Text: Edgar Allan Poe to Sarah H. Whitman — October 1, 1848 (LTR-278)


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Sunday Night — Oct. 1 — 48.

I have pressed your letter again and again to my lips, sweetest Helen — bathing it in tears of joy, or of a “divine despair”. But I — who so lately, in your presence, vaunted the “power of words” — of what avail are mere words to me now? Could I believe in the efficiency of prayers to the God of Heaven, I would indeed 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 that 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: — for so well do I know your poet-nature, oh Helen, Helen! that I feel sure if you could but look down now into the depths of my soul with your pure spiritual eyes you could not refuse to speak to me what, alas! you still resolutely have unspoken — you would love me if only for the greatness of my love. Is it not something in this cold, dreary world, to be loved? — Oh, if I could but burn into your spirit the deep — the true meaning which I attach to those three syllables underlined! — but, alas: the effort is all in vain and “I live and die unheard”.

When I spoke to you of what I felt, saying that I loved now for the first time, I did not hope you would believe or even understand me; nor can I hope to convince you now — but if, throughout some long, dark summer night, I could but have held you close, close to my heart and whispered to you the strange secrets of its passionate history, then indeed you would have seen that I have been far from attempting to deceive you in this respect. I could have shown you that it was not and could never have been in the power of any other than yourself to move me as I am now moved — to oppress me with this ineffable [page 2:] emotion — to surround and bathe me in this electric light, illumining and enkindling my whole nature — filling my soul with glory, with wonder, and with awe. During our walk in the cemetery I said to you, while the bitter, bitter tears sprang into my eyes —”Helen, I love now — now — for the first and only time.” I said this, I repeat, in no hope that you could believe me, but because I could not help feeling how unequal were the heart-riches we might offer each to each: — I, for the first time, giving my all at once, and forever, even while the words of your poem were yet ringing in my ears: —

Oh then, beloved, I think on thee

And on that life so strangely fair

Ere yet one cloud of Memory

Had gathered in Hope’s golden air.

I think on thee and thy lone grave

On the green hill-side far away —

I see the wilding flowers that wave

Around thee as the night-winds sway;

And still, though only clouds remain

On Life’s horizon, cold and drear,

The dream of Youth returns again

With the sweet promise of the year.

Ah Helen, these lines are indeed beautiful, beautiful — but their very beauty was cruelty to me. Why — why did you show them to me? There seemed, too, so very especial a purpose in what you did.

