Friday, October 16, 2009

The Boston Lyceum incident

Years before his death, Poe made his final trip to Boston. On October 16, 1845, dovetailing off the success of "The Raven," Poe presented a lecture at the Boston Lyceum. The fiasco that ensued has invited several interpretations in modern times, most recently by Philip Phillips of Middle Tennessee State University. What was Poe thinking?

Poe had been asked to present an original poem; James Russell Lowell was likely involved in setting up his appearance. We know that Poe disliked many of the prominent Massachusetts writers (not necessarily Bostonian, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Ellery Channing, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, not to mention his see-sawing responses to Nathaniel Hawthorne) so it might have been awkward for him. Yet, Poe was a Bostonian by birth. He moved there when he left the Allan family and his first book was published there with the byline "by a Bostonian."

The evening on October 16 began with a long oration by Caleb Cushing (pictured at left), a well-known Massachusetts politician who had just returned from a mission to China. His two-and-a-half hour speech got first billing. Poe was next and, after a few quick stabs at Boston audiences, presented something he titled "The Messenger Star" — which was, in fact, his much earlier poem "Al Aaraaf," rather than the original poem expected.

The response was mixed. Some say people in the audience were baffled and confused; some may have left early (blame Cushing?). Editor of the Boston Evening Transcript Cornelia Wells Walter expressed hostility. But poet/editor/travel writer Thomas Wentworth Higginson was not only sympathetic but laudatory (though he admitted confusion too). He said he "felt that we had been under the spell of some wizard."

Poe later claimed it was a hoax, trying to prove that the Boston audience did not know good poetry. "Al Aaraaf," of course, is one of the most allegorical of Poe's poems (which New Englanders love, according to Poe) and also one of the thickest, full of confusing allusions and complicated alternating metrical schemes. The fact that Poe did not give the proper name and instead referred to it as "The Messenger Star" is evidence that he was not trying to play it straight. The poem was 16 years old when he read it, but it had been re-published in excerpts only a few months earlier in an article by J. R. Lowell. But, what did he really intend? Could he really have "hoaxed" anyone?


E.J. Stevens said...

A curious mystery indeed. Perhaps this is what makes Poe so attractive. He is like a character plucked from his own imagination.

Rob Velella said...

Yes, Poe is presented like a character from his own fiction. The reality is that he was much more normal than the Poe legend makes him out to be.