NEW LETTERS ABOUT POE
EDITED BY STANLEY T. WILLIAMS
IF we no longer read the poetry of Sarah Helen Whitman, we have at least not entirely forgotten her romance as “Poe’s Helen” with the dramatic episode of their broken engagement. Mrs. Whitman was, it will be recalled, a widow and older than Poe -- at the time of their brief intimacy, she was in her forty-sixth year. Two years later, on December 4, 1850, she wrote her friend, Mrs. Mary Hewitt, the poetess, concerning another question. “What,” she says, “does Mr. Griswold think of the matter?” She wanted Rufus Griswold -- the Baptist preacher, editor, anthologist, and eulogist of “The Female Poets of America” -- to vouchsafe an opinion on the “mediums” of departed spirits. It seems that the voluminous Mr. Griswold found time to write ladies on such topics. “How I wish,” he says in an unpublished letter to Mrs. Hewitt, “I knew the life they live in that Spirit world!”
Such phrases in old letters recall this mid-nineteenth century circle with its sentimental poetry and easy scholarship and lively gossip. We may pause over the titles of these female poets, Mrs. Osgood, Mrs. Ellet, and Mrs. Hewitt. In the ‘thirties Mrs. Osgood wove her “Wreath of Wild Flowers from New England.” Afterwards, Mrs. Ellet, having skilfully tortured Edgar Allan Poe, Mrs. Whitman, and even Mr. Griswold, published her “moral books”: among them, “Queens of American Society” and “Brides and Widows of the Bible.” Mrs. Hewitt, too, the author of “Songs of Our Land and Other Poems,” had pleased the taste of the age with her verses of “natural feeling.”
It is now seventy-five years since Mr. Griswold stirred
The four letters that follow establish no sensational facts about the separation of Poe and Mrs. Whitman. The do, however, cast further light on the story, and they picture, vividly the individuals concerned. More than this, they are contemporary letters. Through the evidence of two complete dates, and of allusions in the text, it is clear that these letters of Sarah Helen Whitman to Mrs. Hewitt belong to a period between September, 1850, and December 4 of the same year. The first and most impressive letter was, then, written less than a year after Poe’s death (October 7, 1849), and the last some fourteen months after this event. The manuscripts, in a hand hardly less beautiful than Poe’s, belong to Miss May H. Rockwell of Ridgefield, Connecticut, a relative by marriage of Mrs. Hewitt’s. Rufus Griswold, careless at best in this world about personalia, would not, I believe, object from the spirit realm to their publication. Nor would their hero and heroine protest.
If we are to recall Poe’s romance with Mrs. Whitman,a
romance complex and still obscure in many details -- we must go back to
1845, the year of “The Raven.” In this year (so dated by Mrs. Whitman)
Poe, passing through Providence with Mrs. Osgood, saw for the first time,
without actually meeting her, Helen Whitman, then living with her mother.
In memory of this moment he later wrote his
By the third week in September, 1848, he had met Mrs. Whitman, and on October 1 he writes to her in a characteristic love letter: “During our walk in the cemetery I said to you while the bitter, bitter tears sprang to my eyes -- ‘Helen I love now -- now for the first time and only time.’ ” In the same letter occurs the famous passage on the occult emotions which Mrs. Whitman shared with the poet.
In spite of Poe’s tempestuous wooing, Mrs. Whitman’s
consent was not given immediately. Dependence upon her mother, Poe’s wayward
nature, advice of friends -- all counselled caution. Neither did Mrs. Whitman
speak the final word of rejection. There are anguished letters, excited
Scenes, promises, and reproaches. Mrs. Ellet’s tongue and pen are busy,
and Poe tells Mrs. Whitman of her previous enmity, and of his past life
-- some of it. Yet finally, despite me especially violent scene, despite
the warnings of friends, Mrs. Whitman, partly because of her belief that
she could gave Poe, resolved to marry him. Poe now believed himself
Of this old story these newly found manuscripts remind us. The echoes of the episode sound through Poe’s numerous biographers and critics well into the twentieth century. But we are concerned, in these letters, only with Mrs. Whitman’s role in the drama from September to December 1850.
Mrs. Whitman’s first letter is in reply to a communication from Mrs. Hewitt, which had been dated August 23. Since her second letter dated October 4, refers to Mrs. Hewitt’s “prompt reply,” it is probable, unless other lost letters intervene, that this first letter was written during the middle or last weeks of September. Since the date of the long postscript of this letter is September 28, and since there is no evidence of delay between the letter and this addendum, perhaps the date of the letter may be set tentatively as September 26 or 27. The year is clearly established by Mrs. Whitman’s allusions to the publication of Poe’s “Literati,” and her poem, “Arcturus,” in the June number of “Graham’s Magazine”; both appeared in 1850.
