Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The death of Poe's first love

185 years ago today, Poe's first love died. Or so they say.
Mrs. Jane Stith Craig Stanard died April 28, 1824, when Poe was only 15 years old. He met her through a Richmond classmate named Robert Stanard. Mrs. Stanard was a bit of an eccentric, prone to bouts of melancholy, and gradually went insane before her death.

Poe had likely known her for only a year or so but he was instantly struck by her. Sarah Helen Whitman later wrote: "This lady, on entering the room, took [Poe's] hand and spoke some gentle and gracious words of welcome, which so penetrated the heart of the orphan boy as to depireve him of the power of speech, and, for a time, almost of consciousness itself." Poe himself wrote to Whitman that Stanard was "the first purely ideal love of my soul." To friend Marie Louise Shew (who cared for Poe's wife Virginia on her deathbed), he wrote that she was "the truest, tenderest of this world's most womanly souls, and an angelt o my forlorn and darkened nature."

After her death, Poe is said to have often visited her grave at Shockoe Hill Cemetery (where his foster-mother Frances Allan would later be laid to rest). Her death was the second instance of a woman whom he loved dying in her prime (the first, of course, being his young mother Eliza Poe when he was an infant). Though some scholars have credited Stanard's death to tuberculosis, and thus part of a long series of consumptive women in Poe's life, this is not true; the "death-like sickness" she suffered has not been identified. Still, Stanard seems to have cemented the idea that the death of a beautiful woman was the most poetical topic in the world; Poe's first poem to carry the title "To Helen" was dedicated to her.

But, really, let's call a spade a spade. This isn't head over heels love. The woman was married and far too old for him (literally twice his age). This "love" was likely little more than puppy love, a boyhood crush or, perhaps, idolatry to take the place of his missing birth mother. In fact, Poe's mother-in-law/aunt Maria Clemm later wrote, "It is true dear Eddie did love Mrs. Stannard [sic] with all the affection devotion of a son. When he was unhappy at home (which was very often the case) he went to her for sympathy, and she always consoled and comforted him." Whatever the "relationship," Poe was very affected by her death.

"To Helen" (1831)

Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicean barks of yore,
That gently, o'er a perfum'd sea,
The weary way-worn wanderer bore
To his own native shore.

On desperate seas long wont to roam,
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
To the beauty of fair Greece,
And the grandeur of old Rome.

Lo! in that little window-niche
How statue-like I see thee stand!
The folded scroll within thy hand —
A Psyche from the regions which
Are Holy land!

1 comment:

Gina said...

Awww. Poor Poe.