Text: John H. Ingram, “Chapter 19,” Edgar Allan Poe: Life, Letters, and Opinions (1880), pp. 160-186


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[page 160:]

CHAPTER XIX.

HELEN WHITMAN.

POE had not been back in Fordham long before he once more started off on a lecturing engagement, and this time to Lowell, Massachusetts, whence flattering propositions had reached him. Upon his arrival there he lectured upon “The Female Poets of America.” The subject was one which afforded him plenty of scope for awarding certain New England ladies their due meed of praise, and amongst those named he specially selected Mrs. Helen Whitman for “pre-eminence in refinement of art, enthusiasm, imagination, and genius, properly so-called.” Personally, Poe was unacquainted with this lady, but she had been seen by him, so it is averred, it on 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, [page 161:] worthy of himself, of her, and of the most exalted passion.“*

There is no need to inquire into the truth of this romantic story, which Poe’s poem, indeed, lends some colouring to, it sufficing to record that the poet had for some long time past expressed deep interest in Mrs. Whitman’s poetic contributions to the magazines, and had alluded to them, on several occasions, in the most flattering terms. Eventually, upon a so-called “Valentine” party being given to the literati of New York, in the winter of 1847-8, Mrs. Whitman, at a friend’s request, contributed some anonymous verses to the author of “The Raven” The remainder of the story may be continued in Poe“s own words in a long subsequent letter to the lady: —

” I have already told you that some few casual words spoken of you by —— —— , were the first in which I had ever heard your name mentioned. She alluded to what she called your ‘eccentricities,’ and hinted at your sorrows. Her description of the former strangely arrested — her allusion to the latter enchained and rivetted my attention.

“She had referred to thoughts, sentiments, traits, moods, which I knew to be my own, but which, until that moment, I had believed to be my own solely — unshared by any human being. A profound sympathy took immediate possession of my soul. I cannot better explain to you what I felt than by [page 162:] saying that your unknown beat seemed to pass into my bosom — there to dwell for ever — while mine, I thought, was translated into your own.

“From that hour I loved you. Since that period I have never seen nor heard your name without a shiver, half of delight, half of anxiety. — The impression left upon my mind was that you were still a wife, and it is only within the last few months that I have been undeceived in this respect.

“For this reason I shunned your presence and even the city in which you lived. You may remember that once when I passed through Providence with Mrs. Osgood I positively refused to accompany her to your house, and even provoked her into a quarrel by the obstinacy and seeming unreasonableness of my refusal I dared neither go nor say why I could not. I dared not speak of you — much less see you. For years your name never passed my lips, while my soul drank in, with a delirious thirst, all that was uttered in my presence respecting you.

“The merest whisper that concerned you awoke in me a shuddering sixth sense, vaguely compounded of fear, ecstatic happiness and a wild inexplicable sentiment that resembled nothing so nearly as a consciousness of guilt.

“Judge, then, with what wondering, unbelieving joy, I received, in your well-known MS., the Valentine which first gave me to see that you knew me to exist.

“The idea of what men call Fate lost then in my eyes its character of futility. I felt that nothing hereafter was to be doubted, and lost myself for many weeks in one continuous, delicious dream, where all was a vivid, yet indistinct bliss is immediately after reading the Valentine, I wished to contrive some mode of acknowledging — without wounding you by seeming directly to acknowledge — my sense — oh, my [page 163:] keen — my exulting — my ecstatic sense of the honour you had conferred on me. To accomplish as I wished it, precisely what I wished, seemed impossible, however; and I was on the point of abandoning the idea, when my eyes fell upon a volume of my own poems; and then the lines I had written, in my passionate boyhood, to the first purely ideal love of my soul — to the Helen Stannard of whom I told you — flashed upon my recollection. I turned to them. They expressed all — all that I would have said to you — so fully — so accurately and so exclusively, that a thrill of intense superstition ran at once through my forma Read the verses and then take into consideration the peculiar need I had, at the moment, for just so seemingly an unattainable mode of communication with you as they afforded. Think of the absolute appositeness with which they fulfilled that need — expressing not only all that I would have said of your person, but all that of which I moat wished to assure you, in the lines commencing —

“On desperate seas long wont to roam,”

Think of the rare agreement of name, and you will no longer wonder that to one accustomed as I am to the Calculus of Probabilities, they wore an air of positive, miracle. . . . I yielded at once to an overwhelming sense of Fatality. From that hour I have never been able to shake from my soul the belief that my Destiny, for good or for evil, either here or hereafter, is in some measure interwoven with your own.

