Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)
A MS. copy of this poem came into my hands about eleven years since in the following manner. My elder brother, John Wallace, who emigrated to California in 1849, resided there till his death in March, 1895. I had visited him at his home at Stockton in the summer of 1887, and from that time we corresponded about twice or thrice a year. I think it was in the last letter I received from him, nearly a year before his death, that I found an enclosure in his handwriting of the poem in question, with the following heading:--"Lines left by a wanderer at a wayside house in lieu of cash for board and lodging one night."
At the end of the poem are the initials, E. A. P., but there is neither date nor any further particulars as to how it was obtained, neither was there any reference to it in the letter itself. Being at the time fully occupied with literary work, I gave little attention to it beyond noticing that it appeared to have all the best characteristics of Poe's style, and naturally supposing that it must [[p. 330]] be known to Poe's various editors and biographers, and that it was included in some of the recent editions of his works, none of which I had seen. I therefore put the verses away among other poetical scraps and newspaper cuttings, fully expecting to hear something about it in my brother's next letter. One peculiarity was, that it was written in pencil, as if it had been hastily copied when away from home and inserted in the letter because he knew that I was an admirer of Poe. Soon after I heard of his illness, and I do not think I received another letter from him.
The verses remained almost forgotten till Mr. Marriot's letter (in the Fortnightly of September last) about Poe's essay on the Universe led me to inquire of him if this poem had appeared in any edition of Poe's works, and finding that it was, apparently, quite unknown, I wrote to my brother's widow, asking for any information as to where my brother obtained the poem. The reply received a few weeks back was unsatisfactory. None of the family had seen the verses, or remembered anything about them, and no copy of them was to be found in any of my brother's papers. I can, therefore, only suppose that the occupier of the "wayside house" referred to had emigrated to California shortly afterwards, and that the original poem, or a copy of it, had been preserved, perhaps in an album, and perhaps even without any knowledge of the poet's name as indicated by the initials. It is not improbable that during one of my brother's journeys on surveying or engineering work he may have stayed at the house of the possessors of the MS., and have made a copy of it for me, and enclosed it in the letter, intending to give me further information about it when he wrote again, an intention frustrated by the extremely painful circumstances attending his fatal illness.
Coming now to the poem itself, if, as I have not the shadow of a doubt, it was written by Poe, why did he not acknowledge it or communicate it to any of his friends, or leave any copy of it among his papers? Here, again, we can find, I think, a very natural and sufficient, though of course purely hypothetical, explanation. It appears to me that this little poem must have been written under the influence of genuine poetical inspiration, at a time when the author was comparatively free from worry, and in a state of good bodily health and mental tranquillity. While possessing all the characteristics of his best style, it is in some respects superior to most, perhaps to all his similar productions. Its subject matter is unusually simple, the birth and early death of a child; and it is treated in a most simple but highly poetical manner, in which, though the morbid gloom of his nature appears, it is relieved by passages of such rare descriptive beauty and pathos as to give an exceptional charm to the whole. In the perfection of rhyme and [[p. 331]] rhythm, and the easy flow of the verse, the lines will bear comparison with his very best efforts, while in two points they seem to me to indicate the culmination of his genius: the first being the almost complete absence of alliteration as an adjunct to the general effect--though I often greatly admire the use of this artifice--the second, that a new and very beautiful form of versification is here used not to be found in any of his other poems. Each verse possesses eight rhyming words, one pair and two triplets, five of these being two-syllable words, and their somewhat peculiar arrangement is so carefully followed in each verse as to be evidently the result of a well thought-out plan which this little poem was composed to illustrate. In his essay on the Philosophy of Composition he had referred to the absence of originality in versification, declaring his belief that the possible varieties of metre and stanza are infinite, and that much of the possible charm and beauty of poetry are lost by the absence of invention of new forms of versification.
Turning to the Memoir prefixed to Mr. J. H. Ingram's edition of the Complete Poetical Works, we find it stated:--"In 1849 Poe revisited the South, and, amid the scenes and friends of his early life, passed some not altogether unpleasing time. At Richmond, Virginia, he again met his early love, Elmira, now a wealthy widow, and after a short renewed acquaintance, was once more engaged to marry her." Now this short period must have been one of intense relief from continual mental strain as well as of physical recuperation and enjoyment, and we can well imagine that during his rambles about the country he would enjoy working out his ideas of new and beautiful poetic forms. He was also an athlete, and we may be sure that he would delight in long rambles on foot when going from one friend's house to another; and nothing is more likely than that he should have had to ask for a night's lodging at some farmhouse or cottage, and, either from finding his pocket empty, or because his hospitable hosts would accept no payment, left with them the latest product of his muse as a memento of his visit.
If this is what occurred, the poem may quite possibly have been written only a few days before his tragical end; and, as this was in the year 1849, at a time when the Californian gold fever was at its height, Poe's host of the "wayside house" may have been one of the many thousands who left the Eastern States for the land of gold, and may thus have carried away into such a long obscurity this last outcome of the poet's genius. How prophetic of his own approaching fate now seem the lines:--
"All foreboding that distressed me, I forgot as joy caressed me,
[[p. 332]] And how the tranquillity and beauty of nature, which so rarely find expression in his poems, seem to have produced their full effect upon him when he gave us the exquisite lines:--
"Then God smiled--and it was morning, matchless and supreme,
The long tragedy of Poe's life is intensified by the consideration of what he might have given us had the final catastrophe been averted. With the most passionate human affections and with poetic and literary genius of the highest order, almost his whole life was a desperate and often agonising struggle to support himself and those dearest to him. Just when, for the first time, there seemed to open out before him a vista of comparative affluence and tranquillity, in which his genius might have developed those forms of beauty which he considered should be the poet's truest and highest aim, he was cut off in his prime, and, if the account given by Mr. Ingram is correct, not, as usually supposed, by any fault of his own.
This little poetic gem, never before published, may have been the first, and also the last fruit of that happier period that seemed to be opening upon him. It is, of course, an unpolished gem, and has some of the defects of a rough draft hastily written down after being composed in the memory only; but I think that all admirers of Poe will welcome it, even in its unfinished state, as a worthy addition to the limited number of his shorter poems of the first rank.