Sunday, October 18, 2009

Bicentennial of Thomas Holley Chivers

Thomas Holley Chivers was born in Georgia on October 18, 1809 — about eight months after Poe. Chivers went on to become a poet in his own right, though it has become quite impossible to talk about Chivers without mentioning Poe.

The two spent several years corresponding (probably about nine years, according to John Ward Ostrom) and met face-to-face only once (in 1845 in New York). Most of their interactions were because of money; Chivers was independently wealthy, and Poe needed financial backing for his dream project to publish The Stylus. Chivers certainly admired Poe, and invited Poe to live with him in Georgia. Biographer Charles M. Lombard suggests Chivers wanted to take care of Poe financially while he converted him to Swedenborgianism and Temperance. Many suggest Chivers was a Transcendentalist, despite being in the South, making his friendship with Poe all the more unique. Most often, scholars debate whether Poe stole his poetic ideas from Chivers (as Chivers accused) or if Chivers, a minor poet, was stealing from Poe.

Consider this elegy written by Chivers after Poe's death. It's called "The Fall of Usher":

"Thou art gone to the grave!" but thy spirit is shining,
And singing afar in the Realms of the Blest;
While the living are left by thy cold grave reclining,
And mourning for thee while they long for thy rest —
Left mourning for thee while they long for thy rest!

"Thou art gone to the grave!" thou art gone where thy slumber
No more shall be broken by sorrow or pain —
Soon to rise with that host which no mortal can number,
To lie down no more in that Valley again!
No more to lie down in that Valley again!

"Thou art gone to the grave!" there is none can restore thee,
Or bring thee again from that Silent Abode!
But the Conqueror of Death went to dwell there before thee,
And He has prepared thee the way to thy God!
Prepared thee the way to thy Beautiful God!

"Thou art gone to the grave!" thou art silently sleeping
A sleep which no sorrow shall ever molest;
And, in longing for which, my poor heart now is keeping
This silent lament in its grave in my breast!
Like Shelley for Keats, in its grave in my breast!

"Thou art gone to the grave!" let the dark Weeping Willow
Bend over thy grave where thy beauty was laid!
While thy form, thus reclined on the earth for its pillow,
Shall live in the Spring-flowers which bloom at thy head —
To feed the young Butterflies born at thy head.

"Thou art gone to the grave!" where the Violets are springing,
And feeding upon thee above the damp sod,
Now thy Pandemos mourns, while thy spirit is singing,
And drinking delight from the Fountains of God —
With thine Ullalume lost from the Fountains of God.
Perhaps more interesting than Chivers's debt to Poe (or vice versa) is how complicated the Georgian poet's life was. At 18 years old, he married his 16-year old first cousin. While she was pregnant with their daughter, a meddling uncle suggested that Chivers physically abused his wife (the facts are still uncertain) and she left him before their daughter was born. Chivers likely never saw her. Several lawsuits were exchanged between the couple (Chivers always seems to have won out) but they never legally divorced; instead, Georgia law voided their marriage for being separated for five years. In his will, he left his first wife and daughter exactly $1. Escaping Georgia for a time, he moved to Tennessee and became a medical doctor.

He remarried in 1834 to a Massachusetts woman named Harriet Hunt. Four years later, Chivers's mother died and four years after that his favorite daughter Allegra Florence Chivers died (on his birthday, 1842). His three remaining children from Harriet Hunt died within four months. So, by 1848, the time that Chivers is asking Poe to move to Georgia, all his children had died or been taken from him.

After Poe's death, Chivers alternated between defending his friend and accusing him of plagiarism, even going so far as to say "The Raven" was completely inspired by his own work. At one point, he said that he had taught Poe how to write poetry. As literary scholar Randy Nelson wrote: "anybody who's read both Poe and Thomas Holley Chivers can see that one of them 'influenced' the other, but just who took what from whom isn't clear."

Chivers's own poetry isn't terribly good. In fact, it's terribly good. He focused on sound and rhythm and rhyme — sort of like Poe, but brought to incredibly hyperbolic, superlative levels. The sounds in his poems, in fact, are so over the top, they can be somewhat silly. Perhaps this is why Poe once called Chivers "of the best and one of the worst poets in America."

Happy 200th birthday, Thomas Holley Chivers.
(Coincidentally, it's also the birthday of Elizabeth Ellet in 1818.)

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