Thomas Holley Chivers Essay - Critical Essays

Chivers, Thomas Holley


Thomas Holley Chivers 1809-1858

American poet and essayist.

Chivers was a Southern poet considered by his contemporaries and by many modern readers to be a literary curiosity due to his eccentric nature and his obsession with sorrow, loss, and death. Although some scholars find significant literary value in his poetry, Chivers is typically remembered for his association with Edgar Allan Poe, who Chivers claimed plagiarized his work.

Biographical Information

The son of a wealthy Georgia plantation owner, Chivers was born on October 18, 1809. He was educated as a physician at Transylvania University in Kentucky and received his medical degree in 1830, although he never practiced medicine. In 1827 Chivers married his 16-year-old cousin, Frances Elizabeth Chivers. The couple separated due to alleged abuse. Chivers's wife subsequently refused to let her husband see his daughter, who was born in 1828 after the separation. This loss provides the overall theme of The Path of Sorrow; or The Lament of Youth: A Poem (1832). In 1834, Chivers married Harriet Hunt. Their oldest daughter, Florence Allegra, died in 1842, and her sister and two brothers died in 1848. Later, two daughters and a son were born, all of whom survived their father. Throughout most of his literary career, Chivers corresponded with Poe. Chivers's affection for his friend is revealed in one letter in which Chivers offers to support Poe for the rest of his life. Their relationship continued until Poe's death in 1849. Chivers died on December 18, 1858.

Major Works

Chivers's first volume of poetry, The Path of Sorrow, reflects the poet's own experiences with loss and death. In 1834 Chivers completed Conrad and Eudora; or, The Death of Alonzo, a dramatic version of an actual 1825 murder case that came to be known as the "Kentucky Tragedy." Chivers's account of the case, when compared to modern renditions, has been called "the most bloodthirsty" by William Goldhurst. Another drama, Leoni, the Orphan of Venice, is similar in theme to Conrad and Eudora and was published in 1851, although an early version of the manuscript was completed in 1834. The Lost Pleiad; and Other Poems (1845), focusing on such somber themes as death and sorrow, features Chivers's exploration of the possibilities for new rhyme patterns in the sonnet form. Eonchs of Ruby (1851) includes a variety of poems which demonstrate Chivers's affinity toward folklore and music and which challenge the boundaries of traditional patterns of poetry through metrical experimentation. In discussing the similarity of the work of Chivers and Poe, Charles Lombard comments that the "aims and techniques" of the poetry in this volume are common to both poets. Chivers's last volume of poetry, Virginalia; or Songs of My Summer Nights, (1853) continues to explore such topics as folklore, nature, and religion. The volume also displays Chivers's ability to stimulate the senses through unique connotative word combinations. Chivers also wrote several unpublished dramas and Chivers' Life of Poe, a biography which was published posthumously in 1952.

Critical Reception

Lombard characterized the critical reception to Chivers's work when he remarked that the volume Virginalia, typically judged Chivers's best work, received some praise in addition to "the usual caustic remarks that greeted any new volume he dared to publish.…" In response to Chivers's claims that Poe borrowed from his poetry, critics such as Joel Benton admit that Chivers's works, "which suggest the mechanism and flavor of Poe" in meter, rhythm, and use of refrain, for example, antedate the period of Poe's literary activity. However, these scholars also argue that Poe improved upon the use of such devises to the extent that Chivers actually contributed little to Poe's work. Poe himself stated, in a review of The Lost Pleiad written with Henry Watson, that many of the poems in the volume possess "merit of a very lofty—if not of the very loftiest order." These comments reflect the opinion of several modern scholars, including Lombard, S. Foster Damon, and Wilbur Scott, who have discussed Chivers as an accomplished poet in his own right. Like Poe, contemporary critics recognize Chivers's work as noteworthy in that he achieves effects with metrical variation and imitative sound that few other poets have successfully accomplished.

Principal Works

*The Path of Sorrow; or, The Lament of Youth: A Poem (poetry) 1832

Conrad and Eudora; or, The Death of Alonzo (drama) 1834

Nacoochee; or, The Beautiful Star, with Other Poems (poetry) 1837

The Lost Pleiad; and Other Poems (poetry) 1845

Search after Truth; or, A New Revelation of the Psycho-Physiological Nature of Man (essay) 1848

Eonchs of Ruby (poetry) 1851

Leoni, the Orphan of Venice (drama) 1851

Atlanta; or, The True Blessed Island of Poesy. A Paul Epic—In Three Lustra (drama) 1853

Memoralia; or Phials of Amber Full of the Tears of Love (poetry) 1853

Virginalia; or Songs of My Summer Nights (poetry) 1853

Birth-day Song of Liberty: A Paon of Glory for the Heroes of Freedom (essay) 1856

The Sons of Usna: A Tragi-Apotheosis (drama) 1858

Chivers' Life of Poe (biography) 1952

*Privately published by Chivers.


