The rough, red book is small enough to hold with one hand comfortably, all the better for singing with. Published in 1840, American Melodies is a 19th century glee book. Compiled by George Morris, it is a compilation of over 200 song lyrics, each by a different writer. Included among standards such as “The Star Spangled Banner” is one of Edgar Allen Poe’s works entitled “To Ianthe In Heaven”.
The title is imprinted in gold across the red cover. The typeface is restricted to the center of the pages, making the pieces appear longer (vertically) than usual. This layout makes the text is easier to read, and so that the singer did not have to hold the book open all the way in order to read the words they are singing. Although no sheet music is included in the book, punctuation and line breaks are applied liberally in order to lend sense to the lyrics. The paper is thin, allowing one to see words on the other side of the page, and the binding has stayed strong and true for more than 150 years.
It is interesting to encounter Poe poetry in the context of song. The central location of the text on the page, as well as the dashes and frequent punctuation (a Poe hallmark), allow the reader to better experience the rhythm of the poetry. This extra structure is useful because Poe work is not often sung and so most readers would likely have little or no experience with his work as music. Careful line cues and frequent indentations allow for the reader to see the rhyme and flow clearly so that it may be sung.
Because of the unusual circumstances under which we encounter Poe in this glee book, its textual presentation is key to the reader’s understanding of it musically. As we move farther and farther away from the era in which it would have been originally performed, this context becomes more and more vital to our understanding of the piece. Intact artifacts like this book allow us to understand and experience this work in the unique way in which is was once understood, long ago in history.
For the full text of “To Ianthe in Heaven” see the Poe Society of Baltimore website.