Thomas Holley Chivers Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.