Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)
Dear Sir,--The letters and newspaper cuttings you have been so good as to send me, together with others received by myself both from English and American correspondents, have resulted in the determination of certain definite facts, though not, in my opinion, in clearing up the whole mystery as to the origin of the poem. I will, therefore, with your permission, give a brief résumé of the admitted facts, and of the reasons which seem to me to indicate that the authorship of the poem is not yet conclusively established.
I must first apologise for my stupid oversight in writing the title of the poem without the second "I," which is clearly given in my brother's MS. The fact, I believe, is that there is no such termination as ainie to any English word, though aine is not uncommon, hence it is even now difficult for me to write the former without thinking of each separate letter, otherwise my hand automatically produces the familiar combination aine. Why I did not notice the error in the proof I cannot explain. I may note, however, that other writers make the same mistake; even Mr. Meredith Nicholson, in his volume, The Hoosiers (at p. 159) refers to the poem as "Leonaine."
The established facts are these:--In the year 1877, Mr. James Whitcomb Riley, a local poet of some reputation, then on the staff of the Indiana paper, the Anderson Democrat, could not obtain recognition by northern magazine editors, who declined to print his verses. Believing that this was due to his unknown name rather than to want of ability, he arranged with some literary and artistic friends to test his opinion by writing a poem in imitation of Poe, which one of them accurately copied in the peculiar script of Poe's MSS., on the fly-leaf of an old Ainsworth's Dictionary that was in the office. A story was then concocted of the finding of this dictionary in the possession of a person whose grandfather had kept a tavern, near the city of Richmond, Virginia, who used to relate how an eccentric man had stayed at the tavern one night, and had gone away early in the morning, leaving the poem written on the fly-leaf of the dictionary. This story, with the poem, was then printed in the Kokomo Dispatch, Kokomo being a town about forty miles from Anderson, so as to remove all suspicion from Riley.
The poem and the story were copied all over the Union, and both the style and the writing were such close imitations that for a time it was accepted as a newly-discovered work of Poe. Mr. Nicholson says that "several critics of discernment received the poem, and the story of its discovery, in good faith." In the New York Times of July 13th, 1901, in an answer to a correspondent, it is stated that "the whole country was duped for a long time"; and on February 20th of this year the same paper says, referring to my republication [[p. 707]] of the poem as Poe's: "The verses were widely copied throughout the United States at the time. Finally, Riley disclosed the secret of the hoax. In 1894 he included the poem in his 'Armazindy.'" A copy of this volume now before me, issued by the Bowen-Merrill Co., Indianapolis, is dated 1895, but there may perhaps have been an earlier issue in America.
The story has also been published in several other books, magazines, and newspapers, both in America and in Great Britain, and, apparently, it has been almost universally accepted that Mr. Riley was the original composer of the poem, and that neither Poe nor any other writer had anything to do with it. But certain facts, not yet explained, seem to me to be inconsistent with this view, and, without any personal feeling in the matter, but looking upon it as a purely literary problem of considerable interest, I wish to give my reasons for what, to many persons, will no doubt seem, if stated without further explanation, to be an unjustifiable scepticism.
Among the latest information I have received, the most interesting is from Mr. Paul Lemperly, of Cleveland, Ohio, a well-known literary man, who is the possessor of the old Latin dictionary above referred to, with the poem in imitation Poe script on the fly-leaf. He encloses for my perusal several newspaper cuttings, by far the most important of these being from the Indianapolis News, September 20th, 1902, and headed, "James Whitcomb Riley Tells of His Poe Hoax." It occupies a column of close print, nearly thirty inches long, and is in the form of an interview with Riley and one of his old friends, Will J. Ethell, who took part in the hoax. A considerable portion of it is given between inverted commas as being Riley's own words. The following are the facts thus given on his own authority:--that the alleged hoax was carried out in August, 1877, in consultation with his two friends, Ethell and Richardson, the latter doing the actual imitation of a Poe MS.; that the story had never been accurately told before; that all the details of the hoax were arranged before the poem was written; then he adds:--"It was under these circumstances that I wrote 'Leonainie."' And further on:--"This is the story of the hoax. I did not expect that it would cause, as it did, such widespread comment."
