If Poe is returning to the fort, then his burning discontent is that of a visionary trapped in the dull routine of army life; at the same time, the sense of nobility and suppressed anger in the face of suffering, along with the pursuit of supposedly higher ideals, suggests a Lost Cause mythology that lurked in the background of the Charleston Renaissance. Heyward makes no overt connection between Poe and Confederate Charleston—after all, Poe died over a decade before the first shots of the Civil War. Yet it is worth noting that his walk with Poe’s ghost would have included a moonlit view of nearby Fort Sumter, on which construction began the year after Poe’s company left South Carolina.
Hervey Allen’s poem “Alchemy” similarly depicts Poe as a Romantic outcast; he, too, situates the poet/speaker on Sullivan’s Island, not meeting Poe but dreaming of his return. Like Charles Baudelaire’s 1861 poem “The Albatross,” which casts the Poe-esque artist as a bird who hobbles on land, the opening lines of “Alchemy” explain that “Some souls are strangers in this bourne; / Beauty is born of their discontent.” Because these souls are “exiles” from another planet, they recast what they see on Earth through their “memories of other stars” (8). In the second stanza, Allen’s speaker claims that “this island beach where Poe once walked” is one of the
Where all earth’s moods conspire to make a show
Of things to be transmuted into beauty
By alchemic minds (12–16).
The speaker wonders if the bells and chimes from the city across the harbor, sounds that must have inspired Poe, might “call him back / To walk upon this magic beach again” (24–25). Allen imagines Poe in full gothic regalia, “heralded by ravens” and “Wrapped in a dark cape” (27, 29). His speaker longs for the walk on the beach that takes place in Heyward’s poem: “And he will speak to me / Of archipelagoes forgot, / Atolls in sailless seas, where dreams have married thought” (31–33).
Both poets, then, argue that Poe’s time on Sullivan’s Island had a profound effect on him, so much that he still walks along the beach. Or, interpreting the poems less literally, Heyward and Allen suggest that Sullivan’s Island evokes Poe, that the poet and the place share a mystical, dreamlike beauty “born of discontent.” Furthermore, they implicitly claim to have inherited a place-based literary tradition from the poet who haunts the beach they walk.
A third poem by a member of the Charleston Renaissance circle, Beatrice Witte Ravenel’s “Poe’s Mother” (1925), claims Poe for Charleston through less direct but no less insistent means. More ambitious than “Edgar Allan Poe” or “Alchemy,” this 200-line blank verse poem is voiced by the itinerant actress Eliza Poe, while in Charleston in April 1811—pregnant with her third child Rosalie, suffering from tuberculosis, reflecting on her marriage, her career, and her precocious two-year-old son. While relatively little of the poem refers directly to Edgar, Ravenel imbues Eliza with a sensibility familiar to readers of her son’s poetry. It begins,
It’s something to be born at sea, as I
Was born. Earth fails to get full clutch on you.
You keep a certain cleanliness of depths—
Soul, self-respect, you call it what you like.5
Eliza’s opening lines recall Poe’s early Romantic poetry, in which he presents himself as detached from normal, waking life, profoundly alone, seeking artistic integrity above all else, what David Ketterer, in The Rationale of Deception in Poe, refers to as “arabesque reality.” Like Heyward and Allen, Ravenel invokes the impulse Poe expressed in his early poetry, and Eliza’s monologue takes place, appropriately, in the arabesque of early morning hours, whose liminality and beauty appeal to her: “This is the hour / I love, the unrealest hour of all the day” (21–22). Later she reminds herself, “Let me get the good / Of these two unreal hours. Let me be quiet. / The only bearable things in life are dreams” (69–70).6
Eliza refers directly to her illness only twice—in the lines above and in a more hopeful earlier reference, “My cough itself grows better in this air” (29)—but mortality is clearly on her mind, as she recalls having played the part of Juliet two years earlier, in Boston, when Edgar was born:
Juliet, the girl whom everybody loves.
Why has the world conspired to clothe its dream
Of utter beauty in a velvet pall,
With pallid velvet tapers, head and feet,
In Capulet’s monument? (44–48).
Perhaps it is because, as her son would later write, “the death . . . of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” She sees that her child is already death-haunted, or at least the inheritor of his mother’s offstage and onstage tragedies:
I almost could believe God threw His shadows
Across my skies and worked my cloudy ferment
To shape this child.
He’s born of Juliet’s body! (117).7
In Poe’s 1831 poem “Israfel,” the speaker envies an angelic musician’s artistic power:
If I did dwell where Israfel
Hath dwelt, and he where I,
He would not sing one half as well—
One half as passionately,
And a stormier note than this would swell
From my lyre within the sky (39-41).8