Gothic Heroine: Sarah Helen Whitman

Sarah Helen Whitman, 1838
Sarah Helen Whitman, 1838

The legacy of poet Sarah Helen Whitman is so closely tied with her relationship and brief engagement to Edgar Allan Poe that it is almost impossible to separate them. This is unfortunate as Whitman was an accomplished poet, author and critic in her own right. It was partly her own doing though, following Poe's death in 1849 Whitman positioned herself as his defender, claiming a unique and psychic kinship. In 1860 she published Edgar Poe and His Critics in response to Rufus Wilmot Griswold's scathing and slanderous biography, as well as to others who repeated its stories. Unfortunately Whitman's defense of Poe came at the expense of her own posterity and she is largely remembered for their brief love affair. However, Whitman remains a fascinating figure worthy of attention.

Whitman was born in 1803 and published her first poem Retrospective in 1829. Following the death of her husband, John Winslow Whitman, in 1833 she returned to her home town of Providence, Rhode Island to live with her mother and sister. Whilst there she became a notable figure in literary circles, publishing poetry as well as critical essays on Shelley, Byron and Goethe. She was fluent in German, French and Italian and translated many of Goethe's works. Whitman also wrote essays on feminism and women's suffrage, such as The Woman Question in 1868.

Photograph of Sarah Helen Whitman
Photograph of Sarah Helen Whitman

Whitman was an eccentric character, she was a devout believer in Transcendentalism and Spiritualism and wrote many articles on the subject, she also believed she had psychic and healing powers. Whitman would often be seen around Providence draped in veils and shawls that were constantly falling to the ground, she also wore a small wooden coffin around her neck as a memento mori. Whitman suffered from a heart condition and believed she was always close to death. Her poetry often followed these themes of life, death, sorrow and immortality. Her poetry collections include Hours of Life and Other Poems published in 1853 and the posthumous collection Poems, published in 1879.

 Sarah Helen Whitman during a trance, from the Brown Digital Repository
Sarah Helen Whitman during a trance (Brown Digital Repository)

In 1848, after reading Poe's The Raven, Whitman was inspired to write a valentine poem and dedicated it to Poe.

Oh! thou grim and ancient Raven,
From the Night’s Plutonic shore,
Oft in dreams, thy ghastly pinions
Wave and flutter round my door —
Oft thy shadow dims the moonlight
Sleeping on my chamber floor ...
Oft like Proserpine I wander
On the Night’s Plutonic shore,
Hoping, fearing, while I ponder
On thy loved and lost Lenore,
Till thy voice like distant thunder
Sounds across the distant moor ...

Poe returned the compliment by writing To Helen.

I saw thee once — once only — years ago:
I must not say how many — but not many.
It was a July midnight; and from out
A full-orbed moon, that, like thine own soul, soaring,
Sought a precipitate pathway up through heaven, ...
Clad all in white, upon a violet bank
I saw thee half-reclining; while the moon
Fell on the upturned faces of the roses,
And on thine own, upturn'd — alas, in sorrow! ...
And thou, a ghost, amid the entombing trees
Didst glide away. Only thine eyes remained;
They would not go — they never yet have gone;
Lighting my lonely pathway home that night,
They have not left me (as my hopes have) since;
They follow me — they lead me through the years.
They are my ministers — yet I their slave ...

From then on the pair exchanged poems and letters, leading to an intense courtship and a brief engagement. Whitman had been willing to defy her mother's wishes and lose her inheritance by marrying Poe, but only on the condition that Poe stopped drinking. When he showed up at her house one night drunk she ended the engagement. Following Poe's death Whitman made small indications that she had communicated with Poe's spirit. Whitman continued to write poetry and publish essays and articles until her death in 1878.

For a deeper look at the relationship and literary influence between Whitman and Poe see Last Flowers: The Romance and Poetry of Edgar Allan Poe and Sarah Helen Whitman. Also for greater insight into other writers that were an influence on Poe, such as Frances Sargent Osgood and Elizabeth Oakes Smith see Eliza Richards' book Gender and the Poetics of Reception in Poe's Circle.


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