Now, in this long article, almost the whole of Mr. Riley's story refers to the mechanical portion of the hoax--the peculiar caligraphy, the using the old book, the story about the book and the strange visitor to the tavern, the arrangements for its being accidentally found, &c., &c. In vain we look for any statement whatever as to how he actually wrote it, how long it took him, where he got the name from--a name, I believe, new to the English language, and so admirably suited to the musical cadence of the poem, what was his idea in the poem, and how he obtained the originality of verse, how he reproduced the very rhythm and music of Poe's best manner, how he pervaded it with the weird melancholy of Poe's nature. Instead of any reference to these, we find this solitary statement, in addition to those quoted above:--"When it was written it was called [[p. 708]] 'Leonainie.'" Then again he does not tell us when or how he acknowledged himself to be the author, whether it was after a month, or a year, or several years, nor why he never included it in any of the earlier volumes of his works, but waited seventeen years, and then printed it without one word of note or explanation to inform the reader that its origin was in any way different from that of his other poems.
But this is only a part of the matters that need explanation, and perhaps the smallest part. Having written a poem with much of the beauty and rhythm and weird imagination of Poe, and written it, from his own account, with no special trouble or elaboration, he never repeats the feat, never demonstrates his authorship, by producing a few others with the same qualities, which qualities are entirely wanting in his own versification. At present, I have only been able to examine four volumes of Mr. Riley's poems, and "Armazindy" seems to contain much of his best work. The finest poem in this volume is "The Silent Victors," a tribute to the fallen soldiers during the Civil War. It consists of thirty-two verses, and sustains throughout an elevated tone worthy of the subject. A fair sample is its first verse:--
tender, firm and true, the Nation's heart
Another very beautiful little poem is that entitled "The Voices," with verses such as these:--
that seem to question,
low, mysterious clamor
a something dread to be warned of;
Another shorter poem--"A Windy Day"--appears to have been suggested by Shelley's magnificent "Ode to the West Wind," and as a piece of descriptive verse is very good, as is also the more ambitious poem, in another volume, called, "What the Wind Said." This is even more in Shelley's style, and is really a fine piece of imaginative description. But neither of these gives any indication of those special characteristics of Poe's verse which are present in "Leonainie."
Even more in need of explanation is the curious fact that between Mr. Riley's version as printed in "Armazindy" (and so recently reprinted in the Indianapolis News) and the version given in my brother's MS., there are a series of small but very important [[p. 709]] divergencies, which seem to show, in my judgment, that Mr. Riley did not realise the full meaning of the verses he claims to have composed. I must, therefore, make a few critical remarks on these divergencies in support of the view that they are usually changes for the worse; and as your readers may not have either version to refer to, I will now give that of Mr. Riley, verse by verse, to illustrate my remarks.
In the last line of the first verse, Mr. Riley has "in the solemn night," instead of "in a solemn night." At first sight the definite article sounds better, and it would be so if it stood alone. But in the present relation it is too general, as shown by the succeeding line, which limits the time indicated, first, to a summer night, and then to one when the writer was depressed. We also see that the effect of the repetition in the next line, so characteristic of Poe, is weakened by using first "the" and then "a," which produces a slight discord, and thus checks the rhythmic flow of the verses. If I am right in this view, Mr. Riley's version is decidedly inferior.
a solemn night of summer,
In the second verse there are two differences. In the fifth line Mr. Riley has "forebodings," instead of "foreboding," as in my brother's copy. Here, although both are permissible, I rather prefer Mr. Riley's reading. The "s" may easily have dropped out, either in the press or in copying. The two last lines of this verse Mr. Riley encloses in brackets, and prints the word "Lying" in italics, neither of which are in my brother's MS. The italics are of little moment as they are so largely a matter of taste, but to enclose a passage in brackets is, I submit, quite wrong, except where the words thus enclosed are merely explanatory surplusage, and are not essential either for the grammar or the meaning of what follows. But here these lines are essential, foreshadowing what is to come, and they are not only highly poetical but express the most intense feeling. Looking through all the poems of Poe, I find that wherever he used brackets the words enclosed are quite unimportant, and can be omitted without in any way affecting the meaning or the force of the poem, which can certainly not be said to be the case here. In fact, the [[p. 710]] italics and the brackets, used together, are self-contradictory, the first implying that the word so printed is specially important, the second that the whole phrase of which it forms a part is unimportant. Here again, I submit, Mr. Riley's version is the worse.
