georgia after his daughter’s death to oversee his inheritance and build his own home, Villa Allegra, in the town of Washington, he continued an active literary engagement through subscriptions, submissions, and correspondence with newspapers and periodicals.
Although Poe made no mention of it in his review, there are poems in Chivers’ The Lost Pleiad that echo Poe’s poetry. “To Allegra, Two Weeks after her Birth” and “Song to Isa Singing” made reference to Israfel, title and subject of one of Poe’s best-known poems. The Lost Pleiad also contained the motto from Bishop Henry King that Poe had used for “The Assignation;” a poem in the same meter as Poe’s most famous poem, “The Raven;” as well as one with “The Raven’s” “Nevermore” as a refrain. Why did Poe let these plagiarisms, as he would call them, pass? Was Poe willing to let these literary thefts slide in the hopes that the thief could be persuaded to become his financial benefactor? Or was the reality more complicated?
S. Foster Damon, Chivers’ biographer, did a bit of sleuthing and determined that the influence came from Chivers, and the plagiarism (in Poe’s terminology) was Poe’s, and not the other way around. Damon found that the Raven’s refrain “Never more” in Poe’s poem was suggested by the refrain, “No, never more!” in Chivers’ poem, “To Mother in Heaven.” Collected in The Lost Pleiad, “To Mother in Heaven” made its first appearance in print in Middletown, Connecticut’s Sentinel and Witness on July 24, 1839, and included Chivers’ note, not reprinted in The Lost Pleiad: “I think that Madame de Stael has said somewhere—perhaps in her Corinne—that the most musical words in the English language are—‘no more.’”
“The Raven” drew other elements from Chivers as well. Take the first stanza of Chivers’ “Isadore,” first published in 1841:
While the world lay round me sleeping,
I alone for Isadore
Patient vigils lonely keeping
Some one said to me while weeping”
“Why this grief forever more?”
And I answered: “I am weeping
For my blessed Isadore.”
“Had Chivers’ poems been written after Poe’s, we would call Chivers the plagiarist without hesitation….But they were written before ‘The Raven;’ consequently Chivers’ priority in idea, meter, refrain, and something of the atmosphere is unquestionable,” concluded Damon.
In “The Little Longfellow War,” Outis claimed that in “The Raven,” Poe derived his rhyme and meter from Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Refuted by Poe, Outis then claimed the influence was from an anonymous (perhaps nonexistent, because no scholar has ever found it) poem, “The Bird and the Dream.” Poe set up straw dogs to defend his claim of “The Raven’s” startling originality. He chose not to point out Chivers’ plagiarism in his review of The Lost Pleiad, because Chivers was not the plagiarist.
Does it matter? Should we care? Charges of plagiarism were, for Poe, not matters of principle, as he claimed, but cleverly manipulated sophistries. Ultimately, the kind of originality that Poe claimed as proof of his genius doesn’t exist. But perhaps it has taken our modern era to understand this.
In A Technique for Producing Ideas, mid-twentieth-century advertising executive James Webb Young identified an idea as a new combination of old elements. Creativity consists in the ability to see relationships and draw comparisons in a new way. What is important is the mysterious synthesizing that takes place, which combines elements to form new possibilities. In other words, when it comes to coming up with ideas, there is nothing really new under the sun. There are only new ways of combining them.
* * *
While Poe lived, Chivers longed to be his friend, taken into his confidence and considered worthy of his literary association. But Poe could never get over his contempt for Chivers and would never consider Chivers as his equal or near equal. Poe was as appalled by Chivers’ moral rectitude as Chivers was by Poe’s degeneracy. Where the one sought to entangle the other, the other escaped. Chivers never forked over to Poe the sums Poe had hoped he would, and Poe never consented to the intimate association and discourse that Chivers craved.
Yet there was something that drew Poe to Chivers, as surely as Chivers was drawn to Poe—a certain likeness of minds, an attraction to gothic and melodramatic subject matter, a macabre sensibility, a resemblance of their poetic and rhythmic ear, and a delight in coining bizarre and unusual words. Poe recognized in Chivers the pull of the same influences, though their expression in Chivers was less intelligent, subtle, or finely wrought. Poe was also attracted to Chivers’ background and all that he stood for as a racist, dyed-in-the-wool Southerner and political reactionary, a slave-owning landholder and states’ rights advocate, spouting prejudices, received notions, and extreme ideas. Poe might ridicule Chivers, but there was a part of him that envied Chivers and wished he’d had the same advantages.
As long as Poe lived, Chivers sought his approval and praise. Following Poe’s death, Chivers envisioned himself as Poe’s defender against such critics as Rufus Henry Griswold, whose anonymous attack against Poe was published in the New York Tribune two days after Poe’s death Chivers originally conceived that the purpose of his biography of Poe would be an illumination of Poe’s genius. As a poet and reader, he had long idolized Poe when others condemned him. He continued to love Poe in spite of having witnessed Poe’s appalling behavior.
