Text: Hervey Allen, “Chapter 25,” Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe (1934), pp. 601-629


[page 601:]


SARAH HELEN WHITMAN, the “Seeress of Providence,” whom Poe had seen once, “once only,” three years before, standing in her doorway, one night on Benefit Street, was the recipient of “some of the most perfect literary love letters” ever written.(822) To her they were the greatest, and withal, the most mysterious event of a life largely given over to listening to noises on the alleged other side of the veil, — to the rappings, the twitterings, and flutterings which intrigued, mystified, amused, and bemused an entire generation of Americans who traveled the road to Endor.

In the Summer of 1848, the ghosts held a caucus, principally in the northeastern part of the United States. Tables began to jig and dance, curtains became pregnant with the spirit of nothing, ladies went into trances — and hysterics. Spiritualism and kindred movements became the rage. There were few who were not at least impressed. It was a movement that had its roots much deeper, in the peculiar suppressions and conventions, the great underlying sadness of North America that has been mistaken for a literary convention, but that gripped the country, especially the young men and the middle-aged women, from 1820 to 1860, if pens ever wrote truth, and pages can be read aright.

We can laugh, now, because we have forgotten, or do not know any longer what it was that drove thousands of rational people feto intolerable little parlors, to holding hands, to listening expectantly — hoping for great messages from old tables about which their grandparents had gathered to discuss tea and politics, or cards and wine — we have forgotten what it was that made it necessary to “get beyond.” There were, in 1848, two principal ways to escape the intolerant and, par conséquence, intolerable boredoms of what may be termed the official family existence of the Republic. One way was to go West; the other was to go “Beyond.” Both, in the final analysis, were spiritual adventures upon different planes.

This restlessness for escape, inspiration, hysteria, or adventure, by whatever term one may choose to denominate it, was widespread, and had deep ramifications all over the country.(823) New England, of course, [page 602:] claimed for its own manifestations the usual endemic virtues. Yet the ghosts there might merely be said to be a little more rampant, if ghosts can be, their spirituality, especially about Boston and Concord, seven times refined. Providence, Rhode Island, was, to a certain extent, included in the holy territory. There, in the ’40’s and ’50’s, “the local citizens of the world of souls of Transcendentalism” discussed, as other groups ware doing elsewhere, the life of the spirit transcendent above all material or physical demands, and discussed it so well and long that mysticism and idealism slipped imperceptibly into occultism, mesmerism, and spiritualism.

Mrs. Helen Whitman was the inspiration of the Providence group, and of quite an important little vortex of correspondence, and scattered friends who came under her influence. She was delicately beautiful, veiled, mysterious, and elusive. She dressed in light silken draperies, and, as she passed, shielding her eyes from the too garish light of day by a fan, one glimpsed a spiritual dream of womanhood gliding by upon dainty slippers, followed by undulating scarfs — and a faint, deathly-sweet odor of a handkerchief soaked in ether.

Life was just a little too vivid for this “Helen of a Thousand Dreams” — that is, real life — “her pleasant rooms were never pervaded by anything but a subdued light,” and the ether seems, upon occasions, to have helped to blunt the too-keen edge of things. She had sever been very well. She had heart-trouble, and was much given to premature announcements by letter of her imminent departure, and to sorrowful but thrilling farewells to her friends.

Mrs. Whitman had her own troubles, however, and her means of escape must be charitably left to her own often notable and admirable devices. Mrs. Nicholas Power, her mother, was of a very powerful turn of mind, as far as opinions went. With many of these, her husband seems to have disagreed. During the War of 1812, upon a voyage to the West Indies, he was captured by the British. His return to freedom in 1815, however, did not coincide by some nineteen years with his return to his family in Providence. They had been expecting him in the meanwhile until faith took on the foolish look of credulity. Then Nicholas returned, suddenly. The occasion was thus commemorated by his equally eccentric daughter Anna:

Mr. Nicholas Power left home in a sailing vessel bound for St. Kitts, When he returned, he frightened his family out of their wits. — (824)

Helen’s early life had thus been over-shadowed. The eccentric younger sister was a great trial. The girls’ father passed away leaving [page 603:] their common-sense mother in charge of three daughters, and a little property of her own. Helen had a passion for flowers, and spent much time in the rose garden behind the red house at Providence, and at the home of her aunt, Mrs. C. J. Bogart at Jamaica, Long Island, where, for a time, she went to a Quaker School The Bogarts gave Helen her first taste of the world. She developed a fondness for reading novels and for parties, for scribbling verse and dabbling in poetry. In 1828, after a long engagement, she married, at the house of her aunt on Long Island, John Winslow Whitman of Pembroke, Massachusetts, a young lawyer with a sensitive archangelic face. After a few years he died, and, in 1835, Mrs. Whitman went back to live with her mother on Benefit and Church Streets in Providence. In 1838 her portrait, by which she is best known, was painted by Giovanni Thompson, This shows her at thirty-five years of age, as a young widow, tea years before she met Poe.(825)

Mrs. Whitman, who published poetry from time to time, about the end of the 1840’s became greatly interested in spiritualism, in which she and Mrs. Oakes Smith found a congenial field. Trances, mediums, and the entire “experimental field” were explored by them. Mrs. Whitman was of too high a quality of mind to be hoaxed. She was “subliminally interested.” Mrs. Oakes Smith, although apparently a more virile person, at last completely succumbed. The last reminiscences and utterances of Mrs. Smith, who did much toward the emancipation of women in America, were a babble of “spiritual” twaddle.

It will perhaps serve to throw some light upon Mrs. Whitman to follow her upon a trip to Niagara Falls with Mrs. Oakes Smith, “Mrs. Gould, the trance-poet, and others — made possible by the munificence of a wealthy merchant of New York — seven of us, so companionable that our journey was a dream of enjoyment.”(826)

Travelers learn much of each other to be learned in no other way. Mrs. Whitman conformed but slightly to prevailing fashions or conventionalities. Her dress expressed herself: a slight lace tucker, a veil — now on the head, now in the hand — an invariable fan. Altogether she was a unique and attractive little parson. Angels have a right to their own way, and it was natural that we should see only sweetness in the ways of Helena.

As we went through the long corridors of the Cataract House, it was needful for someone to follow and pick up the scatterings of our friend. In the flow of conversation, away went a shawl that had been tied carelessly about the waist; this was carefully picked up and retained not to interrupt the flow of the sweet voice in its gentle cadence of words. Next, down went the fan, followed by the veil; but the loss of this was final In the cars, Mr. Day had provided India rubber air-cushions, which made a nice rest for the head. Mrs. [page 604:] Whitman had adjusted hers by the open window, but the intervention of some pleasant thought induced a turn of the head, and out went the cushion! . . .

Sarah Helen Whitman once said of John Neal, ‘He is remarkable amongst remarkable men — unique, wonderful.’ She said this when we together met Mr. Neal at Niagara, and listened to his conversation which was great, even with the stupendous Niagara for accompaniment.

Mr. Neal’s pen name it may be recalled was “Jehu O’Cataract.”(827)

It must be remembered that all this was Mrs. Whitman seen through the eyes of Mrs. Smith, who doted on her. There was another, and a genuine side. Men such as John Hay, George W. Curtis, Ellery Channing, Horace Greeley, and several others of considerable note, corresponded with her and visited at Providence. Her conversation, at its best, was witty and even biting. She was familiar with French and German literature, and interested in music and painting. Her poetry was the best of any written by the literati, and on one or two occasions, attained a genuine note. Mrs. Whitman was aware of what was going on in her world, and played quite an important minor role in it. She was undoubtedly the most “civilized” woman whom Poe had ever approached.

Poe, on his part, as we have seen, was not unscathed by the occultism of his time, yet he managed to keep his head above it. His dabbling in it was for purely literary reasons. From it he obtained dramatic material for his art in story and verse, and the pleasure of indulging in enigmatic smiles, and scoffing asides. Andrew Jackson Davis, whose lectures on mesmerism Poe had attended, supplied, for his first book, perhaps the initial idea for Eureka.(828) Shortly before Poe and Mrs. Whitman met, we hear from Davis of a visit which Poe paid to his rooms, apparently in search of technical data for The Case of M. Valdemar. Davis, who claimed to be able “to look through people,” beheld a strange, dark shadow that always lay before Poe, and a background of very dark hills, a sort of mystic and dolorous landscape about his head.