After receiving a copy of the “Literati” from Griswold,
Mrs. Whitman writes a long letter to Mrs. Hewitt, not only because of Mrs.
Hewitt’s “soul of sweetness,” but also, I infer, because Mrs. Hewitt has
Griswold’s ear. This volume, now quite rare, was entitled “The Literati,
by Edgar A Poe; With a Sketch of the Author, by Rufus Wilmot Griswold.”
Amid its cold injustice and slander and spiteful reprints of Poe’s letters,
Mrs. Whitman saw not merely the allusion on “page 23” to Mrs. Ellet, but
an account of the breaking of her engagement -- an account which, if not
new must have appeared forceful in print. She read, of Poe:
Of this story Mrs. Whitman later wrote that Mr. Griswold had not only described this episode falsely, but that he had confused two scenes, the one relating to the engagement, and that on the eve of the marriage.
Thus it is primarily to the “Literati” and to Mr. Rufus Griswold, rather than to her correspondent, Mrs. Hewitt; that we owe Mrs. Whitman’s two pictures: one, of her feelings as she read the libellous “Sketch”; another, of her last scene with Poe. The letters containing them are here printed -- except for a very few obvious slips of the pen -- exactly as they were written -- with all their misspellings. The first and longest of the four letters reads as follows:
My dear Mrs. Hewitt
Your kind note of August-23d gave me such sincere
pleasure that my first impulse on receiving it was to sit down & write
to you as freely as if I had known you all my life -- were I to judge by
my past experience I should say more freely, for my reserve
* Presumably Mrs. Ellet, of whose persecutions Poe had repeatedly warned Mrs. Whitman. She is mentioned several times in these letters. [[This footnote appears at the bottom of page 761.]]
For yet another reason I cannot conceive him to have
made the reply attributed to him. He knew very well that we were not published
& his answer would naturally have implied a denial of that idle rumor
& not a virtual assent to it. I had, it is true, given him a promise
that I would endeavour to obtain my mother’s consent to our marriage before
the end of December -- but unforseen 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 would,
have acted without her concurrence. Many painful scenes occurred during
his several visits to Providence in consequence
The most exaggerated and, to him, deeply humiliating rumors 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 & 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 own heart” and which had “passed his soul thro’ fire”.*
* Mrs. Whitman speaks of Poe’s letter as if it had been written a few weeks after the incidents she has just described. Possibly she refers to the earlier “separation,” for the letter of Poe’s from which these quotations apparently come, was written on November 24. [[This footnote appears at the bottom of page 763.]]
Yet Mr. Griswold thinks he purposely involved himself in these sufferings & humiliations by a preconceived and deliberate piece of acting.
Forgive, my dear Mrs. Hewitt, the egotism of these
details. Nothing could excuse them but the publicity which has already
been given to the whole matter. You will, I trust, have some sympathy with
the unwillingness I feel that any additional obloquy should attach to the
memory of one I love through these unfounded
I at first intended to have written to Mr. Griswold, but the more I consider his statement the more does it perplex and grieve me -- and while I feel so uncertain of the motives which prompted it I do not like to trouble him with any communication. I have felt so sincere a regard for him that it would be some alleviation of the pain his paragraph has caused me if I could feel assured that it did not originate in positive dislike. If not I am sure he will not refuse to tell me on what authority he received the story of Mr. Poe’s remarks concerning me, or, at least, the name of the lady to whom they were addressed.
There are many things which I wish to say to you my dear Mrs. Hewitt, and many questions which I would ask of you, but I will not occupy your time longer at present for I know you have many pressing engagements.
Can you inform me of Mrs. Clemm’s address, I have been for more than a year anxious to write to her concerning my letters, not one of which has ever been returned to me --
Did I not, in my verses for the volume you are about to publish, spell the word “syrups” with an o instead of u? If so, I hope you were kind enough to correct it for me -- I despair of ever learning how to spell.
