In the Holy Trinity Church at Stratford-upon-Avon, lies the tomb of the celebrated William Shakespeare. The monument, an object of attraction for hundreds of visitors every year, houses a marble structure and an aptly poetic engraving paying tribute to the Elizabethan bard. A common tradition for people visiting the tomb of Oscar Wilde held that they put on lipstick and kiss it; a tradition, that apparently lead to the gradual decaying of this monument. In 2011, the tomb became the object of media scrutiny once again as Parisian authorities were forced to put up a protective layer of glass around it to make it “kiss-proof”. Among simpler tombs of literary significance, is Charles Bukowski’s single stone marker at a cemetery at Los Angeles. The epitaph has a figure of a boxer between his dates, suggesting his life was a constant struggle; and above the figure, two words that have been used by literary critics time and again to sum up his aesthetic philosophy – “Don’t Try.”

Graveyards and tombs have always enjoyed a particular importance across cultures – markers of the grand full stop ahead of our lives. When it comes to our heroes – political, cultural or literary – the tomb is a site of pilgrimage – the physical satisfaction of a potential spiritual, artistic and many a time, political connection. We pilgrims tend to endow these places with an aura and reverence identifiable with the dead in the hope that they go on to live with us in one way or another. One such site of intrigue is the grave of Edgar Allan Poe. The writer, whose tales were haunted by a fascination with the macabre, continues to uphold that quality of the mysterious, even after his death.

On the third of October, 1849, a man, unkempt, dirty and probably wearing someone else’s clothes was found wandering the streets of Baltimore, Maryland in a delusional and hysterical state. A few days later, on the seventh of October, Edgar Allan Poe was declared dead. The circumstances surrounding the incident remain shrouded in mystery. His attending physician at the time, a Dr. John Joseph Moran, said that the writer’s last words were – “The arched heavens encompass me, and God has his decree legibly written upon the frontlets of every created human being, and demons incarnate, their goal will be the seething waves of blank despair.” Of course, the doctor’s account remains highly dubious, considering he was the only one allowed to attend Poe in the duration of his stay at the hospital. On multiple occasions, Moran has also changed the time and the date on which Poe was brought to him. Nevertheless, the fact that the writer was in a delirious state in the days leading up to his demise is generally accepted. Many theories abound – one of his first biographers (a rival of Poe), depicts him as a depraved and drug-addled madman, therefore saying that it was not a matter of great surprise that he was found in a rambling and feverish state – an image that, in spite of scientific debunking, has stuck with the writer. More plausibly, Poe was a victim of “cooping” – a form of electoral fraud in the nineteenth century United States where people were abducted and forced to vote for a particular candidate at multiple polling booths.

Originally buried without a headstone, Poe’s grave was marked by a sandstone block that read “No. 80”. Over the years, Poe’s reputation as a remarkable writer increased, drawing attention to his life and works and a marked increase in readership, ultimately leading to public attention towards the sad state of his grave. On October first, 1875, Poe was reburied and a small monument was erected in his name – Walt Whitman attended the ceremony and Alfred Lord Tennyson contributed with a poem –

“Fate that once denied him,
And envy that once decried him,
And malice that belied him,
Now cenotaph his fame.”

Among the many people who have marked Poe’s contributions to literature through means of their own written works, in popular culture and new media, it is the legend of the Poe Toaster that stands out in particular resemblance with the mystifying tones of the author himself.

Beginning almost eighty years after Poe’s death, the “toaster” would visit the poet’s tomb annually on the nineteenth of January (Poe’s birthday), leaving behind three roses and an unfinished bottle of cognac. The three roses, arranged in a particular pattern, are interpreted as representing Poe, his wife Virginia and his mother-in-law Maria, their ashes buried at the same site. The cognac has no particular echo in any of Poe’s works, but seems to hark back to the Toaster’s own family tradition, as indicated by one of the many notes he left behind. Some of these written notes were simple tributes, such as – “Edgar, I haven’t forgotten you.” In 1999, a note said that the original toaster had died the previous year and that the tradition had been passed on to a “son”. Subsequent notes marked some overt references to the current stream of affairs. Jeff Jerome, a curator at the Poe House and Museum at Baltimore, said that the recent notes foreshadow the end of a tradition, with the “son” (or sons?) not taking it seriously enough.

Attempts to spot the Toaster and catch him in the act have failed repeatedly. Barring an incident in 2006, the toaster too has been left to his own job – not interfered by spectators, out of reverence for the invented custom. Jerome marks around a hundred and fifty visitors for the event in 2008. In 2010, no Toaster appeared. The tradition, it seemed was at an end. According to Jerome again, this made sense considering 2009 marked the bicentennial year of Poe’s birth.

In 2015 however, the Maryland Historical Society tried to revive the tradition as a tourist attraction. A competition was held for the best Poe toaster and a selection made in November. The identity of the new toaster remained unknown, but in 2016, people gathered from all over to witness him visit the grave site in the traditional garb of the original toaster (dressed in black, with a white scarf and a wide brimmed hat), playing Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre on a violin. After raising the customary toast and placing the roses along with the violin, the toaster left. The cognac bottles are said to be on display at the Poe Baltimore House and Museum that, after bring shut down in September 2012 was reopened a year later through private fundraising projects.

 

Ishan Mehandru

Ishan Mehandru

Ishan Mehandru is a student of English Honours at Hansraj College, University of Delhi.

Comments

comments