Text: James A. Harrison, “Chapter 14,” Complete Works of E. A. Poe , Vol. 01: Biography (1902), 1:281-298


[page 281:]




“HELENmy Helen — the Helen of a thousand dreams!”

Such are the words, in one of Poe’s impassioned letters to Mrs. Sarah Helen Whitman, which from now on form the key-note of his existence, an existence in which the love of woman, the adoration of the Womanly, had always formed an essential part. Starting with his devotion to the gentle Mrs. Allan, and to Mrs. Stanard, continuing with his adoration of his child-wife, and of his “more than mother,” concentrating into affectionate admiration for Mrs. Shew and Mrs. Osgood, all the love that was now left in Poe’s volcanic nature rose to brief fever-heat in the passion for the beautiful and spiritual New England soul that had

“Come up through the lair of the Lion,

With love in her luminous eyes,”

and smiled at him over the “legended tomb” of the lost Ulalume.

Rarely gifted as a poet herself, accomplished in many literatures, imbued with the culture of France and Germany, and tracing descent from an ancient Celtic-Norman [page 282:] stock to which she believed Poe’s lineage also ran up, Sarah Helen Power was born in Providence, Rhode Island, January 19 (Poe’s birthday), 1803, and died June 27, 1878.’ ” Marrying John W. Whitman, a lawyer of Boston, in 1828, she was left a widow by his death in 1833. Betrothed to Edgar Poe, in 1848, a few months before his death, the engagement was broken, on the eve of the marriage, by the interference of friends. The early life of the poet was shadowed by the long absence of her father, and her later years were almost wholly devoted to a sister, left her in sacred charge by her mother. The poem ‘In Memoriam’ is the requiem of this sister. This poem, Mrs. Whitman’s last, has all the intellectual vigor of youth, though written at the age of seventy-five. The freshness of her spirit and the charm of her presence were not lost in the vicissitudes of a life of strange and romantic experience. No one ever associated with her the idea of age. She is represented as lying beautiful as a bride in death, her brown hair scarcely touched with gray.

... Mrs. Whitman’s poems, to an unusual degree, illustrate the author’s life. By her direction the poems relating to Edgar Poe ... have been grouped together, though not placed under a separate head. To this group belong ‘Remembered Music,’ ‘Our Island of Dreams,’ ‘The Last Flowers,’’Song,’ ‘Withered Flowers,’ ‘The Phantom Voice,’ ‘Arcturus in October,’ ‘Resurgemus,’ the six ’Sonnets To ——,’ ‘Arcturus in April,’ and ‘The Portrait.’

“In 1860 Mrs. Whitman published the little book, ‘Edgar Poe and his Critics,’ of which Curtis wrote in [page 283:] ‘Harper’s Weekly’: ‘In reading the exquisitely tender, subtle, sympathetic, and profoundly appreciative sketch of Edgar Poe, which has just been issued under this title, it is impossible not to remember the brave woman’s arm, thrust through the slide to serve as a bolt against the enemy. ... The author, with an inexpressible grace, reserve, and tender, heroic charity, — having a right which no other person has to speak, — tells in a simple, transparent, and quiet strain, what she thinks of his career and genius.’ ”(1)

In 1854 a small volume of Mrs. Whitman’s poems, entitled “Hours of Life,” appeared in Providence, and received a warm welcome from George Ripley, Curtis, and others; and this, in 1879, was followed by her collected Poems in the edition from which we make these extracts.

It is impossible, in looking over these poems, not to be struck by their Poesque diction, music, and idiosyncrasy, as of a kindred soul caught by the spell of an overmastering genius. “The Golden Ball ” is musically reminiscent of “The Raven”; “To ——” has grown out of the tragic root of “To Helen”; the poems in memory of Poe are impassioned dirges, kindling with cadences of ” beauty, majesty, and woe ” that sweep from out the chords of the seraph harp of Israfel. Full of delicacy, spontaneity, appreciation of Nature, and mastery over rhythm, these poems present a spirit of rare sweetness and refinement, and it is no wonder that they caught Poe’s eye and soul, and drew from him enthusiastic praise in a lecture on “The Female Poets of America.” In 1849 Mrs. Whitman addressed to him the following lines [page 284:]



“Our stars look 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.

