If I'm going to be scholarly about this, it's going to take way more work than I feel like putting into it. But, sometimes these presentations are like an iceberg, with just the tip showing. So I'm going to try to give you the "tip"; but I'll have to do a spot of work behind the scenes to get this right.
What's missing, in the plausibility of Mathew Franklin Whittier's proposed authorship of "The Raven" and "Annabel Lee," is his own track record as a poet. This is very well hidden in the historical record, for several reasons that I've been able to determine. First of all, he is overshadowed by his famous brother, poet John Greenleaf Whittier. Secondly, Mathew published all of his poetry (and most of his prose) under various pseudonyms. Thirdly, where he is remembered at all, we have two sources--his son-in-law, Samuel Pickard--who, as I gather, was his nemesis from well before Pickard married his daughter, Lizzie--and a reporter named Charles O. Stickney, who was none-too-accurate. The rest comes from various JGW biographers, including an unofficial one named William Sloan Kennedy. Kennedy quotes from Mathew's friend, collaborator and former editor, B.P. Shillaber, as well as Stickney. Mathew's own brother has very little to say about him, and almost nothing to say about his work. It appears that Mathew withheld most of his own literary work from his brother. Thus, I now have something approaching 1,300 published works by Mathew; his brother probably only knew of about 70, and those, all pertaining to his "Ethan Spike" series. And that was only because someone "outed" Mathew as the author of that series in 1857. Had that not happened, we would have less than ten pieces that Mathew signed with his own name; but then again, even those would now be lost to history.
There is one biography of Mathew, written in 1941 as a student thesis, by Lloyd W. Griffin. However, he bases his work on the above-named sources. Never write a biography based on what a man's enemy has written (or not written) about him. But Griffin didn't know that Pickard was Mathew's enemy; he only knew that he was John Greenleaf Whittier's official biographer. In my estimation, Pickard was a smooth skunk who married Whittier's niece so as to come into control of the Whittier legacy, and profit thereby. Could be wrong, of course. But the evidence stacks up that way.
So what I had in mind to do, this morning, was to present what there is in the historical record pointing to Mathew as a poet. There are bits and pieces, here and there; and they run from lukewarm to downright disparaging. This is where the behind-the-scenes work comes in (fortunately, I've already done it, I just have to gather it in). I am speaking, now, of what you could find in a search of ordinary, acceptable sources--not the nine years of intense detective work by which I recovered Mathew's poetic legacy.
The record of the earliest poem Mathew ever wrote--without giving his age at the time--appears in "The Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier" by John Pickard, who was Mathew's great-grandson. He relates the following account of Mathew and his mother, Abigail Whittier:
Abigail Whittier, a sober, reserved woman, had on occasion been slightly displeased with Matthew’s comic effusions. Local tradition has it that one day after voicing a wish that Matthew would write more soberly and seriously, as did his brother, she was surprised by her younger son’s acceding to the suggestion and asking for a solemn subject on which to write. She gave him “Daniel in the lions’ den.”
The poem, as it has come down to us, reads:
They took old Daniel by the heels,
And headlong thrust him in,
Then all the lions waiting here,
At him began to grin.
But Daniel mustered stoutly up,
His courage did not fail;
He boxed the lions on the ears,
And pulled them by the tail.
That isn't the way it happened. Mathew's mother, exasperated, asked him why he couldn't write poetry on serious subjects like his older brother. The implication was that John Greenleaf was writing real poetry, while Mathew was merely wasting his time on humor. Since his brother was writing poetry, we know this must have occurred when John Greenleaf was, say, in his late teens. He was, as I recall, discovered by William Lloyd Garrison (after the older sister, Mary, had submitted one of John's poems to Garrison's paper without his knowledge), in 1827. John, being born in 1807, would have been 20. So presumably, John would have been 18 at this time, while Mathew, five years younger, would have been 13.
Mathew, being thus unfavorably compared to his brother, took up the challenge--in defiance, he wrote a humorous poem on a serious subject, namely, his own family's dysfunction. But he wrote it as an allegory, using a Biblical reference. Symbolically, he is Daniel, the lions are his family members, and he defeats them.