Poe’s own mysticism was purely personal, and the subliminal landscapes which he created in his poetry, prose and landscape sketches were the refuges, and spiritual lands of his own darkened soul. It was for this reason that his poetry was more original than that of any other American poet of the age. It employed a symbolism which was [page 605:] personally unique, but which yet finds an echo, and provides a refuge for those who can glimpse within themselves, or through experience, the islands of spiritual exile, and the scenery along the highways and byways of despair. Such experiences are deep and primary ones, vastly more important than the rational or decorative, and must remain forever an important field for the preoccupation of the poet’s art. Poe’s refuge from life was not at the spiritual seance, or in becoming a pioneer. His adventure lay inward down into the ever darker and more mysterious gulfs within. In 1849, there was a great rush to the gold fields of California. It was an Eldorado that attracted many. The comment of “Israfel” was this:


Gayly bedight,

A gallant knight,

In sunshine and in shadow,

Had journeyed long,

Singing a song,

In search of Eldorado.


But he grew old,

This knight so bold,

And o’er his heart a shadow:

Fell as he found

No spot of ground

That looked like Eldorado.


And, as his strength

Failed him at length;

He met a pilgrim shadow:

‘Shadow,’ said he,

‘Where can it be,

This land of Eldorado?’


‘Over the Mountains

Of the Moon,

Down the Valley of the Shadow

Ride, boldly, ride,’

The shade replied,

‘If you seek for Eldorado.’(829)

Poe was now definitely bound “down the Valley of the Shadow.” The physical man, who was about to set out in search of a wife, and to encounter Annie and Helen Whitman, was a sadly jangled bundle of nerves. Any excess of emotion, he was unable to sustain without the use of stimulants, and stimulants were a fatal method of relief. Occasionally, [page 606:] only two or three times now, before he disappeared over the edge of the world, the troubles of his impossible situation were embodied in a notable expression. For the rest, his pen was all but useless. A contrast of the bibliography of the last three years of Poe’s life with those that had preceded it, will, in bulk alone, disclose the evidence, and depict the story of his disintegration.

The appearance of the completely unstrung man from the refuge at Fordham, in the midst of the lives of the three women with whom he was now about to come in contact, was fraught, as might be expected, with tragedy, agony, and frustration. Knowing this, there were, nevertheless, motives which urged him on. He must once more bring someone home to the cottage who could supply that cherishing sympathy, and physical nursing which he could not do without.(818) Means for the support of the home, and for establishing the Stylus, the “darling dream of his life,” were included. In this course he was supported by the advice of Mrs. Shew, and the necessities of Mrs. Clemm, to whom he owed everything. But, by his pen alone, without the assistance of a dowry, he could no longer support Mrs. Clemm. In the Summer of 1848, sometime in June, the process of wooing began.

As early as February, Mrs. Whitman herself had opened the door. Miss Lynch, at her Valentine Party, to which she had invited N. P. Willis, Horace Greeley, Miss Sedgwick, Morris, Grace Greenwood, Bayard Taylor, Harte, C. M. Clay, Furness, Margaret Fuller, and Charles Dana, asked Mrs. Whitman to contribute a valentine.(830) Mrs. Whitman had been greatly moved by The Raven. Her birthday was the same as Poe’s, and she felt drawn to him, by his poetry, as he had been attracted by hers. Whispers of Poe’s deep impression of the night in Providence, when he had first seen her, had readied her ears. N. P. Willis was addressed at the party as a “City Pigeon,” and Mrs. Whitman’s valentine poem was to the “Raven.” Poe was not going about with the literati at the time, as he was under a cloud, but the reading of the valentine made a great sensation.

Oh! thou grim and ancient Raven,

From the Night’s Platonic shore,

Oft in dreams, thy ghastly pinions

Wave and flutter round my door —

Oft thy shadow dims the moonlight

Sleeping on my chamber door.


Romeo talks of ‘White doves trooping,

Amid crows athwart the night,’

But to see thy dark wing swooping

Down the silvery path of light, [page 607:]

Amid swans and dovelets stooping,

Were, to me, a nobler sight. . . .


Then, Oh I Grim and Ghastly Raven!

Wilt thou to my heart and ear

Be a Raven true as ever

Flapped his wings and croaked ‘Despair’?

Not a bird that roams the forest

Shall out lofty eyrie share.(831)

Providence, R. I. — Feb. 14, 1848.

These verses were sent to Poe by Miss Lynch through Mrs. Osgood. Poe recognized the writing, having seen some of Mrs. Whitman’s poetry before. Shortly after, “the Valentine” appeared in the Home Journal through the good offices of the “City Pigeon.” Poe was thrown into a state of ecstasy upon beholding the lines. He took down his own volume of poems and read To Helen. The mystic circle was almost complete.(832)

Shortly afterward, Mrs. Osgood, who understood the reference to the “swans and dovelets,” wrote to Mrs. Whitman.

I see by the Home Journal that your beautiful invocation has reached the ‘Raven’ in his eyrie (at Fordham) and I suppose, ere this, he has swooped upon your little dovecot in Providence. May Providence protect you if he has! for his croak is the most eloquent imaginable. He is in truth ‘A glorious devil, with large heart and brain. . . .’

Poor little Fanny Osgood was dying of a cough, “which is killing me by inches, and there are not many inches left.” She was anxious for news. The “Raven” had not yet “swooped” but he was about to do so.

In June, Mrs. Shew had broken with Poe. At a moonlight party at a neighbor’s house at Fordham soon afterward, Maria Mclntosh, one of the literati, was present and heard Poe raving about Mrs. Whitman, whom he had never met. Apparently, he was as much in love with her then as he ever was. Shortly afterward, Miss McIntosh went to Providence. She was a friend of Mrs. Whitman. There the matter rested for a while. A bewildering succession of events now intervened, which greatly help to explain the real nature of Poe’s affair with Mrs. Whitman.

Since the publication of Eureka in March, aside from his correspondence, [page 608:] Poe had written nothing at all.(833) In July, 1848, through Mrs. Locke, Mrs. Osgood’s sister-in-law, Poe arranged for a lecture to be given at Lowell, Massachusetts, Mrs. Locke’s home town. The lecture was on The Poetic Principle, and was delivered on July 10. A lady, who was present, described Poe upon the occasion:

I saw him first in Lowell, and there heard him give a lecture on poetry, illustrated by readings. His manner of rendering some of the selections constitutes my only remembrance of the evening which so fascinated me. Everything was rendered with pure intonation, and perfect enunciation, marked attention being paid to the rhythm. He almost sang the more musical versifications. I recall more perfectly than anything else the undulations of his smooth baritone voice as he recited the opening lines of Byron’s Bride of Abydos, —

Know ye the land where the cypress and myrtle

Are emblems of deeds that are done in their dime, —

measuring the dactylic movement perfectly as if he were scanning it. The effect was very pleasing.

He insisted strongly upon an even, metrical flow in versification, and said that hard, unequally stepping poetry had better be done into prose. I think he made no selections of a humorous character, either in his public or parlor readings. He smiled but seldom, and never laughed, or said anything to excite mirth hi others. His manner was quiet and grave. . . . In thinking of Mr. Poe in later years I have often applied to him the line of Wordsworth’s sonnet, —

‘Thy soul was like a star, and dwelt apart.’

It was on this visit to Lowell that Poe met Mrs. Annie Richmond, about whom Landor’s Cottage is woven. In the story is a description of his first meeting with Annie.(833) Again it was the expression about the eyes which attracted him, the abstraction of womanliness, rather than the woman herself. His great need of, and his desire for sympathy, for some escape from his loneliness, is here evident.

As no bell was discernible, I rapped with my stick against the door, which stood half open. Instantly a figure advanced to the threshold — that of a young woman about twenty-eight years of age — slender, or rather slight, and somewhat above the medium height. As she approached, with a certain modest decision of step altogether indescribable, I said to myself, ‘Surely here I have found the perfection of natural, in contradistinction from artificial grace.’ The second impression which she made on me, but by far the more vivid of the two, was that of enthusiasm. So intense an expression of romance, perhaps I should call it, or of unworldliness, as that which gleamed from her deep-set eyes, had never so sunk into my heart of hearts before. I know not how it is, but this peculiar expression of the eye, wreathing itself occasionally into the lips, is the [page 609:] most powerful, if not absolutely the sole spell, which rivets my interest in woman. ‘Romance,’ provided my readers fully comprehend what I would here imply by the word — ‘romance’ and ‘womanliness’ seem to me(835) convertible terms: and, after all what man truly loves in woman, is, simply, her womanhood. The eyes of Annie (I heard some one from the interior call her ‘Annie, darling!’) were ‘spiritual grey’; her hair, a light chestnut; this is all I had time to observe of her.

It is to be noted in this story that, while the description of the woman is that of Annie Richmond, the description of the cottage is of Poe’s own at Fordham, and that Poe thus imagined Annie at home in his own house where he so often longed to see her.

There can be no doubt that it was she, of all women, who now most attracted him. He was as near in love with her as he could be, and the hours spent in the bosom of her family with her husband, her sister Sarah, and little Caddy, seemed to him a dream of delight. Both Annie and Sarah, Poe soon called by the name of “sister,” the dearest epithet he employed. His experience with Mrs. Richmond ran much the same course as that with Mrs. Shew. The impossible, and intricate relationship which followed was crossed by the malignant, and the well-meant letters of others with whom he had gone through the same formula of platonic friendship.