The occasion of Poe’s first sight of Mrs. Whitman is romantically described as follows:

“Poe caught a glimpse of a white figure wandering in a moonlit garden in Providence, Ion his way from Boston, when he visited that city to deliver a poem before the Lyceum there. Restless, near midnight, he wandered from his hotel near where she lived, until he saw her walking in a garden. He related the incident afterwards in one of his most exquisite poems, worthy of himself, of her, and of the most exalted passion.‘” [page 285:]

These lines begin:

“I saw thee once — once only — years ago

I must not say how many — but not many.

It was a July midnight; and from out

A full-orbed moon, that, like thine own soul soaring,

Sought a precipitate pathway up through heaven,

There fell a silvery silken veil of light,

With quietude, and sultriness, and slumber,

Upon the upturned faces of a thousand

Roses that grew in an enchanted garden,

Where no wind dared to star, unless on tip-toe.

· · · · · · · ·

Clad all in white, upon a violet bank

I saw thee half reclining; while the moon

Fell on the upturned faces of the roses,

And on thine own, upturned — alas, in sorrow!

“Was it not Fate, that, on this July midnight —

Was it not Fate (whose name is also Sorrow)

That bade me pause before that garden-gate

To breathe the incense of those slumbering roses?”

The lady in 1847-48 addressed an anonymous Valentine to the author of “The Raven”; in the summer or early fall of 1848 the two met at her mother’s house, Poe carrying a letter of introduction from the authoress, Maria McIntosh. Always looking for the mystic and the improbable, the poet believed, from the agreement of name between this Helen and the one he had so musically worshipped in his far-off boyish days, that there was a pre-ordained connection between their fates. “I yielded at once,” he writes, to an overwhelming sense of Fatality. From that hour [page 286:] I have never been able to shake from my soul the belief that my Destiny, for good or for evil, either here or hereafter, is in some measure interwoven with your own.

One must turn to the most glowing letters of Abelard and Eloise, or to the “Sonnets from the Portuguese” for the fire, the urgency, the consuming thirst to be loved that burn and glow in Poe’s letters of this period — a period of new-risen Hope, of resurrection from a dead self, of rebirth into an existence that began to shimmer with the new leaves and new light of a dawning spring after the autumnal blasts and blights of the months just gone by. The eager, tremulous, stormy joy of these new weeks and months is prophetic of the new Poe that was about to be born, or that might have been born, had not Disaster intervened here, as at every important crisis-moment of the poet’s life, and cried Halt!

One of the most remarkable incidents in this remarkable summer was the suggestion and composition of “The Bells,” the second of the great brace of poems that have given Poe world-wide celebrity. The poem was, singularly enough, suggested by a lady who, she confessed, had never read a line of the poet’s writings — Mrs. Shew, the guardian angel of Fordham. Busied in philanthropic work, she had never had time to read .

he poems of Poe. “One day,” says Mr. Ingram, “he came in and said: ‘Marie Louise, I have to write a poem; I have no feeling, no sentiment, no inspiration.’ His hostess persuaded him to have some tea. It was served in the conservatory, the windows of which were open, and admitted the sound of neigh boring church bells. Mrs. Shew said, playfully, [page 287:] ‘Here is paper,’ but the poet, declining it, declared I so dislike the sound of bells to-night, I cannot write. I have no subject — I am exhausted.’ The lady then took up the pen, and pretending to mimic his style, wrote ‘The Bells, by E. A. Poe‘; and then in pure sportiness, ‘The bells, the little silver bells,’ Poe finishing off the stanza. She then suggested for the next verse ‘The heavy iron bells‘; and this Poe also expanded into a stanza. He next copied out the complete poem, and headed it ‘By Mrs. M. L. Shew,’ remarking that it was her poem, as she had suggested and composed so much of it.”

