Text: Edgar Allan Poe to Sarah H. Whitman — October 18, 1848 (LTR-280)


In pressing my last letter between your dear hands, there passed into your spirit a sense of the Love that glowed within those pages: — you say this, and I feel that indeed it must have been so: — but. in receiving the paper upon which your eyes now rest, did no shadow steal over you, from the sorrow within, — oh God! how I now curse the impotence of the pen — the inexorable distance between us! I am pining to speak to you, Helen, — to you in person — to be near you while I speak — gently to press your hand in mine — to look into your soul through your eyes — and thus to be sure that my voice passes into your heart. Only thus could I hope to make you understand what I feel; and even thus I should not hope to make you do so; for it is only Love, which can comprehend Love — and alas! you do not love me. — Bear with me! have patience with me! — for indeed my heart is broken; and, let me struggle as I will, I cannot write to you the calm, cold language of a world which I loathe — of a world in which I have no interest — of a world which is not mine. I repeat to you that my heart is broken — that I have no farther object in life — that I have absolutely no wish but to die. These are hackneyed phrases; but they will not now impress you as such — for you must and do know the passionate agony with which I write them. “You do not love me”: — in this brief sentence lies all I can conceive of despair. I have no resource — no hope: — Pride itself fails me now. You do not love me; or you could not have imposed upon me the torture of eight days’ silence — of eight days’ terrible suspense. You do not love me — or, responding [page 2:] to my prayers, you would have cried to me — “Edgar, I do.” Ah, Helen, the emotion which now consumes me teaches me too well the nature of the impulses of Love! Of what avail to me, in my deadly grief, are your enthusiastic words of mere admiration? Alas; — alas! — I have been loved, and a relentless Memory contrasts what you say with the unheeded, unvalued language of others. — But ah, — again, and most especially — you do not love me, or you would have felt too thorough a sympathy with the sensitiveness of my nature, to have so wounded me as you have done with this terrible passage of your letter: — “How often I have heard men and even women say of you —’He has great intellectual power, but no principle — no moral sense.’ “ Is it possible that such expressions as these could have been repeated to me — to me — by one whom I loved — ah, whom I love — by one at whose feet I knelt — I still kneel — in deeper worship than ever man offered to God? — And you proceed to ask me why such opinions exist. You will feel remorse for the question, Helen, when I say to you that, until the moment when those horrible words first met my eye, I would not have believed it possible that any such opinions could have existed at all: — but that they do exist breaks my heart in separating us forever. I love you too truly ever to have offered you my hand — ever to have sought your love — had I known my name to be so stained as your expressions imply. — Oh God! what shall I say to you Helen, dear Helen? — let me call you now by that sweet name, if I may never so call you again. — It is altogether in vain that I tax my Memory or my Conscience. There is no oath which seems [page 3:] to me so sacred as that sworn by the all-divine love I bear you. — By this love, then, and by the God who reigns in Heaven, I swear to you that my soul is incapable of dishonor — that, with the exception of occasional follies and excesses which I bitterly lament, but to which I have been driven by intolerable sorrow, and which are hourly committed by others without attracting any notice whatever — I can call to mind no act of my life which would bring a blush to my cheek — or to yours. If I have erred at all, in this regard, it has been on the side of what the world would call a Quixotic sense of the honorable — of the chivalrous. The