Mrs. Whitman Tells Her Story
By EDITH DICKSON
FORTUNATELY there are still some houses with garrets where stores of old furniture, pictures, books, and letters form a connecting link between the past and the present. In an old house in Ridgefield, Connecticut, the home of Miss May Rockwell, the New England house-cleaning season in 1924 became the occasion of a holocaust of letters which had accumulated in the attic for more than seventy-five years. As one heaped basket after another was carried down and its contents emptied upon the bonfire in the back yard, a bystander casually picked up a letter, and opening it looked at the signature, Sarah H. Whitman, then glancing over the pages saw references to Mr. Poe. At once memory began to work. Edgar Allan Poe was engaged to Mrs. Whitman and the breaking of that engagement was one of the sensational episodes in his adventurous career. A hasty search resulted in the salvage of three more of Mrs. Whitman’s letters, which together furnish an interesting history of her romantic acquaintance with Poe.
The letters are all addressed to Mrs. Mary E. Hewitt, of New York, who like Mrs. Whitman was a writer of verse and who was, also, the editor of sundry annuals, compilations, and periodicals. The first letter, dated October 4, 1850, consists of eight pages of the large letter paper of the day, closely written in fine script. In it and a later one written in the same month Mrs. Whitman tells the story of the breaking of her engagement with Poe. The circumstances which led to the narration as well as the history itself are best given in her own words.
After an introduction in which she refers in the
true feminine style of 1850 to her feelings on first reading some lines
by Mrs. Hewitt published in The Harbinger, saying, “I thought then, as
now, that nothing was ever so sweetly, so gracefully, and so tenderly uttered
as your Love’s Pleading,” she explains
“I this morning received from New York a volume entitled, The Literati, for which I am, I presume, indebted to the politeness of Mr. Griswold. In turning over its pages a paragraph which is not more unjust to Mr. Poe than it is in every way painful and wounding to my own feelings arrested my attention. I allude to what is said in regard to the dissolution of our engagement and the incidents attending it. I am perplexed in the extreme to account for the mention of these anecdotes, so obviously painful to me and so uncalled for, even if they had rested upon any reliable authority. The many polite attentions which I have received from Mr. Griswold, the great kindness with which he had always spoken of me, the confidence which I have reposed in him on this very subject and the friendly feelings which have always subsisted between us render his course in this matter utterly inexplicable to me. I am constrained to believe that he has been insidiously and unconsciously wrought upon to give publicity to this piece of gossip by the person who originally promulgated it. I have heard the story before.
I had it is true given Mr. Poe a promise that I would
endeavor to obtain my mother’s consent to our marriage before the end of
December, but unforeseen obstacles presented themselves over which I had
no control. Our engagement was from the first a conditional one. My mother
was inflexibly opposed to our union and being in a pecuniary point of view
entirely dependent upon her, I could not, if I
“The story of the Police is without a shadow of foundation. Neither did Mr. Poe after obtaining my mother’s consent to our marriage commit any of those excesses charged to him. This consent was not obtained until the evening of the twenty-second of December. On the twenty-third Mr. Poe wrote a note to the Reverend Doctor Crocker requesting him to publish our intention of marriage on the ensuing Sunday. He also wrote a letter to Mrs. Clemm* informing her that we would be married on Monday and should arrive at Fordham on Tuesday by the second train of cars.
* The mother of Poe’s deceased wife. [[This footnote appears at the bottom of page 7, column 3.]]
“We rode out together in the morning and passed the greater part of the day in making preparations for my sudden change of abode. In the afternoon while we were together at one of the circulating libraries of the city, a communication was handed me cautioning me against this imprudent marriage and informing me of many things in Mr. Poe’s recent career with which I was previously unacquainted.
