The Rose of Sharon

The Correspondent, which appeared on alternate Mondays in Hapsburg, Virginia, printed this notice on the front page for April 17, 1848:

On Tuesday next, Mr. Edgar Allan Poe will give a lecture at the Lyceum and read aloud from his work. Afterward, he will sign autographs and exchange pleasantries. Copies of his books will be available for purchase. Those who wish to attend are advised to secure a ticket in advance.

The poet, storyteller, book reviewer, and inquirer into the occult returned to Richmond from New York after the death of his young wife. Famous for his poem “The Raven,” the widower finds some meager solace in collecting and revising his tales and verses. He hopes to found a new literary journal to be called the Stylus.

Richard Yeardley edited and published the Correspondent. He also wrote much of the contents. The articles, stories, and opinion pieces were unsigned or bore pseudonyms. Benjamin Franklin used several pseudonyms, including Silence Dogood and Richard Saunders, author of Poor Richard’s Almanack. Three founding fathers all signed the Federalist Papers as Publius. Yeardley favored names like Jucundus and Delayer. Nobody was fooled.

Yeardley and Poe had been classmates at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Poe attended briefly in 1826. Yeardley completed his degree and went west to the Shenandoah. Enterprising in a genteel way, he opened the Lyceum as a venue for lectures, literary recitation, musical performance, and a school for young men of quality, that is, the sons of landowners and businessmen who could afford to pay tuition. Public schools did not exist in the Antebellum South.

The Lyceum structure survives intact in the historic district. No longer used as a school, the restored Lyceum is now the headquarters of the Hapsburg Historical Society, whose offices occupy the ground floor. Upstairs, a collection of artwork, furniture, bric-a-brac, and documents includes a complete series of the Correspondent.

“A newspaper of this era is rare enough,” says Ella Eulalia Finch, a stately, white-haired lady who conducts research on local history. “To have every printed issue in perfect condition is practically unheard of. We also have Yeardley’s correspondence.”

Aware of Poe’s return to Virginia, Yeardley had sent him a copy of the paper with a letter of personal news from the past twenty-two years. The letter ends:

It would be an honor to receive some trifle of your own composition to publish in the enclosed. Thrift precludes an honorarium, but the Lyceum undertakes to defray travel expenses. As for hospitality, Mrs. Yeardley will not hear of a hotel. Our home is yours for the duration of your stay.

Poe was at loose ends. He had made a fruitless trip to Providence, Rhode Island, where the poet Sarah Helen Whitman broke off their engagement after he committed “drunken outrages.” In Richmond he stayed at the home of his sister Rosalie, while searching for a position and contributing stories and essays to the Southern Literary Messenger.

He also courted his first love, Elmira Royster. She had married Alexander Shelton and was now a well-to-do widow. Shelton’s will stipulated that Elmira would lose her income if she remarried. Might the flame of passion rekindle after such a long interval? Poe was persuasive, but the handsome youth was now thirty-nine years old and sadly dissipated.

Poe traveled by stagecoach, since the railroad did not yet extend past the Blue Ridge. The Yeardleys had a comfortable house in town. Mrs. Yeardley was the daughter of a prosperous landowner and leader in county affairs, Donald Shieldwater. He supported the newspaper, and it reflected his conservative politics.

News and literature fell outside Shieldwater’s range of interest, so the editor followed his own bent. Yeardley reported lost farm animals and remarkable weather events—freak storms, floods, and a meteorite. He told gossip he heard about town, often with a disparaging comment about the source. He reprinted items from other journals. He badgered local residents to lend him letters they received for eyewitness accounts of gruesome accidents, sudden death, and tender domestic scenes. And he encouraged literate persons to contribute poems and tales for no compensation other than the glory of their name in print.

In its next issue, the Correspondent printed this notice:

An artistic triumph! From Richmond, Mr. Edgar Allan Poe recently traveled to Hapsburg, where he took in the sights. In the evening, he delivered a lecture at the Lyceum to a rapt throng of literary aficionados.

By way of preface, Mr. Poe congratulated the town on “the natural beauty of its setting and the august simplicity of its architecture.” He called the Quidnunc County Courthouse “a rustic temple worthy to enthrone the goddess of law Justitia,” and the Lyceum “a shrine to the Muses, and a miniature School of Athens.”

The renowned man of letters spoke on aspects of modern literature and its place in the Republic: “After a juvenile epoch in which all our poets are praised as Miltons and all our novelists are Walter Scotts, we are ready for true criticism, a mental rigor to match the strength of our muscles.”

Poe concluded by reciting from his poems. Certain rhythmical passages and repeated phrases had a hypnotic effect. More than one listener slumped in his seat, as though about to nod off. The after-dinner hour and the heat generated by so many live bodies crammed into the hall may also be noted.

The poet intoned his last syllable, and the deathly stillness was dispelled by a thunder of hand clapping and foot stomping. This boisterous response went on ad infinitum. At length, a student at the school forced his way through the mob of admirers holding a stuffed raven over his head. He ceremoniously perched the raven on the lectern. To renewed applause, the bard bowed to the bird.

The Yeardleys introduced their guest to a female acquaintance who was eager to meet him. She was probably the same person whose verses appeared in the Correspondent as written “By a Young Lady.” The party of four drove out to see the abbey founded by French refugees in 1800. Poe admired the monks’ austerity and declared he wished to join them. His companions hustled him back in the carriage and safely home.