indulgence of this sense has been the true voluptuousness of my life. It was for this species of luxury that, in early youth, I deliberately threw away from me a large fortune, rather than endure a trivial wrong. It was for this that, at a later period, I did violence to my own heart, and married, for another's happiness, where I knew that no possibility of my own existed. — Ah, how profound is my love for you, since it forces me into these egotisms for which you will inevitably despise me! Nevertheless, I must now speak to you the truth or nothing. It was in mere indulgence, then, of the sense to which I refer, that, at one dark epoch of my late life, for the sake of one who, deceiving and betraying, still loved me much, I sacrificed what seemed in the eyes of men my honor, rather than abandon what was honor in hers and in my own. — But, alas! for nearly three years I have been ill, poor, living out of the world; and thus, as I now painfully see, have afforded opportunity to my enemies — and especially to one, the most malignant and pertinacious of all fiends — ta woman whose loathsome love I could do nothing but repel with scorn — ] [page 4:] to slander me, in private society, without my knowledge and thus with impunity. Although much, however, may (and I now see must) have been said to my discredit, during my retirement, those few who, knowing me well, have been steadfastly my friends, permitted nothing to reach my ears — unless in one instance, where the malignity of the accuser hurried her beyond her usual caution, and thus the accusation was of such character that I could appeal to a court of justice for redress. The tools employed in this instance were Mr Hiram Fuller and Mr T. D. English. I replies to the charge fully, in a public newspaper — afterwards suing the “Mirror” (in which the scandal appeared) obtaining a verdict and recovering such an amount of damages as, for the time, completely to break up that journal. — And you ask me why men so misjudge me — why I have enemies. If your knowledge of my character and of my career does not afford you an answer to the query, at least it does not become me to suggest the answer. Let it suffice that I have had the audacity to remain poor that I might preserve my independence — that, nevertheless, in letters, to a certain extent and in certain regards, I have been “successful” — that I have been a critic — and unscrupulously honest and no doubt in many cases a bitter one — that I have uniformly attacked — where I attacked at all — those who stood highest in power and influence — and that, whether in literature or in society, I have seldom refrained from expressing, either directly or indirectly, the pure contempt with which the pretensions of ignorance, arrogance, or imbecility inspire me. — And you who know all this — you ask me why [page 5:] I have enemies. Ah, Helen, I have a hundred friends for every individual enemy — but has it never occurred to you that you do not live among my friends? Miss Lynch, Miss Fuller, Miss Blackwell, Mrs Ellet — neither these nor any within their influence, are my friends. Had you read my criticisms generally, you would see, too, how and why it is that the Channings — the Emerson and Hudson coterie — the Longfellow clique, one and all — the cabal of the “N. American Review” — you would see why all these, whom you know best, know me least and are my enemies. Do you not remember with how deep a sigh I said to you in Providence — “My heart is heavy, Helen, for I see that your friends are not my own.”? — But the cruel sentence in your letter would not — could not so deeply have wounded me, had my soul been first strengthened by those assurances of your love which I so wildly — so vainly — and, I now feel, so presumptuously entreated. That our souls are one, every line which you have ever written asserts — but our hearts do not beat in unison. Tell me, darling! to your heart has any angel ever whispered that the very noblest lines in all human poetry are these — hackneyed though they be?

