Text: Thomas Ollive Mabbott (and E. A. Poe), “To Helen [Whitman],” The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe — Vol. I: Poems (1969), pp. 441-449 (This material is protected by copyright)


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­[page 441, continued:]

TO HELEN [WHITMAN]

This major poem celebrates one of the great romances of literary history, the brief engagement of Poe and Sarah Helen Power Whitman of Providence. The poem was “worthy of himself, of her, and of the most exalted passion,” as Griswold well said.(1) It is Poe’s best accomplishment in blank verse, a medium in which he was never completely at ease.

When it was printed in the New-York Tribune of October 10, 1849, the editor said that the poem had been omitted from Griswold’s “Ludwig” article of the previous day “by want of room,” and added, “We know the scene, a neighboring city; and we know that the incident of his seeing the person under such circumstances is literally true.” At any rate, it was almost literally true!

Poe first saw Mrs. Whitman when he and Mrs. Osgood, whom he had joined at Providence for Mrs. Osgood’s lecture there early in July 1845, walked past the Whitman house at 76 (now 88) Benefit Street in Providence. (The house was still standing in 1962, at the northwest corner of Church Street.) Mrs. Whitman later stated that she was really standing on her doorstep, and not, as in the poem, in her garden; but she did have a rose garden, and she always in summer wore white. Poe learned who she was but did not meet her at the time, although Mrs. Osgood called upon her.

Some years later, on February 14, 1848, Mrs. Whitman sent to a valentine party given by Miss Lynch in New York a poem addressed to Poe. She revised the piece completely for her verses “The Raven,” printed in her Hours of Life (Providence, 1853), pp. 66-69. Since the valentine is the known inspiration of Poe’s poem, the original version is given here in full, as it appeared in the Home Journal for March 18, 1848. ­[page 442:]

BEAUTIFUL ORIGINAL POEM

The following Valentine, by one of America’s most justly distinguished poetesses, was among the number received at the Valentine soiree, commemorated in our paper of the 4th instant. A poem, however, whose intrinsic beauty takes it quite out of the category of ordinary Valentines, seemed to demand the honor of separate publication:

To Edgar A. Poe.

“— A raven true

As ever flapped his heavy wing against

The window of the sick, and croaked, ‘Despair.’ ”

Young’s “Revenge.”

 

Oh, thou grim and ancient Raven,

From the Night’s Plutonian shore,

Oft, in dreams, thy ghastly pinions

Wave and flutter round my door —

Oft thy shadow dims the moonlight

Sleeping on my chamber floor!

 

Romeo talks of “white doves trooping

Amid crows, athwart the night;”

But to see thy dark wing swooping

Down the silver path of light,

Amid swans and dovelets stooping,

Were, to me, a nobler sight.

 

Oft, amid the twilight glooming,

Round some grim, ancestral tower,

In the lurid distance looming,

I can see thy pinions lower —

Hear thy sullen storm-cry booming

Thro’ the lonely midnight hour.

 

Midst the roaring of machinery,

And the dismal shriek of steam,

While each popinjay and parrot,

Makes the golden age his theme,

Oft, methinks, I hear thee croaking,

“All is but an idle dream.”

 

While these warbling “guests of summer”

Prate of “Progress” evermore,

And, by dint of iron foundries,

Would this golden age restore,

Still, methinks, I hear thee croaking,

Hoarsely croaking, “Nevermore.”

 

Oft, this work-day world forgetting,

From its turmoil curtained snug, ­[page 443:]

By the sparkling ember sitting,

On the richly broidered rug,

Something, round about me flitting,

Glimmers like a “Golden-Bug.”

 

Dreamily its path I follow,

In a “bee-line,” to the moon,

Till, into some dreary hollow

Of the midnight, sinking soon,

Lo! he glides away before me,

And I lose the golden boon.

 

Oft, like Proserpine, I wander

On the Night’s Plutonian shore,

Hoping, fearing, while I ponder

On thy loved and lost Lenore,

Till thy voice, like distant thunder,

Sounds across the lonely moor.