“Of course I did not expect, on your part, any acknowledgment of the printed lines ‘To Helen;’ and yet, without confessing it even to myself, I experienced an indefinable sense of sorrow in your silence. At length, when I thought you had time fully to forget me (if, indeed, you had had [page 164:] ever really remembered) I sent you the anonymous lines in MS. I wrote, first, through a pining, burning desire to communicate with you in some way — even if you remained in ignorance of your correspondent. The mere thought that your dear fingers would press — your sweet eyes dwell upon characters which I had penned — characters which had welled out upon the paper from the depths of so devout a love — filled my soul with a rapture, which seemed, then, all sufficient for my human nature. It then appeared to me that merely this one thought involved so much of bliss that here on earth I could have no right ever to repine — no room for discontent. If ever, then, I dared to picture for myself a richer happiness, it was always connected with your image in Heaven. But there was yet another idea which impelled me to send you those lines: — I said to myself the sentiment — the holy passion which glows in my bosom for her, is of Heaven, heavenly, and has no taint of the earth. Thus then must lie in the recesses of her own pure bosom, at least the germ of a reciprocal love, and if this be indeed so, she will need no earthly clue — she will instinctively feel who is her correspondent — In this case, then, I may hope for some faint token at least, giving me to understand that the source of the poem is known and its sentiment comprehended even if disapproved.

“O God! — how long — how long I waited in vain — hoping against hope — until, at length, I became possessed with a spirit far sterner — far more reckless than despair — I explained to you — but without detailing the vital influences they wrought upon my fortune — the singular additional, yet seemingly trivial fatality by which you happened to address your anonymous stanzas to Fordham instead of New York — by which my aunt happened to get notice of their being in [page 165:] the West Farm post, office. But I have not yet told you that your lines reached me in Richmond on the very day in which I was about to enter on a course which would have borne me far, far away from you, sweet, sweet Helen, and from this divine dream of your love.”

In the above words Poe has depicted his ideal feelings only, for, as yet, they do not portray any personal knowledge of Mrs. Whitman. The lady’s poetic response, and a vivid lifelike dream Mrs. Osgood’s verbal description of her had excited, determined the poet to seek an introduction to his unknown correspondent. In the meanwhile, he wrote to an English acquaintance visiting Providence, under date of June 10th, 1848, these words of inquiry: —

“Do you know Mrs. Whitman? I feel deep interest in her poetry and character. I have never seen her — never but once. —— —— , however, told me many things about the romance of her character which singularly interested me and excited my curiosity. Her poetry is beyond question poetry — instinct with genius. Can you not tell ms something about her — anything — everything you know — and keep any secret — that is to say, let no one know that I have asked you to do so? May I trust you? I can and will. — Believe me truly your friend,

EDGAR A. POE.”

Soon after this letter reached its destination, its recipient visited Mrs. Whitman at her mother’s house. Miss Maria McIntosh, the well-known authoress, was present, and, it being a bright moonlight night, she [page 166:] remarked to Mrs. Whitman, “‘On such a night as this,’ one month ago, I met Mr. Poe for the first time, at the house of a gentleman in Fordham, and his whole talk was about you.” Upon hearing this, the English lady, upon whose secrecy Poe had so implicitly relied, spoke of the letter she had received containing the above cited inquiries, and, ultimately, gave the letter itself to Mrs. Whitman.

