Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Poe romance

September 1, 1827 saw the third and final installment of Merlin, a play in verse by Maryland writer Lambert A. Wilmer. Published in the North American, the three-act play followed a heroine named Elmira and her despondent pursuer Alphonse. The drama was based on the true story of a young Edgar Poe — the first in what would be a long series of fictionalized stories about Poe over several decades.*

As a young man, Poe pursued a neighboring Richmond woman named Sarah Elmira Royster. The relationship seemed strong enough and the couple apparently made some kind of agreement to get married. Poe then left Richmond to attend the University of Virginia and, somehow, the relationship ended. Poe wrote her often, imploring for a response. Miserable at college, quickly running out of money (due to insufficient support from his guardian John Allan) and, now, nursing a broken heart, the seventeen-year old Poe eventually gave up on his studies and never graduated. Royster, he assumed, had forgotten him, perhaps fallen in love with another man.

As it turns out, the villain of this real-life story was none other than Royster's father, who carefully intercepted each of Poe's letters before his daughter saw them. After months of hearing nothing from her husband-to-be, she gave up on him. By the time Poe returned home from his unsuccessful stint at the University, Poe realized Royster was no longer available. One story says that Poe went to see her at her family home and was surprised to find a party being hosted there — it turned out to be Royster's engagement party.

Whether that story is true or not, Poe and Royster lost their opportunity to live happily ever after — for now. The star-crossed lovers whose relationship inspired a play would rekindle their relationship many years later, when both were widows. That story will be told later this month.

* Though modern works like Matthew Pearl's The Poe Shadow or Louis Bayard's The Pale Blue Eye come to mind first and foremost, this post shows that neither author was doing anything particularly new or innovative. Literally scores of works based on Poe have been produced over the years, including short stories, novels, video games, and films.


Matthew Pearl said...

It's worth thinking about the story of Poe's stolen letters to Elmira when reading "The Purloined Letter," which of course dramatizes the anxiety of the stolen private letter.

Of course, the first fictionalizer of Poe's life was Poe, who often embellished or flat out made things up when asked for biographical materials.

Louis and I actually have a dialogue about fictionalizing Poe we have prepared for the Poe Studies journal.

Though I don't think either of us would claim we've done something brand new, there is a difference now because of our access to research that would not have been available years earlier. So even in creating fictional representations of Poe (or in my case, situations involving Poe's death), we can be (if we choose) accurate down to small details.

Undine said...

Hi, Rob. About "Merlin"...awhile ago, I came across evidence that proves Wilmer's drama could have nothing to do with Poe and Elmira. I posted the details on my blog, if you're interested. (I hope this link works...I'm about as computer-proficient as a tree toad.)


Rob Velella said...

Undine, I would comment on your blog but you do not allow it. I'll respond here.

Intriguing! I had always heard that Wilmer heard of Poe's story through William Henry Leonard, not directly from Poe. So when they strike up a friendship may not be relevant. Nevertheless, this 1823 date for "Merlin" is blowing my mind!

You seem to enjoy tearing into sources where we get our information (something I have difficulty doing) so I have to play devil's advocate: Why should we trust the "Early American Plays" listing? If "Merlin" was really published in 1823, Wilmer was only 18 years old. Not impossible, but certainly impressive and, perhaps, unusual to have a 12-month run (am I reading that right?) on a first play at age 18. Should we trust that 1823 date or could it be a typo/mistake which has since perpetuated?

morgana said...

Hello, I very much enjoyed your blog about Poe!! I have an event coming up in October, with music, readings and Oriental dance to celebrate Poe's legacy in Lowell, Mass. Would love to send you the info, please let me know the best way to do this.

Nevermore --


Rob Velella said...

My email address is listed on my profile (robvelella@yahoo.com) - I'd love to hear about your event. I lived in Lowell for five years!