Text: Stanley Thomas Williams, “New Letters About Poe,” Yale Review, July 1925, vol. XIV, pp. 755-773


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[page 755:]

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 “How I wish,” he says in an unpublished letter to Mrs.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 [page 756:] these poetesses, and America, with his malicious “Sketch of Poe. Two years earlier Poe had stormed out of the home of Sarah Helen Whitman in Providence, Rhode Island, his romance shattered, his engagement ended. Since 1850 Mr. Griswold has been severely handled by angry biographer and since 1848 Mrs. Whitman has told the facts of her story with which scandal dealt so freely. Yet just as her query about Mr. Griswold’s opinion brings back this society; wistful ladies, so the group of Mrs. Whitman’s unpublished letters here brought together, revives the tale of Poe and his Helen, a tale so tender, so passionate, so darkened by Levana, the Lady of Sorrows — and, alas! so theatrical!

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 [page 757:] verses beginning, “I saw thee once — once only — years ago,” making of the incident a romantic vision, a realization of his early lines written to another “Helen.” During the three ensuing years, Poe and Mrs. Whitman were interested, still without meeting, in each other’s work. In 1848 Mrs. Whitman composed a poem based on “The Raven” in the form of a valentine, sent it to a party given by an acquaintance, a Miss Lynch, and she addressed it “To Edgar Allan Poe.” Poe was stirred. “Do you know Mrs. Whitman?” he writes his friend, Miss Anna Blackwell, in June of the same year. “ . . I have never seen her but once. Ann Lynch, however, told me many things about the romance of her character which singularly interested me and excited my curiosity.” We may hasten over other details: Miss Blackwell’s communication of these words to Mrs. Whitman; the exchange of clippings and verses between Mrs. Whitman and Poe; and the stories of his engagements in Richmond either for a duel, or for a marriage with Mrs. Shelton.

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 [page 758:] near his happiness. On December 23, 1848, he had written two notes — one to a Providence clergyman, Dr. Crocker, requesting him to publish the banns; the other to Mrs. Clemm, the mother of his dead wife, Virginia Clemm, telling her that he was to be married. On this day, however, information was brought to Mrs. Whitman which convinced her that the engagement should end.

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: [page 759:] “His name was now frequently associated with that of one of the most brilliant women of New England, and it was publicly announced that they were to be married. . . . They were not married, and the breaking of the engagement affords a striking illustration of his character. He said to an acquaintance in New York, who congratulated with him upon the prospect of his union with a person of so much genius and so many virtues — ‘It is a mistake: I am not going to be married.’ ‘Why, Mr. Poe, I understand that the banns have been published.’ ‘I cannot help what you have heard, my dear Madam: but mark me, I shall not marry her.’ He left town the same evening, and the next day was reeling through the streets of the city which was the lady’s home, and in the evening -that should have been the evening before the bridal — in his drunkenness he committed at her house such outrages as made necessary a summons of the police. Here was no insanity leading to indulgence: he went from New York with a determination thus to induce an ending of the engagement; and he succeeded.”

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 [page 760:] towards most persons increases as they become more intimately known to me. At first, my heart goes forth to meet those who seem to love me, as confidingly as if there were no such thing as seeming in the world — but it is soon repelled, & retreats into its own enchanted solitudes, rejoicing in its isolation, or, as Margaret D’Ossoli used to say, in its “conscious aloofness.” Towards you, my dear Mrs. Hewitt, I am for the present compelled to obey the law of attraction. I first knew you thro’ some lines published or republished in the Harbinger. I thought then, as now, that nothing was ever so sweetly, so gracefully, & so tenderly uttered as your “Love’s Pleading.” In the fall of 1848 I one day heard Mr. Poe talking about the intellectual women of New York to a gentleman of our city.” Something that he said of you arrested my attention &, in reply to my questions, he drew a portrait of you which imprinted itself on my heart and caused my thoughts often to revert to you with feelings of unwonted sympathy & interest. He spoke of a peculiar charm in the expression of your face — a soul of sweetness that looked out as from some serene inner sanctuary and seemed as independent of its earthly tabernacle as if it shone upon us from an disembodied spirit. Often, when all the world has seemed to unite in condemning his name to eternal infamy, I have wondered whether that soul of benignity that he once saw in your eyes still looked in sorrow & pity on his errors. It is because I have dared to hope it, that I have ventured to speak to you of my relations with him & of the interest I must ever feel in his reputation & destiny. I have been moved to repose this confidence in you, my dear Mrs. Hewitt, by motives which will become apparent to you in the course of my letter. 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 Mn Poe than it is in every way painful & wounding to my own feelings arrested my attention. I allude to what is said in relation to the dissolution of our engagement and the incidents attending it. I am “perplexed in the extreme” to account for the insertion of these anecdotes, so obviously painful to me & 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 has always spoken of me — The confidence which I have [page 761:] 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 & unconsciously wrought upon to give publicity to this piece of gossip by the person* who originally promulgated it. I have heard the story before. It has been repeatedly urged upon my attention, with an indelicate and obtrusive importunity, by one whose motives were too apparent for me to feel any pain from the communication. Mr. Griswold, if I am not greatly mistaken, has no personal acquaintance with the individual to whom I refer. If I could believe that Mr. Poe uttered these words, it would indeed prove a want of manliness, a depth of dishonour from which my whole soul would recoil. I can very readily believe that during the course of our engagement he may repeatedly have denied to the ladies of his acquaintance that any engagement subsisted between us — such denials are so common as hardly to bear the name of falsehood, — but I cannot believe him to have made the reply published by Mr. Griswold. Mr. Poe, with all his faults, had too much refinement, too much courtesy, in a word too much tact to have expressed himself in a manner by which he would inevitably have forfeited the respect of the woman to whom his remarks were addressed. I have often heard Mr. Poe speak of women resentfully & severely never either rudely or insolently.