In the ensuing September Edgar Poe sought and obtained a letter of introduction from Miss McIntosh, and presented it to Mrs. Whitman in person. He repeated his visit, and avowed a love to which, for many reasons, the lady dared not respond. On bidding the poet farewell, however, she promised to write to him and explain many things which she could not impart in conversation. In his answer to her first letter occur these words: —

“I have pressed your letter again and again to my lips, sweetest Helen — bathing it in tears of joy, or of a ‘divine despair.’ But I — who so lately, in your presence, vaunted the ‘power of words’ — of what avail are mere words to me now? Could I believe in the efficiency of prayers to the God of Heaven, I would indeed kneel — humbly kneel — at this the most earnest epoch of my life — kneel in entreaty for words — but for words that should disclose to you — that might enable me to lay bare to you my whole heart All thoughts — all passions seem now merged in that one consuming desire — the mere wish to make you comprehend — to [page 167:] make you see that for which there is no human voice — the unutterable fervour of my love for you: — for so well do I know your poet nature, that I feel sure if you could but look down now into the depths of my soul with your pure spiritual eyes you could not refuse to speak to me what, alas! you still resolutely leave unspoken, — you would love me if only for the greatness of my love. Is it not something in this cold, dreary world to be loved? Oh, if I could but burn into your spirit the deep — the true meaning which I attach to those three syllables underlined! but, alas! the effort is all in vain and ‘I live and die unheard.’ . . .

“Could I but have held you close to my heart and whispered to you the strange secrets of its passionate history, then indeed you would have seen that it was not and never could have been in the power of any other than yourself to move me as I am now moved — to oppress me with this ineffable emotion — to surround and bathe me in this electric light, illumining and enkindling my whole nature — filling my soul with glory, with wonder, and with awe. During our walk in the cemetery I said to you, while the bitter, bitter tears sprang into — my eyes, I Helen, I love now — now — for the first and only time.’ I said this, I repeat, in no hope that you could believe me, but because I could not help feeling how unequal were the heart riches we might offer each to each; — I, for the first time, giving my all at once and for ever, even while the words of your poem were yet ringing in my ears.

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

The poem alluded to was one entitled “April Nights,” and had just been returned to Mrs. Whitman [page 168:] by the editor of the Columbian Magazine, with a request that she would alter a line in the manuscript. The lines were not shown for the special purpose Poe would seem to indicate. The poet’s own passionate words will, however, best portray the influence their fair author’s personal appearance had upon his mind: —

“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 heart; 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 Helenmy 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 ecstacy: 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 [page 169:] 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 profound joy haunted your bosom — my brain reeled beneath the intoxicating spell of your presence, and it was with no merely human senses that I either saw or heard you. It was my soul only that distinguished you there. . . .

“Let me quote to you a passage from your letter: — . . . ‘Although my reverence for your intellect and my admiration for your genius make me feel like a child in your presence you are not perhaps aware that I am many years older than yourself.’ . . . But grant that what you urge were even true. Do you not feel in your inmost heart of hearts that the ’Soul love’ of which the world speaks so often and so idly is, in this instance, at least, but the veriest — the most absolute of realities? Do you not — I ask it of your reason, darling, not less than of your hart — do you not perceive that it is my diviner nature — my spiritual being which burns and pants to commingle with your own I Has the soul age, Helen? Can Immortality regard Time? Can that which began never and shall never end consider a few wretched years of its incarnate life? Ah, I could almost be angry with you for the unwarranted wrong you offer to the sacred reality of my affection.

“And how am I to answer what you say of your personal appearance? Have I not seen you, Helen? Have I not heard the more than melody of your voice? Has not my heart ceased to throb beneath the magic of your smile? Have I not held your hand in mine and looked steadily into your soul through the crystal Heaven of your eyes? Have I done all these things? — Or do I dream? — or am I mad?

Were you indeed all that your fancy, enfeebled and perverted [page 170:] by illness, tempts you to suppose you are, still, life of my life! I would but love you but worship you the more. But as it is what can I — what am I to say? Who ever spoke of you without emotion — without praise I Who ever saw you and did not love?

“But now a deadly terror oppresses me; for I too clearly see that these objections, so groundless — so futile. . . . I tremble lest they but serve to mask others more real, and which you hesitate — perhaps in pity — to confide to me.

