I keep having the urge to present Mathew's first published love poem to his true love, Abby. I'm not quite sure why, but it's been in my mind, now, for several days.
The back-story on this is so deep, and the cross-references I could point out so complex, that I could get lost in it. What I think I want to focus on, here--because I'm not entirely sure why I'm feeling the need to present this--is the mixture of humor with a serious topic, as one sees in "The Raven." This latter is not my opinion only: where it was originally published under Mathew's one-time pseudonym, "---- Quarles," in the second edition of "American Review," we see this introduction by the editor:
Where do I want to go with this? I have to keep myself on-target. As said, there is so much.
In the John Greenleaf Whittier legacy, is mention of a poem written by Mathew, presumably when he was a boy. I've learned that Mathew began publishing in the Boston New-England Galaxy when he was 14 years old. So this poem could go back at least that far, to 1827. The official back-story--in keeping with the general denigration of Mathew's talents in the JGW lore--is that Mathew's mother chided him to write a serious poem, like his older brother. Which is to say, a real poem. And, according to the lore, she gave him the Biblical topic of Daniel in the lions' den. He then came up with this, which, supposedly, proves that he was incapable of writing real poetry. Somewhere this is in print--if I can find it quickly, online, I'll present that, because I'm in the mood to use original images.
Here we are, this is from MFW student-biographer Lloyd W. Griffin. I apologize for the rastering. This is as much as we have of the poem, since it's given merely as an anecdote--again, illustrating that Mathew supposedly admitted that he couldn't write poery like his brother. But here is the back-story on this particular poem (or fragment of a poem). Mathew knew quite well that he was in a dysfunctional family, which was Quaker-nice on the surface, but seething underneath. His father, committed to a philosophy of "toughening" his boys, had a sadistic streak; his mother, who presented a saintly appearance to the world, had a temper which could "blow," like a volcano, at any minute. His brother, whose physical health was fragile--and hence who was not the favored boy in his father's eyes--had to excel in those things which were important to his mother, i.e., literature and saintliness. But Mathew actually was at least as talented as John, as well as being more physically fit. So John was intensely jealous, notwithstanding that he had to be saintly about it.
In this family atmosphere, when their mother challenged him to write a serious poem "like his brother," he did--but he hid it under a veil of humor. He would have chosen the topic, not his mother. This poem is an allegory for his position in a dangerously dysfunctional family. It would have probably been written not long before Mathew (as I have gathered) got into a physical fight with his father--over not being allowed to attend the new local college, as his brother would be doing--and ran away to sea.
You won't find any of this in the official Whittier lore! It appears in disguised bits and pieces in various of Mathew's works, and also in Abby's short stories.
But you can see the pattern. Mathew wrote serious poetry under the veil of humor.
To return to "Molly Blueberry," his first, deeply sincere love poem to Abby was no exception. And, briefly, here are a few snippets of the back-story for this poem (because it is very deep). Let me pull my digitized copy of it up, here, next to this typing field...
First of all, "Sam Patch" was a daredevil who would leap into massive waterfalls. So that's obvious--Mathew is taking a giant emotional leap. He kept his heart under tight wraps, because he had been toyed with by the village flirt some years earlier--Abby referred to her, in one of her short stories, as the "coquette of his young idolatry." Abby was deeply spiritual, being versed in both the occult and metaphysics. She was an esoteric Christian, but not an exclusive one, as she had studied other traditions, including, apparently, Hermeticism. She also came from an aristocratic French lineage, her father being a marquis. She looked like a queen; and Mathew would refer to her in that way. I seem to remember he would call her his "dauphine," which is a French queen-in-waiting. He also thought of her as an angel. She believed that stars were alive; or, that they represented souls in heaven. Mathew signed, at various times, with an asterisk throughout his life, in tribute to her belief that their souls were twin stars. When you see the asterisk signature in the 1844-46 New York "Tribune," which historians attribute to Margaret Fuller, this was the longest-running instance of Mathew signing with his asterisk. But he had used it before, he used it at the same time once or twice in other papers, and he used it afterwards.
