Sometimes I think that, especially when I am writing query letters to radio show hosts, I should leave an entry up, here, which would both impress them and introduce them to what I'm doing. But this isn't ad copy masquerading as a blog, it's an actual blog. So I write what I feel like writing, and share what I feel like sharing.
This blog, and my second book, keep on informing each other in a symbiotic fashion. I brainstorm here, and then add a more polished version of my new understanding, there. Then, I come back to the blog to summarize.
So when I stepped back from this plagiarism issue, I saw the larger picture. Mathew Franklin Whittier was truly an inspired writer; but he had a very low opinion of himself, and he suffered from hero worship of the famous literati. When his soul-mate, Abby, died in 1841, in a fit of Stoicism, he gave away everything that reminded him of her, as well as those literary works they had produced, together. Their masterwork about Christmas, he gave to Charles Dickens, during Dickens' Boston visit in 1842. Abby's homework assignments, when she was tutoring him in French--the English translations of La Fontaine's Fables--he gave to Elizur Wright. Dickens re-worked the manuscript into "A Christmas Carol"; Wright published "La Fontaine's Fables" (i.e., with Mathew's permission) that same year, 1841.
Mathew would have thought it an honor, that the great Charles Dickens saw fit to use his and Abby's manuscript as a starting point. He was so naive, and his confidence in his own abilities was so low, that he wouldn't even have thought of it as plagiarism--even though it definitely was.
Then--and this was my new insight--having what he perceived as this great success, he must have started sharing his work with other prominent literary figures. This, naturally, would have been primarily his tributes to Abby--about his grief, about her death, about her, and about their courtship. By far, most of these literati would have been honorable, but of course we have no historical record of it. I have evidence that Mathew was personal friends with Oliver Wendell Holmes (Mathew moved in the same social circles as his brother, John Greenleaf Whittier); I think he probably knew Henry Wadsworth Longfellow at least well enough to share some of his unpublished poetry with him; and I have evidence suggesting that he knew Henry David Thoreau personally (though perhaps not at this early stage). These famous persons might have given Mathew encouraging feedback, but not retained his poems; or if they did, such things weren't selected for inclusion in their posthumous papers.
It was only the imposters, the plagiarists, and the corrupt writers who were desperate to "keep the hits coming," who would have betrayed him. Mathew must have sent a poem about his courtship with Abby to Elizabeth Barrett, which she then stretched and published as "Lady Geraldine's Courtship." In it, was a mention of the purple curtains that had once been part Abby's wall hangings. When Mathew had given everything else in the house away that reminded him of her, in a stroke of Stoic practicality, he had converted the cloth into curtains. But you know what happens when you have given away those things prematurely. Remorse hits you hard--and anything you might have retained, is now all the more precious. I think it was that way with those curtains, and this is why they show up, specifically, in not one, but two of Mathew's tribute poems--the one he sent to Barrett, and "The Raven." He even liked his stylist treatment of them, so he re-used it in whichever poem he wrote second.
When Poe falsely claimed "The Raven," it was no-doubt pointed out to him that an almost identical line about "purple curtains" had already been published by Barrett, in the lengthy poem, "Lady Geraldine's Courtship." By the way, that poem is written from the male lover's point of view. The details of the plot are like a fanciful, and yet point-for-point accurate, depiction of Mathew's courtship with Abby. It's far more likely his production, given his penchant for writing this kind of veiled autobiography, than it is that Barrett took the male point of view in a love poem.
So, Poe had to act fast. He published a compilation of poetry leading out with "The Raven," and dedicated it to Barrett, thus tacitly admitting that he had taken inspiration from her work. But think about this logically. The two lines are nearly identical. Clearly, it is not a case of mere inspiration or admiration--if Poe took it from Barrett, it is out and out plagiarism. So first of all, we know that Poe was lying, and at risk of stating the obvious, he is now proven as a liar, such that all his statements are suspect.
Poe was very clever. He wouldn't have been so careless, or so stupid, as to practically copy a line from Barrett's poem. But Poe has sacrificed "coincidence"--however implausible that might be--by acknowledging inspiration. Therefore, the only logical explanation remaining is that he didn't know it was there.
That's how it all appears to me, today. But then, how to account for the fact that, while Mathew is terse about Poe, he continues to write in glowing terms about Barrett's virtue, as he does when reviewing her poem to George Sand?
I think it's because he sent his poem to Barrett in the same spirit that he gave the manuscript to Dickens. If a famous writer deigns to incorporate your work into theirs, it is taken as a great honor. But if a contemporary and colleague falsely claims your entire poem, that's a different matter entirely. The only question, then, for Mathew, was whether Poe was an out-and-out fraud, or whether he was a misguided genius suffering from the effects of an unfortunate childhood. So far as I can tell, at least through 1851, Mathew convinced himself of the latter.
Today, looking at all the facts from this vantage-point, I am convinced of the former. Likewise regarding Dickens and Barrett. Mathew apparently figured her out by 1857, based on a passing comment in a review of a book by Julia Ward Howe. I don't know whether he ever fully realized that Dickens, who was always hungry for more hits, was every bit as much a thief as Poe, although he did have the talent to write on his own. Dickens, however, was not a spiritual writer, he was a sensationalist. He wrote of the sordid conditions of the poor in London, inducing people to think that it was for the purpose of social reform, when actually, it was for entertainment and to sell books. We see a great deal of this, today, especially in films. Given his character, he could not possibly have originated "A Christmas Carol." Some day, when spirituality is better understood by the masses, this will be obvious. That it isn't obvious, today, speaks as much about society's state of consciousness, as it does about Dickens, himself. Same with Poe and "The Raven." In other words, these things will not be a hard sell in a future, more enlightened society, they will be self-evident. All posterity will need is the missing link, Mathew Franklin Whittier.
Stephen Sakellarios, M.S.
Music opening this page: "Won't Get Fooled Again,"
by The Who,
from the album, "Who's Next"