“Alas! I too distinctly perceive, also, that in no instance you have ever permitted yourself to say that you love me. You are aware, sweet Helen, that on my part there are insuperable reasons forbidding me to urge upon you my love. Were I not poor — had not my late errors and reckless excesses justly lowered me in the esteem of the good — were I wealthy, or could I offer you worldly honours — ah then — then — how proud would I be to persevere — to plead with you for your love. . . .

“Ah, Helen! my soul! — what is it that I have been saying to you? — to what madness have I been urging you? — I, who am nothing to you — you who have a dear mother and sister to be blessed by your life and love. But ah, darling! if I seem selfish, yet believe that I truly, truly love you, and that it is the most spiritual love that I speak, even if I speak it from the depths of the most passionate of hearts. Think — oh, think for me, Helen, and for yourself. . . .

“I would comfort you — soothe you — tranquillize you. You would rest from care — from all worldly perturbation. You would get better and finally well. And if not, Helen — if you died — then, at least! I would clasp your dear hand in death, and willingly — oh, joyfully — joyfully go down with you into the night of the grave. [page 171:]

“Write soon — soon — oh soon! — but not much. Do not weary or agitate yourself for my sake. Say to me those coveted words that would turn Earth into Heaven.”

The correspondence thus inaugurated was continued by equally characteristic communications from Poe. In a letter dated the 18th October, occur these passages: —

“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 it said 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 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. Ah, how profound is my love for you, since it [page 172:] forces me into these egotisms, for which you will inevitably despise me! . . .

“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 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 of such a character that I could appeal to a court of justice for redress.

“I replied 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 — an 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 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 I have enemies. Ah, I have a hundred friends for every [page 173:] individual enemy, but has it ever occurred to you that you do not live among my friends?

“Had you read my criticisms generally, you would see why all those whom — you know best know me least and are my enemies. Do you not remember with how deep a sigh I said to you. . . . My heart is heavy, 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. —

“That 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 dis honorable say what they may, and forbids me, under such circumstances, to insult you with my love. . . .

“Forgive me, best and only — beloved Helen, if there be bitterness in my tone. Towards you there is no room in my soul for any other sentiment than devotion. It is Fate only which I accuse. It is my own unhappy nature.” . . .

Before Mrs. Whitman had answered this indignant protest, Poe went to Providence and entreated her to forgive his waywardness and his reproaches, and to remember only the reasons which he had urged why she should confide her future welfare and happiness to him. Finally, he urged her to defer her decision for a week, and exacted a promise that she would [page 174:] write to him at Lowell, previous to his return to New York, implying that his return viá Providence would depend upon the tenor of her letter. Unwilling to say the word which might separate them for ever, and unable to give him the answer he besought her to accord him, Mrs. Whitman delayed writing from day to day. At last she sent a brief and indecisive note which perplexed Poe; by return he wrote to say that he should be at Providence the following evening. Thither he went, but instead of going to Mrs. Whitman’s returned in a terribly depressed state to Boston, and, by an abortive attempt at suicide — particulars of which will be elsewhere given* — ,-reduced himself to a truly deplorable condition. Early the following Monday the hapless poet again arrived in Providence, and on the morning of that day called on Mrs. Whitman. Agitated and unnerved on account of his having failed to call on the Saturday evening as promised in his letter, she had passed a restless night and was then quite unable to see him, but sent word by a servant that she would see him at noon. He returned a message to the effect that he had an engagement and must see her at once. Eventually he asked for writing-paper and sent her the following note: —

“DEAR HELEN — I have no engagement, but am very ill [page 173:] — so much so that I must go home if possible — but if you say ’Stay,’ I will try and do so. If you cannot see me — write me one word to say that you do love me and that, under all circumstances, you will be mine.

“Remember that these coveted words you have never yet spoken — and, nevertheless, I have not reproached you. If you can see me, even for a few moments, do so — but if not, write or send some message which will comfort me.”