Poe brought himself to the verge of the grave over Annie. The affair with her, and the simultaneous one with Mrs. Whitman, were too much. The resulting catastrophe revealed to him the inevitable cul de sac of his wooings. In the terrible tangle he, at last, attempted to commit suicide. Yet, at the very last, it was to Annie that his thoughts turned, even when he became engaged to Mrs. Shelton in the Fall of 1849.(836)

Bearing with him the remembrance of Annie, with whom shortly afterward he began to correspond, Poe returned to New York after the lecture at Lowell. He arrived home July 13. The proceeds of the lecture, and two advances from George P. Putnam made on Eureka, now supplied him with sufficient funds to start South in order to get subscriptions for the Stylus.(837) On July 16, Poe left New York, while Mrs. Clemm remained at Fordham. Three days later he arrived at Richmond. Here, once more among the acquaintances and haunts of his boyhood, he gave way to drink, and disappeared for two weeks in the lower haunts of the town. John R. Thompson, the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, was accidently informed that the former and now famous editor of his paper was in a serious plight somewhere along the water front. He charitably set out to rescue him: [page 610:]

If you have ever visited Richmond, you may perhaps know that the business portion of the town and the sites occupied by residences exclusively are distant from the shipping by a mile and a half, so that few persons not actually engaged in commercial affairs ever visit the place at all. As soon as I heard the name of Poe in this connection my worst suspicions were excited, and I at once took a carriage and went to seek him. It was a very warm day. . . . When I reached the purlieus of this abandoned quarter, I learned that such a person had indeed been there, drunk, for two weeks, and that he had gone a few hours previous, without hat or coat, to the residence of Mr. John Mackenzie, some three miles distant in the country, alone and on foot. It was Poe. The next day he called on me with Mr. (Jack) Mackenzie. . . . I did all I could to restrain his excesses and to relieve the pressure of his immediate wants (for he was extremely indigent) but no influence was adequate to keep him from the damnable propensity to drink.(838)

Once at Duncan Lodge, the old home of the Mackenzies, Poe was in good hands. He had been welcome there since childhood, and Jack Mackenzie was still a firm friend. Rosalie was also still living there, and Poe paid frequent visits.(839) Most of his time, however, was spent in newspaper haunts. He made the office of the Messenger his headquarters. Thompson’s descriptions of Poe’s doings in Richmond at this time are thought on good authority to be exaggerated.(840)

Poe, it seems, was able to call on Thompson at the Messenger office shortly after the spree along the waterfront, and he seemed little the worse for wear. He was also at this time seen about town by Charles M. Wallace, a local historian of some ability and accurate memory, who noted that, although toe was drinking, he was never in a condition when he could not take care of himself. On one occasion Mr. Wallace was called from his bed by a prominent Richmond newspaper man, probably Thompson or Daniel, to meet Poe who was in a gay but select company of convivial spirits gathered at a neighboring tavern. The company was listening to Poe declaiming The Raven and Eureka.

When Wallace arrived, he found his famous fellow townsman discussing current events. Poe bowed in a very dignified way when introduced to Wallace, and although the poet’s face was flushed and his manner nervous, he was by no means intoxicated. At the request of the by-standers, Poe then began his discourse, which, although it went on for fully an hour, proved to be eloquent and entertaining. It was probably on the atomic nature of the Universe.

J. R. Thompson apparently did not see as much of Poe on this visit [page 611:] as some of his later remarks would seem to indicate. In a letter to P. P. Cooke, written October 17, 1848, only part of which has been published,(841) Thompson said that Poe had left Richmond sometime before, after remaining three weeks in a terribly drunken condition, and after having declaimed Eureka in the bar rooms. This is perhaps an exaggerated statement of the incident related by Wallace. According to Thompson, friends tried in vain to get Poe to sober up so that he could write. Thompson himself could get nothing from him but The Rationale of Verse, already prepared as a lecture. This he took, he says, out of charity. Poe’s periods of lucidity were few and far between. One overhears in these accounts the shuffling of feet in bar rooms, the exalted voice of Poe discoursing in a supra-inspired tone of the atom streams pulsing from the beating heart of Nothing, as Eureka is intoned above the clinking of glasses. Mr. Thompson was moved to close his letter to Mr. Cooke with words to the effect that Poe was a peculiar fellow.(841)

Despite some ponderable evidence to the contrary, it seems roost likely that Poe did not see Mrs. Shelton (Elmira) while in Richmond in 1848. Thompson’s statement of his constant intoxication is weakened greatly by many columns of matter which he wrote in his beautiful script at this time, part of which Thompson afterward gave away. There was a review of Mrs. Lewis’s poems that appeared in the Messenger and a Literati Paper about her sent to the Democratic Review.

Of Poe’s doings further in Richmond at this time, a number of recollections still exist. He remained about six weeks, passing his time about Duncan Lodge, the offices of newspapers, and Ms bachelor quarters with Pleasants, editor of the Richmond Whig. Very little work was done on the Stylus scheme, but there were readings in the parlors of friends. Poe saw Dr. Ambler, his old friend Robert Stanard, “Helen’s” son, and Robert Sully, the artist, who, it is thought, may have done a portrait of him at this time, or in 1849.(842) He also attempted to call on his first sweetheart, Catherine Potiaux, but was apparently in a condition which denied him admittance. The second Mrs. Allan and her famfly were no doubt informed of his presence in town, and that he was indulging in drink. John Allan had been buried, and had been sleeping beside his wife Frances, for fourteen years. The second Mrs. Allan and her children, although still known as “the Scotch Allans,” were much about in society, and had made the big house at Main and Fifth Streets famous for a rather lavish hospitality.(843) There is no [page 612:] record of Poe having seen his “Aunt Nancy” Valentine, now a jolly middle-aged woman of a “charitable and social turn of mind.” There were many affairs at the Mackenzies’, however. Mrs. Weiss says that Mrs. Mackenzie had written to Poe, suggesting that he come to Richmond to try his fortunes with his old sweetheart, Elmira (Mrs. Shelton). This, however, is doubtful.

In Richmond, Poe again came into contact with a Mrs. Clarke, now a widow, with whom he had boarded at the Worthingtons’ in 1835, while on the Messenger. To her he paid a good deal of attention. Mrs. Clarke deposes about such calls and gives a rather pompous picture:

If there happened to be friends present he was often obliging enough to read, and would sometimes read some of his own poems, but he would never read The Raven unless he felt in the mood for it. . . . One day he came in with his sister and two of the Mackenzies and stopped with me. There were some other people present, and he read The Raven to us. He shut out the daylight and read by an astral lamp. When he was through all of us that had any tact whatever spared our comments and let our thanks be brief; for he was most impatient of both. . . . I enjoyed a good deal of his society during the visit in 1848. On his last visit I saw less of him. He was then said to be engaged to a Mrs. Shelton. Some said he was marrying her for her money. There was a good deal of gossip at that time concerning Poe. His intemperate habits especially were much exaggerated and made the most of by those who did not like him. . . . When he was in company at a party, for instance — you might see a little of him in the earlier part of the evening, but he would presently be off somewhere. . . . When a very young man he imitated Byron.(844)

The most intimate reminiscences of Poe, at this time, came from the Mackenzies at Duncan Lodge. It must be remembered that, to Poe, Richmond was home. It was the only place where he did not feel an outcast, but met old boyhood chums on the street. Here his fame was a boon instead of an annoyance and, for the first time since the death of Virginia, he seems to have cast off gloom, and to have returned to a semblance of the more merry and normal self of boyhood days.