Such was the germ of this melodious onomato-poem, the most perfect imitation in word, sound, and rhythm, in suggestion, in exquisite mimicry, of its theme ever written, not even excepting the marvellous “Les Djinns” of Victor Hugo or the “Lodore” of Southey. The very spirit — and spirituality — the essence and aura of the musical bell-metal, with all its golden and silver and brazen tones, seems to have flowed into the poet’s soul as he wrote, and to have taken tongues never before so musically voiced, not even by Schiller.

“The Bells” went through no less than three transformations before it reached the public in its final form, being published in Sartain’s “Union Magazine” for November, 1849 (after Poe’s death). The editor of the magazine gave the following account of its evolution: “The singular poem of Mr. Poe’s, called ‘The Bells,’ which we published in our last number, has been very extensively copied. There is a curious piece of literary history connected with this poem, which we may as well give now as at any other time. It illustrates the gradual development of [page 288:] an idea in the mind of a man of original genius. This poem came into our possession about a year since [consequently, about December, 1848]. It then consisted of eighteen lines! They were as follows:


THE bells! — hear the bells

The merry wedding-bells!

The little silver bells!

How fairy-like a melody there swells

From the silver tinkling cells

Of the bells, bells, bells

Of the bells !

The bells! — ah, the bells!

The heavy iron bells!

Hear the tolling of the bells!

Hear the knells!

How horrible a monody there floats

From their throats —

From their deep-toned throats!

How I shudder at the notes

From the melancholy throats

Of the bells, bells, bells!

Of the bells!

“About six months after this we received the poem enlarged and altered nearly to its present size and form; send about three months since, the author sent another alteration and enlargement, in which condition the poem was left at the time of his death.”

This was one of the poems which Poe was accused of selling three times — a charge indignantly denied by Mr. Sartain himself. [page 289:]

Poe’s excited condition this memorable summer — the summer that Dr. Francis said “he has heart-disease and must die young,” as he looked on the sleeping poet — brought his devoted friendship with Mrs. Shew to a sudden close: Mrs. Shew naturally became afraid of her gifted patient, who could sink into a twelve-hours’ slumber, and not know that he had slept; who was liable to fits of overwhelming depression; the prey of melancholia, evidently near the last stages of cerebral congestion, and possessed by a world of weird and uncanny thoughts. The rupture was a very natural one from a woman’s point of view; and yet the lady herself has been handed down to history as one of the four “holy women” who stood by the tomb and defended the “resurrected” poet with all the eloquence of their pens. When one looks into the life-record of this Pilgrim of Sorrow, it is the faces of Mrs. Shew, Mrs. Osgood, Mrs. Whitman, and Mrs. Weiss that peer luminously through the gloom, — their tender and beautiful hands that hold the lamp illuminating it, — their words of cheer, of comfort, of recognition, that sound across the abyss and stay the harsh voice of criticism, — their ministering remembrances that explain much and put much in its true light.

When Horace Greeley heard of Poe’s contemplated marriage to Mrs. Whitman, he wrote to Griswold in January, 1849:

“Do you know Sarah Helen Whitman? Of course you have heard it rumored that she is to marry Poe. Well, she has seemed to me a good girl, and — you know what Poe is. Now I know a widow of doubtful age will marry almost any sort of a white man, but this seems to me a terrible conjunction. [page 290:] Has Mrs. Whitman no friend within your knowledge that can faithfully explain Poe to her? I never attempted this sort of thing but once, and the net product was two enemies and a hastening of the marriage; but I do think she must be deceived. Mrs. Osgood must know her.”(1)

Poe had once borrowed $50 of Horace Greeley, and had been unable to repay it: the matter is duly — almost gleefully — recorded in Greeley’s “Reminiscences.”

