June 7, 2011

Hoffman: let no more thy music flow!

Though he was promoted as one of the greatest of American writers in the 1840s, Charles Fenno Hoffman died in obscurity on June 7, 1884. Left with only one leg after a childhood accident, the New Yorker left a career as a lawyer to become a poet, novelist, travel writer, and magazine editor. His mental stability, however, was questioned.

After a short hospitalization, he accepted a government job in Washington, D.C. Within months, he was permanently institutionalized, beginning in 1849. The last 35 years of his life were spent in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in the state asylum (his doctors apparently forced him to give up literary interests). It was in that hospital that he died at the age of 78.

His poem "No More—No More":

No more—no more of song to-night;
Oh, let no more thy music flow!
Those notes that once could wake delight,
Come o'er me like a spirit-blight,
A breathing of the faded past,
Whose freshest hopes to earth were cast
    Long, long ago.

A livelier strain! nay, play, instead,
That movement wild and low,
That chanting for the early dead
Which best beseems spring's blossoms fled,
A requiem for each tender ray
That from life's morning stole away-
    Long, long ago.


  1. Thanks for this interesting posting, Rob. Hoffman is an intriguing character. Too bad about his being forced to abandon his literary pursuits while in the asylum. Do you know the painter of his portrait in your posting, or the location/provenance of this piece? Thanks. By the way, I was born in Harrisburg, PA, where Hoffman died.

  2. I believe this is the portrait by Cephas Giovanni Thompson.

  3. Ah--he also painted Longfellow, no? Thanks for the reference.

  4. Rob, did you know Hoffman (or Charlie, as Herman Melville called him) in early Oct 1849 was taken from his desk in DC to the Washington University Hospital in Baltimore, during the very same week Poe was a patient there? I wonder if the able Prof. Monkur treated both patients (the same Prof who had treated John Lofland, the Milford Bard, successfully for his alcohol and opium addiction during 1843-45).

    From Holland.

    From Holland.

    1. I'm not familiar with this story, but it's certainly intriguing! I'm not sure who Prof. Monkur is... Poe was treated by Dr. Joseph Moran, as I recall.

    2. John Cavendish Monkur (1800-67) was Prof. medical theory and jurisprudence, also the specialist in mental diseases connected to the hospital. This is what Dr. Moran wrote about him, and for once I don't think he was lying through his teeth in exaggerating his role:
      "My particular friend, Professor John C. S. Monkur -- who gave much of his time to the inmates of the hospital, and particularly, when specially called upon, was always ready, and cheerfully attended the summons night or day when within reach -- had been sent for two or three times previously; but being out, attending to his general patients, had just returned, and came in at the moment. As soon as he fixed his eyes upon him [Poe] he said, “Doctor, he’s dying.”
      I replied, “Yes, I fear it is all over.”
      He carefully examined his case, and, being in possession of all the facts in regard to the agents employed and symptoms presented -- which were carefully noted down in a record book of the hospital -- he gave it as his opinion, which I was fully prepared to corroborate, that Poe’s death was caused by excessive nervous excitement from exposure, followed by loss of nervous power. The most appropriate name for his disease is encephalitis."
      Imagine both men, Hoffman and Poe, raving in the same hospital. I guess Monkur was the man who declared Hoffman incurably insane, but it was a relatively mild form of insanity: delusions and loss of memory. At the time opinion was it could have been caused by too much smoking and thinking (overtasking the brain) and, perhaps, too much indulgance to spirits.

      From Holland.