Text: Eugene L. Didier, “Our Monthly Gossip,” Lippincott’s Magazine, October 1878, pp. 508-510


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BURNS’S Highland Mary, Petrarch’s Laura, and other real and imaginary loves of the poets, have been immortalized in song, but we doubt whether any of the numerous objects of poetical adoration were more worthy of honor than Mrs. Sarah Helen Whitman, the friend and defender of Edgar A. Poe. That he should have inspired so deep and lasting a love in the heart of so true and pure a woman would alone prove that he was not the social pariah his vindictive enemies have held up to the world’s wonder and detestation. The poet’s love for Mrs. Whitman was the one gleam of hope that cheered the last sad years of his life. His letters to her breathed the most passionate devotion and the most enthusiastic admiration. One eloquent extract from his love-letters to Mrs. Whitman will suffice. In response to a passage in one of her letters in which she says, “How often have I heard men, and even women, say of you, ‘He has great intellectual power, but no principle, no moral sense’!” he exclaims: “I love, you too truly ever to have offered you my hand, ever to have sought your love, had I known my name to be so stained as your expressions imply. There is no oath which seems to me so sacred as that sworn by the all-divine love I bear you. By this love, then, and by the God who reigns in heaven, I swear, to you that my soul is incapable of dishonor. I can call to mind no act of my life which would bring a blush to my cheek or to yours.”

Carried away by the ardor and eloquent passion of her poet-lover, and full of the sweetest human sympathy and the tenderest human charity for one, so gifted but so unfortunate, Mrs. Whitman, against the advice of her relatives and friends, consented to a conditional engagement. It was in relation to this engagement, and the cause of its being broken off, that one of the most calumnious stories against Poe was told, and [column 2:] believed both in America and in Europe, but especially in England. Why the engagement was broken, and by whom, still remains buried in mystery, but that Poe was guilty of any “outrage” at her house upon the eve of their intended marriage was emphatically denied by Mrs. Whitman. She pronounced the whole story a “calumny.” In a letter before me she says: “ I do not think it possible to overstate the gentlemanly reticence and amenity of his habitual manner. It was stamped through and through with the impress of nobility and gentleness. I have seen him in many moods and phases in those ‘lonesome, latter years’ which were rapid merging into the mournful tragedy of death. I have seen him sullen and moody under a sense of insult and imaginary wrong. I have never seen in him the faintest indication of savagery and rowdyism and brutality.”

Some of the most tenderly passionate of Mrs. Whitman’s verses were inspired by her affection for Poe. She wrote six sonnets to his memory, overflowing with the most exalted love and generous sympathy. The first of these sonnets ends thus:

Thou wert my destiny: thy song, thy fame,

The wild enchantments clustering round thy name,

Were my soul’s heritage — its regal dower,

Its glory, and its kingdom, and its power.

When malice had exhausted itself in heaping obloquy upon the name of the dead poet, it was the gentle hand of woman that first removed the odium from his memory. It was Mrs Whitman — who loved him and whom he love — that dared to penetrate the “mournful corridors” of that sad, desolate heart, with its “halls of tragedy and chambers of retribution,” and tell the true but melancholy story of the unhappy master of the Raven. It was she who generously came forward as “one of the friends” of him who was said to have no friends. She was his steady champion from first [page 509:] to last. Whether it was some crackbrain scribbler who tried to prove Poe “mad,” some accomplished scholar who endeavored to disparage him in order to magnify some other writer, or some silly woman who attempted to foist herself into notice by relating “imaginary facts” concerning the poet’s hidden life, Mrs. Whitman was always ready to defend her dead friend.

One of the most touching incidents in Poe’s early life was his affection and fidelity to Mrs. Helen Stannard, who had completely won the sensitive boy’s heart by her kindness to him when he came to her house with her son, a favorite schoolfriend. This lady died under circumstances of peculiar sorrow, and her young admirer was in the habit of visiting her grave every night. It was she — “the one idolatrous and purely ideal love” of his passionate boyhood — who inspired those exquisite lines, “Helen, thy beauty is to me.” Mr Richard. Henry Stoddard, in his article on Poe published in Harper’s Monthly for May, 1872, says, in allusion to Mrs. Stannard: “The memory of this lady is said to have suggested the most beautiful of his minor poems, ‘Helen,’ though I am not aware that Poe ever countenanced the idea.” As Mrs. Whitman had distinctly stated in Edgar Poe and his Critics that Mrs. Stannard had inspired the poem, she addressed a note to Mr. Stoddard upon the subject, to which he sent the following reply: “ MY DEAR MRS. WHITMAN: So many months have elapsed since I wrote the paper on Poe about which you write that I am unable to remember what I said in it. I certainly had no intention to discredit any statement that you made in Edgar Poe and his Critics, and if I have done so I am sorry for it, and ask your forgiveness.”

