Thursday, November 5, 2009

The fever called "Living"

In late 1848, Poe was struggling between two women. One was single and available but, most unfortunately, a Transcendentalist. The other was flirtatious but very married (with children). One was a poet in Providence, Rhode Island, but Sarah Helen Whitman had doubts that Poe was on the right track and urged him to take a temperance pledge (he would take another pledge a year later). The other was a non-literary woman from Lowell, Massachusetts, who promised Poe she'd visit him at his deathbed. Poe wanted to take Nancy Richmond up on that promise.

Making his way from Lowell to Providence, Poe stopped in Boston. On November 5, 1848, he said, he attempted to bring himself near enough to death that Nancy Richmond would have to come see him. So, he procured two ounces of laudanum, an opiate commonly used as a painkiller. He wrote a letter to Nancy, "in which I opened my whole heart to you... whom I so madly, so distractedly love." In the letter, he reminded her of her promise to see him on his deathbed, and wrote where he would be. On his way to the Post Office, he swallowed half his laudanum — an attempt at suicide which he hoped would put him on his deathbed. However, Poe took enough laudanum that he was unable to deliver the letter that would have called for Nancy Richmond to see him. It was not enough to kill him, and Poe wrote how he his stomach had rejected the drug (he vomited). The event is Poe's only documented drug use for either medical or recreational purpose.

He returned to Providence, told Sarah Helen Whitman he was ill, then made his way home to New York. Whitman later described the incident that Poe had "taken something at a druggists" something which he thought would make him feel better. Instead, she said, it "bewildered him." She does not allude to Poe being near death. On November 9, she took him to have his portrait taken.

What really happened in Boston on November 5, 1848? Did Poe really take laudanum and, if so, was it enough to cause his death? Was this really a suicide attempt? Is it really so simple to categorize? The letter, in which Poe poured his soul to Nancy (whom he called "Annie"), the one which he was about to deliver when he took the laudanum, does not exist. Biographers like to say, often without irony or question, that Poe tried to kill himself that day. More likely, Poe was over-dramatizing the whole event and trying to get attention (many "suicide attempts" today are equally an attempt at getting attention). Nevertheless, the incident inspired one of his most powerful poems. Allegedly written to Nancy Richmond, it is addressed in his nickname to her.
"For Annie"

Thank Heaven! the crisis—
The danger is past,
And the lingering illness
Is over at last—
And the fever called "Living"
Is conquered at last.

Sadly, I know
I am shorn of my strength,
And no muscle I move
As I lie at full length—
But no matter!—I feel
I am better at length.

And I rest so composedly,
Now, in my bed
That any beholder
Might fancy me dead—
Might start at beholding me,
Thinking me dead.

The moaning and groaning,
The sighing and sobbing,
Are quieted now,
With that horrible throbbing
At heart:—ah, that horrible,
Horrible throbbing!

The sickness—the nausea—
The pitiless pain—
Have ceased, with the fever
That maddened my brain—
With the fever called "Living"
That burned in my brain.

And oh! of all tortures
That torture the worst
Has abated-the terrible
Torture of thirst
For the naphthaline river
Of Passion accurst:-
I have drunk of a water
That quenches all thirst:—

Of a water that flows,
With a lullaby sound,
From a spring but a very few
Feet under ground—
From a cavern not very far
Down under ground.

And ah! let it never
Be foolishly said
That my room it is gloomy
And narrow my bed;
For man never slept
In a different bed—
And, to sleep, you must slumber
In just such a bed.

My tantalized spirit
Here blandly reposes,
Forgetting, or never
Regretting its roses—
Its old agitations
Of myrtles and roses:

For now, while so quietly
Lying, it fancies
A holier odor
About it, of pansies—
A rosemary odor,
Commingled with pansies—
With rue and the beautiful
Puritan pansies.

And so it lies happily,
Bathing in many
A dream of the truth
And the beauty of Annie—
Drowned in a bath
Of the tresses of Annie.

She tenderly kissed me,
She fondly caressed,
And then I fell gently
To sleep on her breast—
Deeply to sleep
From the heaven of her breast.

When the light was extinguished,
She covered me warm,
And she prayed to the angels
To keep me from harm—
To the queen of the angels
To shield me from harm.

And I lie so composedly,
Now, in my bed,
(Knowing her love)
That you fancy me dead—
And I rest so contentedly,
Now, in my bed,
(With her love at my breast)
That you fancy me dead—
That you shudder to look at me,
Thinking me dead.

But my heart it is brighter
Than all of the many
Stars in the sky,
For it sparkles with Annie—
It glows with the light
Of the love of my Annie—
With the thought of the light
Of the eyes of my Annie.

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