Monday, September 17, 2018

Sarah Helen Whitman As Poet and Critic, Part 6 (Final)

Whitman As Literary Personality
By the 1830s, Whitman had already settled into the eccentric style of dress and speech that a friend, Sarah S. Jacobs, describes thus: "deep-set eyes that gazed over and beyond, but never at you ...her movements were very rapid, and she seemed to flutter like a bird. … Her spell was on you from the moment she appeared… when she spoke, her empire was assured. She was wise, she was witty … her quick, generous sympathy, her sweet, unworldly nature, her ready recognition of whatever feeble talent, or inferior worth another person possessed"  She had also been blessed with, "a succession of adorers." Of her style, Ticknor tells us further, "[S]he loved silken draperies, lace scarves and floating veils … always shod in dainty slippers … [she] always carried a fan to shield her eyes from glare. Her rooms were always dimly lit."(??)
The latter-day figure of Isadora Duncan comes to mind in this description, not surprisingly. Sarah Helen identified with Athena, so it was only natural that she should don the goddess' helmet for an occasional party. Poe biographers have made sport of Helen's appearance, describing how friends trailed her on the street, retrieving for her the various scarves and parts of her costume that always seemed to be falling off. Helen's pagan garb was pretty daring in a very conventional city.
Although, with the publication of the non-Poe articles in this volume, as well as the publication of Whitman's poems, and some of her letters, we can now perceive her as a keen observer of letters and politics and a friend of artists, suffragists, spiritualists, poets and musicians. She was keen in her enthusiasms, yet reticent to lend her name to outlandish ideas and claims. Despite this, the prevailing impression of her is that of Poe's literary widow, as exemplified by this passage from Thomas Wentworth Higginson:

I like best to think of Poe as associated with his gifted betrothed, Sarah Helen Whitman, whom I saw sometimes in her later years. She had outlived her early friends and loves and hopes, and perhaps her literary fame, such as it was; she had certainly outlived her recognized toes with Poe, and all but his memory. There she dwelt in her little suite of rooms, bearing youth still in her heart and her voice, and on her hair also, and in her dress. Her dimly-lighted parlor was always decked, here and there, with scarlet; and she sat, robed in white, her back always to the light, with a discreetly-tinted shadow over her still thoughtful and noble face. She seemed a person embalmed while still alive; it was as if she might swell forever there, prolonging into an indefinite future the tradition of a poet's love; and when we remembered that she had been Poe's betrothed, that his kisses had touched her lips, that she still believed in him and was his defender, all criticism might well, for her sake, be disarmed, and her saintly life atone for his stormy and sad career.

For many years, Whitman's parlor was home for "The Phalanstery," a circle of artists, writers and musicians who were the Bohemia of Providence. Enlivening this circle of friends were the many visitors, from literary lions to dilettantes, who craved admission into this charmed circle in an otherwise drab and disapproving city. No literary person in Providence, then or since, has achieved a similar esteem and centrality.
After Mrs. Power's death in 1858, Helen and her sister purchased another house, which was moved in the 20th century from its original location on Benevolent Street to 140 Power Street. The home was Sarah Helen's literary salon, séance parlor and sanitarium for her sister. Susan Anna Power — who seems to have drifted, like her forebear Jemima Wilkinson, into religious mania — lived until December 8, 1877. Sarah Helen Whitman fell ill shortly after her sister's death, and was moved to the home of friends on Bowen Street, where she died June 27, 1878. Providence had lost its Muse.

*** ***
Break Every Bond: Sarah Helen Whitman In Providence, will be available in November 2018.
Picture: St John's Churchyard, behind Sarah Helen Whitman's home of the 1840s.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Sarah Helen Whitman as Poet and Critic, Part 5

Poe – Briefly
    In January 1848, Mrs. Anne Lynch, a Providence-born poet who had moved to New York, invited Whitman to contribute poetic greetings to a Valentine's Day party she was planning for the Manhattan literati. Helen and her sister Susan both sent poems. Helen's was addressed to Poe.
Only after the February 14 party was over did Sarah Helen learn that Poe had not been invited, and was now in fact persona non grata. Anne Lynch then submitted 42 poems that had been read at her party for publication in The Home Journal. Helen's poem was not among them.
It took two more communications to a reluctant Anne Lynch to get her to pass along the Poe valentine for publication. The Home Journal published it separately (Whitman3). This publication commenced the famous Poe-Helen romance.
Whitman revised her valentine poem substantially in later years, making its imagery encompass more of Poe's tales.
In 1853, she published the poems she had written to and about Poe in her first book. In 1860, after the death of her mother, she published Edgar Poe and His Critics as a book. Her loyalty to Poe and her unselfish help to Poe biographers over the decades helped turn the tide of popular opinion against those who had depicted him as an amoral villain. Whitman's achievement, triumphing over Rufus Griswold's defamation of Poe, is one of the great vindications in literary history.
In the years until 1860, Helen was generally silent about her relationship with Poe. She relied upon friends to defend her honor — and Poe's. After the infamous "memoir" of Poe published by Rufus Griswold circulated wild and exaggerated stories about Poe and his conduct, William Pabodie published a letter in The New York Tribune in 1852, refuting some of Griswold's slanderous and distorted history. When Griswold threatened Pabodie with a libel suit in return, Pabodie defied him and published another letter showing further falsehoods in Griswold's writing. (It is a touching irony that Griswold's later life would be ruined by Mrs. Ellet, who had been Poe's principal nemesis among the New York literary women.)

At the time of writing Edgar Poe and His Critics (the copyright page of the book is 1859), Mrs. Whitman was also unaware of Poe's attention to another woman during their courtship, and to his torment over that conflicted state, so she quite innocently regarded herself as Poe's last love, in effect his literary widow. Although she writes as his "friend," there is much more at stake for her. (I have detailed the day-by-day convolutions of Poe and Helen's romance and engagement in my book, Last Flowers: The Romance and Poetry of Edgar Allan Poe and Sarah Helen Whitman.)