“I was at the same time told that he had already
violated the solemn promises he had made to me and to my friends on the
preceding evening. I knew that, even had I been disposed to overlook these
things myself, they must within a few hours come to the knowledge of my
friends and would lead to a recurrence of the scenes to which I had been
already subjected, and I felt utterly
“I listened to his explanations and his remonstrances without any word of reproach and with that marble stillness of despair so mercifully accorded to us when the heart has been wrought to its highest capacity of suffering. Nor was I at that bitter moment unsolaced by a sense of relief at being freed from the intolerable burden of responsibility which he had sought to impose upon me by persuading me that his fate for good or evil depended upon me.
“I had now learned that my influence was unavailing. My mother on being informed of what had transpired had a brief interview with Mr. Poe, which resulted in his determination to return immediately to New York. In her presence and in that of his friend, Mr. Pebodie [[Pabodie]], I bade him farewell with feelings of profound commiseration for his fate, of intense sorrow thus to part from one whose sweet and gracious nature had endeared him to me beyond expression and whose rare and peculiar intellect had given a new charm to my life.
“While he was endeavouring to win from me an assurance that our parting would not be a final one, my mother saved me from a response by insisting upon an immediate termination of the interview. Mr. Poe then started up and left the house with an expression of bitter resentment’ at what he termed the intolerable insults of my family. I never saw him again.
“The most exaggerated, and to him, deeply humiliating
rumours were now rapidly circulated in relation to the circumstances attending
our separation and Mr. Poe was purposely led to believe that they were
sanctioned by me. In retaliation for these supposed injuries, he permitted
himself to say some very ungenerous and unkind things of me, all of which
‘my friends’ were careful to report to me. These I freely pardoned in view
of the terrible humiliation to which he was subjected in consequence of
all that had occurred in Providence. This he portrayed to me in a letter
which I received from him a few weeks after our separation. He spoke of
the agonies he had endured, agonies known only to God and to his
Later in the same month of October Mrs. Whitman wrote in reference to a published poem of her own.
“I received a letter from Mr. Poe requesting me to allow him to say that our marriage was only deferred on account of my ill health, assuring me that he blamed me for nothing that had occurred and entreating me to say that I at least had not authorized the terrible stories that were in circulation concerning him. I dared not reply to this letter, but I took pleasure in thinking that the last verse of my song would be understood as an avowal of my innocence.
“Since his death many persons have supposed that the ballad of Annabel Lee contained allusions to certain passages in this song. I have been the more willing to believe it as a sentiment in the fifth verse of the ballad is almost identical with an expression in one of his letters to me.”
In a brief memoir prefixed to the volume of Poe’s poems published in 1859, the version taken from Mr. Griswold’s account is as follows: “The day was appointed for their marriage; but he had in the meantime made other plans; and to disentangle himself from this engagement, he visited the house of his affianced bride, where he conducted himself with such indecent violence, that the aid of the police had to be called in to expel him. This, of course, put an end to the engagement.”
This is the story which Mrs. Whitman declares to be without a shadow of foundation.
A highly romantic account of the last interview between Poe and Mrs. Whitman is given in an article which appeared in the autumn of 1923. According to this story, the afternoon before her wedding Mrs. Whitman “had come in to find the parlor outraged by the stale, sweet reek of wine and by a wildly pacing figure whose voice in greeting her was dulled and thick.
“Mrs. Whitman knew that she had failed. But there was still before her the ceremony of renunciation, the full Victorian close. She must see Poe, she must return his letters and all that he had given her. A rude break was unseemly, and it was required of her that she should say farewell. Apparently, however, she felt that she could not bear the torture; for before she came into the room where Poe was waiting with entreaties, she had drenched her handkerchief with ether, a wise precaution against the moment when the pain should grow too great. What happened, thus, she never knew.”
The persistence in all published references to Poe and Mrs. Whitman of tales of their separation so different from hers makes it seem but fair that her own story should be known.
[Note: These letters were printed just a few months earlier -- more
fully, and with greater fidelity -- by Stanley T. Williams in
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[S:0 - DI, 1925]