Edgar A. Poe and Henry C. Watson (essay date 1845)

SOURCE: A review of The Lost Pleiad; and other Poems, in The Broadway Journal, Vol. 2, No. 4, August 2, 1845, pp. 55-6.

[Considered one of America's outstanding men of letters, Poe was a distinguished poet, novelist, essayist, journalist, short story writer, editor, and critic. In the following essay, Poe and Watson assess Chivers's The Lost Pleiad; and Other Poems, stating that many of the poems in the volume possess "merit of a very lofty—if not the very loftiest order."]

This volume is evidently the honest and fervent utterance of an exquisitely sensitive heart which has suffered much and long. The poems are numerous, but the thesis is one—death—the death of beloved friends. The poet seems to have dwelt among the shadows of tombs, until his very soul has become a shadow. Here, indeed, is no mere Byronic affectation of melancholy. No man who has ever mourned the loss of a dear friend, can read these poems without instantly admitting the palpable truth which glows upon every page.

The tone of the composition is, in these latter days, a marvel, and as a marvel we commend it to our readers. It belongs to the first era of a nation's literature—to the era of impulse—in contra-distinction to the era of criticism—to the Chaucerian rather than to the Cowperian days. As for the trans-civilization epoch, Doctor Chivers' poems have really nothing of affinity with it—and this we look upon as the greatest miracle of all. Is it not, indeed, a miracle that today a poet shall compose sixty or seventy poems, in which there shall be discoverable no taint—absolutely none—of either Byron, or Shelley, or Wordsworth, or Coleridge, or Tennyson? In a word, the volume before us is the work of that rara avis, an educated, passionate, yet unaffectedly simple-minded and single-minded man, writing from his own vigorous impulses—from the necessity of giving utterance to poetic passion—and thus writing not to mankind, but solely to himself. The whole volume has, in fact, the air of a rapt soliloquy.

We have leisure this week only to give, without comment, a few extracts at random—but we shall take an opportunity of recurring to the subject.

I hear thy spirit calling unto me
From out the Deep,
Like Arcbytas from out Venetia's Sea,
While I here weep;
Saying, Come, strew my body with the sand,
And bury me upon the land, the land!

Oh, never, never more! no, never more!
Lost in the Deep!
Will thy sweet beauty visit this dark shore,
While I here weep;
For thou art gone forever more from me,
Sweet Mariner! lost—murdered by the Sea!
Ever—forever more, bright, glorious One!
Drowned in the Deep!
In Spring-time—Summer—Winter—all alone—
Must I here weep!

(The entire section is 1243 words.)

Joel Benton (essay date 1897)

SOURCE: "Was Poe a Plagiarist?" in Forum, Vol. XXIII, March-August, 1897.

[In the following essay, Benton examines Chivers's accusations of plagiarism against Edgar Allan Poe.]

Very few people to-day, even in literary circles, know anything about Thomas Holley Chivers, M.D. And even these know very little. He was a poet of at least one book before Bryant made that brief anthology of sixty or more American poets in 1840;—mostly names that have vanished long since into the everlasting inane;—but he was not there represented. His first volume of verse appeared in 1837, though fugitive lyrics from his pen were doubtless afloat on the periodical seas long before that...

(The entire section is 3456 words.)

Wilbur S. Scott (essay date 1944)

SOURCE: "The Astonishing Chivers: Poet for Plagiarists," in The Princeton University Library Chronicle, Vol. V, No. 4, June, 1944, pp. 150-53.

[In the following essay, Scott provides a brief overview of Chivers's work and discusses the relationship between Chivers and Edgar Allan Poe.]

If you know Chivers, give me your hand

Among the more interesting possessions of its Treasure Room, Princeton is fortunate to own some rare first editions of one of the most striking, albeit obscure figures of American literature. These are four books of poems, Nacoochee (1837), The Lost Pleiad...

(The entire section is 1296 words.)

Charles Henry Watts, II (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: "Technique," in Thomas Holley Chivers: His Literary Career and His Poetry, University of Georgia Press, 1956, pp. 211-48.

[In the essay that follows, Watts provides examination of Chivers's poetic technique.]


Perhaps the measure of [Thomas Holley] Chivers' success with the themes most typical of his poetry may be in part determined by an examination of his theory of poetry, and his understanding of the duties and desires of the poet. Not an analytical critic or a particularly acute surveyor of the contemporary literary scene, he wrote few objective reviews, most of his expression on literary theory occurring in the...