It all went over everybody's heads, from his mother to John Greenleaf Whittier's biographers. This is the only poem by Mathew Franklin Whittier existing in the normally-available historical record.
William Sloan Kennedy tells us, in "John Greenleaf Whittier: His Life, Genius, and Writings," that Mathew was "himself a versifier." But this is a disparaging term, and we know it is because on page 207 he quotes a letter in which John Greenleaf Whittier remarks: "They know little of Burns who regard him as an aimless versifier..." While, in his other biography, "John G. Whittier: The Poet of Freedom," Kennedy states:
Mr. Whittier's only brother, Matthew Franklin Whittier, was for many years a resident of Boston. His humorous verses and satirical dialect articles, signed "Ethan Spike, from Hornby," were mostly contributed to the Portland "Transcript," but some of them to Boston papers. I should not advise anyone to take the trouble to hunt them up. They prove incontestably that but one genius is born in a family.
By the way, I'm not giving formal citations, here. Do you realize that they are passe, now? If you find the pdf edition of these books on Archive.org, in a few clicks you can search for these quotes and see them, yourself. We don't actually need citations, anymore.
Not until the big solar flare, that is...
There's a little more historical information on Mathew, including from B.P. Shillaber and Charles O. Stickney, but I want to stay closely on-target, here. You can't find much else on Mathew's poetry, even with a fairly deep search of the historical record. Nonetheless, I have published an e-book of his poetry, along with the poetry of his first wife and true love, Abby Poyen. Much of Mathew's poems are of the humorous variety, especially his earliest work, but some is, indeed, serious. Some is a fascinating mixture--as was "The Raven." Always look for context--the plagiarist has to invent context for his stolen poem out of the air (to be polite). This is what Edgar Allan Poe did with his essay, "The Philosophy of Composition," in which he supposedly explains how he wrote "The Raven."* But as I've touched upon in previous entries, here, there is a very deep context for this poem in Mathew Franklin Whittier's life, in his personal psychology, and in his other poetry--including poetry published before 1845.
But, let us continue with just a little more of the historical record, pertaining to Mathew as a poet. There are two more references which surfaced online. Bonham's auction house sold what appears to be the one and only volume of Mathew's own 1838 newspaper, the Salisbury "Monitor," for about $7,000. It had earlier sold on Ebay for about $100, and I kicked myself daily for several years that I was not on top of Ebay then. Later, I found other work written by Mathew, and by Abby, published around this same time--and then, work published by each of them much earlier. Some of it I was able to obtain original copies of--so I don't feel quite so badly about it, now. I have tried everything I could think of to obtain a copy of that volume from the mysterious owner, to no avail. I will state my philosophy on this once again: No man or woman owns history. At most, he or she can own the physical copy--but they don't own the literary history of the United States, itself. Therefore, if someone owns a unique copy, they have an ethical obligation to copy it or digitize it, and thereby make it available to scholars.
Here is what Bonham's has to say about this volume, as pertains to Mathew's poetry:
Unknown until this appearance as his earlier role as editor of the Salisbury Monitor, which is filled with original content along similar lines, some of which may be traced to his [Mathew's] pen. For example, a hitherto unrecorded poem published in the February 22 issue, "The Slave," (and "Written for the Monitor,") records a tragic suicide of a slave on the island of Guadeoupe. Matthew Franklin Whittier had recently married Abbie Poyen, a native of Guadeloupe, in 1836, who is presumably the source of the tale for M.F. Whittier's pen.
But "The Slave" is probably Abby's poem, not Mathew's--the Bonham's historian being unaware that she, herself, was at least as good a poet as Mathew was. This paper launched in February, 1838. In the February 16, 1838 edition of "The Liberator" (William Lloyd Garrison's paper), appears a poem which I believe was written by Abby, under her full maiden initials, "A.R.P." (Abby Rochemont Poyen) entitled "I'd Have No Slave." It opens with an acknowledgement to poet William Cowper, via a two-line quote of his poem which is along similar lines. It then begins:
I’d have no slave to till my ground,
To fan me while I sleep,
To walk my humble dwelling round,
From midnight foes to keep,
No, not for all the gold that grows
In deep Peruvian mines—
Nor all the ample wealth that flows
Through India’s coral climes.