 

From thy wing, one purple feather

Wafted o’er my chamber floor,

Like a shadow o’er the heather,

Charms my vagrant fancy more

Than all the flowers I used to gather

On “Idalia’s velvet shore.”

 

Then, oh! 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 our lofty eyrie share!

Providence, R. I., Feb. 14.

Poe at first acknowledged this only by sending Mrs. Whitman anonymously the printed “To Helen” of 1831, torn out of his 1845 volume. But he apparently composed his long blank-verse reply to her valentine early in the year, and sent it to her about June 1.(2) On September 5, 1848 (under the pseudonym “Edward S. T. Grey”), he wrote asking her autograph, and soon thereafter went to see her. The poem was to some extent part of a campaign to win the beautiful if eccentric poetess, whom he had not yet met. ­[page 444:]

Mrs. Whitman, in Edgar Poe and His Critics (1860), pp. 70-71, tells us that on the manuscript of the poem Poe gave her he had penciled the following note:

All that I have here expressed was actually present to me. Remember the mental condition which gave rise to “Ligeia” — recall the passage of which I spoke, and observe the coincidence. I regard these visions even as they arise, with an awe which in some measure moderates or tranquillizes the ecstasy — I so regard them through a conviction that this ecstasy, in itself, is of a character supernal to the human nature — is a glimpse of the spirit’s outer world.

In the file of the Broadway Journal which he gave Mrs. Whitman, Poe wrote on the issue of September 27, 1845, “N. B. — The poem which I sent you contained all the events of a dream which occurred to me soon after I knew you [. . .] Ligeia was also suggested by a dream. Observe the eyes in both tale & poem.” The lacuna is occasioned by cutting away of the page. This is interesting, but we must remember that Mrs. Whitman loved mystical things, as Poe surely knew; the dream element may have been very slight indeed.

It has been complained that Poe’s verses lack warmth, but how could it be otherwise? The whole romance of “Poe’s Helen” and “The Raven” was partly play-acting from start to finish; there was some genuine respect on both sides, some intellectual affinity, a good deal of consciously rhetorical correspondence, and a poem of distinction. (See also the notes to “Annabel Lee.”)(3)

 

TEXTS

(A) Manuscript sent to Mrs. Whitman June 1, 1848, now lost; (B) Union Magazine for November 1848 (3:200); (C) New-York Tribune, October 10, 1849, Supplement; (D) Poets and Poetry of America, 10th edition (dated 1850, issued late in 1849), p. 420; (E) Works (1850), II, 17. ­[page 445:]

The text used here is Griswold’s (E), almost certainly based on the lost original manuscript. Lines 26-27 were omitted from texts B, C and D because of their very personal nature. They are, pace Whitty, patently genuine. I have corrected a misprint — “way” for “away” — in line 51.

[[v]]

[[n]]

TO HELEN [E]

[[n]]

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

[[n]]

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

[[v]]

5

Sought a precipitate pathway up through heaven,

There fell a silvery-silken veil of light,

With quietude, and sultriness, and slumber,

[[v]]

Upon the upturn’d faces of a thousand

Roses that grew in an enchanted garden,

10

Where no wind dared to stir, unless on tiptoe —

[[v]]

Fell on the upturn’d faces of these roses

That gave out, in return for the love-light,

Their odorous souls in an ecstatic death —

[[v]]

Fell on the upturn’d faces of these roses

15

That smiled and died in this parterre, enchanted

By thee, and by the poetry of thy presence.

 

Clad all in white, upon a violet bank

[[v]]

I saw thee half reclining; while the moon

[[v]]

Fell on the upturn’d faces of the roses,

[[v]]

20

And on thine own, upturn’d — alas, in sorrow!

 

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

[[v]]

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?

25

No footstep stirred: the hated world all slept,

[[v]]

Save only thee and me. (Oh, Heaven! — oh, God!

[[n]]

How my heart beats in coupling those two words!)

Save only thee and me. I paused — I looked — ­[page 446:]

[[n]]

And in an instant all things disappeared.

