a field guide to quiet courage
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literary inklings

literary inklings

notes from a bohemian library

Edgar Allan Poe's Love Letter to Sarah Helen Whitman

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Despite a lasting reputation for both the dark and delusional, Edgar Allan Poe could - on occasion - handle love with a gentle touch. This is evidenced in a letter he wrote to his once-fiance, poet Sarah Helen Whitman. She was a Transcendentalist, he was a Romantic. They met first through their love of words, when she composed a Valentine for him on the occasion of a holiday party (which he didn't attend). Upon hearing her poem, he replied with a poem of his own; thus began a correspondence that sparked a courtship.

I have already told you that some few casual words spoken of you by --- ---, were the first in which I had ever heard your name mentioned. She alluded to what she called your “eccentricities,” and hinted at your sorrows. Her description of the former strangely arrested – her allusion to the latter enchained and riveted my attention.

She had referred to thoughts, sentiments, traits, moods, which I knew to be my own, but which, until that moment, I had believed to be my own solely – unshared by any human being. A profound sympathy took immediate possession of my soul. I cannot better explain to you what I felt than by saying that your unknown heart seemed to pass into my bosom – there to dwell for ever – while mine, I thought, was translated into your own.

From that hour I loved you. Since that period I have never seen nor heard your name without a shiver, half of delight, half of anxiety. – The impression left upon my mind was that you were still a wife, and it is only within the last few months that I have been undeceived in this respect.

For this reason I shunned your presence and even the city in which you lived. You may remember that once when I passed through Providence with Mrs. Osgood I positively refused to accompany her to your house, and even provoked her into a quarrel by the obstinacy and seeming unreasonableness of my refusal. I dared neither go nor say why I could not. I dared not speak of you – much less see you. For years your name never passed my lips, while my soul drank in, with a delirious thirst, all that was uttered in my presence respecting you.

While much of their relationship appears complicated and inscrutable, this letter of Poe's to "Helen" is a wonderful glimpse at the writer in love. There are elements of his iconic penchant for "madness" in language that speaks of superstition and "a spirit far sterner - far more reckless than despair". His passion expounds as he writes, from his cordial and controlled opening passage to the disjointed final paragraph, giving insight into how his own faculties operated around his emotions.

Judge, then, with what wondering, unbelieving joy, I received, in your well-known MS., the Valentine which first gave me to see that you knew me to exist.

The idea of what men call Fate lost then in my eyes its character of futility. I felt that nothing hereafter was to be doubted, and lost myself for many weeks in one continuous, delicious dream, where all was a vivid, yet indistinct bliss. –

Immediately after reading the Valentine, I wished to contrive some mode of acknowledging – without wounding you by seeming directly to acknowledge – my sense – oh, my keen – my exulting – my ecstatic sense of the honour you had conferred on me. To accomplish as I wished it, precisely what I wished, seemed impossible, however; and I was on the point of abandoning the idea, when my eyes fell upon a volume of my own poems; and then the lines I had written, in my passionate boyhood, to the first purely ideal love of my soul – to the Helen Stannard of whom I told you – flashed upon my recollection. I turned to them. They expressed all – all that I would have said to you – so fully – so accurately and so exclusively, that a thrill of intense superstition ran at once through my frame. Read the verses and then take into consideration the peculiar need I had, at the moment, for just so seemingly an unattainable mode of communication with you as they afforded. Think of the absolute appositeness with which they fulfilled that need – expressing not only all that I would have said of your person, but all that I most wishes to assure you, in the lines commencing –

On desperate seas long wont to roam.

The lines he references are from his poem To Helen, which he had sent her as his response to her Valentine's Day dedication. And while Poe's admiration for Whitman was clearly acute, the couple never married. Poe broke his promise of sobriety to her in the days before their wedding, severing the terms of their engagement, as it were.

Think of the rare agreement of name, and you will no longer wonder that to one accustomed as I am to the Calculus of Probabilities, they wore an air of positive miracle… I yielded at once to an overwhelming sense of Fatality. From that hour I have never been able to shake from my soul the belief that my Destiny, for good or for evil, either here or hereafter, is in some measure interwoven with your own.

Of course I did not expect, on your part, any acknowledgement of the printed lines “To Helen”; and yet, without confessing it even to myself, I experienced an indefinable sense of sorrow in your silence. At length, when I thought you had time fully to forget me (if, indeed, you had ever really remembered) I sent you the anonymous lines in MS. I wrote, first, through a pining, burning desire to communicate with you in some way – even if you remained in ignorance of your correspondent. The mere thought that your dear fingers would press – your sweet eyes dwell upon the characters which I had penned – characters which had welled out upon the paper from the depths of so devout a love – filled my soul with a rapture, which seemed, then, all sufficient for my human nature. It then appeared to me that merely this one thought involved so much of bliss that here on earth I could have no right ever to repine – no room for discontent. If ever, then, I dared to picture for myself a richer happiness, it was always connected with your image in Heaven. But there was yet another idea which impelled me to send you those lines: - I said to myself the sentiment – the holy passion which glows in my bosom for her, is of Heaven, heavenly, and has no taint of the earth. Thus then must lie in the recesses of her own pure bosom, at least the germ of a reciprocal love, and if this be indeed so, she will need no earthly due – she will instinctively feel who is her correspondent – In this case, then, I may hope for some faint token at least, giving me to understand that the source of the poem is known as its sentiment comprehended even if disapproved.

Oh, God! – how long – how long I waited in vain – hoping against hope – until, at length, I became possessed with a spirit far sterner – far more reckless than despair – I explained to you – but without detailing the vital influence they wrought upon my fortune – the singular additional, yet seemingly trivial fatality by which you happened to address your anonymous stanzas to Fordham instead of New York – by which my aunt happened to get notice of their being in the West Farm post-office. But I have not yet told you that your lines reached me in Richmond on the very day in which I was about to enter on a course which would have borne me far, far away from you, sweet, sweet Helen, and from this divine dream of your love.

Although Whitman and Poe separated within a year of their initial acquaintance, in his letters Poe seems utterly assured of his devotion to Whitman, writing in a separate letter, "it is the most spiritual love that I speak, even if I speak it from the depths of the most passionate of hearts." Though their relationship was not, ultimately, meant to be, it did result in a beautiful and ever thoughtful piece of writing that speaks to the complex, passionate spirit of Poe himself.