I know not — I ask not if guilt's in thy heart: —

I but know that I love thee whatever thou art.

When I first read your letter I could do nothing but shed tears, while I repeated, again and again, those glorious, those all-comprehensive verses, till I could scarcely hear my own voice for the passionate throbbings of my heart.

Forgive me, best and only beloved Helen, if there be bitterness in my tone. Towards you there is no room in my soul [page 6:] for any other sentiment than devotion: — it is Fate only which I accuse: — it is my own unhappy nature which wins me the true love of no woman whom by >>by<< any possibility I could love.

I heard something, a day or two ago, which, had your last letter never reached me, might not irreparably have disturbed the relations between us, but which, as it is, withers forever all the dear hopes upspringing in my bosom. — A few words will explain to you what I mean. Not long after the receipt of your Valentine I learned, for the first time, that you were free — unmarried. I will not pretend to express to you what is absolutely inexpressible — that wild — long-enduring thrill of joy which pervaded my whole being on hearing that it was not impossible I might one day call you by the sacred title, wife: — but there was one alloy to this happiness: — I dreaded to find you in worldly circumstances superior to my own. Let me speak freely to you now, Helen, for perhaps I may never thus be permitted to speak to you again — Let me speak openly — fearlessly — trusting to the generosity of your own spirit for a true interpretation of my own. I repeat, then, that I dreaded to find you in worldly circumstances superior to mine. So great was my fear that you were rich, or at least possessed some property which might cause you to seem rich in the eyes of one so poor as I had always permitted myself to be — that, on the day I refer to, I had not the courage to ask my informant any questions concerning you. — I feel that you will have difficulty in comprehending me; but the horror with which, during my sojourn [page 7:] in the world, I have seen affection made a subject of barter, had, long since, — long before my marriage — inspired me with the resolution that, under no circumstances, would I marry where “interest,” as the world terms it, could be suspected as, on my part, the object of the marriage. As far as this point concerned yourself, however, I was relieved, the next day, by an assurance that you were wholly dependent upon your mother. May I — dare I add — can you believe me when I say that this assurance was rendered doubly grateful to me by the additional one that you were in ill health and had suffered more from domestic sorrow than falls usually to the lot of woman? — and even if your faith in my nature is not too greatly tasked by such an assertion, can you forbear thinking me unkind, selfish or ungenerous? You cannot: — but oh! the sweet dreams which absorbed me at once: — dear dreams of a devotional care for you that should end only with life — of a tender, cherishing, patient solicitude which should bring you back, at length, to health and to happiness — a care — a solicitude — which should find its glorious reward in winning me, after long years, that which I could feel to be your love! Without well understanding why, I had been led to fancy you ambitious: — perhaps the fancy arose from your lines:

Not a bird that roams the forest

Shall our lofty eyrie share! —

but my very soul glowed with ambition for your sake, although I have always contemned it for my own. It was then only — then when I thought of you — that I dwelt exultingly upon what I felt that I could accomplish in Letters and in Literary Influence — in the widest and noblest field of human ambition. [page 8:] “I will erect”, I said, “a prouder throne than any on which mere monarch ever sat; and on this throne she — she shall be my queen”. When I saw you, however — when I touched your gentle hand — when I heard your soft voice, and perceived how greatly I had misinterpreted your womanly nature — these triumphant visions melted sweetly away in the sunshine of a love ineffable; and I suffered my imagination to stray with you, and with the few who love us both, to the banks of some quiet river, in some lovely valley of our land. Here, not too far secluded from the world, we exercised a taste controlled by no conventionalities, but the sworn slave of a Natural Art, in the building for ourselves a cottage which no human being could ever pass without an ejaculation of wonder at its strange, wierd, and incomprehensible yet most simple beauty. Oh, the sweet and gorgeous, but not often rare flowers in which we half buried it! — the grandeur of the little-distant magnolias and tulip-trees which stood guarding it — the luxurious velvet of its lawn — the lustre of the rivulet that ran by the very door — the tasteful yet quiet comfort of the interior — the music — the books — the unostentatious pictures — and, above all, the love — the love that threw an unfading glory over the whole! — Ah Helen! my heart is, indeed, breaking and I must now put an end to these divine dreams. Alasl all is now a dream; for I have lately heard that of you which, (taken in connexion with your letter and with that of which your letter does not assure me) puts it forever out of my power to ask you — again to ask you — to become my wife. That [page 9:] many persons, in your presence, have declared me wanting in honor, appeals irresistibly to an instinct of my nature — an instinct which I feel to be honor, let the dishonorable say what they may, and forbids me, under such circumstances, to insult you with my love: — but that you are quite independent in your worldly position (as I have just heard) — in a word that you are comparatively rich while I am poor, opens between us a gulf — a gulf, alas! which the sorrow and the slander of the World have rendered forever impassable — by me.

I have not yet been able to procure all the criticisms &c. of which you spoke, but will forward them, by express, in a day or two. Meantime I enclose the lines by Miss Fuller; and “The Domain of Arnheim” which happens to be at hand, and which, moreover, expresses much of my soul. — It was about the 10th of Sep., I think, that your sweet MS. verses reached me in Richmond. I lectured in Lowell on the 10th of July. Your first letter was received by me, at Fordham, on the evening of Saturday, Sep. 30. I was in Providence, or its neighborhood, during the Monday you mention. In the morning I re-visited the cemetery: — at 6 P.M. I left the city in the Stonington train for N. Y. 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 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.






[S:0 - MS, 18xx] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Letters - Poe to S. H. Whitman (LTR280/RCL727)