Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Poe's proposal in a cemetery

Before I get back to Poe's engagement to Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton, let's go back to exactly one year earlier. It is believed that on September 23, 1848, Poe proposed to the poet Sarah Helen Whitman in Providence, Rhode Island at the Swan Point Cemetery.

The romance between Poe and Whitman, who shared the same January 19 birthday (though she was six years older), was a strange one. She was fairly intellectual but had an alleged heart condition which she treated by inhaling from an ether-soaked handkerchief. More strange, however, was her affiliation with Transcendentalists, including the "busybody" Margaret Fuller. She also had a friendship with, of all people, Elizabeth F. Ellet. Poe was understating things when he wrote, "My heart is heavy, Helen, for I see that your friends are not my own."

Poe had called at Whitman's home in Providence (still standing) on September 21. Over the next couple days, she introduced him to friends and took him to the Providence Athenaeum. He gave her some of his books and revealed he was the author of the poem "Ulalume." On September 23, they visited the cemetery. Whitman later recalled:
He endeavored... to persuade me that my influence and my presence would have power to lift his life out of the torpor of despair which had weighed upon him, and give an inspiration to his genius, of which he had as yet given no token. Notwithstanding the eloquence with which he urged upon me his wishes and his hopes, I knew too well that I could not exercise over him the power which he ascribed to me.*
Poe gave up for a time and had to leave Providence. He would later resume his efforts to impress Whitman, even going so far as taking a pledge of temperance. They eventually were engaged but the December wedding was canceled when rumors were spread about Poe. Nevertheless, years later, Sarah Helen Whitman became one of Poe's strongest advocates after his death.

*The quote comes from a letter, written 25 years later, from Whitman to Richard Henry Stoddard, the self-appointed heir to the literary legacy of Rufus Wilmot Griswold. Think what you will.

1 comment:

Poe Forward said...

You've presented their story tenderly. Thank you.