Preserving Poe’s Poetry

Bound by a black and brown Morrocan leather cover, the exterior of this book suits its text. It is the second edition of The Poetical Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Features of the book such as the style and date of binding make it a literary artifact. The spine has raised bands at the top and lower thirds of its length, and the front and back are symmetrical to each other when the book is open; the tips have camel-colored triangles, and two thin, rectangular strips along the sides of the spine.

Frontspiece from The Poetical Works of Edgar Allan Poe (London: Addey & Co. Henrietta Street, Covent Garden). Image courtesy of the Sheridan Libraries, The Johns Hopkins University.

The book contains charming, albeit eerie, black and white illustrations such as the frontspiece depicting a scene from “The Raven.” However, some of the more interesting features are the personal notes and dedications that may have been written by the same person due to the similar handwriting. The recto endpaper before the title page contains an illegible hand-written note regarding the leather binding and letters in the book, which may be instructions to a book-binder. The note contains a signature from the donor to the Johns Hopkins Special Collections library. Even better, there is a hand-written dedication on the title page from B. Morris to Nancy H. Howard, which adds to the book’s charm.

Binding instructions (London: Addey & Co. Henrietta Street, Covent Garden). Image courtesy of the Sheridan Libraries, The Johns Hopkins University.

This must have been special to Nancy because Morris took special care in selecting a pleasurable gift item for her. He selected an edition with a “notice” of Poe’s life and illustrations, and it is likely that he customized the binding. These features may have distinguished the book as a collector’s item, at the very least they were meant to inform readers about Poe so that they could know him and take pleasure in reading his works. The style of the book as well as Morris’s thought in selecting it must have made Nancy enjoy reading it all the more.

One last thing I would like to point out is the book’s colophon. It reads: London, Printed by Robson, Levey, and Franklyn, Great New Street and Fetter Lane. It is worth noting that Fetter Lane runs parallel to Fleet Street, as in, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street’s, hunting grounds. What better place to publish Poe’s Poems?

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Insert Footnote: Reading Poe in a Different Way

On the most superficial level, footnotes impact the layout of the page and draw attention to the additional material listed. It is not as an authentic experience as reading the letters in their original form.  Glancing at the footnotes as one is engaging in the correspondence slows one down, yet they make one analyze things that one might have otherwise overlooked when reading as well. The footnotes also make the reader approach Poe’s emotions and choices according to the viewpoint of the editor. In most cases, it was Harrison who decided what external facts needed to be known to understand the letters, although occasionally Whitman, as in this instance, altered aspects of the letters and put forth her explanation of Poe’s intentions.  The footnotes transform informal, personal correspondence between a couple into a study of Poe and his mindset, thus changing the tone and detaching the reader from the original author’s work. These footnotes range in content from biographical information to grammatical modifications. Another difference is one’s reading experience where the commentary is as important as the  main text. In one example, Sarah Whitman added brackets around a phrase which could influence how the reader interpreted the letter. Hence, the footnote in this scenario shows how Whitman reacted to the letter as well as  honestly admits to the reader that changes have been made to the content.  These footnotes certainly provide context to an audience that would not necessarily be privy to Poe’s beliefs and story, especially as the years progressed.