Mrs. Whitman wrote. that she would positively see him at noon. He called, and on that and the following day of endeavoured with all the eloquence which he could exert “with such matchless power,” to persuade her to marry him at once and return with him to New York. When Poe called on the second day Mrs. Whitman showed him some letters she had received, in which her correspondents strongly expostulated .with her for receiving the poet’s addresses. One of these communications contained the passage that called forth the words of indignant protest which have already been cited from his letter of the i 8th of October. Directly he had read the letter some casual visitors arrived, and he arose to take his departure. ” I saw by the expression of his countenance,” said Mrs. Whitman, “as he held my hand for a moment, in taking leave of me, that something had strangely moved him I said, ‘We shall see you this evening?’ He merely bowed without replying.” [page 176:]

That evening, as was but natural to have foreseen, Poe sent Mrs. Whitman a note of renunciation and farewell, therein remarking that if they met again it would be as strangers.

Instead of returning to New York immediately, as in his note he had avowed his intention to do, Poe passed a night of wild delirium at the hotel in Providence. In the morning he arrived at Mrs. Whitman’s residence, in a state of delirious excitement, calling upon her and imploring her to save him from some terrible impending doom. The tones of his voice rang through the house and were most appalling. “Never have I heard anything so awful,” records Mrs. Whitman, “awful even to sublimity. It was long before I could nerve myself to see him. My mother was with him more than two hours before I entered the room. He hailed me as an angel sent to save him from perdition. . . . In the afternoon he grew more composed and my mother sent for Dr. Okie, who, finding symptoms of cerebral congestion, advised his removal to the house of his friend, Mr. Pabode, where he was kindly cared for.

“Of course,” continues Mrs. Whitman, “gossip held high carnival over these facts, which were related, doubtless, with every variety, of sensational embellishment. You will see, therefore, that Griswold had ample material to work on; he had only to turn the [page 177:] sympathising physician into a police officer, and the day before the betrothal into the evening before the bridal, to make out a plausible story.”

The ultimate result of this terrible scene was that Mrs. Whitman decided upon becoming the wife of Poe, in the hope of being enabled to preserve him from his impending doom. Some days after the recovery from his delirium, when he again urged his a suit, she permitted him to extract from her a promise that she would become his wife, upon condition that he never touched intoxicants again, declaring that nothing save his own infirmity should cause her to recede from her plighted troth. It was in commemoration of this, and ‘of the terrible trial through which she had just passed, that Mrs. Whitman composed her lines to “Arcturus,” beginning, —

“Star of resplendent front! thy glorious eye

Shines on me stilt from out yon clouded sky —

Shines on me through the horrors of a night

More drear than ever fell o‘er day so bright, ”

and ending,* —

“I see the dawn of a diviner day,

A heaven of joys and hopes that cannot die —

Immortal in their own infinity.”

Notwithstanding the heartrending representations of her mother and friends, Mrs. Whitman resolved to [page 178:] adhere to her promise, and in reliance upon it Poe returned to New York, to make arrangements for his marriage. On his homeward journey, by means of the Long Island Sound Boat, he sent the following note to prove that he was keeping his word: —

November 14, 1848.

“MY OWN DEAREST HELEN, — So kind, so true, so generous — so unmoved by all that would have moved one who had been less than angel: — beloved of my heart, of my imagination, of my intellect — life of my life — soul of my soul — dear, dearest Helen, how shall I ever thank you as I ought.

“I am calm and tranquil, and but for a strange shadow of coming evil which haunts me I should be happy. That I am not supremely happy, even when I feel your dear love at my heart, terrifies me. What can this mean?

“Perhaps, however, it is only the necessary reaction after such terrible excitements.

“It is five o‘clock, and the boat is just being made fast to the wharf. I shall start in 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 dear, dearest Helen, be true to me.“. . .

During the brief period of visionary anticipations which now intervened, Poe confided his hopes and fears, his expected triumphs or foreboded troubles, to Mrs, Whitman, in a series of idiosyncratic epistles, which, says their recipient, “enable one to understand, as nothing else could, the singular and complex elements of his nature. The intense. superstition, the [page 179:] haunting dread of evil, the tender remorseful love, the prophetic imagination — now proud and exultant, now melancholy and ominous — the keen susceptibility to blame, the sorrowful and indignant protest against unjust reproach.”