I am convinced that a great deal of Poe’s unhappiness and apparent reserve and solitariness was owing to his obscure home life, which kept him apart from all genial social influences. At the North whenever seen out of his business hours, he appears to have been ‘alone’ and solitary, proud and melancholy looking. . . . With a few he was on friendly terms, but of intimate friends or associates he had not one so far as is known.(844)

In Richmond, all this was reversed, and the better and more human part of the man emerged. There can be no doubt that the visit in 1848 prolonged his life for a year. Martha Mackenzie, Jack’s sister, was a charming girl, a compound of gaiety and happiness. . . . The stories of [page 613:] her wedding in October, 1848, and of the two weeks celebration, are still remembered in Richmond as a golden streak in silver days.(844)

One evening, quite late, an alarm of fire was raised, and aH the young men of Duncan Lodge, accompanied by Poe, hastened to the scene of disaster, about a mile further in the country. Finding a great crowd collected, and that their services were not required, they sat on a fence looking on, and it was past midnight when they thought of returning home. Gay young Dr. ‘Tom’ Mackenzie remarked that it would never do to return in their immaculate white linen suits, as they would be sure to get a ‘wigging’ from the old ladies for not having helped to put out the fire, and, besides, they were all hungry, and he knew how they could get a good supper. With that he seized a piece of charred wood and commenced besmirching their white garments and their hands and faces, including Poe’s. Arriving at home in an apparently exhausted condition, they were treated by Mrs. Mackenzie herself, who wdd not disturb her servants, to the best that the pantry afforded, nor was the trick discovered until the following day. Mrs. Mackenzie laughed, but from Mrs. Carter the mother of two of the culprits, and who was gifted with eloquence, they got the ‘wigging’ which they had been anxious to avoid. Poe enjoyed it all immensely.(844)

In the garden at Duncan Lodge a number of the young men played leap-frog. Poe, as happy and boyish as they, indulged himself in a sport at which he excelled, and he was seen in the long green alleys of the garden, leaping and skinning over the backs of the others like a bird, easily excelling where his old friend Jack Mackenzie fell down. It is one of the few merry scenes, and almost the last, in which Poe is to be discovered.(844)

Besides private readings at the houses of friends, Poe appeared once in public. Mrs. Mackenzie, it appears, suggested that he should do so, and a reading was announced to be held in the music hall of the old Exchange Hotel, for which one hundred tickets were advertised at fifty cents apiece. It was midsummer, and most of the better class of people were out of town. On the night of the reading only thirteen people, including the janitor, appeared. Among them was said to have been Mrs. Shelton (Elmira), who sat directly in front of Poe, before the platform. “Poe was cool and self-possessed, but his delivery mechanical and rather hurried, and on concluding he bowed abruptly and retired.” Under the circumstances one could not expect much enthusiasm.(845)

By this time Poe’s funds were no doubt exhausted. Thompson had helped him by allowing him to write for the Messenger, but about the beginning of September, Poe became involved in a quarrel with John M. Daniel, editor of the Examiner, that developed into a typically Poesque affair. Bad blood, it seems, existed between Poe and Daniel from the start.(840) [page 614:]

The two could not agree about literature, and there was also a dispute over a debt of some kind. More serious than this, however, Daniel knew one of the Whitman family relations, and was overheard airing his doubts as to the motives of Poe’s attentions to Helen Whitman. This came to Poe’s ears while he was sitting in a newspaper office. He was infuriated, and wrote forthwith a challenge to Daniel scrawled on a newspaper headsheet This he had carried to Daniel who refused to take the matter seriously. Poe’s newspaper friends also regarded the matter lightly. The great poet, it seems, was not then in a condition to fight a dud. Nevertheless, under the code, satisfaction must be allowed him. After some little time, the matter was arranged.

Daniel, under the plea of not wishing to give publicity to the affair, consented to an interview at the office of the Examiner. There he waited alone and met Poe by appointment.

When Poe entered the sanctum, Mr. Daniel was seated quietly at his desk upon which were prominently displayed two very large, old fashioned but murderous looking pistols. Poe drew himself up very haughtily and demanded the reason for the interview. Daniel then explained that in order to avoid trouble with the authorities, the usual formalities might be dispensed with, and the two gentlemen present could satisfactorily settle their difficulties by simply walking to opposite ends of the room and taking a shot at each other.

Poe looked about him. The room was large; Mr. Daniel was very collected; and the two pistols seem to offer a dilemma rather than the choice which had been officially tendered. The grotesque nature of the situation appealed to Poe’s sense of humor, and, as he grew more sober and contemplated the pistols, caution gained the day. A few questions and explanations were exchanged and the trouble was patched up.

With evident relief, Poe then, in his inimitable manner, began to relate the story of the challenge sent by Edward Coote Pinkney, the Maryland poet, to Poe’s old friend John Neal, There was a decided point to the anecdote as Poe asked Daniel not to turn his affair into ridicule in the columns of the Examiner next day, in the same way that Neal had ridiculed Pinkney. This was very neat, as it was Neal who had refused to meet Pinkney. Daniel appears to have appreciated how cleverly Poe had saved his own face by thus putting him, Daniel, in a parallel case with Neal. The matter then ended in laughter, much aided by the arrival of several mutual friends who had remained hidden close by in no very great apprehension of hearing pistol shots, it is said.

Poe then capped the climax by reciting as only he could, Pinkney’s well-known toast:

I fill this cup to one made up of loveliness alone,

A woman, of her gentle sex the seeming paragon; [page 615:]

After which “all hands” retired to a neighboring bar room where other toasts confirmed the reign of peace.

Helen Whitman now once more enters upon the somewhat jangled scene. During the Summer, in July, Miss Mclntosh and Miss Blackwell, who had both visited Poe at Fordham, were walking in the moonlight with Mrs. Whitman in her garden. Miss McIntosh then detailed to Mrs. Whitman Poe’s remarks about her made about a month before. Miss Blackwell warned her friend about Poe, but in spite of that, Mrs. Whitman sent him a poem which was unsigned but in her own handwriting. This was sent to Fordham, and, after some delay, reached Poe in Richmond on September 10, shortly after, or about the same time as the abortive “duel” with Daniel.(846) The lines were an obvious bid on Mrs. Whitman’s part for the interview which she knew Poe was seeking:

A low bewildering melody

Is murmuring in my ear —

Tones such as in the twilight wood

The aspen thrills to hear

When Faunus slumbers on the hill

And all entranced boughs are still.


The jasmine twines her snowy stars

Into a fairer wreath —

The lily through my lattice bars

Exhales a sweeter breath —

And, gazing on night’s starry cope,

I dwell with ‘Beauty which is Hope.’

Of these lines Poe afterward wrote to Mrs. Whitman:

. . . 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 aja enterprise which would have changed my very nature — steeped me in a stern, cold, and debasing, although brilliantly gigantic ambition — and borne me ‘ far, far away’ and forever from you, sweet, sweet Helen, and from this divine dream of your love.(846)

It is quite plain from the context of this, and from the ostensible reason of Poe’s trip to Richmond and the South, that he is not referring either to a possible wooing of Mrs. Shelton, or to the “duel” with Daniel, but to his plans to “tour” the South on the “enterprise” of promoting the Stylus.(847) The necessity for the controversy which has centered about this paragraph is difficult to understand. Poe’s “gigantic ambition,” of course, was to become the arbiter of American letters as editor of the Stylus. This was now given up to pursue Mrs. Whitman. He left Richmond immediately, probably on September 10 or 11, and returned to “Muddie” at Fordham, prepared for his Providence [page 616:] campaign. Mrs. Clemm, it is said, did not favor this particular match. Her opposition, if she did oppose, made no difference with Poe, as his subsequent moves clearly demonstrate.

He now secured a letter of introduction from his friend, Miss Mclntosh, but, before leaving for Providence, took the precaution of writing a note in a disguised hand, and signed “Edward S. T. Grey,” purporting to be from an autograph collector. From the reply to this ruse, he ascertained that Mrs. Whitman was at home. About the end of September, apparently, Poe appeared in Providence, and presented the letter of introduction.(789)

No time was lost: Poe declared that he was in love. “During a 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 and only time.’” This was in a letter to Mrs. Whitman of October 1, 1848, with which a notable series of love letters began.

The love letters of Edgar Poe and Helen Whitman have come to occupy such an important place in the story of the man, and, of course, the place in the history of the woman, that it has been difficult, in the past, justly to evaluate them as records of human passion, or to see them in their proper perspective in the biographies of the authors.

A considerable body of literature, mostly controversial, has grown up about these letters, and the events which they detail, the very bulk of which has caused them to loom with an undue importance in the eyes of those who have turned them over, and commented upon them. Several collections of these letters exist in separate places, not only of the love letters themselves, but of Mrs. Whitman’s epistles written to Mrs. Hewitt, Ingram, Gill, and others after Poe’s death. Mrs. Whitman was a prolific letter writer. She rushed into the breach to defend Poe, and incidentally herself, after the Griswold attack. She became involved in the miserable squabble that went on among the aging and jealous survivors of the literati after Poe departed hence, which perplexed, annoyed, and exhausted Ingram, his English biographer.

Ingram attempted, through the conflicting and often deliberately deceptive correspondence of these women, to get at the facts. Most of the petty problems, such as, who was the original of “Annabel Lee”? — and who did the most for Poe at Fordham? — and to just what extent had Griswold lied, forged, and tampered with Poe documents and letters? — have now been satisfactorily settled, or allowed to rest as unimportant.

In reality, all of the aftermath inherent in the Ingram-literati correspondence can now be brushed aside, and must be evaluated as a purely cluttering-up process in the difficult work of reconstructing the so extraordinary elements of Poe’s character and doings. Those who carefully sifted out the facts in the past deserve credit, but the time has now come [page 617:] when the aura of academic controversy, and the fictitious value of collections of letters, and material dealing with what so and so said long after Poe’s death, must be cast into the limbo to which the scaffolding which has aided in the erection of the edifice of biography belongs.