spake the little lisper
In the third verse, we find two divergencies of a more serious character. In Mr. Riley's third line he prints, "heard her whisper," whereas my brother's copy has "heard the whisper." Here there is what I should term a misunderstanding of the meaning of the poem. For what does the charming line--
"Only spake the little lisper in the Angel-tongue,"
refer to, if not to an infant that could not speak, but only lisp or babble, to be understood by Angels but not by mortals. To make the writer hear such a child whisper an elaborate and highly-imaginative warning, like that of the remaining lines of the verse, seems to me pure nonsense. The meaning clearly is, that though the child could not speak, the perceptive soul of love received a warning through the inner sense, that despite the songs of innocent childhood and hopes of future happiness dependent on the development of this young life, these were all deceptive, and that the forebodings of doom before felt would be realised.
Another important difference occurs in the sixth line of this verse, where Mr. Riley prints, "Tales but told you to deceive you," in place of the more direct and harmonious "tales are told you" of my brother's version. The "but" seems to be used in correspondence with "only" in the preceding line, as a grammatical refinement. It is, however, quite unnecessary; it jolts upon the ear, it checks the easy flow of the verse, and even renders the meaning obscure. In the case of both the deviations in this verse, I submit that Mr. Riley's version is the less correct and the less poetical, and decidedly the less like what Poe would have written.
God smiled and it was morning.
In the last verse there are three differences between the two versions, two of which are of considerable importance. The first may be a printer's error, as it is only a matter of punctuation. Mr. Riley has [[p. 711]] a full stop at "morning" at the end of his first line. This would hardly be worth mentioning, were it not that in the interview in the Indianapolis News Mr. Riley specially notes the care Poe took with the punctuation of his poems, adding--"as one of the characteristics of Poe was his exquisite taste in such matters." One would think, therefore, that the greatest care would have been taken to avoid such a misprint in a poem which professedly imitates Poe, yet it is reproduced in the article just mentioned, as if to show that it is not a misprint. But if not it seems to me to stultify the meaning and neutralise the beauty of the most beautiful verse in the poem.
In the sixth line Mr. Riley has--"With the voice of prayer," while in my brother's copy it is "a voice," which is, I think, the most harmonious form of expression, though it is perhaps a matter of taste. But in the seventh line "where" instead of "when" seems to me to indicate a misconception which is almost ludicrous. It connects the word "lifted" in the preceding line and the place "where" the child was dying. I conceive, on the contrary, that "lifted" means simply "uplifted," and applies to the prayerful hearts (as indicated by the comma in our version), and "when" marks the coincidence and the contrast of the glorious summer morning exciting feelings of prayer and joyous aspiration in those around him, at the very time when the writer's heart is sunk in dejection and grief at the loss of his darling child. In this case, too, Mr. Riley's version seems to me to be far inferior and less poetical.
In addition to all these verbal differences between the two versions, we have the not unimportant difference that one is printed in verses of eight short lines, the other of four long ones, the former being commonly used by Mr. Riley, the latter adopted by Poe in his two masterpieces, "The Raven" and "Lenore," to which, in form, "Leonainie" most nearly approximates. One other difference is in the story as told by Mr. Riley as to the origin of the poem, it being simply left at a tavern written in an old dictionary, by a guest who had had a night's lodging only. On my brother's copy is the heading--"Lines left by a wanderer at a wayside house, in lieu of cash for board and lodging one night."
Now these numerous slight differences pervading the whole poem and its story seem to point unmistakably to two somewhat divergent modifications of an original. If the original was what Mr. Riley himself describes as his "hoax," then it appears that some one else got hold of it at an early period, improved it so as to bring it to something more like what Poe may be supposed to have written, and then left it, for any one who might chance upon it, as a work by that author.
I am still in expectation of some information as to the source of the poem copied by my brother in California. At all events, this account of how the matter now stands will probably elicit whatever further information may exist.
Yours very truly,