Published two years after Poe’s death, Chivers’ 1851 collection, Eonchs of Ruby (according to Chivers, “eonch” was another word for “concha marina” or “shell of the sea”), was an homage to Poe, shaped by Poe’s influence and consisting of imitations of and tributes to Poe. In his elegy to Poe, “Vigil in Aiden,” Chivers again used the name Politian from Poe’s early verse drama and the name that Chivers had used for the questioner in Search After Truth in tribute to Poe, and for Virginia Clemm, Chivers used Lenore, as Poe had. “Vigil in Aiden” reproduced Poe’s rhythms and substituted the phrase “forever more” for “never more.”
In the Rosy Bowers of Aiden,
With her ruby-lips love-laden,
Dwelt the mild, the modest Maiden,
Whom Politian called Lenore.
“Lily Adair” similarly echoed Poe’s “Annabel Lee.”
…While she lay in her husband’s embraces
A-moulding my Lily Adair—
My Fawn-like Lily Adair—
My Dove-like Lily Adair—
My beautiful, dutiful Lily Adair….
“Lord Uther’s Lament” reworked Poe’s “Ulalame:”
In the mild month of October
Through the fields of Cooly Rauber
By the great Archangel Auber…
After Poe’s death, Chivers imagined that Poe’s literary torch would pass on to him, and he was stung when the critical response to Eonchs of Ruby convicted him of being only Poe’s slavish imitator. Subject to waves of intense emotion and self-dramatization, Chivers felt proprietary over Poe’s legacy. As Poe would have done, Chivers brought his case in the popular press, writing under the name of “Fiat Justitia” in The Waverley Magazine in 1853 to insist that Poe had been the imitator, and not he. His critics responded, and a defender, “Felix Forresti,” wrote back in support of Chivers. In a curious nod to Outis, it seems likely that “Felix Forresti” was Chivers himself, writing in his own defense.. Annoyed by the controversy exploding in his pages, The Waverly Magazine’s editor closed his columns to further discussion on October 29, 1853, adding that he desired no more articles from “Fiat Justitia” “on that subject or any other.” Resentful, Chivers switched the discussion to the Georgia Citizen, where nothing happened at all.
The more Chivers felt silenced, the more outrageous his allegations became. As he conceived himself Poe’s literary heir, he hoped to bask in the glow of Poe’s posthumous glory. Instead, Poe was deemed the real thing, and Chivers was the counterfeit. Chivers experienced Poe’s legacy being taken away from him. Of course, he was never in charge of Poe’s legacy to begin with, but that didn’t prevent him from feeling cruelly cheated. Bereft, he lashed out at his critics.
“Poe stole everything that is worth any thing from me,” he wrote to Augustine Duganne. “This I thought you knew perfectly well….Poe stole all his ‘Raven’ from me.” To Griswold, who had written of letters from Poe that spoke harshly of Chivers, Chivers responded angrily, “He no doubt felt piqued when I accused him of having stolen his ‘Raven’ from my poem, ‘To Allegra Florence in Heaven,’—which you know he did—if you know anything at all about it. The same is true of his Lectures on Poetry—besides many other things.”
Chivers conducted this controversy from Georgia, where he was living at his father’s estate, Oaky Grove, two miles outside of Washington, and at Villa Allegra, his own home in Washington, and he continued it in 1850, when he moved north again, living in New York City, New Haven, and Boston. Eventually, however, he ran out of steam, and the controversy subsided. Chivers continued to write and publish in relative obscurity, while to his delight became a father again. On June 19, 1853, a son was born—named again Thomas Holley Chivers, Jr. Two daughters followed, Emma Isadore and Fannie Isobel. All three children survived him and lived to marry.
After five years in the North, in the worsening political situation, Chivers felt estranged by his Southern loyalties and reactionary beliefs. In 1855, he and his family left the North for good. When asked by the Georgia Citizen upon his return home to contribute his political views, he wrote:
…the day will come when the South will find it to her interest to withdraw herself
politically…from communion with the North…wholly on account of the
aggravating insolence of Fanaticism….We are infinitely above Priest-craft as King-
craft—despising them as we hate the Devil—they being the illegitimate offspring
of his Satanic Majesty….It is, therefore, obvious that no Roman Catholic foreigner
should be allowed to vote…until after the expiration of twenty-one years…I am in
favor of the repeal of the naturalization laws—fixing the term of probation at
twenty-one years…I am opposed to the union of Church and State—although in
favor of suffusing the body of the State with the divine spirit of Religion…
Chivers’ appalling racism found expression in the experimental verses he composed in the 1850s, featuring rhythm, repetition, and the offensive use of stereotypes. They inspired a later generation of poets—Algernon Charles Swinburne, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Rudyard Kipling, Vachel Lindsay—to their own dreadful efforts. For instance, Chivers’ “Corn-Shucking Song;”
Jinny bake de hoecake, Sally make de cawphy,
Nancy bile de baykon wid de brack-ey pea;
Cuffy blow de Ram’s Hawn, Juba beat the Banjo—
Dinah ring de Tin Pan to cawl us awl to Tea.