Suffragist, Abolitionist and Spiritualist
Whitman also wrote on abolitionism and women's rights, and was honored for her work at New York suffragist conventions in 1870 and 1871. In 1868, she was elected vice-president of The Rhode Island Suffrage Association (Baker, 37). Her writings on this and on political topics were not included in Baker's bibliography, and have apparently never been researched.
Whitman endorsed a refined and individual brand of spiritualism. She attended the first recorded séance in Providence in September 1850, an event described as "not successful." Whitman did attend other séances, and contributed several highly intellectual letters and essays on the subject to The New York Tribune and to The Spiritual Telegraph. Their texts can be found in Capron's 1855 book, and the author-enthusiast characterizes her thus: "Among the friends of the spiritual cause of Providence no one has exhibited more firmness, and none more readiness to defend in public and private the spiritual theory [emphasis mine] of these manifestations, than Mrs. Sarah Helen Whitman, the poetess. … She always writes with vigor when reasoning on any subject, and does not forget to fortify herself with a strong array of facts."  Both Capron and Whitman seem eager to distance themselves from the Biblical spiritualism that seemed to come all too easy to fanatical Protestants.
Essentially, Whitman nodded assent with the Christians only on the issue of the immortality of the soul. But her afterlife is more pagan than Christian — a place where lovers are reunited, justice prevails, and punishment — that favorite bugaboo of Puritans — is not even mentioned. It is a benevolent vision of a "here and now" survival of souls — a comforting and harmless dream. She makes it clear in her poetry that she rejects the smiting God — the Old Testament Jehovah whose shadow still darkened New England. The metaphysics of 19th century spiritualism has many aspects that resemble latter-day "New Age" movements, including a startling tolerance for diversity of behavior (including a strong "free love" component.)
Although much has been made of Whitman's involvement with mediumship, the veracity or accuracy of some of these claims are suspect. Richard P. Benton, for example, describes Whitman as already involved in séances at the time of her romance with Poe, wearing a wooden coffin around her neck as a memento mori (Benton 17). This somewhat trivializes and ridicules her — in 1848, no séance had as yet occurred in Providence, and in fact the Spiritualist movement was then just starting in upstate New York. Whitman's interests in 1848 were purely literary.
Spiritualists like to claim Whitman as a celebrity member of their movement, and there is a famous photo of her with her face covered in a dark veil, in "séance attire." Her recognition in the field is from her occasional correspondence and journalism; yet I could not find her name among officers or attendees at various spiritualist conventions held in the Northeast. It is also significant that, even if she hosted and attended séances, she makes no claims of mediumship in her poetry, or in her correspondence with Poe's biographer Ingram. Not one syllable of her work is "dictated" by spirits.
This makes Eliza Richard's fascinating essay on Poe, women poets and spiritualism all the more problematic. Richards has Poe "dictating" ideas and images into Whitman poems that were written before they met, and turns Whitman's passing allusion to spiritualism in Edgar Poe and His Critics  into a claim that Poe was a medium himself, astonishing since Poe died in 1849, and there is little in Poe's writing or criticism to suggest such an attitude. Poe's fiction does deal with souls that might transmigrate, but he does not summon ghosts. In his "Case of M. Valdemar," a dead man's body imprisons his dead soul, and the "news" from beyond is not soothing, but horrifying.
When Richards asserts that "Whitman experimented with spirit channeling after Poe's death to forge an echoic poetry haunted by his ghost" (270) she is ignoring the major poetry Whitman wrote before meeting Poe, as well as denigrating Whitman's own talents. Except in the parody poem, "The Raven," Whitman in fact never imitates Poe in style, and her influences are British and Classical through and through.
In Whitman's defense of Poe's character, she is cautious to fend off charges of atheism against Poe, and she goes to awkward lengths when she attempts to accept Poe's "Eureka" with its idea of the absolute annihilation of the soul, even while re-interpreting it in more hopeful Spiritualist terms. Her first assessment of how radical Poe's ideas were showed that she understood him entirely; her attempt to explain it away is not convincing. When she writes, "[H]is works are, as if unconsciously, filled with an overwhelming sense of the power and majesty of Deity; ­ they are even dark with reverential awe," she is not describing the Poe she knew nor the Poe his readers experience.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Sarah Helen Whitman as Poet and Critic, Part 4

Following is a bibliography of the critical articles which Baker has established as Whitman's writing:

  • Egeria (pseud. Sarah Helen Whitman). "Character and Writings of Shelley." The Literary Journal, and Weekly Register of Science and the Arts. 1:32 (Providence, Sat Jan 11 1834): 252-253. 
  • Egeria (pseud. Sarah Helen Whitman). "On the Nature and Attributes of Genius. The Boston Pearl: A Gazette Devoted to Polite Literature. 5:14 (Saturday, Dec 19 1835) pp. 107-108. 
  • Whitman, Sarah Helen. "Review of 'Conversations with Goethe in the Last Years of His Life' translated from the German of Eckermann." Boston Quarterly Review. January 1840. 3:20-57 [By-lined as 'Providence, August 15, 1839']. 
  • A Disciple (pseud. Sarah Helen Whitman). "Emerson's Essays, by a Disciple." United States Magazine, and Democratic Review. Vol 16 No 84. June 1845.
  • Whitman, Sarah Helen. Edgar Poe and His Critics. 1860. New York: Rudd & Carleton. 
  • Whitman, Sarah Helen. "Tablets." [Review of Alcott]. Providence Daily Journal. Vol 39 No 261. Friday morning, October 30, 1868. 
  • Whitman, Sarah Helen. "Byronism." Providence Daily Journal. Vol 41 No 93. October 18, 1869. 

Edgar Poe and His Critics, Whitman's only critical work to appear in book form, has been praised as a great work of literary vindication. Whitman had to wait until her mother's passing to publish her defense of Poe. Moulton, writing at the time of Whitman's death in 1878, noted the little book's continued high place: "a little volume of passionate and superb prose, in defense of the dead man ... remarkable for its self-restraint... criticism, not eulogy"
Whitman's critical appreciation of Shelley, published in 1834, defends genius against religion, yet Whitman's defense is timid, reduced in essence to the argument that kind Christians should have remonstrated gently with the poet and brought him back into the fold, rather than casting him out for his atheism. This alone sufficed to make Whitman an outcast among some families in Benefit Street, and the British blasphemy trial against Shelley's poetry was still to come.
At the time Whitman wrote her appreciation of Goethe in 1840, the second part of Faust was little-known, and only those able to read German could plumb its depths (she and Margaret Fuller were among them). Earlier, Thomas Carlyle had lamented the lack of a worthy Faust translation, thus:
A suitable version of Faust would be a rich addition to our literature; but the difficulties which stand in the way of such an undertaking amount to almost an absolute veto. The merits of a good translation, especially in poetry, always bear some kindred, though humble, relation to those of the original; and in the case before us, that relation approaches more nearly to equality than in any other that we know of. To exhibit in a different tongue any tolerable copy of the external graces of this drama, — the marvelous felicity of its language, and the ever-varying, ever-expressive rhythm of its verse, would demand the exercise of all that is rarest and most valuable in a poet's art; while the requisite familiarity with such thoughts and feelings as it embodies, could not exist but in conjunction with nearly all that is rarest and most valuable in a poet's genius. A person so qualified is much more likely to write tragedies of his own, than to translate those of others: and thus Faust, we are afraid, must ever continue in many respects a sealed book to the mere English reader.

The vigor and philosophical penetration of her thought come through most strikingly in her 1845 explication and defense of Emerson, a work that must have dazzled Poe even if he recoiled from New England Transcendentalism. After a wide-ranging discussion of Emerson's influences and innovations, Whitman closes with a new self-confidence:
In asserting that the fontal idea of Emerson's writings, as of the philosophy of the age, is absolute identity, I have not been careful to avert from them the imputation of Pantheism, Platonism, Spinozism, &c., &c. It matters little how we designate this manner of interpreting the phenomena of being, since it contains an inherent vitality which alike survives neglect and defies ridicule.

Superficial and timid men may decry these ideas as unintelligible or profane; but what rational ground of faith is left to him who doubts that God is over all and in all, that evil is but the absence and privation of good, and that all apparent evil must give way before a fuller development of the life that is within us? Only when the knowledge that the highest dwells ever with us becomes "a sweet enveloping thought," shall we be enabled to lead a single and trustful life, "to live in thoughts and act with energies that are immortal."