Perhaps I may visit New York in the course of the winter, when I shall hope to see you, in the meantime will you not write me a few lines when you are quite at leisure. Forgive me, my dear Mrs. Hewitt, the liberty I have taken with you and allow me to think of you as a friend --
Sarah H. Whitman
If you see Miss Lynch will you give my love to her and tell her I intend to write to her very soon and make my peace with her for what I said about the “Tiger lillies”
This letter was apparently laid aside, perhaps until
Star of resplendent front! thy glorious eye
Shines on me still from out yon clouded sky, --
Shines on me through the horrors of a night
More drear than ever fell o’er day so bright, --
Shines till the envious Serpent slinks away,
And pales and trembles at thy steadfast ray.
Commenting upon Mr. Griswold and her allusion to “the envious Serpent,” Mrs. Whitman continues:
Saturday Sept. 28th
My dear Mrs. Hewitt, I am urged by something I have just heard to infringe still further on your patience. Some of my friends who have seen Mr. Griswold’s statement (and who are even more surprised than I have myself been by its apparent harshness) have suggested an explanation which, although it seems to me highly improbable, is not absolutely impossible.
I last summer published some lines to Arcturus in the June number of Grahams Magazine. It has occurred to some of my friends that this poem may have been seen by Mr. Griswold, that an allusion in its opening stanzas may have been understood. by him as referring to his own published memoir of Mr. Poe, and that this supposition may have made him more reckless of my feelings than he would otherwise have been in what he has recently published concerning me.
If you suppose it possible that such a suspicion has ever. entered Mr.
Griswold’s mind, I can readily furnish you with the means of disproving
it, if you will allow me to do so. In the fall of 1848 Mr. Poe had spoken
to me of Arcturus as a star with which he had associated some romantic
fancies -- it was just as he was parting from me that he said this. In
the evening, after he had
On the very morning when I last saw Mr. Poe, he copied these lines with the intention of sending them to the American Metropolitan for which I had engaged to write. In consequence of what afterwards occurred between us I was induced to withhold them from publication. Last february, about the time when Arcturus again became visible in the evening, I completed the poem as it is now printed and sent it to Graham’s Magazine.
You will see by the copy which I enclose in Mr. Poe’s own handwriting & by the accompanying note which contains a reference to the poem, that the allusion to the serpent could have no relation to anything said of Mr. Poe since his death. I have several letters from Mr. Poe containing references to this poem but they are so filled with bitterness against the person who has sought to influence me against him that I am unwilling to have them seen by you. The accompanying note however, which contains a slight reference to two lines which I had erased from one of the copies I sent him, will sufficiently attest the truth of what I say. I have a reason for wishing to make this proof clear to you which I may perhaps make known to you hereafter.
I wish you my dear Mrs. Hewitt to make this statement known to Mr. Griswold. I could not endure that one from whom I have received so much kindness as I have done from him should for a moment believe me capable of making a malicious allusion to him in this poem.
The idea that he could suspect me of it would give
me far more pain than I have suffered from the temporary vexation
which this paragraph has caused me. If I could know that it was not done
You will preserve the accompanying papers for me until I see you or until I send for them, and now that I have reached the finale let me say goodnight. On referring to the paragraph in allusion to me, I see that the words of Mr. Poe do not imply an assent to what the lady had said to him about his being published -- but this does not alter my conviction that the words attributed to him are a fabrication of “the enemy” and that Mr. Griswold has been purposely deceived in the matter.
Six days later Mrs. Whitman has a response from Mrs. Hewitt, and is herself writing once more. The nature of the conversation between Poe and Mrs. Hewitt, evidently described to Mrs. Whitman by Mrs. Hewitt we do not know. It is obvious, however, from the reply that others, not “the person whom I suspected,” are responsible for the tone of the “Sketch.” Mrs. Whitman is eager for further particulars:
Providence Oct. 4th
My dear Mrs. Hewitt
Your prompt reply to my letter & your frank and
simple statement of the conversation that occurred between yourself .&
Mr. Poe has relieved me of many anxious thoughts & removed quite a
load of sorrow from my heart. You must I fear have thought some of my remarks
very harsh & severe but since they do not in the remotest degree apply
to anything that was actually said to you, or repeated by you you will
I am sure banish them entirely from your remembrance.
The person whom I suspected of influencing Mr. Griswold had used many unjustifiable means to prejudice me against Mr. Poe & had repeatedly told me that he had denied our engagement to more than one lady of his acquaintance. I consequently expressed myself more emphatically than I might otherwise have done in alluding to the stories I believed him to have circulated.
Your letter leads me to hope & believe that Mr.