(The entire section is 13630 words.)

S. Foster Damon (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Complete Works of Thomas Holley Chivers, Volume 1, edited by Emma Lester Chase and Lois Ferry Parks, Brown University Press, 1957, pp. xiii-xv.

[Known as an expert on the work of William Blake, Damon was also highly regarded as the biographer of Chivers and American poet and critic Amy Lowell. In the following essay, Damon comments on Chivers's personality, reputation, and literary style.]

Of all the figures in American literature, Thomas Holley Chivers, M.D., was certainly one of the most extraordinary. You may not like him, but you cannot ignore him. His poetry ranged from markedly original fantasies, in which the music transcends the...

(The entire section is 1168 words.)

Richard Beale Davis (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: "Thomas Holley Chivers and the Kentucky Tragedy," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 1, No. 2, Summer, 1959, pp. 281-88.

[An educator and scholar, Davis is best known for his writings on Southern life and literature. In the following essay, Davis compares Chivers's Conrad and Eudora and Leoni, contending that they are different versions of the same work and that they reveal Chivers's "abilities as a self-critic."]

The Kentucky Tragedy stands as one of the three great historical events, matters, or themes which American writers have drawn upon in creating fiction, poetry, and drama. Only Pocahontas and Merry Mount rival it. This dark...

(The entire section is 3283 words.)

John Olin Eidson (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "The Letters of Thomas Holley Chivers," in The Georgia Review, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, Summer, 1964, pp. 143-49.

[In the essay that follows, Eidson assesses Chivers's correspondence and what personal details it reveals.]

In many ways the personal letters of Thomas Holley Chivers tell us more about him than a biography. And what they reveal is a strange and curious phenomenon. In his arrogant pride, his tremendous egotism, his complete lack of humor, all mixed in with a broad knowledge and detailed scholarship on the strangest of subjects, Chivers is a literary curiosity which one would go far to match. Practically every letter is revealing. Few are routine, because...

(The entire section is 2702 words.)

Edward Dahlberg (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "Chivers and Poe," in Alms for Oblivion, University of Minnesota Press, 1964, pp. 73-6.

[An essayist, poet, philosopher, and literary critic, Dahlberg's eccentric writing style caused him to be recognized as a phenomenon of sorts in American letters during his lifetime. In the following essay, Dahlberg comments on Chivers's biography of Poe and on the relationship between the two poets.]

The Small Life of Poe by Dr. Thomas Holley Chivers was perhaps finished in 1857, a year before Chivers' death, and has been mummified in the Huntington Library until recently. As an ode in prose to Poe, it is false, orphic sublimity, but the homage is tender and...

(The entire section is 1108 words.)

Charles Lombard (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Path of Sorrow by Thomas Holley Chivers, Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1979, pp. v-xxxi.

[In the following essay, Lombard provides a detailed study of several of Chivers's major works.]


When only nineteen Thomas Holley Chivers in 1827 married his sixteen-year-old cousin, Frances Elizabeth Chivers. Within a year she left him because of alleged cruelty. He was never allowed to see his daughter, born in 1828 after the separation. The chief culprit in the destruction of his marriage was, according to Chivers, Franky Albert, a relative who was a malicious gossip. Since litigation failed to win...

(The entire section is 10621 words.)

William Goldhurst (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "The New Revenge Tragedy: Comparative Treatments of the Beauchamp Case," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. XXII, No. 1, Fall, 1989, pp. 117-27.

[In the essay that follows, Goldhurst compares various dramatizations of the Beauchamp-Sharp murder case, arguing that Chivers's 1834 version is "the most bloodthirsty" of all the treatments.]

Poe's strategy of setting an American literary situation in a remote and exotic environment has a special and complex application in the verse drama Politian, written in 1835. Set in Rome during the Renaissance, the play is a retelling of the Beauchamp-Sharp murder case, which took place in Frankfort, Kentucky, in 1825...

(The entire section is 4298 words.)

Further Reading

Bell, Landon, C. Poe and Chivers. Columbus: Trowbridge, 1931, 101 p.

Faults S. Foster Damon for his praise of Chivers in Thomas Holley Chivers: Friend of Poe (1930).

Benton, Joel. "The Poe-Chivers Controversy," and "Thomas Holley Chivers." In In the Poe Circle, pp. 31-53, 61-8. New York: M. F. Mansfield & A. Wessels, 1899.

Summarizes the Poe-Chivers plagiarism controversy and provides an account of the relationship between the two poets.

Lombard, Charles. Introduction to Search after Truth, The Lost Pleiad, and Atlanta, by Thomas Holley Chivers. Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1976, pp. v-xiii....

(The entire section is 215 words.)