30

(Ah, bear in mind this garden was enchanted!)

The pearly lustre of the moon went out:

The mossy banks and the meandering paths,

The happy flowers and the repining trees,

[[n]]

Were seen no more: the very roses’ odors

35

Died in the arms of the adoring airs.

[[n]]

All — all expired save thee — save less than thou:

[[n]]

Save only the divine light in thine eyes —

Save but the soul in thine uplifted eyes.

I saw but them — they were the world to me.

40

I saw but them — saw only them for hours —

Saw only them until the moon went down.

[[n]]

What wild heart-histories seemed to lie enwritten

Upon those crystalline, celestial spheres!

How dark a wo! yet how sublime a hope!

45

How silently serene a sea of pride!

How daring an ambition! yet how deep —

How fathomless a capacity for love!

 

But now, at length, dear Dian sank from sight,

Into a western couch of thunder-cloud;

50

And thou, a ghost, amid the entombing trees

[[v]]

Didst glide away. Only thine eyes remained.

They would not go — they never yet have gone.

Lighting my lonely pathway home that night,

They have not left me (as my hopes have) since.

55

They follow me — they lead me through the years.

They are my ministers — yet I their slave.

Their office is to illumine and enkindle —

My duty, to be saved by their bright light,

[[n]]

And purified in their electric fire,

60

And sanctified in their elysian fire.

They fill my soul with Beauty (which is Hope,)

[[n]]

And are far up in Heaven — the stars I kneel to

[[n]]

In the sad, silent watches of my night;

While even in the meridian glare of day ­[page 447:]

[[n]]

65

I see them still — two sweetly scintillant

Venuses, unextinguished by the sun!

[1848-1849]

 


[page 447, continued:]

VARIANTS

Title:  Not recorded (A); To — — — (B, C, D)

5  precipitate / precipitant (B, C, D)

8, 11, 14, 20  upturn’d / upturned (C, D)

18  saw / see (B)

19  upturn’d faces of the / faces of the upturned (C)

22  name is also / earthly name is (A)

26-27  Omitted from B, C, D

51  away / misprinted way in E, correct in all other texts

 


[page 447, continued:]

NOTES

Title:  The poem is generally known as “the second ‘To Helen’,” but it seems unlikely that Poe would have used a duplicate title in a collected edition. His own publication was addressed to a triple blank, which I think stands for Helen Power Whitman. Ingram thought that Poe disliked the name Sarah, and Mrs. Whitman had told Poe she thought that his and her family names were both modifications of De la Poer. My title, “To Helen [Whitman],” is arbitrarily adopted to avoid confusion.

1  On June 19, 1848, Poe wrote of Mrs. Whitman to Miss Anna Blackwell, an English poetess, “I have never seen her — but once.” Compare the opening of Walter Savage Landor’s “Lines on the Death of Charles Lamb,” “Once, and once only, have I seen thy face.”

4  In Eureka Poe said the soul “loves nothing so well as to soar in those regions of illimitable intuition which are utterly incognizant of ‘path.’ ” Note also R. H. Horne’s Orion, II, ii: “The high Moon floated and her downward gleam / Shone on the upturned Giant faces.” Poe quoted this in his review of Horne in Graham’s for March 1844.

27-41  Gunnar Bjurman, Edgar Allan Poe (Lund, 1916), p. 155, compared Coleridge’s “Hymn before Sunrise,” lines 13-16:

O dread and silent Mount! I gazed upon thee,

Till thou, still present to the bodily sense,

Didst vanish from my thought: entranced in prayer

I worshipped the Invisible alone.

Also compare Shelley’s “Queen Mab,” I, 85f.:

Those who had looked upon the sight . . .

Saw not the yellow moon,

Saw not the mortal scene,

Heard not the night-wind’s rush,

Heard not earthly sound,

Saw but the fairy pageant.

Poe quoted Shelley’s lines in reviewing Moore’s Alciphron in Burton’s for January 1840.

