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Poe’s Signature to “The Raven”


Why Poe should have signed “Quarles” to his best-known poem, “The Raven,” when it was published in the American Whig Review in 1845, and why he should have used this pseudonym in no other acknowledged work of his has remained one of the mysteries that none of the poets’s biographers apparently has been able to penetrate. And I believe that the poet failed even at the time to make his readers understand his reasons for choosing this cryptic signature.

When, however, one has taken the trouble to investigate the misunderstanding which unfortunately arose between Poe and Dickens, I think that the mystery can be satisfactorily cleared up. From the appearance of Pickwick until its author came to America in 1842, Dickens had no more faithful admirer in the United States than Poe. Poe’s review of Barnaby Rudge im mensely pleased Boz, and, as Dr. Killis Campbell declares in a recent edition of Poe, “To Dickens we can be reasonably certain that Poe owed the suggestion of ‘The Raven,’ the prototype of this bird being almost surely the pet raven, ‘Grip,’ in Barnaby Rudge” (p. 251). As soon, therefore, as Dickens arrived in Philadelphia, it is evident that Poe wrote to him and requested a meeting. Although Poe’s letter to Dickens is most probably not in existence, for reasons that will be given in a moment, Dickens’s reply, dated United States Hotel, Philadelphia, March 6, 1842, has been preserved and was printed in the Century about twenty years ago, as well as in a collection of Poe’s letters pub lished in 1903. As this letter is an important link in the chain of evidence needed to explain the relations between Poe and Dickens, I shall quote a part of it here :

“I shall be very glad to see you whenever you will do me the favor to call. I think I am more likely to be in the way between half past eleven and twelve than any other time. I have glanced over the books you have been so kind as to send me, and more particularly at the papers to which you call my attention. I have the greater pleasure in expres sing my desire to see you on this account. Apropos of the ‘construction’ of Caleb Williams, do you know that Godwin wrote it backwards?the last volume first ?”

Further light on the subject is thrown by another letter from Dickens (likewise printed in the Century and in the volume of Poe’s letters referred to above) dated London, November 27, 1842:

“By some strange accident,” it begins, “(I presume it must have been through some mistake on the part of Mr. Putnam [Dickens’s American secretary] in the great quantity of business he had to arrange for me) I have never been able to find among my papers, since I came to England, the letter you wrote to me at New York. But I read it there and think I am correct in believing that it charged me with no other mission than that which you had already entrusted to me by word of mouth. Believe me that it never for a moment escaped my recollection and that I have done all in my power to bring it to a successful issue?-I regret to say, in vain.

“I should have forwarded you the accompanying letter from Mr. Moxon before now, but I have delayed doing so in the hope that some other channel for the publication of our book on this side of the water would present itself to me. I am however unable to report any success. I have mentioned it to publishers with whom I have influence, but they have, one and all, declined the venture, and the only consolation I can give you is that I do not believe any col lection of detached pieces by an unknown writer, even though he were an Englishman, would be at all likely to find a publisher just now.”

To these two letters we are restricted in our inquiry, for during the sixties Dickens one day took out to his garden at Gad’s Hill all the letters written to him for years back and set fire to them with his own hand, explaining his action by saying that he had seen what he regarded as scandalous use made of letters of prominent men and that he intended to save such repu tations as had been left in his hands. But for this little bonfire on Gad’s Hill we might have had at least one more important letter in the handwriting of Poe.

It is easy, however, to put together the threads of the story and to imagine the feelings of Poe during the interval between March and November, 1842. Not merely was it his belief, from Dickens’s long silence, that he (Poe) had been the victim of heartless neglect or bad faith, but he must have been deeply mortified at the failure of Dickens to accomplish his desire to be introduced through Dickens to the British public, and even more so at the implied sting in the reference to himself as “an un known writer.” Poe’s heart must have been filled with humili ation and bitterness.

And these feelings must have been keenly intensified by the subsequent conduct of Dickens in publishing his American Notes, with its brutal comment on the follies and customs of the very people whose guest he had so lately been. In April, 1842, Poe had retired from Graham’s Magazine of which he had been the editor and for which he had written tales and essays and poems, having make it a national periodical by his commanding genius. He was turning his attention in the direction of a magazine of his own, but in the meantime he had to live. In the fall of that year he began his tale of “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” which he contributed to The Ladies Companion. The first installment appeared in the magazine in November, 1842, and the second in December of that year. Before Poe could write the third and concluding installment, the whole of the United States was in a ferment over the receipt of Dickens’s American Notes. Poe read this biting, sarcastic caricature of his countrymen not only as an outraged American, but likewise (as he thought) as the disappointed dupe of its author, for he had not then received Dickens’s letter of explanation and apology. Stopping his work for the Companion, he hastily wrote an answer to American Notes which he sent to Boston, where it was published by the Daily Mail, entitled “English Notes, for Very Extensive Circu lation, by Quarles Quickens, Esq.”

Though it lacks balance, owing possibly to Poe’s haste in composition and to his intense desire to wreak vengeance on Dickens, English Notes is one of the finest pieces of invective, rejoinder, satire, and parody pro duced in America. Poe’s English Notes had scarcely left the press before he must have received from Dickens the letter already quoted explaining his silence and apologizing for his seeming neglect. It was too late to call back his answer to American Notes, and indeed the pamphlet is not known to have made the sensation the author evidently expected it would. Poe never referred to it and never asserted his claim to its authorship. In spite of the fact that the misunderstanding was now cleared up, Poe could hardly have wished to withdraw his answer to Dickens’s severe strictures on his countrymen. But though he may possibly have taken the most natural and direct method of writing to Dickens a letter acknowledging his kind efforts in his behalf, Poe must have meditated another and more effective answer to the slur implied in the phrase “unknown writer.” In 1842, or in the early part of 1843 (for Poe went to New York in the latter year), Poe wrote his “Raven.”

When he finally sold it to The American Whig Review in 1845, he signed it “Quarles” instead of using his own name. It is quite probable that as soon as his English Notes appeared three years before, Poe had sent a copy of it to Dickens, without disclosing the authorship. His use of the pseudonym “Quarles” in connection with “The Raven” might have been intended for Dickens as a hint to the identity of “Quarles Quickens,” and might also have served both for Dickens and for the British publishers to whom Dickens had unsuccessfully applied as a defiant notice that the “unknown writer” in America could produce a work that the whole world would accept with enthusiasm. Thus the assumption of the pseudonym might well have been the natural expression of his bitter disappointment and wounded pride. There seems to be no other adequate reason for his having retained a pen-name signed to a pamphlet that so soon fell into oblivion.