Text: Susan Archer Weiss, “Chapter 26,” Home Life of Poe (1907), pp. 169-178


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[page 169:]

CHAPTER XXVI.

MRS. WHITMAN.

Poe was still in Richmond, presumably courting the widow Shelton, though in so quiet a manner that it attracted little or no attention, when he unexpectedly received from Mrs. Whitman, who seems to have repented of her silence, a letter or poem of so encouraging a nature that he immediately left Richmond and proceeded to New York. Here he obtained a letter of introduction to Mrs. Whitman, which he on the following day presented to that lady at her home in Providence. The next evening he spent in her company, and on the succeeding day asked her to marry him!

Receiving no definite answer, he, on his return to New York, sent her a letter in which, alluding to his previous intention of addressing Mrs. Shelton, he says:

“Your letter reached me on the very day on which I was about to enter upon a course which would have borne me far away from [page 170:] you, sweet, sweet Helen, and the divine dream of your love.”

A few weeks later, when he had obtained from her a conditional promise of marriage, he again wrote — a letter in which he clearly alludes to his still cherished design of establishing the Stylus, from which he anticipates such brilliant results. Thus he artfully and apparently for the first time seeks to interest her in the scheme.

“Am I right, dearest Helen, in the impression that you are ambitious? If so, and if you will have faith in me, I can and will satisfy your wildest desires. It would be a glorious triumph for us, darling — for you and me . . . to establish in America the sole unquestionable aristocracy — that of the intellect; to secure its supremacy, to lead and control it. All this I can do, Helen, and will — if you bid me and aid me.”

Aware of her belief in occult and spiritual influences, he tells her that once, on hearing a lady repeat certain utterances of hers which appeared but the secret reflex of his own spirit, his soul seemed suddenly to become one with hers. “From that hour I loved you. I have never seen or heard your name without a shiver, half of delight, half of anxiety. The [page 171:] impression left upon my mind was that you were still a wife.” (No such scruple had disturbed him in the case of Mrs. Osgood and others.) He goes on thus artfully to explain the incident of his declining Mrs. Osgood’s offer of an introduction to Mrs. Whitman while in Providence. “For this reason I shunned your presence. You may remember that once, when I passed through Providence with Mrs. Osgood, I positively refused to accompany her to your house. I dared neither go, or say why I could not. I dared not speak of you, much less see you.For years your name never passed my lips, while my soul drank in with a delirious thirst all that was uttered in my presence respecting you.”

It will be observed that he is here speaking of a time when his wife, whom he “loved as man never before loved,” was yet living; and also when he was giving himself up to his unreasoning passion for Mrs. Osgood, whom he had followed to Providence.

After this, who shall undertake to defend Poe from the charge of insincerity and dissimulation?

Mrs. Osgood calls Poe’s letters “divinely beautiful.” We cannot tell how Mrs. Whitman was affected by them, but certainly her [page 172:] whole course exhibits her in a constant struggle between her own inclination and the influence of friends who desired to save her from the match with Poe. As early as January 21, 1848, it was known to the public that an engagement existed between the two, and I have the authority of Mrs. Kellogg for the statement that during the summer of that year Mrs. Whitman three times renewed this engagement and was as often compelled to break it, owing to his unfortunate habits. The last engagement was made on his solemnly vowing reformation; on which a day was fixed for the marriage and the services of a clergyman bespoken by Poe himself, who thereupon wrote to Mrs. Clemm desiring her to be ready to receive himself and his bride — at Fordham!

One may imagine the dismay of poor Mrs. Clemm when she read this letter and looked around the humble home with its low-ceiled upstairs room, which had been Virginia’s; the pine kitchen table and her dozen pieces of crockery. For once her strong mind and resourceful talent must have failed her. How was she to accommodate the fastidious bride of her most inconsiderate son-in-law? How even provide a wedding repast against their arrival? But happily she was spared the horror [page 173:] of such an experience, for on the appointed day Poe arrived at Fordham alone, though in a state of nervous excitement, which necessitated days and even weeks of careful nursing on the part of his patient and long-suffering mother-in-law.

This final separation between the two — for they never again met — was caused by Poe’s intemperance at his hotel in Providence on the day previous to that appointed for his marriage. He had delivered a lecture which was enthusiastically applauded, and on his return to the hotel he found himself surrounded by an admiring crowd, whose hospitalities he at first resolutely declined, but with his usual weakness of will, finally yielded to. Of the stormy scene when, on the following day, Mrs. Whitman finally and decisively refused to marry him, she has herself given an account, representing Poe as alternately pleading and “raving” in his unwillingness to accept her decision. But there can be no question but that he was at this time either in some degree mentally unbalanced or in such a state physically as that the least excess would serve to excite his mind beyond its normal condition and render him partly irresponsible. Of this [page 174:] we have proof in the fact of his intention of taking his proposed bride to Fordham.

