The Poe-English feud: two poets come to blows

January 5, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, writers, writing.

Edgar Allan Poe once wrote of Thomas Dunn English that he is “a man without the commonest school education busying himself in attempts to instruct mankind in topics of literature.” This after they had once been friends — or at least on friendly terms (although some in the Poe camp dispute even that).

In the 1840s, English was a well-known poet, essayist, and editorialist. His most famous work is a poem titled, “Ben Bolt,” written in 1843 for the New York Mirror. It was a ballad that was later set to music by Nelson Kneass, and the first stanza is this:

Oh don’t you remember sweet Alice, Ben Bolt
Sweet Alice whose hair was so brown
Who wept with delight when you gave her a smile
And trembled with fear at your frown.

The song, and the phrase “Oh don’t you remember Sweet Alice, Ben Bolt” became one of the most widely popular and sung tunes of the 19th century. It was turned into a political tune at one point and was sung nightly on steamboats and other popular venues.

Poe and English fell out with each other in 1845 when Poe was asked by a woman to return letters that she had written to him that she believed contain indiscretions. Poe said he had returned the letters, and the story is that he asked English for a pistol to defend himself against the brother. English expressed some doubt that Poe was actually telling the truth about the letters and suggested that he make a public statement about the controversy. This infuriated Poe, and the two men came to blows with Poe later claiming that he administered to English  “a flogging which he will remember to the day of his death.”

English denied that, but no hatchets were buried. English wrote a prohibitionist novel titled 1844 or the Power of the S.F., in which he included a character named Marmaduke Hammerhead, the famous author of a poem The Black Crow. It was a clear parody of Poe. After the New York Mirror published a letter in 1846 about Poe by English, Poe sued for libel and won a $200 judgment.

The two highly-strung writers had several other literary confrontations, and the feud did not end with Poe’s death in 1949. English continued to jab at Poe even though he outlived Poe by more than 50 years.

Today we remember Poe and his body of work as being among the best of American literature, and few people know of Thomas Dunn English. His Ben Bolt, which captures the romantic longing of the age, is still sung and recorded. The entire poem follows:

Ben Bolt

Oh don’t you remember sweet Alice, Ben Bolt
Sweet Alice whose hair was so brown
Who wept with delight when you gave her a smile
And trembled with fear at your frown.

In the old church yard in the valley, Ben Bolt
In a corner obscure and alone
They have fitted a slab of granite so gray
And sweet Alice lies under the stone.

Under the hickory tree, Ben Bolt
Which stood at the end of the hill
Together we’ve lain in the noonday shade
And listened to Appleton’s mill.

 The mill wheel has fallen to pieces, Ben Bolt
The rafters have tumbled in
And a quiet that crawls ’round the walls as you gaze
Has followed the olden din.

And don’t you remember the school, Ben Bolt
With the master so cruel and grim
And the shaded nook by the running brook
Where the children went to swim.

Grass grows on the master’s grave, Ben Bolt
The spring of the brook is dry
And of all the boys who were schoolmates then
There are only you and I.

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