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 [page 762:] of this opposition. The story of the “Police “ is without a shadow of foundation. Neither did Mr. Poe, after obtaining my mother’s reluctant consent to our immediate marriage, commit any, of those excesses which have been charged to him. This consent was not obtained until the evening of Dec. 22d. On the 23 of December Mr. Poe wrote a note to the Rev. Dr. 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 should be married on Monday and should arrive at Fordham on Tuesday in the second train of cars. We rode out together in the morning & 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 & informing me of many things in Mr. Poe’s recent career with which I was previously unacquainted. I was at the same time informed that he had already violated the solemn promises that he had made to me & 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 & would lead to a recurrence of the scenes to which I had been already subjected, and I felt utterly helpless of being able to exercise any permanent influence over his life. On our return home I announced to him what I had heard &, in his presence, countermanded the order, which he had previously given, for the delivery of the note he had addressed to Dr. Crocker. He earnestly endeavoured to persuade me that I had been misinformed, especially in relation to his having that very morning called for wine at the bar of the hotel where he boarded. The effect of this infringement of his promise was in no degree perceptible, but the authority on which I had received this & other statements concerning him, was not to be questioned. I listened to his explanations & his remonstrances without one 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 for evil, depended upon me. I had now learned that [page 763:] 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 & in that of his friend, Mr. Pabodie, I bade him farewell, with feelings of profound commiseration for his fate — of intense sorrow thus to part from one whose sweet & gracious nature had endeared him to me beyond expression, and whose rare & peculiar intellect had given a new charm to my life. While he was endeavouring to win from me an assurance that our parting should not be a final one, my mother saved me from a response by insisting upon the 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 more —

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”.*

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 [page 764:] rumours. You will also see that I cannot be insensible to the humiliating position thus publicly assigned me as a lady whose hand has been sought and rejected in mere wantonness. You are, I believe, intimately acquainted with Mr. Griswold and with many who will read his published statement and will understand the motives which have urged me to put you in possession of this simple outline of facts.

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 the [page 765:] next day, for the following addition dated September 28 appears as a postscript without a signature. In this Mrs. Whitman’s motivation of Mr. Griswold’s slander is not very successful, but her speculations include some interesting observations on her poem, “Arcturus.” The first stanza of this poem reads:

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 [page 766:] left the, city, some very painful rumors reached me concerning him which I then believed to be false & calumnious — on looking out upon the western sky I saw Arcturus shining out in great splendor while all the nearer constellations were in deep shadow. I immediately wrote the enclosed lines. The allusion to the constellation of the “serpent “ was suggested by the fact I have just related, and by the spirit of detraction that seemed every-where to follow him. I was, at that period of my acquaintance; compelled to judge Mr. Poe by what I had seen of him rather than by what I had heard, and I could not conceive it possible that he could ever have given occasion for the severe things that were often said of him.

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 in [page 767:] enmity I should soon forget it — for I, too, am like that flower “that hath its root in air”, where “shadow of annoyance” seldom comes to me, or it if comes, stays not long.

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 [page 768:] relation to our marriage yet when I consider his strange & wayward nature I ought not to be surprised at it.

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. [page 769:] Whitman in her letters, but many others have battled over this poem. The entire letter follows:

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 [page 770:] this period I was unable to write anything for the second number of the magazine (as I had engaged to do) and I requested a friend to select something from my portfolio for the purpose. He happened to take up this song and likeing, as he said, its monotonous and sea-like sound, he copied it, omitting the two unfinished verses) and sent it to Mr. Post. The publication of the February number was delayed for many weeks and after my recovery I thought of recalling this poem and writing another to supply its place. While I was preparing to do so 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 authorised the terrible stories that were in circulation concerning him. I dared not reply to this letter; but I now felt a secret pleasure in thinking that the last verse of my song would be understood by him as an avowal of my innocence.

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 the 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 [page 771:] character of fascination — I devoured with a half-reluctant and fearful avidity every line that fell from his pen and always experienced in reading them a singular pain & oppression about the heart which I am almost constrained to refer to some occult and mysterious influence — There are also a series of correspondences & coincidences in our lives so strange and startling that I can never think of them without an intense feeling of awe — Do you remember Shelley’s lines?

“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

[page 772:]

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:

December 4th

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 [page 773:] character. And these things have become so common in our city that I am acquainted with a number of persons who hold the like correspondence at any moment of the day. As soon as my friends found out that I had a “Medium “ in the house I have scarcely had a moment to myself. People are calling at all hours to ask if they may be permitted to hold communion with the Spirit of some departed friend or, if they are unacquainted with the phenomenon, to witness it. It is indeed a strange state of things. What does Mr. Griswold think of the matter, I should think from an expression in the note you were kind enough to send me that he would like to avail himself of this mode of communication.

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.”

 


Notes

[[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 761.]]

*  Presumably Mrs. Ellet, of whose persecutions Poe had repeatedly warned Mrs. Whitman. She is mentioned several times in these letters.

[[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 763.]]

*  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.

[[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 771.]]

*  I suppose you are a believer in what the Rochester sybils tell us on this matter.


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Notes:

None.

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[S:0 - YR, 1925] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - New Letters About Poe (Williams)