Griswold was not instigated by any unkind feeling towards me. I, of course,
cannot but regret that Mr. Poe should have spoken as he did in
He had, a few days before his interview with you, spoken tom of some lines which were to appear in the Metropolitan for February 1849. He had seen them in ms (at the publisher’s, I think’ and believed them to be addressed to himself. With his impressible & impulsive temperament I can see that they must have deeply affected him & have revived remembrances which, for the moment, prevailed over every other feeling.
You say that you “can perhaps give me a due to the motives of both when you see me.” Cannot you communicate them to me in writing? I confess I am impatient to know more on this subject Yet if you are unwilling to comply with my request, forget that have made it. I hope Mr. Griswold will not allow himself to be troubled at anything which I have said in my letter & that you my dear Mrs. Hewitt will forgive my heavy trespasses on your time & attention and believe me sincerely and gratefully
Your friend SHW
Mrs. Hewitt in her reply enclosed the “clue.” Who wrote these notes which Mrs. Whitman carefully returns, or their exact tenor, is conjectural, but they were probably concerned with the relations of Mr. Griswold and Mrs. Frances Sargent Osgood, with whom Poe had once believed himself in love. Mrs. Osgood’s “reminiscences” may be found in Mr. Griswold’s “Sketch.” Add to these “motives” Mr. Griswold’s well-known statements that he had never been Poe’s friend or Poe his, and it is probable that Mrs. Whitman, even if she did not know the name of the lady to whom Poe remarked on their engagement, understood more clearly Mr, Griswold’s mood when he wrote his account of Poe.
Mrs. Whitman’s strong conviction, expressed to Mrs
Hewitt in this letter, that “Annabel Lee” was inspired by her poem (not
mentioned here by name), “The Isle:’o Dreams,” and that she herself was
“Annabel,” she repeater elsewhere. Not only these two ladies, Mrs. Osgood
througl, her “reminiscences,” in Mr. Griswold’s “Sketch,” and Mrs.
Providence Oct 10th 1850
My dear Mrs. Hewitt
I am sincerely grateful to you for the communications which you have so kindly entrusted to me. Be assured that I shall never betray your confidence. In order that you may feel quite at rest about the matter I return you the enclosed notes. I was prepared for your suggestion with regard to Mr. Griswold’s motives, having heard of his devotion to Mrs. Osgood more than a year ago. You perhaps know that Mrs. Osgood came to Providence’ purposely to see me soon after she heard of my engagement to Mr. Poe. She at that time manifested so much affectionate interest in me that I was deeply grieved to receive no answer to the many letters which I wrote her after my separation from him. I have sought in vain for some satisfactory solution of this apparent change of feeling. At her request I repeated to him many things which she said to me during that interview although I knew well that the tendency of these communications would be to increase her influence over him & consequently to weaken my own. The consciousness of having made this sacrifice and of having acted towards her with an almost quixotic generosity made her subsequent silence & coldness more painful to me. The poem which ‘.Mr. Poe supposed to have been addressed to himself was not in the February but in a preceeding number [of the “Metropolitan”?].
The February number contained some verses of my own which were so vexatiously misprinted that I am almost ashamed to refer ‘to them. I was much blamed. at the time for allowing them to be (published. They were supposed to be addressed to Mr. Poe and ‘were copied into many of the papers. There is an air of fatality in ‘their history as in everything else that happened in relation to him.
Although they bear a seeming reference to him &
to a line in one of his sonnets, called “Zante”, they were written before
I knew of his existence. They were originally composed for the guitar at
the request of an Italian gentleman who soon after left the country. Being
unable to finish one or two of the verses to my satisfaction I threw them
aside and had quite forgotten them. After Mr. Poe left Providence I was
very ill for many weeks with chills and fever, brought on by recent exposure
& anxiety. During
Since his death many persons have supposed that the ballad of Annibel Lee [sic] contained allusions to certain passages of 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. Of course this beautiful ballad was in many respects purely imaginative and ideal or at least allegorical -- Mrs. Osgood may be right in supposing that it had reference to his wife -- She repudiates the idea that it had an allusion to “a recent love-affair” I should like very much to know whether she spoke of his engagement with me or of some more recent attachment.
I could not have written to you so freely of these things my dear Mrs. Hewitt if the interest I feel in Mr. Poe had partaken of the character of what is usually termed love. It is something at one more intimate & more remote -- a strange inexplicable enchantment that I can neither analize nor comprehend -- I can never forget the impressions I felt in reading a story of his for th first time about six. or seven years ago. I experienced a sensation of such intense horror that I dared neither look at anything h had written nor even utter his name.