The story of Poe and Mrs. Whitman — their strange fascination for each other — the magnetism which drew their poetic natures together — the breaches and reconciliations and interviews, and stormy and reproachful letters — is a modern “Leiden des jungen Werthers ” that ended, not like the story of Jerusalem in actual, but in attempted, suicide: when Mrs. Whitman’s indecision and natural hesitancy to accept his love continued, Poe was driven to laudanum, and tried to end his life. Intimidated by the frightful violence of her lover — hoping perhaps to save him from wilder excesses — and believing in the essential goodness and refinement of his nature — she at length, on receiving solemn pledges from Poe not to yield to temptation, consented to appoint a day for the marriage. The unhappy man, his moral fibre relaxed by disease, the victim of hereditary predispositions, destitute of will and of self-control since the terrible years that preceded Virginia’s death, broken in constitution and in health from the awful vigils by her bedside, yielded to some unknown but irresistible pressure of evil, and broke his pledges. The friends of the family — so we are privately [page 291:] assured(1) — not Mrs. Whitman herself, broke off the marriage, letters of renunciation passed between the two poets, and they never saw each other again. But what Mrs. Whitman’s feelings were, and ever continued to remain, may be gathered from her beautiful lines:


“By the foam

Of perilous was, in fairy lands forlorn.” — KEATS.

Tell him I lingered alone on the shore,

Where we parted, in sorrow, to meet nevermore;

The night wind blew cold on my desolate heart

But colder those wild words of doom, “Ye must part!”

O‘er the dark, heaving waters, I sent forth a cry;

Save the wail of those waters there came no reply.

I longed, like a bird, o‘er the billows to flee,

From our lone island home and the moan of the sea

Away, — far away — from the wild ocean shore,

Where the waves ever murmur, ” No more, never more,”

Where I wake, in the wild noon of midnight, to hear

The lone song of the surges, so mournful and drear.

Where the clouds that now veil from us heaven’s fair light,

Their soft, silver lining turn forth on the night;

When time shall the vapors of falsehood dispel,

He shall know if I loved him; but never how well. [page 292:]

Mrs. Whitman, says Ingram, firmly believed that Poe wrote “Annabel Lee” in response to this poem. The story of the lovely spiritualist, robed always in white, and of her spirit-like habits of going and coming in Shelleyan wise, is said to have suggested to Charles Dickens a character in one of his famous later novels. One who evidently knew Mrs. Whitman well writes in the New York “Saturday Times,” October 25, 1899:

“This tragedy of the heart colored all the rest of Sarah Helen Whitman’s life. It could not affect her appreciation of Poe’s brilliant powers, nor diminish her love of his finer nature, the gentle, winning side, which revealed the man God meant him to be. But it cast a soft, half-veiling shadow over her. She walked the rest of the way under a kindly cloud that seemed to protect her from the glaring light of day and save her from the scrutiny of prying eyes. She seemed different and apart from other women. There was about her something mysterious and elusive. As she glided softly into the room, she brought with her a dreamy, other-world atmosphere, which subdued noisy laughter or idle talk; and when she spoke, in her low, sweetly modulated voice, others listened. Mrs. Whitman’s talk was always worth while; whether of poetry or politics, of every day affairs or spiritual things, it was sure to be interesting. She could be merry, too, and sarcastic if it suited the occasion. She had flitting, spirit-like ways, of coming softly and disappearing suddenly, of half concealing herself behind a curtain and peeping out as she joined in the conversation.

“Strictly unconventional in the matter of clothes, she loved silken draperies, lace scarfs, and veils, and [page 293:] seemed to be always lightly shod. At one time she wore constantly around her throat a black velvet ribbon, pinned with a tiny coin which a friend had carved for her in some dark-colored wood, and this funereal badge she seemed to prize above diamonds or pearls. She liked a fan in her hand to screen her eyes from the light, and her own pleasant rooms were never glaring. On one wall hung a portrait of her poet, hidden by a silken curtain. It had his wonderful eyes. This picture was the subject of Mrs. Whitman’s poem The Portrait.’ ”

These lines (written in 1870) begin:

“After long years I raised the folds concealing

That face, magnetic as the morning’s beam:

While slumbering memory thrilled at its revealing,

Like Memnon wakening from his marble dream.

“Again I saw the brow’s translucent pallor,

The dark hair floating o’er it like a plume

The sweet, imperious mouth, whose haughty valor

Defied all portents of impending doom;”

and they end with the stanza on our title-page.