Pull away, Niggers! Oh! pull away, Darkies!
De Baykon’s in de washpot, de bred upon de hoe
Shuck de Cawn, Darkies! Oh! shuck de Cawn, Niggers!
De Mawnin’ Staws a-risin’, de Seben Staws are low!
Git away de Cawn, Boys! Git away de Cawn!
Oh! git away de Cawn, Boys! git away de Cawn!
Beller, Boys! Beller! De Cawn is gettin’ low!
Or Chivers’ “Chinese Serenade for the Ut-Kam and Tong-Koo,” with lines like these:
She is as beautiful as the night with many moons!
I am terrible as the day with many suns!
Now she looks at my soul through her window,
Like the sun out of heaven at some Hindoo,
When he pays his devotion to the King of Day;
So I, Tsching-Foo, who am King of Son-Tay,
Fall down on my knees at the feet of the Queen of Cansay!
The poem ends with Chivers’ onomatopoeiac imitation of a bronze gong:
Bo-aw-awng, ba-ang, bing!
Bee-ee-eeing, ba-ang, bong!
So-aw-awng, sa-ang, sing!
See-see-eeing, sa-ang, song!
Bing, bang, bong!
In the age of the Iron Horse, Chivers’ “Railroad Song” was an attempt to reproduce the rhythms of train travel:
Clitta, clatta, clatta, clatter,
Like the devil beating batter
Down below in iron platter—
Which subsides into a clanky,
And a clinky, and a clanky,
And a clinky, clanky, clanky,
And a clanky, clinky, clanky;
And the song that I now offer
For Apollo’s Golden Coffer—
With the friendship that I proffer—
Is for Riding on a Rail.
In his introduction to Chivers’ biography, Damon reported asking the poet Vachel Lindsay (1871-1931) if he knew of Chivers, and by reply Lindsay recited one of Chivers’ poems by heart. Lindsay’s “The Congo, composed half a century after Chivers’ “Corn-Shucking Song,” echoes and expands the racism of the earlier poem. Here is just the beginning:
Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,
Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable,
Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table,
Pounded on the table,
Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom,
Hard as they were able,
Boom, boom, Boom,
With a silk umbrella and the handle of a broom,
Bomlay, boomlay, boomlay, Boom.
Then I had religion. Then I had a vision.
I could not turn from their revel in derision.
Then I saw the Congo, creeping through the black,
Cutting through the jungle with a golden track.
Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was also stimulated by Chivers’ poems. Here is the second stanza of his “Mandalay:”
‘Er petticoat was yaller an’ ‘er little cap was green,
An’ ‘er name was Supi-yaw-lat—jes’ the same as Theebaw’s Queen
An’ I seed her first a-smokin’ of a whackin’ white cheroot,
An’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot:
Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud
Wot they call the Great Gawd Budd—
Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed ‘er where she stud!
On the road to Mandalay,
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!
After Poe’s death, Chivers also continued to write the ornate and opaque romances that had characterized his poetry from the start. The theme of the dead woman waiting in heaven for her beloved to die and join her was an obsession with him, as was the lover abandoned on earth by the death of his beloved. This stanza from “The Mirage” is typical Chivers:
Thus, through the Twilight of the even,
Like a white Swan soaring to the Southward through the night,
Guideless throughout the illimitable depths of Heaven—
She wandered, snowing her beauty all around her, clothed in white—
Unseen by any save this desolate soul which thrilled at her divine,
As chaos did when God first hung the Sun in Heaven to shine.
Then, as the Sons of God all sang,
Answering the Morning Stars with shouts of joy above,
Till the great Gong of God, Heaven’s Corybantine Ocean, rang,
Vibrating through all space the diapason of their love—
So soared my soul in the white Chariot of ecstatic trance
Out of itself into the Heaven of her blue eyes that Apriled all her countenance.
