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Undiscovered Poe? Early Works Before ‘The Black Cat’

Published: May 5, 2012

We’ve always been proud of the fact that Edgar Allan Poe’s famous short story “The Black Cat” first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. However, this wasn’t the only time Poe’s writing had appeared in our magazine. When the name of Poe came up in conversation recently in connection with a movie about him, we looked closer at his works in our archives.

What we found was more Poe than we’d expected, including some surprises and a few mysteries—which would have pleased Mr. Poe.

One of the surprises was a short story—“A Succession of Sundays”—about a young man who is refused permission to marry his fiancé until, as her guardian puts it, “three Sundays come together in a week.” (This is eventually accomplished, as you might have figured, with some business with the International Date Line.)

The Post also printed one of Poe early poems, “To Helen.” (“Helen, thy beauty is to me/ Like those Nicean barks of yore…”) When it appeared on May 21, 1831, Poe was so little known that the editors felt obliged to give him an introduction:

We extract the following poetry from a small 18mo [octodecimo, i.e., 4” by 6”—ed.] volume of poems, by Edgar A. Poe, a part of which was published in a former edition. The author is, we believe, a member of the U.S. Corps of Cadets, as the volume is dedicated to that body.

Poe had dedicated his book to the cadets of West Point because many of them had loaned him money to have the book printed. By the time of it appeared, Poe was long gone from the Academy.

There’s also mystery of unsigned pieces that might be the work of Poe. One is a short story entitled “A Dream” from 1831. The Post gives no more identification of the author than the letter “P.”

The narrator of the story tells of his dream, in which he imagined he was a Pharisee who has just helped to crucify Christ.

I turned away, and wandered listlessly on, till I came to the centre of Jerusalem…… A feeling of conscious pride stole over me, as I looked over the broad fields and lofty mountains which surrounded this pride of the eastern world. On my right rose Mount Olivet, covered with shrubbery and vineyards; beyond that, and bounding the skirts of mortal vision, appeared mountains piled on mountains; on the left were the lovely plains of Judea; and I thought it was a bright picture of human existence

A perfect loveliness had thrown itself over animated nature.

But…… I felt a sudden coldness creeping over me. I instinctively turned towards the sun, and saw a hand slowly drawing a mantle of crepe over it……

I heard a muttered groan, as the spirit of darkness spread his pinions over an astonished world.

Unutterable despair now seized me. I could feel the flood of life slowly rolling back to its fountain, as the fearful thought stole over me, that the day of retribution had come…

I saw a light stream from a distant window, and made my way towards it… A widow was preparing the last morsel she could glean, for her dying babe. She had kindled a little fire; and I saw with what utter hopelessness of heart she beheld the flame sink away, like her own dying hopes.

Darkness covered the universe………

It’s a short work complete with unutterable dread, gloom, and a corpse rising from a grave. If Poe didn’t write this, he would have wanted to meet the author who did.

There are also the mysterious “Edgar poems,” which appeared in 1824-25, when Poe was living in Richmond, VA. The Post gives no clue to the poet’s identity other than what happens to be Poe’s first name.

Why  bury thy charms, lovely maid,

So long in a lone rural glen?

Ah! fly from obscurity’ shade,

And shine to advantage again.

How charming the Empress of Night

Appears from a cloud as she breaks,

And rolling so splendidly bright,

All the soul to wild ecstasy wakes……… etc.

[To Miss M. C. S. of Darby]

The use of “Edgar” might be simply the choice of some poet. (Someone with a better ear for poetry will have to tell us if Poe might have any of these pieces.) But there’s another piece of coincidence connected with a poem that begins

I will bend o’er the tomb of the virtuous and brave;

His deeds of the past I will silently number,

And think, while I pensively view his one grave,

How blest is his couch, and how peaceful his slumber…… etc.

Barnaby Rudge and his pet raven, Grip

This “Edgar” poem is entitled “La Fayette At the Tomb of Washington“ and it appeared in 1824, shortly after young Edgar Allan Poe was lieutenant of the youth honor guard that was reviewed by Lafayette when he visited Richmond.

The Post also printed Poe’s 1841 review of a novel by Charles Dickens. “Barnaby Rudge” was then appearing, by installments, in American magazines. In the review, Poe praised Dicken’s ability to convey “horror” and “terror”—literary matters he could appreciate. He was particularly impressed by the character of “Grip,” a talking pet raven that belongs to the title character.

Mr. Poe's talking raven[His] croakings are to be frequently, appropriately, and prophetically heard in the coarse of the narrative and [his] whole character will perform, in regard to that of the [protagonist], much the same part as does, in music, the accompaniment in respect to the air. Each is distinct. Each differs remarkably from the other. Yet between them there is a strong analogical resemblance; and, although each may exist apart, they form together a whole, which would be imperfect, wanting either.

This is clearly the design of Mr. Dickens — although he himself may not at present perceive it. In fact, beautiful as it is, and strikingly original with him, it cannot be questioned that he has been led to it less by artistical knowledge and reflection, than by that intuitive feeling for the forcible and the true, which is the sixth sense of the man of genius.

If Dickens didn’t know what a great literary device he’d stumbled on with his talking raven, Poe could certainly appreciate its potential: just three years later, it became the heart of his most famous poem.

To read “A Dream” and judge for yourself if it’s by Poe, go here.

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  • Audrey Lewis

    Dear Mr. Nilsson, I am interested in the images in the article, particularly the Jerusalem landscape. Could you please tell me what you know of it, such as artist, title, source? Many thanks.

  • What a wonderfully fascinating article Jeff! Thanks so much for posting this.

  • Ima Ryma

    Edgar Allan Poe was in fact,
    Briefly, a cadet at West Point.
    The parade dress rule was exact -
    A rifle over shoulder joint,
    And wearing belt and gloves, all white.
    Accordingly, Poe was so dressed,
    Presenting to the brass a sight.
    Poe’s superiors were quite stressed.
    He was ordered before a board
    To explain why he had rebelled.
    Poe maintained he was in accord
    With the dress rule. He was expelled.

    Belt, gloves and rifle – whereupon,
    Those things were all that Poe had on.