Friday, December 25, 2009

A Christmas wedding... almost

Edgar Allan Poe and Sarah Helen Whitman had planned a Christmas wedding on December 25, 1848. Whitman (no relation to Walt, though the two corresponded frequently) was an accomplished and well-known poet from Providence, Rhode Island. A widow, she was six years older than Poe. She was also an ancillary member of the Transcendentalists, a friend of Margaret Fuller, and an admitted disciple of Ralph Waldo Emerson — all of which Poe did not much care for.

Nevertheless, Poe and Whitman hit it off rather well (even despite a possible suicide attempt while Poe was wooing a married woman) and he proposed to her in a cemetery. Whitman, however, was relatively wealthy and her family was concerned Poe was trying to marry her for her money. Undaunted, the couple signed an agreement waiving their rights to inheritance. To further show his commitment, Poe also promised Whitman he would give up drinking — which he almost certainly did.

Poe arrived in Providence on December 20 and, that evening, gave a lecture on poetry at the Franklin Lyceum. Whitman was in the front row and when Poe recited Edward Coote Pinkney's "A Health," he seemed to be directing it right at her ("I fill this cup to one made up of loveliness alone"). Impressed, she agreed to an immediate marriage. Poe called for Reverend Nathan Bourne Crocker, minister of St. John's Episcopal Church. Poe wrote to Maria Clemm (then in New York): "We shall be married on Monday."

A couple days before the wedding, however, Whitman was sitting in a library when an anonymous note was passed to her. According to the note, Poe had broken his promise to stay sober. Though Poe tried to tell her she had been "misinformed," Whitman called off the wedding and Poe immediately left Providence. They never saw each other again. Their marriage was so close to happening, however, that the couple was congratulated in newspapers throughout the country.

Poe did not stay upset for very long. Soon, he lined up another engagement to a different woman.

After Poe's death, Whitman got Rufus Griswold to confess he had written Poe's libelous obituary. She later published a book defending Poe.

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