Sadly, her literary essays and letters, other than Edgar Poe and His Critics, remained unpublished in book form. Whitman left $1,000 in her estate for the publication of her prose works. Moulton (804) confirmed this in the London Athenaeum obituary. Baker found heavily annotated copies of the reviews prepared by Whitman and/or an amanuensis, so the manuscript was at hand. The prose volume never appeared.
Why did Whitman not publish her non-Poe criticism during her lifetime? The experience of Margaret Fuller might be helpful. Fuller, Whitman's friend and a one-time resident of Providence, had published her own critical essays on literature, Papers on Literature and Art, in 1846, but the timidity of her publishers, Wiley & Putnam, prevented this volume from containing the full range of her controversial political and social thinking. Judith Bean tells us "Her proposed collection was cut in half for publication, obscuring her political critique and the range of her work as a critic." The excisions included a review of Shelley's poetry, and Whitman could have anticipated a similar problem, since her own essays centered on Shelley, Byron and Goethe. A criminal conviction in England charging a publisher with blasphemy for reprinting Shelley's "Queen Mab" is one possible factor in this case of publisher's panic, and in 1844, two Edinburgh booksellers were imprisoned for selling works by Thomas Paine and Shelley.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Autumn Elegy

This is the very first of my Anniversarius poem-cycle, a long arc of writing centered around autumn. It was written at Edinboro Lake, Pennsylvania, many, many, many years ago.
The snow has come. The swirling flakes self-immolate
on hot maple grove, white-fringe the aging auburn oaks,
a coin drop from winter into the glacial lake.
(Cold comes so early here — September frost invades
the harvesting and gives the roses heart attacks.)
The boreal wind has taken up residence,
has seized the calendar in icy clench. The hat
I haven't seen since spring comes down —I undertake
a day-long search for hibernating gloves and boots.
My scarf has stolen off — I know not where. The mouse,
the gray one my cat keeps catching and letting go,
darts to and fro on the kitchen floor — does he know
the hard light's reckoning? Does bone-deep chill at dawn
embolden him this once for daylight foraging?
(We have an arrangement on the winter's supplies:
he comes out at night and he and I know full well
that whatever is not locked is not wanted, fair game
for a gray mouse.) He nudges a cast-off crust,
noses for crumbs, his whiskers italicizing
the advent of hunger, his tail a question mark
interrogating me about the wayward sun.
Alone in frost, I take my place at the lake,
my solitude complete, my steps the first to break
the pathway to the pebbled shore. I stand alone,
until the rabbit peers out from the graveyard grass —
twice now he's been there among the mummied lilies,
his eye, as mine, upon the never placid waves.
The summer boats are gone. White ducks that waded here
are huddled now beneath the bridge, far downstream.
The other birds have packed their bags — they have left us
their broken shells, their desolated nests, their songs
a carbon copy of a twice-repeated tale.
Lord Lepus, what do you know of impending ice?

Do you suspect the cirrus-borne snow's arrival?
Will you find greens enough beneath the snow bank?
We turn our mutual ways — you to your warren
amid the husks and roots and toppled gravestones —
I must go to book and breakfast. I leave the trees,
fond frame of my eye's delight, putting behind me
the cup of lake that always welcomes each sunrise.
Soon now its eye will be blinded, a cataract
reflecting sheet-white nothingness. I walk through town,
across the college grounds where last night's wind's caprice
made here a pristine bed of snow — yet over there
an untouched riot of maple on still-green lawn.
The carillon tolls the beginning of the day;
the students hurry, dumbfounded at virgin snow.
I am the only one to linger here. I stand
upon a carpet of red, soft, ancient leaves: some,
some are green yet, they are still proud,
they are fallen on the wings of their youth
and they are going to pick up anytime now
and fly back —
I am mourning for them,
for them, for you, for my brothers who have

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Sarah Helen Whitman As Poet And Critic, Part 3

Her Published Criticism
Poe's most recent biographer, Kenneth Silverman, was one of the first scholars to acknowledge that Helen was a formidable intellectual match for Poe. Unlike the mostly dilettante female poets Poe knew in New York, Silverman observes, "Sarah Helen Whitman was a woman with sophisticated philosophical and literary interests — after her friend Margaret Fuller, perhaps the leading female literary critic in America" (Silverman 347).
Although she had no opportunity for formal education other than a brief period at a Quaker school on Long Island, Whitman was a well-read classicist, and her critical articles put her squarely in the league of the Harvard-trained Boston writers and reviewers. She knew Virgil and other Latin authors. She read Shelley and the Romantics, and she translated German supernatural ballads, as well as Goethe, and, from the French, Victor Hugo. Her many correspondents included Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Stephane Mallarmé and other British and continental writers, as well as domestic writers and editors.
Noelle Baker, who prepared the first critical edition of Whitman's critical articles, characterizes her subject thus: "[S]he should be studied with such established critics as William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Frederic Henry Hedge and Edgar Allan Poe. Whitman explicates transcontinental idealism within the context of American considerations of immorality, pre-Darwinian evolution theory, German Naturphilosophen, and the occult in her essays on Emerson, Alcott, Goethe, Shelley and Poe. She argued that these writers utilize literature, science and philosophy to recover individual spirituality in a time of inadequate traditional theology and doctrinal malaise. Almost invariably, Whitman defends her subjects from American critics who consider the byproducts of this secular faith irreligious or immoral" (Baker, iii).
Susan P. Conrad says that Whitman's essays "rank with those of Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Peabody as the most important literary criticism produced by women — and men — in the period [1830-1860]" (Conrad, 223).
Choosing "Break every bond" as her motto (Baker 12), Whitman intentionally chose some of the most controversial literary figures to write about. She defended Shelley's atheism, refused to throw out Byron's poetry even if he did have an affair with his half-sister, and championed the writing of Goethe even if Werther and Faust did seem to approve of seduction, vice, suicide, and bargains with the Devil. As Baker is quick to note, Whitman beat a trail-blazing path to Goethe's writing: "Whitman read German, and with Margaret Fuller produced the only American women's published analyses of German language and literature at a time when even most male critics read the Germans through Coleridge and Carlyle" (Baker, 3).
In her last years, Mrs. Whitman admired Swinburne's poetry, and in her correspondence with Mallarmé she offered the French poet advice on translating "The Raven" (Lloyd 103). She became "one of the most important mediators Mallarmé found between himself and Poe" (Lloyd 104). The French poet advised Whitman on her own translation of his "Tomb of Edgar Poe" (Ticknor 268-270).
Baker calls Whitman's criticism "a minor woman writer's programmatic attempt to publish a deviant, male-gendered authorial identity," but Baker seems to make too much of Whitman's pseudonymous publications. Her somewhat labored commentary about Whitman's attempts to "pass" as a male critic seem off the mark to me on three counts: first, criticism of the period tended to be highly intellectualized and almost genderless. Critics did not write as men or as women but as critics. Second, two of Whitman's key essays were published with the female pseudonym "Egeria," and most of Whitman's articles were circulated in manuscript among the literati and her identity was well known.
The name "Egeria" comes from Roman history. This is the name given to the prophetess (or, some say, consort) of the Roman king Numa Pompilius, the great Roman lawgiver. Since Whitman was the wife of a young Boston lawyer at the time, "Egeria" was a suitable name for the wife and muse of a young man who might hope some day to be a judge or lawmaker. Both articles by-lined "Egeria" appeared early in her widowhood, and this may have added to her reticence.
This raises yet again the question of the extent to which Whitman's literary fame was stifled or limited by her gender. The male writers and editors who encountered Whitman, from the Harvard circle, the Transcendentalist circle, and from New York, implored her to submit articles and poems for publication. According to Baker, Orestes Bronson "offered her an equal share in the profits of his Boston Quarterly Review if she would contribute an article to each number."
The discouragement that Whitman received from family and Providence society seems to have been mostly of female origin. In fact, men are not mentioned much at all in the family history, except when a male is required for legal purposes, such as arranging property transfers. Ticknor, Whitman's first biographer, alludes to family pressures that discouraged Whitman in her early years. Two of the original documents are at the John Hay library at Brown University — two letters from an older cousin who had been a "second mother" to Whitman during her stays on Long Island. Here we can see, first-hand, the kind of admonishment that Whitman had to endure in her teens, precisely when her passion for poetry was reaching its apex:

I am still as much your mother as ever. How do your studies come on? Do you go to school or not? if not, I hope that you study at home. Do not neglect this important facet of your life. It is now the springtime with you, my dear, and recollect that if you attend more to its enjoyments than its cares; if intent only on its flowers and birds, its fragrance and its harmony, you neglect the toilsome preparation and … your summer will be without fruit and your winter dreary indeed.
Of this be certain, that the only earthly foundation for permanent satisfaction is the utilization of the intellectual and moral faculties. Devote yourself, in the first place, to God, read his book, pray unto him and endeavor to increase in his knowledge. This, my child, is the only safe refuge in affliction, the only firm support in prosperity as well as in adversity, the only course of temporal as well as eternal happiness.
In the next place, cultivate a taste for solid and substantial knowledge; this only will tend to make you the sort of character I wish you to be. Poetry and novels, delightful as they may be to a youthful mind, are not only nugatory, they are not only void of all useful instruction, but they positively contaminate, and they occupy the time that ought to be devoted to better things (Marsh, Ms 204, HA1388).