Not quite surely coincidental is a passage in William W. Lord’s “Hymn ­[page 448:] to Niagara,” lines 60f., quoted below, which is immediately followed by a passage Poe quoted in his unfavorable review in the Broadway Journal, May 24, 1845, of Lord’s Poems. Poe chose to treat the burlesque parodies of his own verses in Lord’s “The New Castalia” as bold plagiarisms, and he might have decided to use some of Lord’s improvements — for Poe seems to have felt nothing wrong in improving on things found, when he was the finder.

With inward and external sight beheld:

And thee and God alone I saw and felt; —

Earth, heaven, and all things vanished, but alone

One central stay, and all-pervading soul

Of love, and beauty, and eternal calm,

In which I rested, as upon the heart

Of universal life, and in its depths

Breathed immortality.

Poe, in the Democratic Review for April 1846, told of looking again at Lord’s “Niagara.” See my edition of Lord’s Poetical Works (1938), pp, viii and 27.

29f.  Poe probably alludes to the famous lines of Prospero in The Tempest, IV, i, 151-156:

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind.

34-35  In the Home Journal, November 25, 1848, “C. M.” (Caroline May?) accused Poe of boldly plagiarizing from Sarah Josepha Hale’s Three Hours (Philadelphia, 1848), p. 37, “The sound of it died in the arms of night.” Poe wrote to Mrs. Whitman, November 24, 1848, that “Mrs. H’s book was published three months ago . . . You had my poem about the first of June.” But see also Hirst’s Endymion, I, xliii, 1-2: “Flowing the fragrance rose as though each blossom / Breathed out its very life.”

36-66  I believe that much of this passage was originally composed as “Holy Eyes.”

36-37  Compare “For Annie,” lines 101-102: “. . . the thought of the light / Of the eyes of my Annie.”

37  There is much about the eyes of the heroine of Poe’s tale, “Ligeia,” to which Poe refers in his own note.

42  Compare “The Man of the Crowd” (1840): “How wild a history is written in that bosom.”

59  For Poe “electric fire” meant lightning, and there is nothing in his phrase properly to suggest the highly mundane ideas that may now make the line seem unpoetical to us.

62  Compare Paradise Lost, IV, 944: “High up in heaven.”

63  Compare Psalm 90:4: “For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.” ­[page 449:]

65  Compare Henry B. Hirst’s sonnet, “Astarté,” in his Coming of the Mammoth (1845):

Floats thy fair form before me . . .

. . . argent eyes, —

Twin planets, swimming through love’s lustrous skies.

The sonnet was quoted with approval in Poe’s review of Hirst’s book in the Broadway Journal of July 12, 1845, See also my notes on “Eulalie,” for the planet Venus visible by day.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 441:]

1  Griswold, “Memoir;” Works (1850), I, xlv.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 443:]

2  According to Caroline Ticknor (Poe’s Helen, pp. 224-225), Mrs, Whitman lent the manuscript of Poe’s poem to a clairvoyant, Dr. Joseph R. Buchanan of Cincinnati, who lost it. Mrs. Whitman quoted line 22 in her poem “To Arcturus” in Graham’s for June 1850. The leaf torn out of The Raven . . . is now in the Lilly Collection.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 444:]

3  Despite our knowledge of the circumstances of the inspiration and composition of this poem, Whitty claimed to think Poe really had in mind a rose garden in Richmond. See Phillips, p. 178, and Agnes M. Bondurant, Poe’s Richmond, p. 200. I have also seen an elaborate comment on the psychological significance of the heroine “clad all in white” by somebody who didn’t know that she always dressed that way in summer. A letter purporting to be from Poe to Bayard Taylor, dated “June 15, 1848,” asking the good offices of that gentleman to submit “the lines enclosed” (obviously meaning “To Helen [Whitman]”) to the Union Magazine (with which Taylor had no known official connection) has been in print since 1909, but I cannot regard it as authentic.

 


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Notes:

None.


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[S:1 - TOM1P, 1969] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (T. O. Mabbott) (To Helen [Whitman])