Here is made mention of Abby's singing voice. She was a musical prodigy, who could sing and play both piano and harp. She could also dance, but preferred to dance free-form out in natural settings, rather than formally. She apparently would dance for Mathew. These things come up in other pieces, including two tributes Mathew wrote to her after she died. One of these tributes must have been sent to the future Elizabeth Barrett Browning, because she published it as "Lady Geraldine's Courtship."* So where you see Lady Geraldine breaking into song, during one of their excursions in nature, this is a description of what Abby would do.
Based on one of Abby's short stories, she was quite reticent about being praised. She believed in the Victorian ideal of modesty and humility; and when Mathew would extravagantly praise her, she would take it as flattery and idolatry. Here, Mathew is refusing to listen. He is actually arguing with her in this poem, telling her that he will go ahead and praise her anyway, and he is not afraid of idolatry, when it comes to falling in love with her. This, also, is typical of Mathew as a perpetual debater. But it was a loving debate, in this case--he simply would praise her, and fall in love with her, regardless of her demuring protests.
Why does he hide her identity by calling her "Molly Blueberry"? My guess is, because she had humorously styled him as "Peter Pumpkin," since he loved pumpkin pie. This comes up repeatedly, in various pieces and signatures. There is even a poem, published in a compilation under John Greenleaf Whittier's name, about a Thanksgiving pumpkin pie, that I am almost certain, by style, was actually written by Mathew. Someone else must have put together that compilation, without Whittier approval, and have assumed that the unsigned poem--which was attributed by some knowing person to "Whittier"--was John Greenleaf Whittier's work.
So Abby must, by inference, have loved blueberries; hence, Mathew is countering her joke with one of his own.
You can see that Mathew mixed humor in with even his most serious subjects. There are a few poems in which he didn't. But there are more in which he did, and the following is an example. In 1852, 11 years after Abby's death, and having experienced a failed second marriage which had been pushed on him by his mother, he was still grieving her terribly. He had been to the London World's Fair the year before, writing as "Quails" for the Boston "Weekly Museum" (this series is wrongly attributed to entertainer Ossian Dodge). But he had missed seeing one statue, the "Nymph of Lurleiburg," which looked very much like Abby just before her death, when they had lost their 8-month-old daughter, Sarah. Mathew attends a panorama of the Crystal Palace where the Fair was held. His intention is to report it, in verse, for the Boston "Carpet-Bag" (which paper he had a silent financial stake in, and which he wrote for copiously under several different pseudonyms, to fill up its pages). But suddenly he sees the Nymph, and is plunged into a vivid memory of Abby during these last days of her life. At that moment, he has a spirit contact from her; and then, a visitation dream that night, which he jots down. The content of that dream surfaces in the "Weekly Museum," disguised as a humorous story about a Poet and an Editor. The Editor refuses to publish the poem as it is written. The Poet brings along a "tough," to force him; and the Editor agrees, but only on the condition he can re-write it. The poem recounts the visitation dream, as I gather--the Poet is taken over a turbulent stream, to safety, by a lady. Like "Daniel in the Lions' Den," this ostensibly humorous story is an allegory. The Poet is Mathew's heart; the Editor is his mind. The first version of the poem, the Poet's version, is what his heart tells him, i.e., that Abby is guiding and protecting him. The Editor's version is that he is supposed to find another partner. If you have watched psychic mediums work, you will have seen these two themes come up--and clash--before. How can your beloved be around you most of the time, and be safeguarding you, and still want you to start dating again? Is he, or she, going to be on the dates, too? It's a question.
So Mathew reflected that question in his ostensibly humorous story, which was unsigned.
Here is the poem, or rather, the relevant portion thereof. I think I've presented it before in this blog, so let's see if I can find the graphic ready-made...