Two months later, Whitman's cousin reinforces her argument in another letter:

I hear from your own account that you read too much poetry, dear Sarah. Indulged in to excess it becomes almost if not quite as pernicious as novels. Any kind of reading which tends to excite the fancy and raise up visions of romantic feelings unknown to this world is dangerous, except occasionally as a relaxation (Marsh, MS 204, HA1387).

This is probably the kind of regurgitated sermonizing that young Sarah Helen would have heard from her mother and the social circle of genteel old families into which she was born. Rebellion had its price, but the young poet was clearly drawn to the rebels' side. She exulted when her father, in his seventies, took up arms in the Dorr War and was briefly jailed. She chose a "conventional" husband, but her mother may not have known that John Winslow Whitman was actually a freethinker who had scandalized his class at Brown by giving a commencement address titled "The Atheist."

-- to be continued --

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Sarah Helen Whitman as Poet and Critic, Part 2

Family Troubles
Meantime, Nicholas Power, rebuffed from the attractive red house on Benefit Street, had set up lodgings in a Providence hotel and began his new, disreputable existence, pursuing ladies of the theater. The prejudice against theater people was so strong in America at this time that actors were routinely forbidden the use of churches for weddings and funerals. So it is possible that the contemporary reference to "actresses" was a euphemism implying all kinds of women, including prostitutes.
At this time, the Power-Whitman household probably assumed its frozen triangle of control, dependence and artistic defiance. Mrs. Anna Power held the purse strings. She would make certain that no man ever got near the modest fortune that had come their way through the Marsh family.
The younger sister, Susan Anna, careened between manic highs and long periods of sullen silence. One episode reportedly led her to a sanitarium stay, for "mania," but Mrs. Power evidently preferred the cheaper long-term solution of keeping her daughter at home, under constant supervision.
Mrs. Power probably established some stern rules about the extent to which Susan's mood swings would be humored — though after their mother's death, Sarah Helen seemed to surrender control to her reclusive "patient." During Susan's depressive periods, the house would be darkened and visitors turned away. Her need for silence, darkness and solitude were pampered, and if visitors were by some necessity admitted, Susan would hide in a closet. In her manic phases, Susan Anna collaborated on some well-wrought fairy-tale poems with Sarah Helen, and amused visitors with impromptu verses about the wandering Nicholas Power.
Although Whitman would accept the burden of living with her embittered mother, and helping to care for her sister, her mind, and her writing, were unfettered. She was with the gods — Goethe, Schiller, Shelley, Byron, Emerson. She studied occult lore and learned about mesmerism and (later) spiritualism, as interest in these phenomena swept across the New England states. And when universal male suffrage, women's suffrage, and the abolition of slavery became New England's predominant issues, Sarah Helen was there. Séances, poetry and political activism, all went hand-in-glove.
An avid reader, she frequented the wonderful Providence Athenaeum, a membership lending library which opened its new Greek-revival  temple only a few blocks away on Benefit Street in 1838. She became a local celebrity, and parties and salons at her home drew not only the locals, but visiting celebrities such as Emerson. John Hay, a young poet later famed as Abraham Lincoln's secretary, was a devotee at the Power salon, which came to be called "The Phalanstery."

Her Published Poetry
Among the fine later poems, Sarah Helen Whitman's "Proserpine, [On Earth,] To Pluto, In Hades" (Whitman2, 158)  deserves special attention for its allegory of the characters in the Poe-Helen-Mrs. Power love drama. The poet uses the familiar mythical story of Ceres' daughter, Proserpine (Persephone in Greek), who must spend six months of the year with her brooding husband, Pluto, lord of the dead, and six months of the year above ground. This ancient fable explaining and symbolizing the seasons is turned topsy-turvy by Whitman. Her Proserpine loves Pluto and prefers to sit by his throne in the dark underworld. Her angry mother Ceres comes in a chariot drawn by two dragons to reclaim her. Here we have, a trio of archetypes: Helen, Poe, and the ever-angry Mrs. Power. The Persephone symbolism even carried to Helen's funeral in 1878: her coffin was decorated with a green wreath, and a stalk of wheat.
Whitman's longest and most ambitious poem is "Hours of Life" (Whitman2 101). The middle section of that poem, "Noon," is a spiritual saga and romantic quest — the poet's search for meaning and truth through the realms of myth and antiquity. In this long poetic odyssey we see: Echoes of Goethe in a passage that is almost a paraphrase of the famous scene of Faust alone in his laboratory, before he makes the acquaintance of Mephistopheles … A fascinatingly brief flirtation with the vengeful god of the Old Testament, whom she rejects … A wise examination and rejection of the sad religion of the Hindu … as well as the death-obsessed Egyptian … A passionate, almost Shelleyan plunge into the world of Ancient Greece, where she obviously feels close to the very origins of myth and meaning. Her use of the Dionysian Maenads — fierce, wild, drunken women, running down the mountain slope toward her as in a nightmare, crying out "Evoe — ah — Evoe!" is the most elemental, and frankly terrifying thing in all her writing. Here she is throwing herself into the world of Euripides' The Bacchae, probably the most Chthonic and unnerving of all the texts to come down from antiquity (Euripides 401).
She wrests herself away from the refrain of the Maenads only by turning to Nature. Here she waxes almost Byronic in taking comfort from the rude, natural world. She finds that she can accept this transcendental, all-encompassing Nature, free of the eidolons of ancient gods.
One thing only troubles her, though — the doubt that would bring her back to a more conventional, if still highly individual, resolution, in the third part of the poem. What about the abyss after death? she asks. Nature is not enough if the spirit does not survive and transcend the body. Thus she leaves her quest, Faust-like, with no satisfaction from all she has seen on her journey.
The beauty and power of "Noon" is easily obscured by the more conventional opening, and the rather spiritualist closing of the longer poem of which it is part. But "Noon" itself is a remarkable production, a piece Romantic in the purest sense. The very idea of a Providence widow in her darkened rooms on Benefit Street writing such an impassioned, fully-worked out quest in verse is amazing. Whatever the poem lacks in originality in its occasional mimicry of Shelley and Byron, it makes up for in its economy, intellect and power. George Ripley, founder of The Dial, here being quoted by Mrs. Whitman's posthumous editors from a New York Tribune review, called it "remarkable for the life-like reality with which it weaves the recollections of a profound and intense experience into the natural materials of song. … a taste ripened and enriched by exquisite culture … uniting spontaneous grace and freshness with classical finish. … Rich as it is in characteristics that would establish an enviable poetical fame for any writer…" (Whitman2, xi).
Her first book, Hours of Life and Other Poems, published in 1853 (her fiftieth year), was printed by Knowles, Anthony & Company under the aegis of George H. Whitney, a Providence bookseller. The edition was small and the poet was still giving away copies twenty years later. The volume includes the major poems she had written to and about Poe.
We will never know if the bookseller published and underwrote Hours of Life, as Helen insisted, "at his request" (Miller 97) or whether she subsidized the venture. We know that she wrote to Poe's biographer Ingram many years later: "I am utterly & entirely ignorant of all transactions with publishers. I have no relations with any publishers & never made a contract in my life" (Miller 29) At another time, however, she wrote: "Mr. Whitney, the publisher, surrendered to me the copyright before he gave up business as bookseller and publisher. Mr. Carleton also gave up to me his copyright of Edgar Poe and His Critics" (Miller 97)
Edgar Poe and His Critics was published in 1860, not coincidentally soon after her mother died. Mallarmé, discovering the book in 1877, wrote to Whitman of the book's "unexpected charm and a penetrating beauty" (Lloyd 102). Arthur Hobson Quinn, in one of the best Poe biographies of the first half of the 20th century, appraised her book as "not only a convincing personal tribute, but also one of the most sympathetic and brilliant interpretations of his poetry and fiction" (Quinn 572).
Sarah Helen Whitman's collected poems were issued in a memorial edition a year after her death, in 1879, by Houghton, Osgood and Company, printed by The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. The third and last printing was in 1916. Her poetry remained out of print until the publication of Last Flowers: The Romance Poems of Edgar Allan Poe and Sarah Helen Whitman in 1985 (Rutherford).
Sarah Helen Whitman left $2,000 in her estate for the posthumous publication of her poems. No doubt this sum was applied to the 1879 edition of her poems. The 1916 reprint, the same year as Caroline Ticknor's biography, Poe's Helen, was probably a spontaneous production.
The present volume includes a selection of Mrs. Whitman's poetry, ranging beyond the Poe-related works included in Last Flowers. Posterity has been somewhat unkind to her reputation, both in dismissing her as the ether-sniffing "poetess" once engaged to Poe, and because her poetry is at times less original. That many poems were written for friends and for her literary circle, meant that she had no qualms about inserting a quoted line here and there from another poet (with quotation marks), assuming that her readers would understand her use of a familiar line or phrase. The ego of the male poet would seemingly never condone this kind of collaborative poesy.

