A version of this piece was originally published in The College Hill Independent in March 2013 .
Draped in the pale, empty elegance of lace, Helen’s look is haunting. It’s appropriate, against the cool, grainy darkness of the cemetery where she sits. She has a coffin-shaped necklace hanging from her rail of a neck. In her purse, she carries a kerchief sprayed with ether to treat some imagined heart condition or other. Her elegance for tonight’s ordinary occasion, an evening’s walk, makes her fanciness seem strange, remote, not quite of this earth.
Facing this ghostly presence is a man who looks like he was born in that black floor-length double-breasted greatcoat he’s sporting. With sunken eyes and wispy tresses, he has the look of a man who wouldn’t say things; he quoth them. Edgar Allan Poe might be kneeling now, the neat, mildly worn trouser on his left knee pressed on the frigid cobblestone sidewalk. On this hillside cemetery in 1848 Providence, RI, Poe proposed to his “Helen of a Thousand Dreams,” the woman he wrote odes to before he even laid eyes on her—or so he said. An 1831 poem begins:
Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicean barks of yore…
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!
Biographers paint Helen and the people in Poe’s life as Poe would: wrapped in a veil of intrigue. After all, it’s Poe who’s at the center of this cemetery scene, the man whose name we recognize. But wish all we might that Poe’s real life was something out of “The Raven,” it just isn’t.
Sarah Helen Whitman went by Helen. She was a feminist, a critic, and a writer in her own right. She was born on January 19, 1803, in Providence. This was six years to the day before Poe’s birth in 1809 in Boston. Poe’s poem “To Helen” was first published in 1831, fourteen years before the two met. Even in the definitive timeline of her life, it’s easy for historians to lose Helen in Poe’s shadow.
One evening in 1848, in the days leading to her delayed acceptance of Poe’s proposal, Helen walked in on Poe brooding in a dimly lit parlor, the coal fire casting hyperbolic shadows on the walls. Staring at a portrait of Helen hanging on the wall, Poe seems in a trance. “Helen,” he started, as she recalls in one of her letters to a friend. “I have had such strange dreams since I have been sitting here that I can hardly believe myself awake! Your picture in this dim light looked so like the face of Robert Stanard that it startled me. You remember that he was the schoolmate of whom I have spoken to you, the son of Mrs. Helen Stanard, whom I loved so well.”
It’s clear Helen Stanard—not Sarah Helen Whitman—is the object of Poe’s 1831 poem “To Helen.” Helen listened to Poe when he told her the poem was a sign he knew her ages ago, that he loved her ages ago. Recalling that night in the dimly lit parlor, Helen wrote to a friend that she fancied herself almost a “weird fantasy in some of his stories.” She was smitten, wrapped up in a grand man’s delusions of grandeur. Even Helen herself couldn’t resist making herself one of Poe’s characters, linked to her “poor Raven” by premonition and parallel birth.
Long before Poe passed through Providence, Whitman was a woman of letters. She pored over the romantic and transcendentalist writings of her time: Emerson, Shelley, Byron, and Keats—literature suffused with over-sentiment and spiritualism. Helen made her own debut in the literary world with the help of her first husband, John Winslow Whitman, co-editor of the Boston Spectator and Ladies’ Album. But Helen began writing poetry as a girl, in Quaker school.
Growing up, Helen’s house was on the corner of Benefit and Church Streets, a warm, reddish brown cottage that still hugs the side of College Hill today, where it slopes toward the river. Cozied up in her home of “pure and gentle peace” where human hearts found “fine accord” and “cares and follies are together fled,” Helen wrote. She wrote poems in wide, curly cursives. She wrote odes to invisible dogs. She wrote mountains of letters, mostly to female friends, recounting lazy days in the countryside. And as a grown woman, she published accolades to her literary admirations like Percy Bysshe Shelley and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and accounts of her fast-paced travels abroad.
In 1845, the year Poe first saw her, Helen wrote a letter to her friend Ruth recounting her meeting with another man, abolitionist Thomas Wilson Dorr. She described how his right hand’s gentle pressure “still pulsated” along her fingers and made her forget her “tea, strawberries and cream!” In Helen’s writings, there’s a quirky, providential marriage of girlish pleasure and scathing cynicism that makes her an unusually candid voice of her time.
“By the way,” she wrote in a letter to a writer friend Julia Deane Freeman, “did you ever think how strange it is that Lady Macbeth has no name—no distinctive name?”
History remembers Helen best for her writings on Poe. She actually made the first move. At a friend’s party in Providence, she recited her hypothetical valentine she thought he’d never see:
Oh! thou grim and ancient Raven,
From the Night’s Plutonic shore,
Oft in dreams, thy ghastly pinions
Wave and flutter round my door…
Little did she know, Poe was smirking in the audience.
Her earnest admiration in that poem is proof Helen the writer valued candor. In her literary criticism, she revered the honest, domestic dramas of Charlotte Brontë. The books of literary magnate William Thackery, who wrote savage satires of high English society, Helen dismissed as “prosaic, ignoble and passionless.” She found passion in Poe.
“I have pressed your letter again and again to my lips, sweetest Helen—bathing it in tears of joy, or of a ‘divine despair’…All thoughts—all passions seem now merged in the one consuming desire—the mere wish to make you comprehend—to make you see that for which there is no human voice—the unutterable fervor of my love for you—for so well do I know your poet-nature, oh Helen! Helen!”