In one of the letters to Mrs. Whitman appertaining to this epoch the following passages occur: —

“Without well understanding why, I had been led to fancy you ambitious . . . 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. . . . — 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 of a cottage which no human being could ever pass without an ejaculation of wonder at its strange, weird, 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 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 [page 180:] pictures, and, above all, the love — the love that threw an unfading glory over the whole! . . . Alas! all is now a dream.”

In this letter was shadowed forth the ideal pastoral home that, subsequently, was more fully depictured in “Landor’s Cottage.” In the next extract from the correspondence Poe is seen striving to arouse Mrs. Whitman’s temperament into accordance with another mood of his impulsive nature. Writing on Sunday, the 22nd of November, he says: —

“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 arisen 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 schemes to a letter — nor indeed have I time even to hint at them here. When I see you I will [page 181:] explain all — as far, at least, as I dare explain all my hopes even to you.

“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.”

But these aerial chateaux d‘Espagne of the poet were even more transient than the few brief interludes permitted him of undisturbed happiness.

Those who have thus far followed the history of Poe’s career will fully comprehend the force of his allusions in the following letter — a letter that really contains the basis of Griswold’s degrading fabrication of the poet having “borrowed fifty dollars from a distinguished literary woman of South Carolina,” and when asked for the money’s return, or a written acknowledgment of his indebtedness, for the satisfaction of the lady’s husband, “denied all knowledge of it, and threatened to exhibit a correspondence which would make the woman infamous.” The woman referred to is dead, but the story has recently been unearthed, and her name dragged before the public by certain papers ‘of New York, in which city, however, still resides one who knew and can testify to Poe’s veracity in this affair. All the wrong he did was — when goaded by her imputations as to the impropriety of his corresponding with a married lady — with [page 182:] his wife’s dear friend, Mrs. Osgood — to hastily exclaim, “I She had better look to her own letters!” Only that and nothing more.*

This communication is dated two days later than the one last quoted: —

“In little more than a fortnight, dearest Helen, I shall once again clasp you to my heart: — until then I forbear to agitate you by speaking of my wishes — of my hopes, and especially of my fears. You say that all depends on my own firmness. If this be so, all is safe — for the terrible agony which I have so lately endured — an agony known only to my God and to myself — seems to have passed my soul through fire and purified it from all that is weak. Henceforward I am strong: — this those who love me shall see — as well as those who have so relentlessly endeavoured to ruin me. It needed only some such trials as I have just undergone, to make me what I was born to be, by making me conscious of my own strength. — But all does not depend, dear Helen, upon my firmness — all depends upon the sincerity of your love.

“You allude to your having been ‘tortured by reports which have all since been explained to your entire satisfaction.’ On this point my mind is fully made up. I will rest neither by night nor by day until I bring those who have slandered me into the light of day — until I expose them, and their motives to the public eye. I have the means and I will ruthlessly employ them. On one point let me caution you, dear Helen. No sooner will Mrs. E —— hear of my proposals to yourself, than she will set in operation every conceivable chicanery to frustrate me: — and, if you are not [page 183:] prepared for her arts, she will infallibly succeed — for her whole study, throughout life, has been the gratification of her malignity by such means as any other human being would die rather than adopt. You will be sure to receive anonymous letters so skilfully contrived as to deceive the most sagacious. You will be called on, possibly, by persons whom you never heard of, but whom she has instigated to call and vilify me — without even their being aware of the influence she has exercised. I do not know any one with a more acute intellect about such matters than Mrs. Osgood — yet even she was for a long time completely blinded by the arts of this fiend, and simply because her generous heart could not conceive how any woman could stoop to machinations at which the most degraded of the fiends would shudder. I will give you here but one instance of her baseness, and I feel that it will suffice. When, in the heat of passion” . . .

[Here follows the narrative given at pp. 70, 71, chapter the sixteenth.] The letter then proceeds: —

“If you value your happiness, Helen, beware of this woman! She did not cease her persecutions here. My poor Virginia was continually tortured (although not deceived) by her anonymous letters, and on her deathbed declared that Mrs. E —— had been her murderer. Have I not a right to hate this fiend and to caution you against her? You will now comprehend what I mean in saying that the only thing for which I found it impossible to forgive Mrs. Osgood was her reception of Mrs E.