On the last day of his visit, the man of letters and the young lady took a walk in the fine weather. They visited a cemetery, a popular destination for the era. Even today, late April is the time for Historic Garden Week in Virginia. The walk apparently inspired a poem published in the newspaper.

The poem, like the young lady, has no name attached. It did not gain a wider circulation, and editions of Poe’s works omit it, even editions that claim to be complete. The style, however, the retired setting, and the poignant sense of loss admit but one author.

The Rose of Sharon

In a vale of peace and plenty, in a distant western land
Where the golden light of hopeful heaven smiles,
High above the noisy Main Street and the bustling river strand,
In the green and leafy churchyard of St. Giles,
Where the dappled shade beguiles,
And the tumult of the busy town is banned,

A bright flower sleeps forever that had not time to unfold
When it faded from the fever and the strife,
The incomparable blossom of an age already old,
Fallen dead before it fully came to life,
Severed by a cruel knife,
Like a bud of petals furled against the cold.

For the springtime can be fickle, and the wind will often veer
Through the rocky valley of the Shenandoah,
Warming zephyrs alternate with icy whistles, and no seer
Can prognosticate so well as Father Noah.
Had the sudden change been slower,
She might breathe and brave this mortal atmosphere.

For a single day among the hectic few she had on earth,
I adored and loved the lovely Rose of Sharon,
And I mourn the monstrous theft of such a jewel, so much worth
Herded in the grim and lowly bark of Charon,
In the ferry bleak and barren,
Where her spirit found a necessary berth.

As we strolled a grassy lane between the stones, beneath the boughs,
In that airy garden of eternal rest,
We exchanged light-minded promises and momentary vows,
As new lovers play at hearts and talk in jest,
Feign a blithe disinterest
On the surface while the coils of passion drowse.

In the folly of the moment, did I fail to recognize
Her gay laughter as too little and too late?
Was the brightness in her face, the glitter in her lambent eyes
Early tears, foreknowledge of her dismal fate?
Was I blind to this innate
Intuition of a premature demise?

Pressed and harried, I departed with the firm and fond intent
To return and claim my tender rose tomorrow.
Now I kneel before a slab of white, a marble monument,
To inscribe with sharpened steel this verse of sorrow,
Strike the chisel grief must borrow
On the chaste entablature of sentiment:

Here lies a young maiden whose bloom
Was brief as the blush of dawn.
Lay garlands to smother the tomb,
And lament the fair rose that is gone.

Did Poe return to Hapsburg, kneel on the mounded sod, and take up hammer and chisel? Did years of snow and rain melt the inscription to a blur? Did the soft white marble crumble in the century and a half since it was erected? No such gravestone is visible today.

“There never was one,” according to Ella Eulalia Finch, a lifelong member of St. Giles. “Or if there was, it vanished before I was born. Church records before the Civil War are incomplete, so we may never know.”

Miss Finch has helped many people in the town and county trace their ancestry, and she has copied documents for descendants who live elsewhere, records of birth, marriage, death, and burial. She has searched for many a rural cemetery, cleared the weeds from an overgrown plot, and got down on her hands and knees to read an inscription. No person in Quidnunc County is a more experienced graveyard sleuth.

“Hapsburg was small in 1848,” she says, “no more than a village. There were few educated women in rural Virginia. That ought to narrow it down. If ‘rose’ refers to a proper name, a prime candidate is Rose Flibbert. She was in her twenties, the right age for a ‘young maiden,’ if you stretch. No writing by Flibbert survives to compare against the published verse. We don’t know if she could carry out a rhyme scheme or put two sentences together. What we do know is instead of dying she married Asa Grubb later that year, and the couple left town.”

Miss Finch is not a scholar, she says, though she attended college as a day student. Nor is she an attorney. She is the daughter of Judge Stephen Finch. Mrs. Finch died at age forty, and the young daughter stayed on as Judge Finch’s housekeeper. As his part-time legal clerk, she learned a good deal about evidence.

“I was an unpaid intern way back then. Until an old letter turns up, or something on paper that mentions the young lady by name, the case is still open. For what it’s worth, Rosalind F. Grubb wrote verses which appeared in Philadelphia and other big-city newspapers. That might be our Rose, if she altered her first name, the F stands for Flibbert, and she lived into her seventies.”

In the face of doubt, Miss Finch suspects poetic license. She offers this scenario.

“Out of sight in the spring foliage, Poe got fresh with the young lady. She told him to mind his manners, and romance got nipped in the bud. The poet then took revenge by killing her off. He had a thing for doomed, underage girls. Think of Annabel Lee, Lenore, and Ligeia. And the one he married, Virginia Clemm. She was only thirteen! Rose or Rosalind or whoever was lucky to escape!”

Miss Finch takes a moment to compose herself. An avid gardener and past president of the Garden Club, she adds a botanical note.

“The rose of Sharon is a popular garden shrub related to hibiscus and althea. Poe may have seen one in the St. Giles churchyard. Its blooms last a day then fall to the ground, which may have planted the idea in his head.”

Fifty years ago, Miss Finch was a teenage mother, forced to give up the baby for adoption. Buried for many years, this fact recently came to light, when a middle-aged professor of botany sneaked into her garden to steal an antique rose. She questioned Dr. Blodgett. To their mutual astonishment, he turned out to be her long-lost son!

“Poe died the year after his visit,” Miss Finch says. “It was in Baltimore, under mysterious circumstances that have never been explained. Poetic justice, if you ask me.”

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