The time has also arrived when the love affairs of the poet, and the correspondence in connection with them, must take their tale place in his history, in conformity with the value which the events that brought them forth, and the known peculiarities of Poe’s nature inevitably demand that they should take. This applies peculiarly to the Whitman episode.

In the first place, it must be remembered that both Poe and Helen Whitman were literary persons, and specialists in simulating, or recording passion and sentimental love in literary form. In other words, they could, upon demand, write an excellent love letter. The expressions in such letters, when taken at face value, imply a genuine passion behind them. Taken in connection with the known causes, events, and the final outcome of the affair, — and also considered along with the remarks made by both parties at the time, and afterward, — the whole correspondence is removed from the electric rays of genuine human passion at white heat, into the phosphorescent glow of self-interest, romantic adventure and secondary sentimental lovers’ phraseology.

The Poe-Whitman letters will be considered here as documents emanating from persons whose idiosyncrasies are known, and as records in connection with the events which they delineate. The Helen Whitman incident, when considered in the perspective of the whole of Poe’s biography, boils down to a hectic affair with one of three women who interested Poe from, 1848 through 1849. Helen Whitman was one of two widows, each of whom, there can be little doubt, Poe hoped to marry for reasons necessary to his domestic comfort, and the realization of his ambitions. She was one of three women who engaged his attentions at the last. Of these three, Mrs. Annie Richmond seems to have received the type of affection from Poe which most nearly resembles love.

It is very doubtful if Poe at this time, in his depleted and disorganized condition of body and mind, could, in reality, support, or provide a genuine and complete manly passion for any woman at all. His whole appeal to Helen Whitman was on a sentimental “spiritual comradeship” basis. He appealed to her imagination, her literary self-importance, and her ambition. A year later, Poe became engaged to another widow, this time with the prospect of considerable property. He then disappeared over the edge of the world. To Poe, Helen was an incident disturbing to his pride; to Mrs. Whitman, Poe was the great adventure. To the day of her death she wait on attitudinizing, sentimentalizing, worshiping, not her lover but “The Raven”; dressing up as Pallas, and writing second-rate poetry. [page 618:]

Let us be carefully just, and admit that there was inevitably some affection and respect involved. Mrs. Whitman was beautiful, professionally mysterious, and a personage. Poe was handsome, intriguing, romantic and “divine.” The friction of two such stars inevitably generated, perhaps at the time, considerable surface heat. It was only skin deep, however. The difficulties they encountered in their courtship are overcome a thousand times every day by normal lovers. Had they really possessed for each other the divine passion they professed, the opposition of relatives, and the tittle-tattle of gossip would have been brushed aside, and Mrs. Whitman would have become famous or pitied as the gifted and romantic partner of Edgar Allan Poe.

In the hectic championing of Poe by Mrs. Whitman, after his death, one senses a feeling of lost opportunity, and the necessity for the worship of an ideal to offset the reality. Poe seems, for awhile, to think that he had found his ideal of disembodied, angelic love. It must also be remembered that both correspondents had their literary reputations to live up to in writing love letters, and that the letters were phrased in the peculiar lovers’ conventions of the mid-Nineteenth Century.

Abstractly, the Poe-Whitman correspondence is the essence of romantic passion; historically, it is a record of the flame of sentimental affection under forced draft. It blazed, wavered, and went out. The fuel of sustaining physical love was absent.

Those who desire a purely literary love feast can turn to the available publications of these love letters. For the reasons given above, they will be used here only as throwing light upon the events they serve to narrate. To these events we must now pass on.

Mr. Poe’s letter of introduction to Mrs. Whitman was dated September 15, 1848, which leads one to date the first interview in the graveyard at Providence, as about that time. On October first we find Poe writing the first of his literary rhapsodies to Mrs. Whitman. On September twentieth he wrote an open letter to C. F. Hoffman connected with the Literary World in reply to a critique on Eureka, in which he said, speaking of Laplace: “The ground covered by the great French astronomer compares with that covered by my theory, as a bubble compares with the ocean on which it floats,” i.e., Laplace was talking about the solar system and nebulae; Poe was talking about the universe. In the meanwhile, the affair with Mrs. Whitman had already taken its first unfavorable twist.

In the first interview in the cemetery, Poe had compared his love for Mrs. Whitman to that ideal love of his boyhood for “Helen” Stanard. It seems to have been from this interview that the story about Poe’s haunting “Helen” Stanard’s grave, for the most part, took its origin, although he had also told about this early affair in Richmond to Mrs. Shew. Mrs. Whitman afterward gave the details of Poe’s own story [page 619:] in Poe and His Critics (since published as Was Poe Immoral), in which siie explains the genesis of the early verses To Helen. Poe evidently laid great stress on the similarity of the name; Mrs. Whitman “discovered” that she and Poe were descended from the same ancestry (sic),(848) and that their birthdays were the same! Thus the stars had fated their coming together. At the very first Mrs. Whitman had shown Poe her poetry, which expressed a foreboding that he protested against:

Oh then, beloved, I think on thee

And on that life so strangely fair,

Ere yet one chord of Memory

Hath gathered in Hope’s golden hair . . .

Oh, Helen, why did you show them to me? There seemed, too, so very especial a purpose in what you did. Their very beauty was cruelty to me. . . .

And now, in the most simple words I can command, let me paint to you the impression made upon me by your personal presence. As you entered the room, pale, hesitating, and evidently oppressed at tteart; as your eyes rested 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 whom the great Giver of all good had preordained to be mine — mine only — if not now, alas! then hereafter and for ever 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. . . .

Your hand rested within mine and my whole soul shook with a tremulous ecstasy: and then, but for the fear of grieving or wounding 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 preternatural thrill of your touch vibrated even through the senseless wood into my heart — while you moved thus restlessly about the room — as if a deep sorrow or a most pronounced 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. . . .

On the very first visit to Providence, Poe, it appears, had proposed marriage. After the interview, before leaving Providence, Poe again visited the cemetery where, characteristically, he had chosen to propose to Mrs. Whitman.

In the morning (after the interview) I revisited the cemetery. At 6 P.M. I left the city on the Stonington train for New York. I cannot explain to you — since I cannot myself comprehend — the feeling which urged me not to see you again before going — not to bid you a second time farewell. I had a sad foreboding [page 620:] at heart. In the seclusion of the cemetery you sat by my side — on the very spot where my arm first tremblingly encircled your waist.

Mrs. Whitman had not given her consent, and shortly after Poe’s second visit wrote him raising objections, and giving vent to her forebodings. She was, she felt, not suited or able to support the burdens and incidents which marriage would entail. She was older than Poe, a widow, and an invalid. Four lines carefully scratched out in her letter suggest that there were very definite reasons for not marrying — “I find that I cannot tell you all that I promised. I can only say to you” . . . (here follow the obliterated lines). In addition to this, Mrs. Whitman had already been warned, probably by the Osgoods and others, of the difficulties which might follow an entanglement with “The Raven.” The stories of the English controversy, and of the Ellet-Lummis affair had been detailed to her, and her whole letter palpitated with doubt. That Poe’s tempestuous wooing had shaken her, there can be no doubt.

It was to this letter that Poe had replied on October 18 from Fordham, pleading, defending himself, and exalting the love of the soul which should transcend all entirely worldly considerations. This was a powerful argument with the transcendental and spiritual Helen. How much Poe believed in this himself, it is difficult to say. He was now laboring under great emotional excitement. The ugly head of gossip, raised by Mrs. Whitman’s letter, drove him frantic. Her personality had undoubtedly moved him, and all his pride of nature was involved. Failure threatened to strip him spiritually naked.

Very soon after Poe’s letter of Oct. 18, 1848 and before I had replied to it, he came again to Providence. During this visit he told me much of his earlier life — much of his intimate history — and I became more and more deeply interested in him. He seemed to connect me strangely with his memories of Helen Stanard and often declared to me that he had known and loved me ages ago.

The name of Helen had a strange charm for him from an incident that happened in his boyhood. The mother of one of his schoolmates, who had spoken a few kind words to the imaginative child, died suddenly and left a sweet and sorrowful memory in his heart that seems never to have faded.

I believe that the spirit of her who bore this beloved name, has always hovered around him and that it was in some way, through her influence that he was dearer to me. You may think this fanciful, but many strange incidents suggestive of such psychical influences occurred to me at that period of my life. One evening just after dusk, I went into a room dimly lighted by a coal fire. Poe was sitting dreamily musing by the fireside. In a corner of the room hung an unftamed picture cp a very dark background. . . . As I entered the room Poe and said, ‘Helen, I have had such a strange dreams since I have been sitting here that I can hardly believe myself awake! Your picture in the dim light looked so like the face of Robert Stanard that it startled me. You remember that he was the schoolmate of whom I have spoken to you, the son of Mrs. Stanard whom I loved so well. I never noticed the resemblance before, but when you see him, as one day you will, you will see how strikingly this picture resembles him.’ [page 621:]

The visit to Richmond had evidently renewed in Poe most vividly his memories of his boyhood upon which he now, in a half ecstatic and highly nervous state, pondered and dreamed. Richmond, it may be taken for granted, was the home to which his wandering and exiled heart returned all through his life. From his remarks to Mrs. Whitman it would seem that, after marrying her, he planned to live in Richmond.