Be careful of your health, dearest Helen, and perhaps all will yet go well. Forgive me that I let these wrongs prep upon me — I did not so bitterly feel them until they threatened [page 184:] to deprive me of you . . . but for your dear sake I will endeavor to be calm.

“Your lines ‘To Arcturus ‘are truly beautiful.”

This letter was speedily followed by the poet himself. He arrived in Providence fall of the most sanguine hopes; he had proposed to himself a career of literary success, dwelling with enkindling enthusiasm upon his long-cherished scheme of establishing a magazine that should give him supreme control of intellectual society in America. His dreams of love and triumph were rapidly destroyed. In a few days he was to be married; he had advised his aunt, Mrs. Clemm, to expect his and his bride’s arrival in New York early the following week, when information was given to Mrs. Whitman and to her relatives that he had violated the solemn pledge of abstinence so recently given. Whether this information was true no one living, perchance, can say. When he arrived at the dwelling of Mrs. Whitman, “no token of the infringement of his promise was visible in his appearance or manner,” says that lady, “but I was at last convinced that it would be in vain longer to hope against hope. I knew that he had irrevocably lost the power of self-recovery. . . . Gathering together some papers which he had intrusted to my keeping I placed them in his hands without a word of explanation or reproach, and, utterly warn out and exhausted [page 185:] by the mental conflicts and anxieties and responsibilities of the last few days, I drenched my handkerchief with ether and threw myself on a sofa, hoping to lose myself in utter unconsciousness. Sinking on his knees beside me, he entreated me to speak to him — to speak one word, but one word. At last I responded, almost inaudibly, ‘What can I say?’ ’Say that you love me, Helen.! ‘I love you.’ These were the last words I ever spoke to him.”

In company with his friend, Mr. Pabodie, Poe left the house, and for ever. The rupture of the much-commented-upon engagement gave rise to the wildest and most scandalous reports. The cause of the separation was almost universally ascribed to the poet. Unable to rest under the ridiculous and humiliating charges, which obtained such general currency that even some of his dearest friends at last gave credence to them, Poe wrote to Mrs. Whitman earnestly entreating her to send him a few words, for the satisfaction of those dear to him, in denial of the vile rumours about their separation.

“No amount of provocation,” he wrote to her, “shall induce me to speak ill of you, even in my own defence. If to shield myself from calumny, however undeserved, or how ever unendurable, I find a need of resorting to explanations that might condemn or pain you, most solemnly do I assure you that I will patiently endure such calumny, rather than avail myself of any such means of refuting it. You will see, [page 186:] then, that so far I am at your mercy — but in making you such assurances, have I not a right to ask of you some forbearance in return I . . . That you have in any way countenanced this pitiable falsehood, I do not and cannot believe — some person, equally your enemy and mine, has been its author — but what I beg of you is, to write me at once a few lines in explanation — you know, of course, that by reference either to Mr. Pabodie or . . . I can disprove the facts stated in the most satisfactory manner — but there can be no need of disproving what I feel confident was never asserted by you — your simple disavowal is all that I wish — You will, of course, write me immediately on receipt of this. . . . Heaven knows that I would shrink from wounding or grieving you! . . . May Heaven shield you from all ill! . . . Let my letters and acts speak for themselves. It has been my intention to say simply that our marriage was postponed simply on account of your ill-health. Have you really said or done anything which can preclude our placing the rupture on such footing? If not, I shall persist in the statement and thug this unhappy matter will die quietly away.”

“His letter I did not dare to answer,” said Mrs. Whitman.

Evidently Edgar Poe did not know the real cause of the rupture of the engagement, and for upwards of thirty years his character has suffered under charges he was powerless to refute.


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 161:]

* Beginning, “I saw thee once — once only — years ago.”

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 174:]

* Vide vol. ii, p. 193.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 177:]

* In version given to me by Mrs. Whitman. — J. H. I.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 182:]

Vide vol. ii. pp. 70, 71.


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - EAP:HLLO, 1880] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - E. A. P.: His Life, Letters and Opinions (J. H. Ingram) (Chapter 19)