If you dig a little deeper, you find that Mathew is listed in the program for the 1842 anniversary meeting of the Pnyxian Club in Portland, Maine, as reading an original poem (being, himself, a member). The Pnyxian Club was the premiere debate club of the city at that time. This simply tells us that this elite group of civic leaders and intellectuals--who were probably in a better position to judge such things than William Sloan Kennedy--must have thought it was good enough to include in their anniversary ceremonies. However, it appears that the poem, itself, has been lost to time.**
Therefore, in the readily-available historical record, we still have only one example of Mathew Franklin Whittier's poetry, and that is represented as being a joke. A joke, the meaning of which is interpreted to be that he admits he can't write serious poetry--but which, in fact, being written by a 13-year-old boy, was too sophisticated for every historian who ever encountered it. (This, partly because they were misled by the fiction that Mathew's mother chose the topic for him.) We also have Mathew described, disparagingly, as a "versifier," along with the suggestion that neither his poetry nor his prose is worth the trouble of looking up.
Yet, I'm telling you I have published a compilation of his poetry, both humorous and serious, which is of exceptional quality. I'm telling you he started publishing the humorous variety at age 14, in a major Boston literary publication (unlike his brother, who began by publishing in the local Haverhill, Mass. newspaper***). I'm telling you that he wrote one of the most celebrated American poems of the 19th century, "The Raven"--even though he didn't consider poetry to be his forte.
There is one more fact which appears in the readily-available record, regarding who Mathew associated with. We know he was friends with John Townsend Trowbridge, because of an anecdote which gives the origin of Trowbridge's tribute poem, "A Story of the Barefoot Boy." It is said that the story, itself, was told to him by John Greenleaf Whittier's brother (i.e., Mathew), about their childhood. John Trowbridge wrote boys' adventure stories under the pseudonym "Paul Creyton." But few people, aside from one or two admiring scholars, know just how good a poet he was. One would have to dig much deeper into the record to find that Mathew was personal friends with Oliver Wendell Holmes; and to find that his private tutor and future wife, Abby, was a brilliant poetic child prodigy in her own right. One would have to dig even deeper to find that Mathew was a voracious reader of poetry even at a young age, and evinced a deep understanding of the subject in his satirical essays.
Something is wrong with this picture, and I know that, since I am pegged as a nutcase who believes in reincarnation, everyone assumes it's me.
Here is the very earliest piece of Mathew's poetry that I have found. The authorship is certain, in my opinion, by signature and style. Mathew had a cousin Richard in Methuen, Mass.--it is typical of Mathew to replace certain identifying details, to preserve anonymity. So here, the poem is titled "To My Cousin Dick at Buxton." Ostensibly, on the surface level, it is a letter, rendered in verse, telling Dick about his current job as a cabinet-maker's apprentice. Actually, however, it appears to double as commentary on a publication put out by one Dionysius Lardner called the "Cabinet Cyclopaedia," which apparently has undergone some kind of recent transformation--and perhaps, not for the best. The reference to "Bob Southey" is poet Robert Southey, who in fact had written a section on naval history for the "Cyclopaedia." This is pretty sophisticated stuff for a 14-year-old; and it dovetails perfectly with my interpretation of the one known historical snippet we have, "Daniel in the Lions' Den," which was also a veiled satire, written on two levels.
To My Cousin Dick at Buxton.
You ask me, dear Dick, what we're doing in town?
Tho' for ten that are doing, there's seven 'done brown.'
But, doing or done, we are all of us taking
A wonderful interest in Cabinet-making.