The “Whitman episode” is closed by the following letter from Mrs. Whitman herself to W. F. Gill, dated August, 1873:(1) “No such scene as that described by Dr. Griswold ever transpired in my presence. No one, certainly no woman, who had the slightest acquaintance with Edgar Poe, could have credited the story for an instant. He was essentially and instinctively a gentleman, utterly incapable, even in moments of excitement and delirium, of such an outrage as Dr. Griswold has ascribed to him. No authentic anecdote of [page 294:] coarse indulgence in vulgar orgies or bestial riot has ever been recorded of him. During the last years of his unhappy life, whenever he yielded to the temptation that was drawing him into its fathomless abyss, as with the resistless swirl of the maelstrom, he always lost himself in sublime rhapsodies on the evolution of the universe, speaking as from some imaginary platform to vast audiences of rapt and attentive listeners. During one of his visits to this city [Providence], in the autumn of 1848, I once saw him after one of those nights of wild excitement, before reason had fully re covered its throne. Yet even then, in those frenzied moments when the doors of the mind’s Haunted Palace’ were left unguarded, his words were the words of a princely intellect overwrought, and of a heart only too sensitive and too finely strung. I repeat that no one acquainted with Edgar Poe could have given Dr. Griswold’s scandalous anecdote a moment’s credence.”

The whole Petronius-like scene was also flatly contradicted by Mrs. Whitman’s intimate friend, Wm. J. Pabodie, Esq., of Providence, in the “New York Tribune” for June 2 and 11, 1852, and has now been thrown aside by all right-minded people as utterly discredited.

The union of these two ethereal natures — “the pale, poetic presence” of the one, the Ligeian harmony of the other — promised indeed to be of exquisite fruition, but was destined never to be fulfilled.

The coarse rumors of drunken intoxication, of ribald scenes in Mrs. Whitman’s gardens and house, and of police interference, reported by various biographers, have thus been proved to be absolutely false, as they were on the face of them absolutely impossible. This one can see from the testimony of another woman of [page 295:] genius who was intimate with the Poes, and whose noble affection dictated some of the warmest words in defence of the poet — Mrs. Frances Sargent Osgood.

On her death-bed, seven months after Poe’s death, she wrote:(1)

“I think no one could know him — no one has known him personally — certainly no woman — without feeling the same interest [as I did]. I can sin cerely say, that I have frequently heard of aberrations on his part from the ’straight and narrow path.’ I have never seen him otherwise than gentle, generous well bred, and fastidiously refined. To a sensitive a delicately nurtured woman, there was a peculiar and irresistible charm in the chivalric, graceful, and almost tender reverence with which he invariably approached all women who won his respect. It was this which first commanded and always retained my regard for him.

I have been told that when his sorrows and pecuniary embarrassments had driven him to the use of stimulants, which a less delicate organization might have borne without injury, he was in the habit of speaking disrespectfully of the ladies of his acquaintance. It is difficult for me to believe this; for to me, to whom he came during the year of our acquaintance for counsel and kindness in all his many anxieties and griefs, he never spoke irreverently of any woman save one, and then only in my defence; and though I rebuked him for his momentary forgetfulness of the respect due to himself and to me, I could not but forgive the offence for the sake of the generous impulse which prompted it. Yet, even were these sad rumors true of him, the wise and well-informed knew how to regard, as they would the impetuous anger of a spoiled [page 296:] infant, baulked of its capricious will, the equally harmless and unmeaning phrensy of that stray child of Poetry and Passion. For the few unwomanly and slander-loving gossips who have injured him and themselves only by repeating his ravings, when in such moods they have accepted his society, I have only to vouch safe my wonder and my pity. They cannot surely harm the true and pure, who, reverencing his genius and pitying his misfortunes and his errors, endeavored by their timely kindness and sympathy, to soothe his sad career.

“It was in his own simple yet poetical home, that to me the character of Edgar Poe appeared in its most beautiful light. Playful, affectionate, witty, alternately docile and wayward as a petted child — for his young, gentle, and idolized wife, and for all who came, he had, even in the midst of his most harassing duties, a kind word, a pleasant smile, a graceful and courteous attention. At his desk, beneath the romantic picture of his loved and lost Lenore, he would sit, hour after hour, patient, assiduous, and uncomplaining, tracing in an exquisitely clear chirography, and with almost superhuman swiftness, the lightning thoughts — the ‘rare and radiant’ fancies — as they flashed through his wonderful and ever-wakeful brain.”