From Providence, Poe went on to Lowell, Massachusetts, where he delivered another lecture. Here he once more visited Annie (Mrs. Richmond) at the village of Westford; That “Annie” greatly moved Poe, it is perfectly evident. She and her sister Sarah, both of whom he called “sister,” he took into his confidence. In his harassed and nervous state, the quiet and peace of the normal home of the Richmonds seemed like heaven to him. There were walks “to look at the hills,” in the landscape evidently under the haze of the love that he endowed it with in Landor’s Cottage. Mrs. Richmond’s sister, Sarah, a young girl at the time, describes him:

My memory photographs him, sitting before an open wood fire, in the early autumn evening, gazing intently into the glowing coal, holding the hand of a dear friend — ‘Annie’ — while for a long time no one spoke, and the only sound was the ticking of the tall old clock in the corner of the room.

Poe remained some days with the Richmonds, soothed by “Annie’s” comforting presence. He was awaiting Mrs. Whitman’s decision.

About the second of November, he received from her an indecisive letter. This, and the complication of his now undoubtedly affectionate feeling for Mrs. Richmond, threw him into a state of nervous excitement closely akin to insanity. Poe wrote to Mrs. Whitman that he would see her in Providence on November fourth, and left the Richmond house for the interview with Helen, first extracting a promise from Mrs. Richmond that she (Annie) would visit him upon his death-bed. While Poe was at Westford, waiting to hear from Mrs. Whitman, he had discovered that he could not live without Mrs. Richmond! In his disorganized and weakened condition, the emotional conflict was more than he could bear.

Nevertheless, in a half comatose condition, he set out for Providence, but once arrived there, the agony of his emotional dilemma reduced him to a state that made him forget, or unable to bring himself to see Mrs. Whitman. He says, in a letter written three weeks later to “Annie”:

I remember nothing distinctly from that moment (the parting withAnnie’) until I found myself in Providence. I went to bed and wept through a long, long, hideous night of Despair — When the day broke, I arose and endeavored to quiet my mind by a rapid walk in the cold, keen air — but all would not do — the Demon tormented me still. Finally, I procured two ounces of laudanum, and without returning to my hotel, took the cars back to Boston. . . . [page 622:]

Arrived in Boston, a town filled with many unhappy memories for Poe, it now occurred to him, in the emotional impasse at which he had arrived, to put an end to his existence in the same town where it had begun thirty-nine years before. Whether or not the conflict which went on in his nature was a primary one, can best be judged by what occurred. He had now arrived at the confines of endurance. Whatever happened, however, he desired “Annie” to come to his death-bed, for —

. . . When I arrived (in Boston) I wrote you (‘Annie’) a letter in which I opened my whole heart to you — to you. . . . I told you how my struggles were more than I could bear. I then reminded you of that holy promise which was the last I exacted from you in parting — that promise that under all circumstances, you would come to me on my bed of death. I implored you to come then, mentioning the place where I should be found in Boston. Having written this letter, I swallowed about half the laudanum, and hurried to the Post Office, intending not to take the rest until I saw you — for I did not doubt for one moment, that Annie would keep her sacred promise. But I had not calculated on the strength of the laudanum, for before I readied the Post Office my reason was entirely gone, and the letter was never put in. Let me pass over — my darling sister — the awful hours that succeeded. A friend was at hand, who aided me. . . . It appears that, after the laudanum was rejected from my stomach, I became calm, and to a casual observer, sane — so that I was suffered to go back to Providence.

Having thus failed to obtain another interview with Mrs. Richmond, even at the cost of trying to make it his death-bed scene — evidently Poe desired to die in her arms, — he now descended upon Providence to continue his suit with Mrs. Whitman. His face was distorted by his terrible sufferings, his eyes out of focus, and his mouth drawn all awry. It is that countenance which, unfortunately, has become best known to the world; the distorted face, the two sides of the man at conflict, which suggests his own terrible predicament, and perhaps a lesion of the brain.

Wandering about Providence half distracted, and without any sense of social conventions, he called upon Mrs. Whitman at so early an hour that she could not see him. She wrote to him at the hotel suggesting a meeting at the Athenæum later on, a favorite classical haunt of Mrs. Whitman. Poe replied (November 7, 1848) saying he was very ill and should, if possible, go home, but begs her for some word of love, and to say that “under all circumstances” she would be his.

During the night Poe had been taken care of at the hotel by a Mr. MacFarlane, a friend of the Whitmans. With considerable sense of the importance of the great poet whom he had in his care, MgcFarlane took the opportunity, and led Poe around next morning, still half mad, to the establishment of Masury & Hartshorn where a daguerreotype was taken of him, probably at the very hour when he looked the worst that he ever looked in his life.(849) Mrs. Whitman, justly enough, labeled this [page 623:] the Ultima Thule portrait, as it showed Poe immediately after being snatched back from the ultimate world’s end of horror.

After thus helplessly having had the lineaments of his despair preserved for future generations by a solicitous fool, Poe now called at the Whitman house on Benefit Street —

. . . in a state of wild and delirious excitement calling upon me to save Mm from some terrible impending doom. The tones of his voice were appalling and rang through the house. Never have I heard anything so awful, awful even to sublimity.

Mrs. Whitman was afraid to see him. Evidently the reports of his appearance were alarming; on the other hand she was afraid of the consequences of a refusal. Her mother, who was opposed to the marriage, advised her to grant the distracted man an interview, — “moved by his suffering she urged me to soothe him by promising all that he might require of me.” Mrs. Whitman’s mother then endeavored to calm him for two hours while Helen, upstairs, was summoning courage to go down. Finally, in her usual dramatic manner, she entered. Of the dream which now burst upon the half crazed vision of Israfel we have an account:

As she came flitting into the room and gave you her small, nervous hand, you saw a slight figure, a pale, eager face of fine spiritual expression and irregular features, the dreamy look of deep-set eyes that gazed over and beyond, but never at you. Her movements were very rapid, and she seemed to flutter like a bird, so that her friends asserted that she was always in the process of transformation either to or from the condition of a lapwing.(850)

It is perfectly plain that Poe regarded the comfort of the love of some woman as necessary to his salvation. He hailed Helen as if she had been an angel sent to save him from damnation, and clung to her dress so frantically that a piece of the floating muslin drapery was torn away. Mrs. Whitman’s mother, as a calm common-sense soul, had some hot coffee brought to him. After a little while the older woman sent for a friend, Dr. A. H. Okie, who advised Poe’s removal for rest to the house of a friend, W. J. Pabodie, “where he was most kindly cared for.”(851) [page 624:]

There were several interviews with Helen at the Athenaeum, where Mrs. Whitman asked Poe if he had seen a poem called Ulalume that had appeared in Colton’s American Review for December, 1847, a copy of which was then in the building. Poe then acknowledged to her that he was the author, and, as they bent over the verses, he read them to her and signed them. The magazine is still preserved at the Athenæum in Providence. In the same building, Mrs. Whitman gave her conditional consent to marry Poe, and at the same time extorted from him a sacred promise to let stimulants absolutely alone. It was the proviso upon which her own promise rested — and a loophole — a barn door of escape:

Poe left Providence on the 14th of November, and wrote back to Helen:

. . . It is five o’clock and the boat is just being made fast at the wharf. I shall start on the train that leaves New York at 7 for Fordham. I write this to show you that I have not dared to break my promise to you. And now, dearest Helen, be true to me.

Of the parting that morning at Providence, and of the events of the day which followed, Mrs. Whitman has left an account which explains much of what afterward occurred. Poe had left with Helen’s promise to marry him, given as we have seen on the advice of her mother, who evidently regarded it as merely a soothing formula to dismiss the half mad suitor. A great deal of gossip was of course started by Poe’s peculiar actions, and the sight of the pair wandering about together. Neighbors no doubt “called.” Two or three hours after Poe left, the Whitmans were informed by “kind friends” of the whole Ellet-Lummis-Osgood affair, and of Poe’s habits. Mrs. Whitman’s mother was driven wild. Helen, it seems, had become more interested in the romantic Virginia poet than the New England relatives had thought possible. She spent, consequently, a very miserable day — her relatives beseeched and argued — property was involved.

