Friday, December 18, 2009

In Memoriam: Thomas Holley Chivers

On December 18, 1858, the doctor/poet Thomas Holley Chivers died at the age of 49. Both Edgar Poe and Dr. Chivers were born in 1809 (though it seems little attention has been paid to Chivers's bicentennial, outside his home state of Georgia). Later in Poe's life, Chivers became one of his closest confidantes and an almost-partner for The Stylus. After Poe's death, he became one of his staunchest defenders — though he quickly turned eccentric.

Chivers wrote a memorial poem to Poe as well as a biography, Life of Poe, which was excessively praising of his friend. However, he also included strange accusations that most of Poe's work was a rip-off of his own. Chivers particularly noted "The Raven" and claimed he inspired the refrain "nevermore." Certainly, both poets had similar themes in their stories — though, while Poe suffered the loss of many women he loved (including Jane Stanard and his wife Virginia), the themes of loss in Chivers's poetry was inspired by the loss of his children.

Chivers married his16-year old first-cousin in 1827. An interloping uncle claimed that Chivers was abusive to his wife (it is unclear if this is true) and she left him before their daughter was born. A Georgia court eventually invalidated his first marriage because she had abandoned him for over five years. He soon remarried, this time to a woman from Massachusetts and, with her, Chivers had four children — however, each died off in childhood one by one. Much of his poetry focuses on the death of his children, oftentimes discussing their ascension to heaven. Like Poe, Chivers believed poems should be short but, very unlike Poe, he also believed poetry was a gift from God and that poems were written through divine inspiration.

The problem with Chivers's poetry is that it's all just a bit much. His images are over-the-top, his Poe-like repetition, assonance and internal rhyme unchecked by moderation. Parts of his poems are amazing — but few poems in their entirety are tolerable. This may have been what inspired Poe to call Chivers "one of the best and one of the worst poets in America." Much of his poetry is imitative, which led to one anonymous reviewer (possibly Evert Augustus Duyckinck) to break him down as 30% Percy Bysshe Shelley, 20% Poe, 20% "mild idiocy," 10% "gibbering idiocy," 10% "raving mania" and 10% "sweetness and originality." Perhaps, but Chivers's poetry is worth attempting to read.

Struck with sudden illness, Chivers wrote his will shortly before his death in 1858. His last words were, "All is perfect peace with me." In his will, he left one dollar for his first wife and their daughter. He was buried, at his request, under his front doorstep (his home was named Villa Allegra, after his favorite daughter) before later being re-interred in a more traditional cemetery.

Rest in peace, Dr. Chivers.

*There seems to be only one known photo of Chivers, and all images of him are some variation of the original. Having already used that image in an earlier post, I presume it appropriate to offer an alternative: his grave in Decatur Cemetery, courtesy of Flickr.

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