I now think that the conscious soul recoiled with
an instinctive apprehension of the agonies it was destined to suffer through
i strange union with his own -- By degrees this terror took the
“Beyond all refuge I am thine -- ah me
I am not thine I am a part of thee.”
You will see that I am very superstitious --
I hardly know why I am tempted my dear Mrs. Hewitt to speak to you of these idle fancies -- If you will forgive my egotism, you shall be freely forgiven for smiling at my folly --
I knew that Mrs. Ellet was the lady alluded to on the twenty third page of Mr. Griswold’s memoir --
I had heard the story of that unfortunate affair from Miss Lynch before my acquaintance with Mr. Poe.
He afterwards wrote me a full and apparently a very candid and consistant account of the whole matter -- I was but too willing to believe his statement -- and I still think there were many extenuating circumstances which if fairly represented would do much to remove the odium that attaches to him on account of this transaction --
The whole of Mr. Griswold’s memoir has, I see, been copied into the International Review which also contains one of your own beautiful poems -- I stopped to read it the other evening in a bookstore -- I had read it repeatedly before, but it never seemed so beautiful as at this last reading --
The autumnal woods of which I have just caught a
glimpse from my western window look so soft and glowing that I am going
to set out on a long lonely stroll through their “verdurous glooms &
winding mossy ways” -- My “guardian angels”* are waiting for me so good
bye my dear Mrs. Hewitt
and believe me
gratefully your friend Sarah H. Whitman
* I suppose you are a believer in what the Rochester sybils tell us on this matter. [[This footnote appears at the bottom of page 771.]]
The fourth letter, dated December 4, was presumably written in 185o since Mrs. Hewitt is at work on “The Memorial” to Mrs. Osgood, (who died on May 12, 1850), a volume which bears the imprint of 1851. About Griswold and Mrs. Osgood and Poe, Mrs. Whitman seems, at peace though there is a characteristic note in her mild worry that someone -- this time it is Miss Lynch -- may be “seriously angry” with her. She is absorbed in the other world:
My dear Mrs. Hewitt
I have been long wishing to thank you for your last kind letter and to assure you that I will endeavour to send you something for the Diadem before long. I have not seen the Diadem for this year, nor the Volume which you are editing for the Monument of Mrs. Osgood -- I suppose they are not yet published --
I was glad to learn from you that Mrs. Osgood’s remarks
were not meant for me -- I loved her & wish to think of her with affection
-- Do you know whether Miss Lynch has received the letter I sent her two
months ago. I fear she must be offended with me or she certainly would
have answered it ere this. Yet I cannot think she can be seriously
angry with [me] about the letter of which I spoke to her -- There must
be some other cause - I wish she would tell me what it is. I am guiltless
of any offence towards her in word or deed. I think Somebody must have
been making mischief between us. I told you in my first letter to you that
I hoped to see you in the course of the winter. I now think it very doubtful
whether I shall be able to leave home before spring. A little girl who
has resided some years with my mother has proved a medium of communication
for the strange “manifestations” which have recently occurred in so many
places. It is a strange and mysterious thing to believe, nay to know,
that we can at any moment hold communication with the Spirits of those
who love us and who are ever hovering about us, but for the last six weeks
I .have been daily in the habit of communing with these invisible guardians
by a mode of intercourse as sure though not yet so swift
as the communications by the magnetic Telegraph. Messages are daily spelled
out to me of the most unexpected and delightful
But I must say good bye dear Mrs. Hewitt for the fine morning is passing away and I ought to breathe the fresh air after being shut up so many damp days.
Yours most affectionately
S. H. Whitman
Mrs. Whitman lived on for twenty-eight years. As we look back at the turmoil of these three months in 1848 there is much to pity, and much to laugh at. It matters less now what Mr. Griswold thinks. Yet through the clouds of petty envies and bewilderments in this episode between Poe and Helen Whitman, we may see again the slight figure of the poetess with that intense wistful face -- “Helen of a thousand dreams,” her lover called her. And we may hear that lover, too, the dreamer of dark dreams of beauty, speaking to her words -- can they be those of the charlatan? -- which no other save Poe could speak: “I would kneel -- humbly kneel -- at this the most earnest epoch of my life -- kneel in entreaty for words -- but for words that should disclose to you -- that might enable me to lay bare to you my whole heart. All thoughts -- all passions seem now merged in the one consuming desire - the mere wish to make you comprehend -- to make you see that for which there is no human voice -- the unutterable fervor of my love for you.”
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[S:0 - YR, 1925]