Nope, had to make it from scratch, from a pdf file. I have a physical copy of Vol. I, but this is in Vol. II.
Do you see the mixture of humor and pathos--precisely as was commented upon by the editor of "American Review"? And, set public opinion and fame aside for a moment--do you see the consistent quality of these works? (Never mind style. I have plenty of poems written by Mathew in the style of "The Raven," including one he published in the "Tribune," signed "M.," about a month before "The Raven" came out.)
One more thing. Mathew appears to have had the habit of supporting worthy new publications, by offering something especially good for their launch. When his editor for the "New-England Galaxy," Joseph Buckingham, launched a new venture in New York, in the 1831 "New-England Magazine," Mathew contributed a tongue-in-cheek essay on "Orthography," revealing himself as the editor's printer (actually, his former printer, because Mathew must have worked in that capacity for the "Galaxy" as a boy, when he first moved to Boston). He signs as "Phineas Pica," one of many double-P signatures Mathew adopted over the years--a reference to his nickname, "Peter Pumpkin."
All that to say this--he contributed "The Raven" to the newly-launched "American Review" in the same spirit. And he signed "---- Quarles" because he and Abby loved the poetry of Francis Quarles, a deeply religious poet. Mathew, writing for the "Tribune" as the star, had very recently praised a poem by Francis Quarles in that column. And he had reviewed Quarles' poetry--signing as "Franklin, Jr."--in 1831/32 for a young men's magazine in Boston, the "Essayist." (He also reviewed books for that magazine under his "star" signature.) There, he mentioned he had (or had borrowed) an original, antiquarian volume of Quarles' poetry.
The back-story for Mathew's authorship of "The Raven" goes on, and on, and on. That's because it's real. When you find the real story, you can follow the threads indefinitely. There is no end to it, because it is all of a piece.
I just thought I'd present this one piece--Mathew's use of humor in the most serious of subjects--and show a few of the threads leading off from it.
I'll close with another of Mathew's attempts to mix humor with grief. This poem was, apparently, an epic about his relationship with Abby, written in black humor. The editor of the paper he submitted it to, his friend Charles Ilsley, refused to publish it, seeing it as being in bad taste. But perhaps it was too revealing as regards Abby's father, and Ilsley was concerned about being sued. In any case, Ilsley saw fit to quote just one stanza from it--the stanza having to do with Abby's death. Abby was taken, by two of her sisters, from their quarters in the Portland "American House" Hotel, to her family home in East Haverhill, Mass., just a few days before her death of consumption. This is also seen in "Annabel Lee":
And here, to close, is the last stanza from the poem that Charles Ilsley rejected. Mathew has referred to Abby's father, the marquis, as the "leftenant" on other occasions--probably because he took that role rather seriously in the local military "musters" (which Mathew used to lampoon). I also found Abby's poem written very shortly before she died--her own account of this event--but we will save that for another time. I can barely bring myself to read it, no less share it. You can look up the historical on Saint Bernard and see the relevance to Mathew, and his strained relationship with Abby's father (or, perhaps, Abby's strained relationship with him--we can't be sure, as we don't have the rest of the poem). Mathew has given Abby the character name of "Sally" once before, in the "Enoch Timbertoes" series of letters (though it was also a generic term, I think, for a New England girl). "Darter," for daughter, is a typical Mathewsian mispelling, which he used numerous times in his known humorous works as "Ethan Spike." Usually, it's intended to have a double-meaning, which is to say, it suggests little girls rushing around. Here, I think, he uses it out of habit.
Stephen Sakellarios, M.S.
*Possibly revising the setting from Massachusetts to England, though all of this may have been done by Mathew, when he cast his lover as a British lady, instead of the 15-year-old daughter of an immigrated French marquis in East Haverhill, Mass. I have more evidence for this attribution than I'm sharing, here.
Music opening this page, "Death Letter Blues," performed by Gove Scrivenor,
from the album, "Heavy Cowboy"