The woman referred to in Mrs. Osgood’s recollections was a certain Mrs. Ellet, who made herself notorious by meddling in Poe’s private affairs and following him with relentless persecution when he denounced her. It seems that on a certain occasion she saw a letter of Mrs. Osgood’s to Poe lying open on a table, read it, and immediately got up a committee of ladies, with Margaret Fuller at their head, to call on the offending poet at Fordham, and remonstrate. [page 297:] Poe, who detested both Mrs. Ellet and Margaret Fuller, though in his “Literati” he did full justice to the genius of the latter, denounced the Paul Pry, and angrily said she had better look after her own correspondence. This brought down on the poet a personal difficulty with the woman’s family and resulted in a world of slanders, lies, and abuse heaped on his devoted head.

In a letter only lately accessible through the publication of the Griswold Correspondence (p. 256), Mrs. Osgood in a letter referring to these slanders and the whole painful episode of her correspondence with and friendship for Poe, writes to Griswold in 1850:

“I trust you will write that life of Poe [she never saw the Life after it was written!]. I will do as you wished: I will write, as far as is proper, in a letter to you, my reminiscences of that year [apparently 1846-47], and try to make it interesting and dignified, and you in introducing it by one single sentence can put down at once my envious calumniators. You have the proof in Mrs. Poe’s letter to me, and in his to Mrs. Ellet, either of which would fully establish my innocence in a court of justice — certainly hers would. Neither of them, as you know, were persons likely to take much trouble to prove a woman’s innocence, and it was only because she felt that I had been cruelly and shamefully wronged by her mother and Mrs. E. that she impulsively rendered me that justice. She, Mrs. Poe, felt grieved that she herself had drawn me into the snare by imploring me to be kind to Edgar — to grant him my society and to write to him, because, she said, I was the only woman he knew who influenced him for his good, or, indeed, who had any lasting influence over him. I wish the simple truth to [page 298:] be known, — that he sought me, not I him. It is too cruel that I, the only one of those literary women who did not seek his acquaintance, — for Mrs. Ellet asked an introduction to him, and followed him everywhere, Miss Lynch begged me to bring him there and called upon him at his lodgings, Mrs. Whitman besieged him with valentines and letters long before he wrote or took any notice of her, and all the others wrote poetry and letters to him, — it is too cruel that I should be singled out after his death as the only victim to suffer from the slanders of his mother. I never thought of him till he sent me his I Raven’ and asked Willis to introduce him to me, and immediately after I went to Albany, and afterwards to Boston and Providence to avoid him, and he followed me to each of those places and wrote to me, imploring me to love him, many a letter which I did not reply to until his wife added her entreaties to his and said that I might save him from infamy, and her from death, by showing an affectionate interest in him.”

Stung to the quick by the slanders growing out of her Platonic correspondence with Poe, who never ceased to be devoted to her, Mrs. Osgood penned this self-contradictory communication to Griswold; which did not prevent her from addressing an impassioned dirge to the poet’s memory as the last poem in the volume of verse published just before her death in May, 1850:

“The hand that swept the sounding lyre

With more than mortal skill,

The lightning eye, the heart of fire,

The fervent lips are still!

No more, in rapture or in woe,

With melody to thrill,

Ah! Nevermore!”


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 282, although it more properly belongs on page 283:]

1.  We quote by permission the Introduction to “Poems: By Sarah Helen Whitman”: Houghton, Osgood & Co., 1879. [[pp. viii-ix]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 290:]

1.  Griswold’s Correspondence, p. 249.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 291:]

1.  In a letter from the late Dr. W. F. Channing, her friend and biographer.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 293:]

1.  Life of Poe; Chatto and Windus: London: 1878, p. 227.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 295:]

1.  Mrs. Osgood to Griswold, from the Griswold Memoirs of Poe.





[S:0 - CWEAP, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - Complete Works of E. A. Poe (Vol. 01 - Biography) (J. A. Harrison) (Chapter 14)