This is the second correspondence, October 1, 1848, between the two writers, who hadn’t formally met yet. Only acquainted through their writings: Poe’s published stories and Helen’s intellectual valentine. Not quite a fortnight had passed after their first letter of correspondence and not but a few weeks would pass before
Poe would propose. Biographers write that Poe first laid eyes on Helen in her hillside rose garden in 1845, in a scene much like the cemetery one.
Their romance was fast, furious, and mostly long-distance. After his first proposal to Helen, Poe writes to her, “Would it not be ‘glorious,’ darling, to establish in America the sole unquestionable aristocracy—that of intellect—to secure its supremacy—to lead and control it?” Helen, no doubt, was smitten. After receiving this letter and hearing that Poe, alone and awaiting an answer to his proposal, had attempted suicide, she finally obliged. The engagement was conditional; Poe had to promise not to drink. It may be hard to imagine no-nonsense, levelheaded Helen acceding to Poe’s extravagant proposal. But it seems she did love him.
Helen’s literary life is often veiled beneath a shroud of romantic portraits. But Poe’s life too was swathed in its own malign mythology. The talk of the town was that Poe had begun an affair with an old flame, Mrs. Shelton, in Massachusetts, during Helen and Poe’s engagement. When Helen heard word from friends that Poe had begun drinking again, she was done.
“To my excited imagination everything at that time seemed a portent or an omen,” she wrote. “I had been subjected to terrible mental conflicts, and was but just recovering from a painful and dangerous illness.” Helen had no way of knowing the truth.
Biographies paint the next scene like this: Poe ambled onto the threshold of the Benefit Street cottage from his train from Richmond. He stands in the parlor, dreamy-eyed and ready to embark on a life with his Helen of a Thousand Dreams. Helen’s mother and sister brood in the corner of their dimly lit parlor, frowning at the madman who thinks he’ll be marrying their Helen. Helen walks purposefully down the stairs and throws the adulterer out of her house. He protests angrily, violently, and storms out, never to see Helen again.
In less than a year, Poe dies.
“Of course the incident caused a great deal of gossip and the wildest and most exaggerated stories,” Helen wrote to a friend. Three weeks after Poe returned to Fordham, he wrote to Helen about the horrible rumors circulating about his character, asking, “by the love that had subsisted between us to write him at once to assure him that I, at least, had not authorized their circulation.”
Helen never wrote back: “Dreading that an answer to this letter might lead to a renewal of the harrowing scenes I had passed through I did not reply to it.”
Poe continued to write to her in his final days, asking her, again and again, to write to him, to reassure him that the calumnies that spread came not from her tongue. “No amount of provocation shall induce me to speak ill of you,” he wrote, “even in my own defense.”
Shortly after Poe’s death, the biographer Ruphus Wilmot Griswold, a poet whose work Poe criticized, led a campaign to deface the name of Edgar Allan Poe as madman, freak, and infidel. Suddenly, Poe himself was painted as a character out of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” a psychotic, amoral, drunken monster. Seen this way, it’s easy to imagine the horrors that Edgar Poe must have inflicted on his loved ones. Whitman was likely the woman torn most by this man’s infidelity.
But Sarah Helen Whitman was elegant, dignified, and critical; she suffered no fools. Helen wouldn’t love just anyone.
Helen, whose own literary life is ever obscured by Poe’s notoriety, spent her final days clearing Poe’s name in a
series of letters, articles, and her published book Edgar Poe and His Critics. Helen writes her Poe, a very different Poe from the one he wrote himself. Helen’s Poe was a man who “delighted in the society of superior women.” Poe was a poet with “exquisite perception of all graces of manner and shades of expression,” Helen writes in Edgar Poe and His Critics. But more than that, Poe the man was “an admiring listener,” she writes, “an unobtrusive observer.” In life, Poe insisted he wrote odes to Helen before he even knew she existed. It seems in her final days, Helen returned the favor. Edgar Poe and His Critics was Helen’s response to Poe’s final request. Her book was a final love letter.
Helen never had children. She married John Winslow when she was 25, and he died when she was 30. Poe was a one-year whirlwind in Helen’s 46th year. She never married again. She lived to be 75. From the sheer volume of Helen’s letters, poems, and articles that sit in the John Hay Library, it seems words were Helen’s life’s work. Though history may not have taken note, Helen made a name for herself in the papers of her time that earned her students of writing, among them John Hay of Brown Univeristy’s John Hay Library. Hay expressed great gratitude for Helen’s attention to his poems while he was in Rhode Island, and after he moved out West, he wrote to her, saying he would read her letters “repeatedly.” He said he sat, immersed in her “beautiful descriptions, trying to lay the foundations of mountains in my soul and retouching with the colors of your fancy the picture of Niagara, which was fading from memory.”
Helen was fond of her community, but she wrote unflinchingly about the inequality that plagued society. Her stinging poem, “Woman’s Sphere” appeared in the Providence Journal in 1871:
Theme for the reckless taunt and idle jest, —
Man’s patient vassal, or his toy at best…
Alarmed the sound of her own voice to hear
Kept in the dark; commended to ‘her sphere;’
Scoffed from the platform with pretentious scorn
To nurse the children never to be born…
Taught to believe marriage is a woman’s heaven
Though only one can get there out of seven
Judging by her writings, Helen was many things, but “haunting” doesn’t seem to fit that playful, biting master of wit that comes to life on paper. Quirky, maybe, but not quite other-worldly. Her elegance wasn’t empty; it was prolific.
A new scene comes into focus. Helen, graying, still sitting in that upstairs room of her childhood cottage, looking back at a life in stacks of letters, dons a silent smirk.
By: Julia Longoria, Contributor