Walking in her garden that night, Mrs. Whitman looked up aad beheld Arcturus, a star beloved by Poe who had pointed it out to her. “During the painful scenes which followed, which I would if possible banish forever from my remembrance, I chanced to look toward the western horizon and saw there Arcturus shining resplendently through an opening in the clouds, while of all the neighboring constellations, I could see only Orpheus, is the head of the serpent, still glimmering near with a pale and sickly luster.” Having in mind the serpent of gossip which was threatening her lover’s star, Mrs. Whitman retired to her chamber and in “prophetic exaltation” wrote [page 625:]


(Written in October)

‘Our star looks through the storm.’

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.

Hast thou not stooped from heaven, fair star! to be

So near me in this hour of agony? —

So near, — so bright, — so glorious, that I seem

To lie entranced as in some wondrous dream, —

All earthly joys forgot, — all earthly fear,

Purged in the light of thy resplendent sphere:

Kindling within my soul a pure desire

To blend with thine its incandescent fire, —

To lose my very life in thine, and be

Soul of thy soul through all eternity.(852)

About the same time that Mrs. Whitman was looking allegorically upon Arcturus, Poe was drawing into Fordham on the little train to be met by “Muddie,” no doubt in tears, and trembling over the terrible change for the worse visible in the face of her darling. Arcturus was sent to Poe soon afterward.

In the week that followed, Poe, in a half delirious condition — Mrs. Clemm says he was “hardly recognizable,” — continued in the fitful fever of his conflict between Annie and Helen. He wrote to both Annie and to Helen: to Annie, the account of his attempt to commit suicide; and to Helen a defense against the accusations of various kinds. In the last letter, the persecutions of Mrs. Ellet, which had hastened the death of Virginia, disclose the agony of a sensitive and quixotically constituted man under the torture of relentless gossips. Mrs. Ellet’s part in the whole affair over her own letters, the threatened duel, and poor little Fanny Osgood’s “honor” — she was now gasping out life in Albany, — stands out clearly as a fine piece of feminine deviltry. All this was leading up to a conviction of persecution on the part of the [page 626:] nervously shipwrecked man at Fordham, nursed by “Muddie,” between periods of writing frantic appeals to Annie and her sister, love letters and epistles of defense to Helen, and a desperate appeal to Edward Valentine, his foster-mother’s cousin, who had loved him as a little boy. This last was a request dated November 20, 1848, for $200 to start the Stylus.(853)

If for the sake of ‘auld lang syne’ you will advance me the sum needed, there are no words which can express my gratitude.

It was to the same cheerful gentleman, now a minister, who had once felt the child’s arms tighten about him in terror, thirtyfour years before, as they passed a graveyard, riding upon the same horse.

Annie did not reply. Mrs. Richardson had also been illuminated by the same “kind friends,” and was naturally alarmed. In a letter to Annie’s sister, Sarah, Poe says, “Her silence fills my whole soul with terror.”


Indeed, indeed, Annie, there is nothing in this world worth living for except love — love not such as I once thought I felt for Mrs. Osgood but such as burns in my very soul for you — so pure — so unworldly — a love which would make all sacrifices for your sake, . . . Could I have accomplished what I wish, no sacrifice would have seemed to me too great, I felt so burning, so intensely passionate a longing to sbaw you that I loved you. Write to me —. I am resolved to get rich — to triumph — for your sweet sake, Kiss dear Sarah for me . . . we talk so much of her. . . . Remember me to all — to your father and mother and dear little Caddy, and Mr. R(ichmond) and Mrs. C . . . — And now good-bye, my own dear sister Annie. . . .


22nd of November, 1848

I wrote you yesterday, sweet Helen, but through fear of being too late for the mail omitted some things I wished to say. I fear, too, that my letter must have seemed cold — perhaps even harsh or selfish — for I spoke nearly altogether of my own griefs. Pardon me, my Helen, if not for the love I bear you, at least for the sorrows I have endured — more I believe than have often fallen to the lot of man. How much have they been aggravated by my consciousness that, in too many instances, they have risen from my own culpable weakness or childish folly! My sole hope now is in you, Helen. As you are true to me or fail me, so do I live or die. . . .

Was I right, dearest Helen, in my first impression of you? — you know I have implicit faith in first impressions — was I right in the impression that you are ambitious? If so, and if you will have faith in me, I can and will satisfy your wildest desires. It would be a glorious triumph, Helen, for us — for you and me.

I dare not trust my scheme to a letter — nor indeed have I time to hint at them here. When I see you I will explain all — as far, as I dare explain all my hopes even to you. [page 627:]

Would it not be ‘glorious,’ darling, to establish, in America, the sole unquestionable aristocracy — that of intellect — to secure its supremacy — to lead and to control it? All this I can do, Helen, and will — if you bid me — and aid me.

TO ANNIE (November 16, 1848).

Two days after returning from Providence with Mrs. Whitman’s promise of marriage

. . . I am so ill — so terribly hopelessly ill in body and mind, that I cannot live, unless I can fed your sweet, gentle loving hand pressed upon my forehead — oh, my pure, virtuous, generous, beautiful sister Annie! Is it not possible for you to come — if only for one little week? Until I subdue this fearful agitation, which if continued, will either destroy my life or drive me hopelessly mad. . . .

During all this time, Poe existed on the proceeds of his recent lectures. The Stylus, of course, was to make him rich (for Annie), and to enable him to reign as the arbiter of American letters with Helen by his side. To what confusion the death of Virginia had released him, is apparent.

In the meantime, relatives were using their persuasive powers in, Providence to break off the match there. Mrs. Whitman reserved her decision. On December 12, or thereabouts, Poe again visited Helen, when matters went so far as to cause Poe to write a note to a minister, Dr. Crocker, asking him to have the bans of the marriage published on “Sunday and Monday” (following). Dr. Crocker was to perform the ceremony when the day had been decided upon. The relatives had failed to break off the engagement, but knowing Poe’s failings, they insisted that an arrangement should be made to protect the family estate.

On December 15, a marriage contract was drawn up between Poe and Mrs. Whitman at Providence, in which Mrs. Whitman’s estate, consisting of about $8300 worth of bank notes and mortgages, was transferred to Mrs. Power, “our said mother for her own use.” Poe, Anna Power, Sarah Helen Whitman, and her sister, Susan Anna Power, signed this in the presence of Henry Martin and William J. Pabodie, as witnesses. As Poe had stayed at the house of Pabodie, who was said to be in love, and long a suitor of Mrs. Whitman’s (sic), much can be read between the lines.

Poe returned for a short stay at Fordham, informing Mrs. Clemm of what had taken place, and doubtless discussing with her the preparation of the cottage for the new bride. Mrs. Clemm was patient but saddened. The opposition of Mrs. Power to her daughter’s marriage, and the transfer of the property that she insisted upon, had angered Poe and alarmed Mrs. Clemm, who was now about to be presented with a penniless daughter-in-law by no means used to the poverty in which Virginia had lived and died. Poe wrote to Helen saying his mother [page 628:] would return good for evil — and to expect him in Providence, Wednesday the twentieth. On that date, he left New York to go to Providence to deliver a lecture before the Franklin Lyceum. At the New York station he met Mrs. Hewitt, all agog over the marriage reports, who said to him, — “Mr. Poe, are you going to Providence to be married?” “I am going,” replied he, “to deliver a lecture on Poetry” — and then added after a little hesitation — “that marriage may never take place.”

The lecture was delivered successfully before an audience of about 1800 enthusiastic auditors. The next morning, Poe wrote to Annie! — “I hope that I distinguished myself at the lecture — I tried to do so, for your sake. . . . Give my dearest love to all —”

The lecture had been on Wednesday, November 20, 1848; the note to Annie is dated Thursday. It was probably upon this same day that he obtained Mrs. Whitman’s final consent to marry him on the following Monday. On Friday the twenty-second, a further consent to the release of the property of Mrs. Whitman was signed by Poe in the presence of Pabodie, to whom Poe, next day, Saturday, gave the note to the minister to publish the bans. Pabodie did not deliver it. At the same time, Poe wrote a letter to Mrs. Clemm:

MY OWN DEAR MOTHER — We shall be married on Monday, and will be at Fordham on Tuesday, in the first train.

This was on Saturday, December 23, and Poe expected Dr. Crocker to publish the bans on the morrow at church.

On the morning of the same day (Saturday), he and Mrs. Whitman took a drive together. Helen then returned to the house to pack, and met Poe later in the afternoon at a circulating library. Here a letter was handed to Mrs. Whitman cautioning her against the marriage, and informing her of Poe’s interest in Mrs. Richmond, which had created a scandal at Lowell. Mrs. Whitman also learned, possibly through Pabodie, that the same morning, at the bar of the Earl House, Poe had been seen drinking wine with some gay young friends there at the bar. This convinced her that her influence would be futile in reforming him.(851)

On the way home, Helen informed Poe of what she had heard, and while he was still present, countermanded the publication of the bans. Poe vehemently denied that he had been drinking, and there was no evidence whatever in his manner that he had been doing so, so Mrs. Whitman says. She listened to his remonstrances and denials with despair, she adds, yet not unsolaced by the sense of relief that his infringement of his promise had released her from her own. It was plain to her now that Poe’s plea to save him had imposed upon her a responsibility, and a mission which, in spite of all, would be in vain. The [page 629:] incident at the Earl House bar showed her that her marriage with him could bring no benefits to either, and nothing but misery on them both.(842) There can be no doubt that, as far as human wisdom can see, Mrs. Whitman was eminently correct in her forebodings.

