Poe’s Valentine

Courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia, Rare Book Department
Brown, Will – Photographer. Photograph of Grip. [Realia].
Valentine & heart adaptions by Cynthia June Long.

There was a post circulating on Facebook: Advice for Screening a Potential Date Based on His Reading Habits:

“. . . If he’s into any major 19th Century Russian literature e.g. Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, than he’s most likely a pessimistic misanthrope disillusioned by humanity. . . .  [If he likes] anything by Franzen, Palahniuk, Pynchon, or Chabon: RUN!”

This post prompted me to consider what would be warning signs to flag an unsuitable woman?  Joseph Conrad, without a doubt: avoid a woman with a heart of darkness. This advice seemed both reasonable and ironic: both I and my ex-husband had loved Conrad’s Youth.  (I’d sent him a card after our divorce: ‘And then the marriage broke up. Ah, youth!’)

Also: Poe. Beware a woman who idolizes Edgar Allan.  “Those are definitely a dangerous breed,” my friend Michael Pfister agreed.

Grayscale picture of Poe, with signature
Edgar Allan Poe; image from the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore

And then I found Poe’s valentines. Who is this woman pursued by Poe in his acrostic Valentine poem?

[To translate the address, read the first letter of the first line in connection with the second letter of the second line, the third letter of the third line, the fourth of the fourth, and so on to the end. The name will thus appear.]

For her this rhyme is penned, whose luminous eyes,
 Brightly expressive as the twins of Loeda,
Shall find her own sweet name, that, nestling lies
 Upon the page, enwrapped from every reader.
Search narrowly the lines! -- they hold a treasure
 Divine -- a talisman -- an amulet
That must be worn at heart.  Search well the measure --
 The words -- the syllables! Do not forget
The trivialest point, or you may lose your labor!
 And yet there is in this no Gordian knot
Which one might not undo without a saber,
 If one could merely comprehend the plot.
Enwritten upon the leaf where now are peering
 Eyes scintillating soul, there lie perdus
Three eloquent words oft uttered in the hearing
 Of poets, by poets -- as the name is a poet's too.
 Its letters, although naturally lying
  Like the knight Pinto -- Mendez Ferdinando -- 
Still form a synonym for Truth. -- Cease trying!
 You will not read the riddle, though you do the best you can do.

Combining the first letter of the first line; the second letter of the second line, etc., we get the name of Poe’s Valentine: For her this rhyme is penned, whose luminous eyes, / Brightly expressive as the twins of Loeda . . .  etc.

Answer: F-r-a-n-c-e-s  S-a-r-g-e-n-t  O-s-g-o-o-d; Frances Sargent Osgood.

Well done, Edgar. Quite clever. I’m sure any modern gal might swoon were her lover to write an iambic acrostic.

Mrs. Frances Sargent Osgood
 Frances Sargent Osgood; frontispiece for the 1850 edition of her poems. Photo from the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore.

There is a reason Poe didn’t name her outright—he and Ms. Osgood apparently had what the Library Company of Philadelphia calls a scandalous “literary courtship” when she was separated from her husband.  She ended their affair to preserve her reputation.  Poe died in 1849, 1 year before her death in 1850.

Poor Edgar. What a tragic life. May our lives — and love lives — be happier.

Happy Valentine’s Day.


About Grip the Raven  
     Grip,  the pet raven of Charles Dickens, is thought to be the inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven." He currently resides in the Rare Books Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Atlas Obscura provides several nice photographs (and nicknames). In 2011, Philadelphia magazine reported of Grip that "he was not a nice bird." In 2015, BBC's "The Mysterious Tale of Charles Dickens’s Raven" told how the taxidermized Grip looked down on Dickens as he wrote, and how Poe's poem may or may not have inspired artist Paul Gauguin.  The Parkway Central Library is open with limited services; the Rare Books Department is currently closed due to COVID precautions, (as of January 2021); however staff is working onsite. Call 215-686-5416 or email for more information.
Image courtesy of Pixabay

Further Reading

Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore — People — Frances Sargent Osgood

Frances S. Osgood (1811-1850) from the Library Company of Philadelphia

Frances Sargent Osgood | History of American Women (blog site; advertising)

Poem Citation: Poe, Edgar Allan. “Peculiar Acrostic – a Valentine.” Whimsey Anthology, edited by Carolyn Wells, Scribner’s, 1906, p. 77. Gale Literature: LitFinder, link.gale.com/apps/doc/LTF0000541553WK/LITF?u=pl3410r&sid=LITF&xid=646b33d2. Accessed 19 Jan. 2021.

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