Making a dent in monumental error Misquoted: On May 29, 1930, Edmond Fontaine took a chisel to a statue of Edgar Allan Poe and erased a mistake in the wording of 'The Raven.'

Way Back When

August 29, 1998|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

News reports last week stated that several stainless steel plaques on Maryland's new World War II Memorial overlooking the Severn River and the Naval Academy near Annapolis, contained several glaring errors of fact or text.

For instance, the date of the Japanese surrender was given as Sept. 6, 1945, rather than Sept. 2.

A quote from President Franklin D. Roosevelt's historic war address to a joint session of Congress on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked, says, "a day which will live in infamy" rather than "a date which will live in infamy."

"A description of the island of Okinawa sounds more like its neighbor, Iwo Jima, 'an eight square mile lump covered with deep volcanic ash' where a bloody battle raged for 36 days," reported The Sun last week.

John F. Burk Jr., 80, chairman of the World War II Memorial Commission and retired brigadier general, in an interview with The Sun, promised an investigation into the matter including possibly correcting the errors.

"Maybe it was a typo," he said. Now, where is Edmond Fontaine when we need him?

Edmond who?

In 1930, Fontaine, who was described by The Sun as the "poetic tree surgeon of Mount Washington," and who was also a writer, apiarist and inveterate letters-to-the-editor writer, made good on his published threat to correct the misquotation from "The Raven" on the Poe Memorial, which then stood in Wyman Park near West 29th Street. The statue, which was created by Moses J. Ezekiel, was presented to the city of Baltimore on Oct. 20, 1921.

"Poe is represented as seated listening to the Muses who are evidently singing him strange and far-off melodies. He is . . . seated on a classic chair whose outer sides are marked by relief panels -- to one side a Muse hanging a laurel festoon and to the other a winged Muse of Music with thistles," wrote William Sener Rusk in his 1929 book, "Art in Baltimore. Monuments and Memorials."

What aroused Fontaine's ire was the misquoted inscription from Poe's "The Raven."

"Dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before," should have read, "Dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before."

On May 28, 1930, Fontaine, who contended that all editions of Poe's works used the word "mortal" rather than the plural form, wrote to The Evening Sun. In addition to complaining about black paint that miscreants had placed on the monument's base, he mentioned the misquote.

"Also it has been seven years since since the piece was unveiled and the error on the pedestal in the lettering of Poe's poem is still standing as a black mark against the taste and literary appreciation of Baltimore.

"I hereby serve notice on the powers that I will go and chisel out the offending letter 'S' and clean off the black paint from the pedestal at 10 o'clock June 1 for the good of my soul."

He made good on his threat and jumped the deadline.

At 8 p.m. May 29, 1930, he arrived at Wyman Park with a hammer and mason's chisel and proceeded to chip off the letter "S" in under two minutes. However, one typo escaped the energetic Fontaine's attention. Had he looked more carefully, he would have noticed that the stonemason had left the "I" out of "dreaming."

An eyewitness called police, who arrived and stood around watching Fontaine until he finished removing the paint from the base of the pedestal.

After he completed his labors, the police promptly arrested him. He was charged with defacing public property and placed in a cell at the Northern Police Station that night after being "unable to furnish $101.45 collateral," reported The Sun.

"There can be no real charge against me as I did nothing but good and gave notice in The Evening Sun beforehand that I would do it," Fontaine told the newspaper.

"The captain," he continued, "says I had no business to do it, which is true, but art and poetry cannot bear up under the strain of seven years waiting to have that error corrected. Poe himself would suffer agonies over neglect of the Baltimore public as to his monument."

Edgar Allan Poe, former attorney general and collateral descendant of the poet, telephoned the president of the Park Board, and asked that leniency be shown to Fontaine.

"It seems to me," Poe said, "that the public interest will not suffer by dismissal of the case. What Mr. Fontaine did was not done in the spirit of vandalism, but was actuated, I believe, by love and reverence for the memory of the author of 'The Raven.' "

Charges against Fontaine were dropped; however, a stern warning was issued by Magistrate Samuel Lasch.

"He would be dealt with severely if he ever again was brought up on charges of editing the city park monuments for the good of his soul," reported The Sun.

"This much is true," said an editorial in The Sun, "that the quotation from Poe on the monument to Poe himself was wrong. It is preposterous for a city and its officials to profess the deepest reverence for the genius of the poet and claim him annually for the greater glory of Baltimore, and yet tolerate a gross and frequently cited error on a civic memorial to him."

The Evening Sun in an editorial said, "What Mr. Fontaine deserves is, not punishment, but an apology from the Park Board for the trouble and exasperation which its neglect of duty had caused him; and with it he should receive a vote of thanks from the citizenry for having removed a blemish upon the reputation of Baltimore."

Fontaine never again attacked a civic monument. He died in 1941, at age 66.

In 1983, the statue with a new plaque and base was moved to the University of Baltimore's plaza at Maryland and Mount Royal avenues, where it can be seen today.

Pub Date: 8/29/98

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