-- To be continued --

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Supernatural Barber of Scottdale

Scottdale, Pennsylvania, the town where I was shouted at for walking
around with Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, turns out to be weird
enough after all. Here's the shop window of Joe Cappa, the Supernatural
Barber. The walls are lined with horror movie posters. Kids must love
this place.

Sarah Helen Whitman, Poet and Literary Critic, Part 1

This essay will appear in my forthcoming book collecting Sarah Helen Whitman's literary essays and selected poems. The footnote references and citations are not included here. Today's posting will be the part of my essay about Whitman's family history and early life. More installments will follow.

SARAH HELEN WHITMAN (1803-1878), poet and critic, is best known for her brief engagement to Edgar Allan Poe in 1848, and for her role as Poe’s posthumous defender in her 1860 book, Edgar Poe and His Critics. She is seldom treated as more than an incidental person in Poe biography, and no books of her own poetry were reprinted after 1916, the same year the only full-length biography of her, by Caroline Ticknor, appeared. The full text of Whitman’s critical writings, most published under pseudonyms, has only recently been correctly identified and attributed to her. A reassessment of Sarah Helen Whitman as poet places her squarely in the Romantic tradition; and, as critic, as a ground-breaking American defender of Shelley, Byron, Poe, Goethe, and Emerson. Whitman’s literary accomplishments were small but significant, given the limits placed upon her success by the social, gender and religious norms of the time and place in which she lived — Providence, Rhode Island in the antebellum decades, as well as in the 1870s, when she published little, but carried on an extensive literary correspondence and served as her city’s literary den mother.

Providence at Mid-Century
Providence had little significance in America’s literary and publishing history in the 19th century. Boston and New York had the lion’s share of literary fame and virtually all of the nation’s publishing firms. It is easy — but hazardous — to assume that female writers had virtually little chance of being published or recognized in this milieu, and even less if they hailed from places other than New York or Boston. 
A glance at published statistics help give us a better feel for the Providence in which Sarah Helen Whitman and her contemporaries lived and wrote. The demographics suggest a society with very distinct class and race boundaries, but still one in which women were often the heads of households. The Census of 1855 documented 8,260 households in the bustling seaport and mill town, of which 1,315 were headed by women (about one in six.) About one in five houses in the city consisted of family groupings or boarding houses in which there were no children. Of the population of 46,400, only 1,390 were listed as “colored,” and the town fathers were in a state of perpetual alarm about foreigners: 22 percent of the residents were recent immigrants from Ireland. 
Providence was a rich city. As the birthplace of America’s industrial revolution, it contained six cotton mills and four textile printing works. More than 5,000 vessels arrived that year in the port, and the city was connected to Boston, New York, and to other parts of New England with railroads, steamboats, stagecoaches and an “express steamer.” If anything, Providence was more interconnected with the other cities of the Northeast than it is today.
A writer living in Providence, however, could look forward to little local success. Although, at the time of the 1855 Census, there were four daily newspapers and six weeklies, and one semi-weekly, literary magazines did not thrive in the city. Albert Greene edited the short-lived title, The Literary Journal, and Weekly Register of Science and the Arts (1833-34), and efforts to establish another around 1840 were greeted with ridicule by locals.  Many local men attended Brown University, but that institution exerted little influence on the literary life of the city, and the leading families were notoriously conservative in taste. In the late 1870s, Whitman wrote this to John H. Ingram, her British correspondent: “Though called the wealthiest city of its size in the Union, it [i.e., Providence]  has no magazine or other literary periodical. ” 
According to the 1855 Census, the Brown University library had 26,000 books that year, and The Providence Athenaeum, a membership library, had 19,000 titles. The major vehicle of cultural transmission other than reading books and journals, was the extensive Lyceum movement, which brought authors and speakers on many topics to all the cities and large towns, where large audiences came to hear them lecture or read from their works.