I have already told you that some few casual words spoken of you — [not very kindly] — by Miss Lynch, were the first in which I had ever heard your name mentioned. She described you, in some [m]easure, personally. She alluded [page 3:] to what she called your “eccentricities” and hinted at your sorrows. Her description of the former strangely arrested — her [half sneers at] the latter enchained and riveted, my attention. She had referred to thoughts, sentiments, traits, moods which I knew to be my own, but which, until that moment, I had believed to be my own solely — unshared by any human being. A profound sympathy took immediate possession of my soul. I cannot better explain to you what I felt than by saying that your unknown heart seemed to pass into my bosom — there to dwell forever — while mine, I thought, was translated into your own. From that hour I loved you. Yes, I now feel that it was then — on that evening of sweet dreams — that the very first dawn of human love burst upon the icy Night of my spirit. Since that period I have never seen nor heard your name without a shiver half of delight, half of anxiety. The impression left, however, upon my mind, by Miss Lynch ([wh]ether through my own fault or her design I know not) was that you were a wife now and a most happy one; — and it is only within the last few months that I have been undeceived in this respect. For this reason I shunned your presence and even the city in which you lived. — You may remember that once, when I passed through Providence with Mrs Osgood, I positively refused to accompany her to your house, and even provoked her into a quarrel by the obstinacy and seeming unreasonableness of my refusal. I fared neither go nor say why I could not. I fared 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. The merest whisper that concerned you awoke in me a shuddering sixth sense, vaguely compounded of fear, ecstatic happiness, and a wild, inexplicable [page 4:] sentiment that resembled nothing so nearly as the consciousness of guilt. — Judge, then, with what wondering, unbelieving joy I received in your well-known MS., the Valentine which first gave me to see that you knew me to exist. The idea of what men call Fate lost then for the first time, in my eyes, its character of futility. I felt that nothing hereafter was to be doubted, and lost myself, for many weeks, in one continuous, delicious dream, where all was a vivid yet indistinct bliss. — Immediately after reading the Valentine, I wished to contrive some mode of acknowledging — without wounding you by seeming directly to acknowledge — my sense — oh, my keen — my profound — my exulting — my ecstatic sense of the honor you had conferred on me. To accomplish, as I wished it, precisely what I wished, seemed impossible, however; and I was on the point of abandoning the idea, when my eyes fell upon a volume of my own poems; and then the lines I had written, in my passionate boyhood, to the first, purely ideal love of my soul — to the Helen Stannard of whom I told you — flashed upon my recollection. I turned to them. They expressed all — all that I would have said to you — so fully — so accurately and so exclusively, that a thrill of intense superstition ran at once throughout my frame. Read the verses and then take into consideration the peculiar need I had, at the moment, for just so seemingly unattainable a mode of communicating with you as they afforded. Think of the absolute appositeness with which they fulfilled that need — expressing not only all that I would have said of your person, but all that of which I most wished to assure you, in the lines commencing “On desperate seas long wont to roam.” Think, too, of the rare agreement of name — Helen and not the far more usual Ellen [—] [page 5:] think of all these coincidences, and you will no longer wonder that, to one accustomed as I am to the Calculus of Probabilities, they wore an air of positive miracle. There was but one difficulty. — I did not wish to copy the lines in my own MS — nor did I wish you to trace them to my volume of poems. I hoped to leave at least something of doubt on your mind as to how, why, and especially whence they came. And now, when, on accidentally turning the leaf, I found even this difficulty obviated, by the poem happening to be the last in the book, thus having no letter-press on its reverse — I yielded at once to an overwhelming sense of Fatality. From that hour I have never been able to shake from my soul the belief that my Destiny, for good or for evil, either here or hereafter, is in some measure interwoven with your own. — Of course, I did not expect on your part any acknowledgment of the printed lines “To Helen”; and yet, without confessing it even to myself, I experienced an undefinable sorrow in your silence. At length, when I thought you had time fully to forget me (if indeed you had ever really remembered) I sent you the anonymous lines in MS. I wrote them, first, through a pining, burning desire to communicate with you in some way — even if you remained in ignorance of your correspondent. The mere thought that your dear fingers would press — your sweet eyes dwell upon characters which I had penned — characters which had welled out upon the paper from the depths of so devout a love — filled my soul with a rapture which seemed then all sufficient for my human nature. It then appeared to me that merely this one thought involved so much of bliss that here on Earth I could have no right ever to repine — [page 6:] no room for discontent. — If ever, then, I dared to picture for myself a richer happiness, it was always connected with your image in Heaven. But there was yet another idea which impelled me to send you those lines: — I said to myself — The sentiment — the holy passion which glows within my spirit for her, is of Heaven, heavenly, and has no taint of the Earth. Thus there must lie, in the recesses of her own pure bosom, at least the germ of a reciprocal love; and if this be indeed so, she will need no earthly clew — she will indistinctly feel who is her correspondent. — In this case, then, I may hope for some faint token, at least, giving me to understand that the source of the poem is known and its sentiment comprehended even if disapproved. Oh God! how long — how long I waited in vain — hoping against Hope — until at length I became possessed with a spirit far sterner — far more reckless than Despair. — I explained to you — but without detailing the vital influence they wrought upon my fortune — those singular additional yet seemingly trivial fatalities by which you happened to address your lines to Fordham in place of New-York — by which my aunt happened to get notice of their being in the West-Farms Post Office — and by which it happened that, of all my set of the “Home Journal”, I failed in receiving only that individual number which contained your published verses; but I have not yet told you that your MS. lines reached me in Richmond on the very day in which I was about to depart on a tour and an enterprize which would have changed my very nature — fearfully altered my very [page 7:] soul — steeped me in a stern, cold and debasing, although brilliant and gigantic ambition — and borne me “far, far away” and forever, from you, sweet, sweet Helen, and from this divine dream of your Love.