That Mrs. Whitman was really interested in her gifted and eccentric suitor is evident, and in her heart she was loyal to him, as is shown by her defence of him after his death, and also by the lines which she addressed to him some months after their separation, entitled, “The Isle of Dreams.” Most of her poems written after this time had some reference to him; and it is worthy of note that no woman whom Poe professed to love ever lost her interest in him. The fascination which he exerted over them must have been something extraordinary.

As regards Poe’s feelings toward Mrs. Whitman, it is evident from the beginning that there was no real love on his part. He expressed no regret at the ending of his “divine dream of love,” but seems rather to have experienced toward her a degree of resentment which thus found expression in a letter to a friend:

“From this day forth I shun the pestilential society of literary women. They are a heartless, unnatural, venomous, dishonorable set, with no guiding principle but inordinate self-esteem. [page 175:] Mrs. Osgood is the only exception I know of.”

This tirade was doubtless excited partly by a scandal just now started by one of the literary set in question concerning Poe and a young married lady of Lowell. While delivering a lecture in that city he had been hospitably entertained at her home, where he spent several days, with the usual result of contracting a sentimental friendship with the charming hostess, whom he calls “Annie.” During the latter part of his engagement to Mrs. Whitman his visits and attentions to this lady did not escape the notice of the “literary set,” and a scandal was at once started by one of them, who drew the attention of “Annie’s” husband to the matter. He accepted Poe’s explanation and his proposal rather to give up the society of these friends than to be the cause of trouble to them, saying:

“I cannot and will not have it upon my conscience that I have interfered with the domestic happiness of the only being on earth whom I have loved at the same time with purity and with truth.”

Certainly an extraordinary avowal to be made to the lady’s husband; and we ask ourselves [page 176:] to how many women had he made a similar declaration?

We have seen that when Poe for the last time left Mrs. Whitman’s he went direct to Fordham, where, said Mrs. Clemm, he raved about “Annie,” and even sent to her, reminding her of the “holy promise which he had exacted from her in their hour of parting, that she would come to him on his bed of death,” and now claiming the fulfilment of that promise. Whether or not she complied does not appear; but it is more than likely that the lines, “For Annie,” were suggested by his fever-dreams of her presence, first written while still half-delirious, and subsequently slightly altered to their present form. This piece, with the lines, “To My Mother,” after being declined by all the more prominent magazines, finally appeared in the cheap “Boston Weekly,” and must have been a surprise to “Annie” and her husband.

But there was one woman of the “literary set” who showed that she at least was not deserving of the sweeping condemnation wherewith the irate poet had visited them. This was Mrs. Anna Estelle Lewis, a young poetess who, with her husband, was on friendly terms with Poe, and whose poems he had favorably [page 177:] noticed. Poe was still, mentally and physically, in a state which rendered him incapable of writing, and the condition at Fordham was deplorable. Suspecting this state of things, Mrs. Lewis and her husband invited Poe to visit them at their home in Brooklyn, and Mr. Lewis says that thenceforth they frequently had both himself and Mrs. Clemm to stay with them. It was this kindly couple that R. H. Stoddard so sharply satirizes in his “Reminiscences” of Poe, while accepting an evening’s hospitality at their home after the poet’s death. On this occasion he met with Mrs. Clemm, of whom he has given a pen picture of which we instinctively recognize the life-likeness. We can see the good lady seated serenely among the company in her “black bombazine and conventional widow’s cap,” lightly fingering her eye-glasses, as was her company habit, and with her strongly marked features wearing that “benevolent” smile which was characteristic of her most amiable moods. “She assured me,” says Stoddard, “that she had often heard her Eddie speak of me — which I doubted — and that she believed she had also heard him speak of the stripling by my side — which was an impossibility. . . . She regretted that she had no more [page 178:] autographs to dispose of, but hinted that she could manufacture them, since she could exactly imitate her Eddie’s handwriting; and this she told as though it had been to her credit.”

Deeply chagrined at the ending of his affair with Mrs. Whitman, and consequent disappointment in regard to the Stylus, Poe now, encouraged by his mother-in-law, again turned his thoughts to Mrs. Shelton.

It was in July that he and Mrs. Clemm left Fordham, he to proceed to Richmond, and she, having let their rooms until his return, to stay with the Lewises. Mr. Lewis says that it was at his front door that Poe took an affectionate leave of them all; Mrs. Clemm, ever watchful and careful against possible temptation or pitfalls by the way, accompanying him to the boat to see him off. In parting from her he spoke cheeringly and affectionately. “God bless you, my own darling Muddie. Do not fear for Eddie. See how good I will be while away; and I will come back to love and comfort you.”*

And so, smiling and hopeful, the devoted mother stood upon the pier and watched to the last the receding form which she was never again to behold.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 178:]

*  Ingram [[Edgar Allan Poe: Life, Letters and Opinions, 1880, 2:221]].

 


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - HLFP, 1907] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Home Life of Poe (S. A. Weiss) (Chapter 26)