Sarah Helen Whitman’s Family History
Just as it would be impossible to understand fully female writers like the Brontës (captives of class, geography, and familial stricture) without knowing their family history, we must look to Whitman’s genealogy and family history to grasp some of the social and gender pressures against which she had to strive as a writer. 
The following is mostly derived from the work of John Austin, published in 1889, the only known genealogy of her family. (A 1974 genealogy by Franklin Powers mostly repeats the facts gathered by Austin.) I include genealogy here, despite its slight tediousness, because the information is, first of all, rather difficult to obtain, and, second, because it puts the Power family and its fortunes squarely in the “Triangle Trade” era.
 The Powers were in Rhode Island almost from the beginning. There would be six Nicholas Powers in the family, the last of them Sarah Helen Whitman’s father.
The first Nicholas Power received a home lot in Providence in 1640. He was in trouble briefly with the British authorities for trying to purchase Indian lands in Warwick (RI) — expressly forbidden in the treaties with the local tribes —  and was “dismissed with an admonition.”
Nicholas died in 1657, leaving his widow, Jane Power, a daughter, Hope, and the next Nicholas Power. This Nicholas died in the catastrophic King Phillip’s War in 1675. He is not found in lists of combatants, but Austin explains: “He was killed in The Great Swamp Fight in Narragansett, by a shot from the command in which he was serving.”
His son, Captain Nicholas Power, was born in 1673. This Nicholas’s  second wife was Mercy Tillinghast, daughter of the ominously-named Rev. Pardon Tillinghast. Captain Power died in 1734. He had four slaves: Cuffy, Tony, Caesar, and Peg. 
The next Nicholas Power was a merchant and distiller. He married Anne Tillinghast, and died in Surinam in 1744. He sold his estate and distillery in Dutch Guiana to Captain John Brown in 1743. A family that owned slaves and­ a distillery would almost certainly have been involved in the notorious Triangle Trade of rum, slaves, and molasses.
In the next generation, we have another Captain Nicholas Power, a merchant and rope-maker. He was married to Rebecca Corey, and died January 26, 1808. The records indicate he freed a slave named “Prince” in 1781. 
The Nicholas who figures in our story is the sixth, known as Nicholas Power, Jr., born September 15, 1771. He married Anna Marsh, daughter of Daniel and Susanna (Wilkinson) Marsh on August 28, 1798 in Newport. He was a merchant, going by the title of Major for some part of his life. 
His mercantile life seemed to be land-locked: he formed a partnership as “Blodgett and Power” and opened a store near Providence’s Baptist Meeting House. The goods sold there began with fabrics, linens, threads (English, Indian and Scottish), then dry goods, hardware and groceries. From 1808 to 1810 the store ran auctions of goods. Then, in 1812, the partnership terminated. The war with the British almost certainly interrupted their trade.
The genealogy notes, cryptically: “He was absent from Providence much in later years.” It was a case or adventure and spousal desertion. Nicholas Power had gone to sea to build back his fortune, and was captured by the British during the War of 1812. He was not released until 1815, at which time he did not return to Providence. He was not seen or heard from in Rhode Island until around 1832 or 1833, when he made a sudden return to make amends and presumably resume his family life. 
Indications are that his nineteen-year “widow” was aghast at his return and threw him out of the house. He took up residence in a Providence hotel, and, to the dismay of all, spent the years until his death on April 28, 1844, in conspicuous dissolution. In 1842, he got around to placing a marker on his mother’s grave with an inscription lamenting the effect of his long absence on his parent’s well-being. (Rebecca Corey Power had died in 1825, and it is likely that she never knew what became of her son).
The Power children who, for a time, regarded their father as dead, were three sisters. Nicholas and Anna’s first child, Rebecca, was born in 1800. Sarah Helen Power, our and Poe’s “Helen,” was the second daughter, born in Providence on January 19, 1803. The house where she was born was that of her grandfather, Captain Nicholas Power, at the corner of South Main and Transit Streets. They lived in this house until her grandfather’s death in 1808. 
As Nicholas Power’s fortunes ebbed and flowed, the young family moved to a succession of houses and lodgings: a house at the corner of Snow and Westminster (now a parking lot in a depressed corner of downtown Providence); “the Grinnell House,” and “the Angell Tavern,” which had a garden leading to the water.
Sarah Helen’s younger sister, Susan Anna, was born in 1813. Hers was a dark-shadowed life: daughter of a merchant euphemistically “lost at sea,” she would mature into a willful manic-depressive, the classic mad relative without whom no New England house seemed complete. Since her mother was descended from the Wilkinson line that had produced the religious cult founder Jemima Wilkinson, there is the possibility of a genetic predisposition for bipolar disease if not schizophrenia. Jemima Wilkinson, declaring herself dead and resurrected, took the name “Public Universal Friend” and persuaded a number of people to forsake community and property and go off to live with her in upstate New York, where she preached to Indians, led a sexless commune, and promised (but) failed to walk on water.
After 1816, Mrs. Power, regarding herself as a widow, purchased the house at 76 Benefit Street (now No. 88) as a residence for herself and her daughters. It would be their home for more than four decades. The family was well able to live on the stocks and mortgages Mrs. Power had inherited from her mother, funds happily untouched by the impecunious Major Power.
Although Benefit Street was then fashionable, it had been built over grave plots.  The original settlers of Providence owned long, parallel strips of land starting at the river and running up over College Hill. Until 1710 or so, most families buried their dead on this hillside, and a lane that threaded among the family burial plots was ultimately straightened and paved to become Benefit Street. For some years, the street terminated with a gate, to ward off the denizens of the sinister North End.
With the creation of Benefit Street, the city fathers persuaded families to exhume and relocate their moldering ancestors to the North Burial Ground. A number of gloomy and derelict churchyards were also relocated there gradually, but St. John’s churchyard remained, its wall abutting the Powers’ rose garden. Like the Brontë sisters, the Power sisters’ vista always included a graveyard.
Although a proper Providence upbringing in those days was probably rather stifling to the intellect, Sarah Helen had a few escapes during her younger years: she visited relatives on Long Island, New York and briefly attended a Quaker school.10 Despite the Puritanical suspicions and prohibitions of her relatives, she developed an early passion for poetry. She mastered Latin and would later be sufficiently adept in languages to read and translate both German and French.
In 1821, Sarah Helen’s older sister Rebecca married William E. Staples. Two children were born to them in rapid succession. There is a Judge William Staples home just up the block from the Power house on Benefit Street, and this may be where the couple lived.
Despite her mother’s deep-set mistrust of the male gender, Sarah Helen, too, was wooed and won away from the Benefit Street home. In 1824, during her twenty-first year, she was engaged to attorney John Winslow Whitman. Urged to assume the proper responsibilities of womanhood, Helen was pressured to put aside her literary ambitions. As Ticknor tells it, “Mrs. Whitman’s taste for poetry was frowned upon by certain relatives...[She received] reproving letters, expressing the hope that she ‘did not read much poetry, as it was almost as pernicious as novel-reading’.”
Mr. Whitman seemed a good match. He was not one of those lawyers whom Shakespeare would have us kill. The third son of Massachusetts Judge Kilborne Whitman, he graduated from Brown University in 1818. He started a law practice in Boston, and practiced later in Barnstable.
During their long engagement, in 1825, Sarah Helen’s grandmother, Rebecca Corey Power, died.
Sorrow struck again that year when Sarah Helen’s older sister Rebecca died on September 14th. She had been married only four years, and then her two children, according to the Power family records, “died young.” Was her death childbirth-related, or did a contagion such as tuberculosis (”the galloping consumption”) sweep through the Staples home, taking the young mother and then the children? This tragedy must have made a deep impression on the poetical Sarah Helen, who would have followed four coffins to the North Burial Ground in swift succession.
Sarah Helen’s respectably-delayed marriage took place in 1828, with a Long Island wedding held on July 10th at the home of Sarah Helen’s uncle, Cornelius Bogert. A four-year engagement may seem excessive by today’s standards, but Mr. Whitman may also have needed time to establish his law practice and set up a suitable home.
John Whitman turned out to have a creative side, too. It is interesting to note that Mrs. Whitman’s biographers, and most of Poe’s, seem to know her husband only by his profession. I was startled to discover, during an Internet search, that John Winslow Whitman had another persona altogether: he seems to have had some involvement with the Boston-based magazine, The Ladies’ Album. He was also, briefly, partner in a weekly Boston newspaper titled The Times
The Ladies’ Album published some of Whitman’s poems, under the name “Helen.” Ticknor, incorrectly, writes that Whitman’s first published poem was in that journal in 1829, a poem titled, “Retrospection.” Actually, Whitman published two poems there in 1828, the year of her marriage. It is telling that her second published poem, “To the Spirit of Poetry,” is a direct refutation of the religious admonitions against poetry that her family and friends had pressed upon her, as these lines reveal:

Thou art religion, virtue, faith;
Through thee the martyr conquers death;
Thy voice, like solemn music leads
To godlike thoughts, and glorious deeds.
Borne upwards on thy radiant wings,
Man’s soaring spirit heavenward springs,
And burst the ignoble chains that bind
To earth’s dull dross the immortal mind.

