Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Dearest object on earth

A letter was written to Maria Clemm, mother-in-law of Edgar Poe, on September 22, 1849. The letter-writer was a woman who had never met Maria, yet she wrote: "I feel as if I were writing to one whom I love very devotedly." Sarah Elmira Shelton (nee Royster) was encouraged to write this letter by her new fiancee, Edgar Poe.

Poe had first met Elmira when they were both teenagers in Richmond, but their budding romance was cut short due to the intervention of her father while Poe was away at the University of Virginia. The failed romance inspired a short story by Poe's brother William Henry Leonard Poe and, possibly, a play by Lambert A. Wilmer, a Baltimore friend of W. H. L. Poe. If nothing else, many of Poe's early poems about lost love or youthful folly seem inspired by the relationship.

Elmira married Alexander Shelton, but Mr. Shelton died shortly before she crossed paths with Poe again. Poe dropped in on her in July 1848 (she wrote, "I was ready to go to church and a servant told me that a gentleman in the parlor wanted to see me. I went down and was amazed to see him
but knew him instantly.") and it seems their relationship picked up right where it left off. However, Alexander Shelton's will stipulated that the ample inheritance left for her would be cut substantially. He pushed, she acquiesced, and it all happened very quickly: His visit was September 17, her letter to Maria Clemm was only five days later. In it, she referred to him as her "dearest object on earth." Nevertheless, it seems Elmira's family, particularly her brothers, never approved of the coupling. Poe then left Richmond on September 27, 1849. The marriage would never take place; Poe died two weeks after the letter from Elmira to Maria Clemm was written.

After Poe's death, Elmira kept tight-lipped about her relationship with Poe. She later said she would not have married him "under any circumstances"
— a strange thing to say, considering what she wrote to Maria Clemm. She changed her tune again in June 1884 when she was interviewed by Dr. John J. Moran, who was preparing a booklet on his experience as Poe's attending physician in his last days. Moran's account is known for its lack of credibility in general but Elmira's changing testimony is questionable and confusing, which has led to some suspicion about her family's role in Poe's death...

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