When Edgar Allan Poe was 18, he fell in love. And love, in a writer, leads straight to metaphor.
In this poem, Poe uses a river as an extended metaphor on the beauty of the woman he adores. And while the river in question may not be the Patapsco, Poe often took the train to Ellicott’s Mills to visit his friend John Pendleton Kennedy, whose house sat on the banks of the river.
Poe was living in a rented room in Baltimore when this poem was first published in 1829 in a small volume called Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems, by the Baltimore printers Hatch and Dunning. Only 250 copies were printed, and the poemsdrew some praise, but one Baltimore critic dismissed the book as merely “a literary curiosity.”
Likely directed at a young woman Poe met in college, Sarah Elmira Royster, this poem revels in her beauty and goodness. Unfortunately, Poe’s foster father and Royster’s parents did not want the pair to marry, and the romance died.
But Poe forever pairs the water with the woman: “For in my heart, as in thy stream/ Her image deeply lies … .”
The name Patapsco is an English version of the original Algonquian name, pota-psk-ut, which translates to “tide covered with froth.”
Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., an American landscape architect, conservationist, and city planner, studied the Patapsco Forest Reserve before its founding in 1907, and proclaimed as glorious and worthy of preservation the area that would become Patapsco Valley State Park.
Olmsted wrote, “To the west, along the Patapsco River for a long distance above and below Ellicott City, there is a splendid example of the picturesqueness of a river gorge on a large scale, the rocky bluffs rising boldly to a height of 400 feet above the rushing stream … .”
Poe might phrase it differently, but would likely agree about the “crystal, wandering water.”
To the River—
by Edgar Allan Poe
Fair river! in thy bright, clear flow
Of crystal, wandering water,
Thou art an emblem of the glow
Of beauty—the unhidden heart—
The playful maziness of art
In old Alberto’s daughter;
But when within thy wave she looks—
Which glistens then, and trembles—
Why, then, the prettiest of brooks
Her worshipper resembles;
For in my heart, as in thy stream,
Her image deeply lies—
His heart which trembles at the beam
Of her soul-searching eyes.
“To the River—” was first published in Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems, in Baltimore in 1829. This poem is in the public domain.