And now, in the most simple words at my command, let me paint to you the impression made upon me by your personal presence. — As you entered the room, pale, timid, hesitating, and evidently oppressed at heart; as your eyes rested appealingly, for one brief moment, upon mine, I felt, for the first time in my life, and tremblingly acknowledged, the existence of spiritual influences altogether out of the reach of the reason. I saw that you were Helen — my Helen — the Helen of a thousand dreams — she whose visionary lips had so often lingered upon my own in the divine trance of passion — she whom the great Giver of all Good had preordained to be mine — mine only — if not now, alas! then at least hereafter and forever, in the Heavens. — You spoke falteringly and seemed scarcely conscious of what you said. I heard no words — only the soft voice, more familiar to me than my own, and more melodious than the songs of the angels. Your hand rested within mine, and my whole soul shook with a tremulous ecstasy. And then but for very shame — but for the fear of grieving or oppressing you — I would have fallen at your feet in as pure — in as real a worship as was ever offered to Idol or to God. And when, afterwards, on those two successive evenings of all-Heavenly delight, you passed to and fro about the room — now sitting by my side, now far away, now standing with your hand resting on the back of my chair, while the praeternatural thrill of your touch vibrated even through the senseless wood into my heart — while you [page 8:] moved thus restlessly about the room — as if a deep Sorrow or a more profound Joy haunted your bosom — my brain reeled beneath the intoxicating spell of your presence, and it was with no merely human senses that I either saw or heard you. It was my soul only that distinguished you there. I grew faint with the luxury of your voice and blind with the voluptuous lustre of your eyes.

Let me quote to you a passage from your letter: —”You will, perhaps, attempt to convince me that my person is agreeable to you — that my countenance interests you: — but in this respect I am so variable that I should inevitably disappoint you if you hoped to find in me to-morrow the same aspect which won you to-day. And, again, although my reverence for your intellect and my admiration of your genius make me feel like a child in your presence, you are not, perhaps, aware that I am many years older than yourself. I fear you do not know it, and that if you had known it you would not have felt for me as you do.” — To all this what shall I — what can I say — except that the heavenly candor with which you speak oppresses my heart with so rich a burden of love that my eyes overflow with sweet tears. You are mistaken, Helen, very far mistaken about this matter of age. I am older than you; and if illness and sorrow have made you seem older than you are — is not all this the best of reason for my loving you the more? Cannot my patient cares — my watchful, earnest attention — cannot the magic which lies in such devotion as I feel for you, win [page 9:] back for you much — oh, very much of the freshness of your youth? But grant that what you urge were even true. Do you not feel in your inmost heart of hearts that the “soul-love” of which the world speaks so often and so idly is, in this instance at least, but the veriest, the most absolute of realities? Do you not — I ask it of your reason, darling, not less than of your heart — do you not perceive that it is my diviner nature — my spiritual being — which burns and pants to commingle with your own? Has the soul age, Helen? Can Immortality regard Time? Can that which began never and shall never end, consider a few wretched years of its incarnate life? Ah, I could weep — I could almost be angry with you for the unwarranted wrong you offer to the purity — to the sacred reality of my affection. — And how am I to answer what you say of your personal appearance? Have I not seen you, Helen, have I not heard the more than melody of your voice? Has not my heart ceased to throb beneath the magic of your smile? Have I not held your hand in mine and looked steadily into your soul through the crystal Heaven of your eyes? Have I not done all these things? — or do I dream? — or am I mad? Were you indeed all that your fancy, enfeebled and perverted by illness, tempts you to suppose that you are, still, life of my life! I would but love you — but worship you the more: — it would be so glorious a happiness to be able to prove to you what I feel! But as it is, what can I — what am I to say? Who ever spoke of you without emotion — without praise? Who ever saw you and did not love? [page 10:]