To thee alone, the power is given,
To render earth a present heaven:
Oh! may thine influence elevate
My soul above the ills of date:
May thy pure present ne’er depart,
But, treasured deep within my heart,
There may the spirit ever be,
A beauty, and a mystery.14

Through her husband’s Boston affiliations, she met and came to know the circle of Transcendentalists, and started writing and publishing essays on Goethe, Shelley and Emerson. Articles and poems in other magazines soon followed. Mrs. Whitman was clearly not going to vanish into the draperies, and she was fortunate to have a literary ally in her husband.
A few years later, a new kind of turmoil roiled the family. Sometime between 1831 and 1832, Sarah Helen’s mother lost the right to wear her widow’s bonnet, with the sudden reappearance of the wandering Nicholas Power. Did the Major return in a remorseful state, wanting to make amends and restore his family’s fortune? Or was he ruined again, returning to old haunts to nibble away at his wife’s property? Another legend has it that he had a second wife and family in the Carolinas, and had now abandoned them, too.
Sarah Helen, who had cherished a somewhat heroic image of her father, was crushed — and one can only imagine the effect of all this on the younger sister. 
Like her errant father, Sarah Helen’s husband was not destined for commercial success. Money vanished into failed inventions, and several business ventures went belly-up. Mr. Whitman even appears to have gone to jail for a few months in a legal upset involving a bad loan — not a happy career turn for a young attorney. His name also appears as co-author of a series of booklets that appear to be transcripts of controversial Boston lawsuits, including one libel suit that involved a clergyman.
Worse yet, John Whitman also turned out to have a frail constitution. He caught colds frequently, and one of them, contracted in 1833, lingered and worsened into a total collapse and sudden death.  There is a mystery here, and much more needs to be learned about Mr. Whitman. Ticknor disposes of Mrs. Whitman’s youth and marriage in a mere 13 pages, and Mrs. Whitman pulls a veil of silence over the subject for the rest of her life. Husband and wife were clearly partners in the literary life they found in Boston, and one can only assume that inordinate family pressures back in Providence created the virtual cover-up that ensued.
In 1833, then, Sarah Helen Whitman found herself a widow after only five years of marriage. She donned the official “widow’s bonnet” and moved back in with her mother and younger sister on Benefit Street. Her defense of Shelley, published in Providence’s first and only literary journal early in 1834, bore the Roman-Etruscan pseudonym of “Egeria.”
Although she would resume the role of dutiful daughter, Sarah Helen was now a published literary figure in her own right, confident in her worth and powers, and acquainted with many of the best minds of New England.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Rutherford's First String Quartet

I just finished making an arrangement of my Elegy and Variations for string quartet, which I am calling my String Quartet No 1. The pitch-perfect Chengdu String Quartet recorded this in an abandoned movie theater near here, while Fritz watched out for police. After three takes, I think we got it down well. Some actual bats responded to the "bat-flight" segment, to general delight. 
The twelve-minute work consists of:

  • Elegy 1 (Night Fog at the Lake) in C Minor
  • Batflight
  • Fireflies in a Midnight Grove (in A Minor)
  • Temper Tantrum with Bullfrogs
  • Elegy 2 (in F-Sharp Minor)

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Hunchback Assistant Tells All

In honor of Mary Shelley's birthday, this long-lost letter in verse to the author of Frankenstein.


My dear Mrs. Shelley —

won’t do — she’s neither ‘mine’ nor dear

To Mary —

sounds like a dedication
when nothing of that sort’s intended


so cool, polite and very French,
that will do.

Madame —

No doubt you suspect, if you have not heard
of the sensation caused by your romance,
newly translated to our Alpine tongues.
Neither the French nor the German booksellers
can keep enough of Frankenstein,
or The Modern Prometheus.
The bookbinders are up all night
preparing the slender volumes
for the fainting sight of the ladies.
Nothing else is spoken of, and little else read
at our little University.
I have studied your book, Madame Shelley,
and being more intimate than you
— or anyone else yet living —
with the facts in the case of Frankenstein,
I must hasten to write you,
that you might correct the grievous oversight
of omitting my role—my pivotal role
in the great endeavors,
the tragic conflagration.

I am Fritz,
poor old one-eyed, limping Fritz
the hump-backed,
unbaptized son of a priest and a nun,
a throwaway
raised by gypsies.
I will spare you nothing,
for only the sum of what I am
can justify what I was
to Victor, his bride and his monster.

You never mention me, Mrs. Shelley,
but I was there from the start.
I saw him at the medical school.
I always went to the dissections
(I have, you see, insatiable interest
in human anatomy.)
I loved to watch those perfect bodies,
naked and cold,
white as marble statues,
opened and disassembled
by the knowing hands of the surgeons.
I took my pad and crayon with me,
drew every line and contour—
the man’s bold lines,
the woman’s curved exterior—
the coiled horrors within,
the entrails unraveling,
the mysteries of the ensorcelled brain!

Then suddenly I noticed him.
His jet-black hair, eyebrows of Jove,
his burning eyes intent upon the scalpel and saw,
absorbing each surgical thrust.
I saw him and knew,
knew from the start as one soul knows another,
that he perceived beyond life and death.
He saw me drawing, and nodded, and smiled.

From that day forward I drew only him,
intent no more upon the surgery,
I sought to capture the fire of his pupils,
the furrow on his brow
as some doubt troubled him,
the gesture his hand made
when his mind made one
great thought from two
of a professor’s ideas.
Cupping a handful of gelatin,
gray and convoluted,
the lecturer shrugged and dropped it,
“Is this the seat of knowledge?—this organ?—
Is this the soul writ here in nerves and ganglia?
No one knows.”

The orbs of Frankenstein replied
“I am the one who will know.”

Hunched in the darkest nook
of the students’ wine cellars
I heard him complain,
“It’s not enough to watch
those well-rehearsed dissections.
If only I had a cadaver—
one of my own—
I must know the inner workings of life!”

How could I bear to hear him suffer,
he who should want nothing?
That night I robbed a mausoleum—
a rich man’s grave easy to plunder,
a simple job of claw and crowbar,
a lumpy sack and a handcart.
I dumped the sack before his door and knocked.
He came in nightshirt, candle in hand,
looked down at me in startlement.
“For you,” I said. “Your own
c—-c——ca—-cadaver,” I stammered.

He did not seem surprised. He took
one end of the heavy burden, let me
come in with the rest of it.
“It’s very fresh,” I assured him.
“He was only interred just yesterday.”

I waited. He stared at me.
“How much do you want?” he asked.
“Oh, nothing!” I answered.
“You must want something for this!”
“I want...I want.” I could not say it.
“Tell me.” He looked a little kind, then.
I think he understood.
“I want to serve you,” I told him.
“Serve you...always.”

We worked on happily —
my shovel and cart,
his saw and scalpel.
We found a more remote
and spacious laboratory,
paid for with gold
(how I laughed
as I melted each crucifix,
stripped village churches
of their gilded adornments!)
I turned the wheels
that made small lightning
leap over the ceiling vault.
I bellowed the gas
that lightning condensed
into the glowing elixir
that made life scream
into inanimate matter.

Our workroom was madhouse—
old vellum books and amulets
heaped up with bones of animals,
crystal and astrolabe,
the surgeon’s shining tools,
the charnel pit
of amputated limbs.

In madness we succeeded.
We howled
as tissues dead or rotting
quivered and multiplied,
as hands flew off
in every direction,
eyes rolled
and irises dilated
in lidless horror,
brains roiled
in their captive tanks,
their spine stems twitching
with inexpressible longings.

Then we threw all
into a vat of acid.
“These are but preludes,”
he confided to me.
“What next?” I asked.
“Shall we raise the dead?”

“No, Fritz, I have no use
for the rotting dead. Most men
are little more than animated meat,
unfit for the one life given them.

“We shall make a being new,
a manufactured man.
So raptured was he,
that saying this,
he fell down senseless.