You have heard, I suppose, that among the odd things
Which belong to the best of Old England's good kings,
Was a curious Old Cabinet, formed of the wood
That, in George the Third's time was pronounced to be good;
Prime, well-seasoned stuff, and made up in the form
Prescribed by the 'Pilot who weathered the storm;'
'Twas costly enough, though 'twas not very showy—
would you know what it cost us, ask Aberdeen Joey.
But cost what it might, it was the pride of the King,
And loud in its praise Bobby Southey would sing,
Until some years ago, by a shocking event,
There was one of its panels away from it rent;
And the new stuff they used, to repair this disaster,
Only pushed on its whole dissolution the faster,—
'Twasn't properly seasoned, and took a strange twist,
And the frame-work too cranky that twist to resist,
The joints all got loosened, the old panels cracked,
The locks (although patent) no longer would act;
And the doors then would neither stand open nor shut—
No matter what treasure they into it put.
So at last having spoiled, Sir, the old one, the true one,
Mr. Canning was ordered to make us a new one.
You know Mr. C. is remarkably clever—
Such a workman as he is, the old world saw never;
Be the job what it may be is equally handy,
For at turning his hand he's a true Jack-a-dandy.
So going to work without further delay,
He knocked the old Cabinet up in one day;
But it took him three weeks, and a great deal of bother
To find stuff sufficient to make us another.
And now it is finished, they say it's an oddity—
A sort of a kind of a hotch-potch commodity;—
Formed chiefly of wigamore willow, alas!
With a curious inlaying of Conyngham brass;
To night is the night it's to be upon show,
And nothing preventing, be sure I will go,
To see how it's liked by the folk at St. Stephen's,
And whether they'll vote odd and ends to be evens.
Meanwhile, dearest Richard, believe me to be
Your very affectionate cousin, P.P.
Incidentally, do the lines beginning "And now it is finished" remind you of Doctor Seuss? This is mid-1827.
Some of the double-meanings are indicated by italics (mixed in with straightforward italics for emphasis). I'm guessing, for example, that "done brown" is slang for being drunk (this being an era when heavy drinking was normal). I can't get all the historical references, but I know that Mathew has embedded them extensively. His mind, at age 14, was as nimble as it would ever be, and it is not without ample justification that I have concluded he was a child prodigy. But his future wife Abby, four years younger, has not yet begun tutoring him in the classics, and in esoteric studies. So we will not see him making references to these subjects, yet.
I could, of course, quote more of Mathew's poetry. But there is something odious about shoving poetry (especially, serious poetry) in people's faces to convince them of anything. Here's my offer--purchase my compilation and read it for yourself. I think I've priced it at $7.00. You don't need me to give you a link, here--you can find it if you're motivated. And this is what I'd prefer to do--make things a little more difficult for people, to weed out all but the sufficiently-motivated ones. If you want it, you can find it. If you don't want it, I have no intentions of making it easier for you, or worse yet, attempting to induce you to purchase it. Say I sold three copies--that's $21. What am I going to do, in today's society, with $21? I can't afford to eat out, so I might buy a tank of gas or a bag of rice with it.
Meanwhile, you can't imagine what a treat you are missing, for not bothering to find that book and pay $7.00 for it. But then, it's for those with the capacity to appreciate it.
In this vein, I just saw a video on Facebook in which children sit down with adults at a cafe, who are seated by themselves, and strike up a conversation. It is all carefully videotaped, on tripods, so it had to have been staged. I didn't dare "share" it, because of safety concerns, i.e., I don't think it's a good idea for children to try this under unsupervised conditions. But it says something about the coming generations. After present-daty humanity has brought the earth to an unimaginable low, these spiritually advanced souls are going to incarnate en masse. They will, no doubt, be eager to read Mathew and Abby's poetry, because Mathew and Abby were like them.
Stephen Sakellarios, M.S.
*He then attempted to demonstrate that he could write another poem in a similar style, with "Ulalume," which was, in my opinion, a miserable failure.
**I have a clear past-life impression that Mathew was exceedingly nervous reading this poem publicly, before that group.
***Mathew, as associate editor for a newspaper in New York City, would then reprint them so as to increase his brother's exposure.
"Mediocre," by David Seville and the Chipmunks