Chivers’ 1853 collection, Atlanta, which he claimed to be the “crystalline revelation of the Divine Idea” was reviewed in the Southern Literary Messenger as “clear as mud.” Our age would agree, judging his poetry to be verbose, trite, pedantic, overwrought, offensive at worst, insipid at best. Was Chivers mad? Perhaps. In 1856, two years before his death, he moved from his hometown of Washington to Decatur, Georgia, naming his new home “Villa Allegra” after his old one. No reason for this move appeared among his papers, but a letter from a resident of Washington to his biographer later noted, “He was a strange man, and here where he was born and reared, he was considered crazy.” At the very least, Chivers was generally recognized as a crank. The Spiritual Telegraph thought it fit to publish this description of him: “The characteristics of the man are such as to render him in some respects peculiar; but the lines which determine his individuality arrest our attention by their eccentricity rather than their genuine boldness or the harmony of their natural relations.”
In 1858, Chivers published his last book, a verse drama called The Sons of Usna, based on the Celtic legend of Deirdre, printed at his own expense in Philadelphia. No critical notice was taken of it. His biographer reported that in December of that year, Chivers was taken ill suddenly; on December 18, he made his will and died one hour after midnight at his Decatur home. In retrospect, the inscription on his funerary monument in the Town Cemetery at Decatur is ironic:
Here lie the remains of
Thomas H. Chivers, M.D.
Of his excellence
As a lyric Poet,
His works will remain a
monument for ages
after this temporary tribute of love
is in dust forgotten.
This soul winged its flight
December 19, 1858,
Aged 52 years.
* * *
The relationship between Chivers and Poe was a complicated one. In temporarily resurrecting Chivers from the oblivion where he belongs, I have sought to illuminate aspects of Poe’s character from this lesser-known perspective. Poe was the first “bad boy” of American culture, precursor of our Beat poets, our self-destructive rock musicians and movie stars, our rap artists who inflame the public and get into trouble with the law. His myth, popularized soon after his death by admirers such as the French poet Charles Baudelaire, another advocate of excess, was of the artist who had plumbed the depths of hell and plucked “the flowers of evil.”
More than a century and a half after his death, the myth of Poe continues to reverberate. Poe and Chivers both conceived of themselves in the Byronic mold and each identified with aspects of the Byronic myth. Yet in this identification, Poe and Chivers parted ways. Byron’s greatest attribute—what set him apart and made him truly exceptional as a writer and a person—was his clever, nimble wit and self-deprecating, ironic sense of humor. Poe had Byron’s sardonic humor dialed to a more perverse gauge, and his cynical, grimly mocking, and bitter wit still sounds forceful and contemporary.
In contrast, Chivers was completely lacking in a sense of humor. It was as if he were tone deaf to wit and sarcasm, an inability affecting everything he did and everything he wrote. For all that Poe and Chivers shared in common—and, as we have seen, there is much that they did share—there was this great divide between them. Chivers’ lack of a sense of humor is what makes him so tedious, unbearable, and unreadable. It seems impossible that Chivers could take himself so seriously. Yet, he did.
For example, consider the difference between Outis and Felix Forresti. Felix Forresti was invented by Chivers to defend himself against his critics, and the interchange proved so tedious and annoying to the paper’s readers and its editor that Chivers was forbidden to contribute anything more to the paper. Ever.
Outis, in contrast, declared himself to be Longfellow’s defender, while, in fact, slyly praising Poe. In creating “The Little Longfellow War,” Poe relied on a complex game of wit to ensnare his readers and drum up circulation. His outrageous allegations were exasperating, but they were also amusing. In a word, he was entertaining, and Chivers was not.
Considering Poe from Paris, Baudelaire, who emulated Poe as Poe had emulated Byron, conceived of Poe as a misunderstood genius, whose country had not appreciated him. However, many of Poe’s compatriots recognized his exceptional gifts, he attracted patrons all his life, and friends and strangers tried to help him. But Poe was beyond helping. His behavior was outrageous, erratic, reckless, unreliable, inconsiderate, impossible, and improvident. In any society, he would have been an outcast.
Writing his memoirs years after Poe’s death, Andrew Jackson Davis left a vision of Poe with an evil doppelgänger.
As he walked in through the hall, and again when he left, at the conclusion of his
call, I saw a perfect shadow of himself in the air in front of him, as though the sun
was constantly shining behind and casting shadows before him causing the
singular appearance of one walking into a dark fog produced by himself.
Andrew Jackson Davis was writing with hindsight, so he did not need to be clairvoyant. But it didn’t take hindsight to know that Poe walked with demons. Practically everyone who came into contact with him realized it sooner or later.
*** Anne Whitehouse is the author of six poetry collections, most recently Meteor Shower (Dos Madres Press, 2016), as well as a novel, Fall Love. Another essay about Poe, “Poe vs Himself,” appeared in New England Review, and Anne spoke about “Poe, Longfellow, and the Little Longfellow War” at Longfellow House Washington Headquarters in 2018.