I put him in bed,
undressed his senseless form,
stroked the white limbs
no scalpel had scarred,
then limped to my corner
where I slept like a dog,
like some great hound
who had found his god.

Then she came — Elizabeth.
At first I hated her.
Her finery mocked me, her manners
impeccable, her accent just so.
Though he had never mentioned her,
they were betrothed, in love
since childhood, it seems.

Daily she came for tea,
tried to win me over
with pastries and gingerbread,
plied Victor for news
of his abandoned studies.
As one upon another
each Ingolstadt don
came up for our mockery
(except our idol Waldman)
her awe increased.

I liked her laughter,
the way blond hair exploded
when she threw off her bonnet,
the Alpine sky in her eyes.
Yet I hated to watch
her chaste little kisses
that fell on Victor’s blushing cheeks,
they way their hands
would find each other.
One day we were alone.
I had to make excuses
while Victor dissected
a youthful suicide
we’d fished from a stream,
his copy of Werther
still in his pocket.

Then she told me
she was an orphan too,
her name not Frankenstein
like those who raised her
as Victor’s “cousin,”
but Lavenza.
Frau Frankenstein had found her,
one of five babies in a hovel,
kept by peasants
to whom she’d be
a careworn Cinderella.
She was a fairy child,
raised by the Frankensteins
on music and poetry.

She knew nothing of what we did.
The sight of blood, the surgeon’s saw
would fill her with horror.
How could she hope to companion
this man who walked with gods?

And then it happened.
She touched me.
A passing thing, really.
A piece of gingerbread
from palm to palm,
but then she lingered,
pressed fingers against
my inner palm.
“You are so loyal to Victor,”
she said,
“so you shall be dear to me.”
She never flinched
at my twisted visage.
Her eyes saw past
the hump and its shadow.

Dear to her! Dear to her!
That night I scaled
the boarding house wall,
watched from a tree
as she undressed,
then drank some warm milk
at her bedside.
I watched in slice of moonlight,
her breasts and bosom
in lonely heaving,
her legs this way and that.
Had Victor ever lain with her?
Might I, “dear friend?”

Next night the milk
was tinged with laudanum.
I crept beneath
her silken beddings,
buried my face
in her virgin globes—
oh, I was light upon her,
like the fairies she dreamt of.
Once she cried out,
“Oh, Victor!”

I stole away,
the scent of her golden nape,
those wondrous nipples
with me always.

Next night more laudanum
was in Victor’s red wine,
cheap vintage we bought
to celebrate the surgery
by which the suicide’s heart
now beat in a headless torso.

I carried him to bed,
removed the blood-stained smock,
sponged off his fevered brow,
watched him in candlelight
as his features softened,
his eyelids fluttering
in pulse of dream-state.
I lay beside him,
touching, oh! everywhere.
Twice he cried out;
once, he held me
without awakening.

I crept away in bliss,
mad as a moth in a lamp shop.
Now, when they talk of marriage
it is a happy thought.
I can be wed to both of them
as long as the laudanum holds out.

Damn the chemist! The sleeping draught
wore off at the worst of times.
The master knows all. He woke from his sleep
as I perched at the foot of his bed.
My nakedness repelled him. He hurled
me out of his window into a haycart,
damned me, warned me never
to return to my room in the cellar.
What could I do? To whom could I go?
I took a whip from the half-wrecked cart,
climbed up the stairs to the empty laboratory.

He would need me when he ascended.
A storm was coming soon. The lifeless shell
up there was nearly ready for animation.
I would hand him the whip.
I’d beg him to punish me, hurt me,
but let me stay for the great work.
I wanted to see his eyes
as his being stood before him,
hear his cry of god-defying blasphemy
as man took control,
and named the day of dead’s arising.

My god and punisher returned.
He found the whip, and used it.
For days I lay not moving,
my lacerating flesh alive,
my blood congealing
to the scabs I was proud to wear,
the stripes of his forgiveness.

He sent me out on a sacred quest:
a pair of kidneys but hours dead,
a male, with everything intact.
I understood what was needed.
As I prowled the street for drunkards
I conceived a monstrous jest.

Our being must be superlative,
and I knew just the man.
Jean-Christophe Weiss was the talk
of every student in the beer hall.
He boasted of his conquests,
how women fainted
beneath his exertions.
The Ingolstadt brothel would not admit him
unless he paid a triple rate.
Mothers warned daughers to turn away
when his languid gaze caught them.
Their faces reddened as he shopped the stalls,
one hand on an apple or a load of bread,
the other lifting a veil, or a skirt.
It was said that certain widows
happily opened their doors to him.
One night he leaped from the balcony
of the nunnery of St. Genevieve’s
and what happened there
not one of the sisters would tell.

I did not wait long to find him.
Like me, he knew how
to evade the curfew.
I caught him emerging
from a certain garden gate
(a house with three comely daughters).
One blow to the head
with my crowbar,
then into the sack he went.)

The surgery was flawless.
Once more I watched
as disconnected tissues,
loose veins and nerves
like roots from a flowerpot
quivered, electrified,
sought one another
like amorous eels
and connected,
how the rent flesh closed
beneath the sutures:
weeks of healing
completed in minutes!

If Victor recognized
the organs’ donor,
he never showed it.
I know he looked
again and again

as our pefect being’s
perfect manhood
rose and fell
rose and fell,
as vein and synapse
made their connections.

“Cover him!”
he said at last.
“My God,
what a monster!”


“The kites, Fritz! The kites!”

With these words all
was forgiven — he needed me.
The howling storm raged.
Day became night as roiling thunderheads
collided like contending Titans,
black rams butt-heading the Alps
and one another.
The rain came down
in undulating sheets, blown
this way, that way.
Right over us, two airborne lakes
smashed one upon another’s cheek
and fell, exploding. Roulades
of thunder echoed everywhere.
Streams became torrents, meres rose
and swallowed astonished sheep and cattle.
As every shutter in Ingolstadt
clamped shut, we knew the day
was ours. No one would see
the sloping roof of our old mill tower
slide open to the elements,
or how the scaffolding rose up,
and I within it, high as the steeples.
From safe within my insulated cage
I unfurled the kites on their copper wires.
Up they went, hurled eastward,
then back again in gales contrary,
till they soared taut and defiant,
o’erarching the blackened granite hill
whose woods surrounded our workplace.

I did not fear the lightning.
I sang to it, danced it down.
“Strike! Strike!” I screamed.
“Come now, ye flames of Heaven!
Waste not your energy
on those pitiful pines.
I am the bait,
so come for me —
I am King of the Gargoyles —
I am deformity incarnate —
blasphemer since infancy —
robber of graves and churches —
rapist and fornicator!”
I was the spider, the wires
my webs to lure God down.

It came! I howled
as the great light jabbed toward me,
revelled in the thunder’s drum,
exulting as the kites survived
lash after lash, boom upon boom.
Blue, green and amber sparks
spun, danced and plummeted.

I could not see below,
but I knew what was happening:
how Victor captured it all below
in those vast and hungry capacitors,
how the hot wires sparked and smoked
as the current transferred
to the vat of green elixir
in which our creature bathed —
how all its flesh, unable to die
(and yet thus far without the will
to live) would join the ranks of creation.

How long I played there,
tempting with soliloquies
the angry sky,
how long the kites
drew power downward
till they fell in tatters
I cannot tell.
I was deafened and nearly blind
when the master drew me down.
He led me to my corner,
said I would see in a while.

My ears already made out
the master’s song of victory
as he cried out “It’s alive!
It’s alive!”

He robbed the gods
of more than fire or gold —
my master, Frankenstein,
the modern Prometheus!

--From my book, Whippoorwill Road: The Supernatural Poems.

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