Poe withdrew, and Mrs. Whitman informed her mother of what had occurred. That lady, anxious to have Poe out of town, sent for him in the late afternoon to put a final quietus upon the affair, and to return some papers to him. Pabodie accompanied Poe to the house where Mrs. Whitman and her mother, Mrs. Power, received the gentlemen in the same parlor where the courtship had gone on. Helen was worn out by argument and appeal, nearly hysterical, and about to faint.

With trembling hands she returned to Poe certain letters and papers, and overcome by her emotions fell back on a couch pressing the anæsthetic kerchief to her face. Poe came over beside her and begged her to say that it was not to be a final interview. Mrs. Power here interposed to save her daughter by mentioning the hour of the departure of the next train for New York, and hoping fervently that Mr. Poe would not miss it. At this, Poe fell upon his knees, begging Helen to reconsider. Finally she murmured, “What can I say?”

“Say that you love me, Helen!” he begged. Pressing closer he heard the last words that she ever spoke to him, “I love you” — whispered in accents of despair through a handkerchief soaked in ether.

Mr. Pabodie accompanied Mr. Poe to the station.



[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 601:]

822.  See Chapter XXIII, page 528.

823.  Family letters and diaries in the author’s collection show that, by 1852, Spiritualism had emigrated, and was in full swing in Oregon and Washington Territory among the families of the pioneers. Seances were held in covered wagons.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 602:]

824.  Poe’s Helen, by Caroline Ticknor, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1916. This book, one of the best in the Poe bibliography of comment, treats the Whitman-Poe incident in full, and gives an excellent idea of a remarkable American woman of the Nineteenth Century and her contemporaries. The author is in great debt to the volume.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 603:]

825.  Mrs. Whitman was forty-five years old, and had been a widow for ten years when Poe came a-courting.

826.  Diary of Mrs. Oakes Smith, wife of Seba Smith. Extracts are here rearranged out of their order in the Diary.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 604:]

827.  See Chapter XII, page 207. John Neal was by no means the fool that this passage makes him out, nor is it characteristic of Mrs. Smith. This part of her diary is gushing over Mrs. Whitman.

828.  The author is indebted to S. Foster Damon, Esq., of Harvard University, author of William Blake, His Philosophy and Symbols, for calling his attention to the influence of Davis upon Poe. Several interesting references to Poe occur in Davis’s books that deserve the further attention of students. Davis’s first book presents a cosmology. See Davis’s The Magic Staff, page 217, Events in the Life of a Seer, pages 18 and 19, Answers to Questions, page 63, all referring to Poe.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 605:]

829.  First published in The Flag of Our Union, Boston, 1849; Griswold, 1850. See Dream-Land for an earlier reference to “Eldorado.” This is evidently one of Poe’s last poems, about the time of the Gold Rush.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 606:]

830.  See Chapter XXIV, page 593.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 607:]

831.  Five stanzas omitted. See The Poems of Sarah Helen Whitman.

832.  Statements in the test about Poe and Mrs. Whitman ate made from the* letters that passed between them, and from letters of Mrs. Whitman to Mrs. Bewitt, and others of the literati, after Poe’s death.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 608:]

833.  An exception to this is the sonnet, An Enigma in the Union Magazine for March, 1840, addressed to Sarah Anna Lewis, “Stella,” the manuscript was sent to Mrs. Lewis in 1847. Mrs. Lewis was not pleased with the “Sarah Anna,” see Chapter XXIII, page 552. Griswold, 1850, follows the Lewis manuscript text.

834.  Poe himself makes this plain by various statements in letters to Annie and elsewhere. He set great store by The Domain of Arnheim, and its pendant Landor’s Cottage as having a hidden “spiritual” meaning.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 609:]

835.  This expression, or its equivalents, occurs again and again in Poe’s stories and poems. It is undoubtedly peculiarly significant as a symbol. Italics supplied here.

836.  Nearly all of Poe’s commentators pick this or that woman “as the great love of the poet’s life.” A list of Poe authors, and their favorite candidates for Poe’s affection, could be complied. The reader is here left to nominate his own.

837.  Woodberry is followed here.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 610:]

838.  Thompson to Patterson, November 9, 1849, The American April 11, 1889. Harrison reprints, vol. XVII, page 403. Woodberry, abridges (as followed here), 1909, vol. II, pages 270-271.

839.  Rosalie Poe continued to make her home with the Mackenzies till the War, and its attendant misfortunes overtook the family. An interesting account of a visit by Rosalie Poe to the ruined Duncan Lodge in 1865, occurs in Mrs. S. A. Weiss’s Home Life of Poe.

840.  See J. H. Whitty, Poems, large edition, Memoir, pages lxvi, lxvii, also for the account of the “Daniel Duel,” Whitty, pages 444, 445, notes.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 611:]

841.  John R. Thompson to P. P. Cooke, Manuscript, as noted by Mr. Whitty.

842.  Edward V. Valentine, Esq., informed the author in Richmond, in May, 1926, that he knew this portrait had been painted. It is thought to have been lost in a fire.

843.  The following reference fifteen years later is significant:

“Mrs. Scotch Allan (Edgar Allan Poe’s patron’s wife) sent me ice-cream and lady-cheek apples from her farm, John R. Thompson the sole literary fellow I know in Richmond, sent me Leisure Hours in Town, by a country parson.” Diary of Mrs. James Chestnut, Jr., Richmond, November 30, 1863, page 258.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 612:]

844.  Mrs. Clarke afterward moved to Louisville, where she reminisced. Mrs. Weiss quotes, page 159. Mrs. Weiss, who can be followed safely in matters relating to the Mackenzies, is also further drawn on for the incidents at Duncan Dodge.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 613:]

845.  This is very doubtful. Mrs. Weiss gives the account but, in this case, seems to have confused Elmira’s attendance at the lecture in 1849 with the earlier one. Poe, we may feel fairly certain, did not see Mrs. Shelton in 1848.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 615:]

846.  Poe to Mrs. Whitman, October 18, 1848.

847.  Considerable controversial material exists about this matter.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 619:]

848.  Mrs. Whitman seizing on the similarity of sound between her family name “Power,” and that of “Poe,” invented a magnificent common ancestry for herself and Poe. “He was of the old Norman family of Le Poer, a name conspicuous in Irish annals,” etc., etc.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 622:]

849.  Reproduced, page 557.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 623:]

850.  Description by Miss Sarah S. Jacobs, Helen’s friend. Quoted Poe’s Helen, Ticknor, page 5.

851.  The following facts of the events of the last few days in Providence are not “reconstructions,” but come largely from a letter written by “Sarah H. Whitman” to her friend, Mrs. Mary E. Hewitt, on October 4, 1850, eight pages of fine script, detailing with great care the exact order of events, her own emotions, what occurred, who was present, etc., etc, at the time the engagement to Poe was broken. The author does not have the right to quote from the letter. New light has been cast on the Poe-Whitman affair by the following:

“The Yale University Press has published in pamphlet form a group of New Letters about Poe, reprinted from the Yale Review for July, 1925. The letters deal with the romance of Edgar Allan Poe and Mrs. Sarah Helen Whitman, and their broken engagement. The pamphlet is edited by Stanley T. Williams.”

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 625:]

852.  Poe on receipt of these lines makes a reply that throws considerable light on his own methods of composition: “Your lines To Arcturus are truly beautiful. I would retain the Virgilian words — omitting the translation. The first note leave out. — 61 Cygni has been proved nearer than Arcturus and Alpha Lyrae is presumably so — Bessel, also, has shown 6 other stars to be nearer than the brighter one(s) + of this hemisphere — There is obvious tautology in ‘pale candescent.’ To be candescent is to become white with heat. Why not read — ‘To blend with thine its incandescent fire?’ . . .” Mrs Whitman made some of the changes, as the poem as printed here shows. Note — “Written in October” is romance to make the poem fall into Poe’s “most immemorial year.”

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 626:]

853.  At the same time Poe wrote a letter to Miss Susan Archer Tally (Mrs. Weiss), to Richmond, asking her as a friend to use her influence with Valentine. Miss Talley replied in a formal note promising to do what she could.




In this version, Allen corrected the name of “Crooker” to “Crocker,” in all instances.


[S:0 - HVA34, 1934] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe (H. Allen) (Chapter 25)