But now a deadly terror oppresses me; for I too clearly see that these objections — so groundless — so futile when urged to one whose nature must be so well known to you as mine is — can scarcely be meant earnestly; and I tremble lest they but serve to mask others, more real, and which you hesitate — perhaps in pity — to confide to me. Alas! I too distinctly perceive, also, that in no instance you have ever permitted yourself to say that you love me. You are aware, sweet Helen, that on my part there are insuperable reasons forbidding me to urge upon you my love. Were I not poor — had not my late errors and reckless excesses justly lowered me in the esteem of the good — were I wealthy, or could I offer you worldly honors — ah then — then — how proud would I be to persevere — to sue — to plead — to kneel — to pray — to beseech you for your love — in the deepest humility — at your feet — at your feet, Helen, and with floods of passionate tears.

And now let me copy here one other passage from your letter: —”I find that I cannot now tell you all that I promised. I can only say to you [that had I youth and health and beauty, I would live for you and die with you. Now, were I to allow myself to love you, I could only enjoy a bright, brief hour of rapture and die — perhaps [[illegible]].” — The last five words have been [illegible] Ah, beloved, beloved Helen the darling of my heart — my first and my real love]! — may God forever shield you from the agony which these your words occasion me! [How selfish — how despicably selfish seems [page 11:] now all — all that I have written! Have I not, indeed, been demanding at your hands a love which might endanger your life?] You will never, never know — you can never picture to yourself the hopeless, rayless despair with which I now trace these words. Alas Helen! my soul! — what is it that I have been saying to you? — to what madness have I been urging you? — I who am nothing to you — you who have a dear mother and sister to be blessed by your life and love. But ah, darling! if I seem selfish, yet believe that I truly, truly love you, and that it is the most spiritual of love that I speak, even if I speak it from the depths of the most passionate of hearts. Think — oh, think for me, Helen, and for yourself! Is there no hope? — is there none? May not this terrible [disease] be conquered? Frequently it has been overcome. And more frequently are we deceived in respect to its actual existence. Long-continued nervous disorder — especially when exasperated by ether or [excision] — will give rise to all the symptoms of heart-dis[ease an]d so deceive the most skillful physicians — as even in [my o]wn case they were deceived. But admit that this fearful evil has indeed assailed you. Do you not all the more really need the devotionate care which only one who loves you as I do, could or would bestow? On my bosom could I not still the throbbings of your own? Do not mistake me, Helen! Look, with your searching — your seraphic eyes, into the soul of my soul, and see if you can discover there one taint of an ignoble nature! At your feet — if you so willed it — I would cast from me, forever, all merely human desire, and clothe myself in the glory of a pure, calm, and unexacting affection. I would [page 12:] comfort you — soothe you — tranquillize you. My love — my faith — should instil into your bosom a praeternatural calm. You would rest from care — from all worldly agitation. You would get better, and finally well. And if not, Helen, — if not — if you died — then at least would I clasp your dear hand in death, and willingly — oh, joyfully — joyfully — joyfully — go down with you into the night of the Grave.

Write soon — soon — oh, soon! — but not much. Do not weary or agitate yourself for my sake. Say to me those coveted words which would turn Earth into Heaven. If Hope is forbidden, I will not murmur if you comfort me with Love. — The papers of which you [speak] I will procure and forward immediately. They will cost me nothing, fear Helen, an[d] I therefore re-enclose you what you so thoughtfully s[ent.] Think that, in doing so, my lips are pressed ferv[ently] and lingeringly upon your own. And now, in closing this long, long letter, let me speak last of that which lies nearest my heart — of that precious gift which I would not exchange for the surest hope of Paradise. It seems to me too sacred that I should even whisper to you, the dear giver, what it is. My soul, this night, shall come to you in dreams and speak to you those fervid thanks which my pen is all powerless to utter.

Edgar

P. S. Tuesday Morning. — I beg you to believe, dear Helen, that I replied to your letter immediately upon its receipt; but a most unusual storm, up to this moment, precludes all access to the City.


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - MS, 18xx] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Letters - Poe to S. H. Whitman (LTR278/RCL723)