In one of Mrs. Whitman’s letters, now lying before me, she says: “So much has been written, and so much still continues to be written, about Poe by persons who are either his avowed or secret enemies, that I joyfully welcome every friendly or impartial word spoken in his behalf. His enemies are uttering their venomous fabrications in every newspaper, [column 2:] and so few voices can obtain a hearing in his defence. My own personal knowledge of Mr. Poe was very brief, although it comprehended memorable incidents, and was doubtless, as he kindly characterized it in one of his letters of the period, ‘the most earnest epoch of his life;’ and such I devoutly and emphatically believe it to have been. You ask me to furnish you with extracts from his letters, literary or otherwise. There are imperative reasons why these letters cannot and ought not to be published at present — not that there was a word or a thought in them discreditable to Poe, though some of them were imprudent, doubtless, and liable to be construed wrongly by his enemies. They are for the most part strictly personal. The only extract from them of which I have authorized the publication is a fac-simile of a paragraph inserted between the 68th and 69th pages of Mr. Ingram’s memoir in Black’s (Edinburgh) edition of the complete works of Poe. The paragraph in the original letter (dated November 24, 1848) consists of only eight lines: ‘The agony which I have so lately endured — an agony known only to my God and to myself — seems to have passed my soul through fire, and purified it from all that is weak. Henceforward I am strong: this those who love me shall see, as well as those who have so relentlessly endeavored to ruin me. It needed only some such trials as I have just undergone to make me what I was born to be by making me conscious of my own strength.’ This and a protest against the charge, of indifference to moral obligations so often urged against him, which permitted Mr. Gill to extract for publication from a long letter filled with eloquent and proud remonstrance against the injustice of such a charge, are the only passages of which I have authorized the publication. Other letters have been published without my consent. I have endeavored to reconcile myself to the unauthorized use of private letters and papers, since the effect of their publication has been on the whole regarded as favorable to Poe.”

It was Mrs. Whitman who first attempted to trace Edgar Poe’s descent from the [page 510:] old Norman family of Le Poer, which emigrated to Ireland during the reign of Henry II. of England. Lady Blessington, through her father, Edmund Power, claimed the same illustrious descent. The Le Poers were distinguished for being improvident, daring and reckless. The family originally belonged to Italy, whence they passed to the north of France, and went to England with William the Conqueror. In a letter dated January 3, 1877, Mrs. Whitman says: “For all that I said on the subject I alone am responsible. A distant relative of mine, a descendant, like myself, from Nicholas le Poer, had long ministered to my genealogical proclivities by stories which from my childhood had vaguely haunted and charmed my imagination. When I discovered certain facts of Poe’s history of which he had previously made little account, he seemed greatly impressed by my theory of our relationship. Of course I endowed him with my traditional heirlooms. John Savage, who wrote some fine papers on Poe, which I think appeared in the Democratic Review, perhaps in 1858, said to a friend of mine that the things most interesting and valuable to him in, my little book (Poe and his Critics) were its genealogical hints.”

When M. Stephane Mallarme, an enthusiastic admirer of Poe’s, undertook to translate his works into French, he addressed Mrs. Whitman a complimentary letter, from which the following passages are translated: “Whatever is done to honor the memory of a genius the most truly divine the world has seen, ought it not first to obtain your sanction? Such of Poe’s works as our great Baudelaire left untranslated — that is to say, the poems and many of the literary criticisms — I hope to make known to France. My first attempt, ‘Le Corbeau,’ of which I send you a specimen, is intended to attract attention to a future work now nearly completed. I trust that the attempt will meet your approval, but no possible success of any future design could cause you, madam, a satisfaction equal to the joy, vivid, profound and absolute, caused by an extract from, one of your letters in which you expressed a wish to see a copy [column 2:] of my ‘Corbeau,’ Not only in space — which is nothing — but in time, made up for each of us of the hours we deem most memorable in the past, your wish seemed to come to me from so far, and to bring with it the most delicious return of long-cherished memories; for, fascinated with the works of Poe from my infancy, it has been a long time that your name has been associated with his in my earliest and most intimate sympathies. Receive, madam, this expression of a gratitude such as your poetical soul may comprehend, for it is my inmost heart that thanks you.”

Mrs. Whitman translated Mallarme’s inscription intended for the Poe monument in Baltimore. The last verse was thus rendered:

Through storied centuries thou shalt proudly stand

In the Memorial City of his land,

A silent monitor, austere and gray,

To warn the clamorous brood of harpies from their prey.

E. L. D.



Although the article by J. Savage, referred to by Mrs. Whitman, did indeed appear in the Democratic Review, she was mistaken as to the year. It was printed in three installments, December 1850, January and February 1851.


[S:0 - LM, 1878] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Poe at West Point (Thomas W. Gibson, 1878)