Monday, September 27, 2010

Poe, Providence, and the Second "To Helen"

"Hardly anybody behaves normally in this history...In other words, if there ever was a life to illustrate the truth that there are many more questions in the world than answers, this is that life."
-Edward Wagenknecht, trying and failing to make sense of it all in "Edgar Allan Poe: The Man Behind the Legend"
Edgar Allan Poe ManetEdgar Allan Poe traveled to or through Providence RI on at least one, and quite possibly two occasions in 1845. Both these visits have engendered controversy, and unfortunately many of the details surrounding these trips are engulfed in fog, thanks largely, as usual, to Sarah Helen Whitman.

In November of 1848, Poe published a poem titled simply "To ---," which opened with the lines, "I saw thee once--once only..." After his death, Rufus Griswold republished these verses under the title "To Helen," with the explanation that Poe addressed these lines to Mrs. Whitman, and that the sighting described in the poem was based on a true incident. According to Griswold, when Poe stayed overnight in Providence while returning to New York after his appearance at the Boston Lyceum in October 1845, he took a midnight walk through the town. During this stroll, he chanced to see Mrs. Whitman standing in front of her house, and supposedly the sight so inspired him that, three years later, he wrote this poem. (Although the "enchanted" garden in Poe's verses bore no resemblance to Whitman's actual residence.)Sarah Helen Whitman and Edgar Allan PoeWhitman, on the other hand, claimed this "sighting" of her (of which she had at the time been unaware--which is odd, considering that it must have happened on a small, otherwise deserted street,) took place in 1845, but, as the poem said, in July.

Perhaps the most curious part of her story is that we have no proof she ever heard of this poetic and momentous incident from Poe himself.***

The letters he allegedly wrote to Whitman indicate that the first time he ever actually saw her was when he visited Providence in September 1848. Whitman said she learned details of Poe's little Peeping Tom episode from Frances S. Osgood, of all people. Decades later, Whitman described a visit Osgood made to her in the fall of 1848, apparently with the aim of gleaning information about Whitman's rumored engagement to Poe. Whitman claimed Osgood told her that in mid-1845 (presumably in July,) he was passing through Providence on his way from Boston to New York, and stopped overnight at the same hotel where Osgood was staying. The next day, he informed her that he had spent most of the night walking in and around the town, and happened to pass Mrs. Whitman's home (he had "previously ascertained" its location from Osgood.) There, he observed the lady of the house herself walking up and down the sidewalk (he made the identification through Osgood's description of Whitman--and the question of why Frances would bother giving Poe a minute physical description of another woman, let alone directions to her home, was never explained.)

One of the letters Poe supposedly sent Whitman late in 1848 described an occasion when, while he was passing through Providence, Mrs. Osgood tried to persuade him to join her on a call to Mrs. Whitman, but he refused. A date is not given for this incident, although Whitman herself annotated the letter to indicate it was in July '45. We are not told why he rejected the opportunity to actually meet this woman he supposedly already adored from afar, other than the vague assertion that he "dared not" risk laying eyes upon her. This letter seems to contradict the scenario given in "I saw thee once..."

Incidentally, these Poe/Whitman letters also contradict another bit of known history. One of these letters stated that until Mrs.Whitman sent to him some Valentine verses she had written in his honor in February 1848, he had been unaware she even knew of his existence. Aside from the fact that it would be absurd for him to assume that a fellow member of the literati was ignorant of the writer of "The Raven," we know for a fact that in late 1845 or early 1846, Whitman requested her friend, New York socialite Anne Lynch, to ask Poe on her behalf for a copy of his critique of Elizabeth Barrett's poetry. Whitman--who had been intensely interested in Poe and his writings for some time--undoubtedly hoped he would write her personally. Instead, he merely gave Lynch a copy of the article to forward to Whitman. In other words, unless Poe had so little interest in Whitman that he immediately forgot about this incident, that letter simply makes no sense.

There is much uncertainty in what we're told about Poe's Providence visits. In late June/early July 1845, he was embroiled in an accusation of forgery that had been made against him by a New York merchant named Edward Isaiah Thomas. Poe and Thomas were strangers, but Thomas was a friend of the Osgood family, and passed on to Frances gossip he had heard about Poe. She, in turn, informed the poet of the accusations. Osgood was making an extended stay in Providence and Boston during this period--according to at least one Poe biographer, in the company of her husband--so all this rumor-mongering and tattle-taleing between the three principals was evidently being carried on through the post. According to his published "Reply to Thomas Dunn English," Poe briefly left New York in early July 1845 to "procure evidence" for his planned lawsuit against Mr. Thomas. The inference is that he wished to interview Osgood, and possibly others as well, to get details of these slanders being promulgated against him, and probably to persuade Osgood to provide a deposition. (In a later issue of the "Broadway Journal," Poe mentioned a visit he made to Boston around this time. It is unknown whether Osgood was then in that city, or if he merely questioned her in Providence en route to a visit made to Boston for other reasons.)

Now, contrary to what Whitman later said, Poe and Osgood could not have stayed at the same hotel in July of 1845, as Osgood's correspondence shows that when she was in Providence during that month, she was staying with friends, the family of Henry Bowen Anthony. When Poe traveled through Providence on his way to Boston in October, Osgood was living in Providence's City Hotel (with, her correspondence suggests, her husband, and presumably her young children!) The ineffable John Evangelist Walsh assumed that Poe stopped overnight at that same hotel, but, as usual with him, had no evidence this was the case. At that time, the City Hotel was the most prominent of Providence's many hostelries, an unlikely place for Poe to stay, even for one day. Even when he was in funds, he had little liking for ostentatious surroundings (he hated New York's lavish Astor House.) It is more likely that he spent the night at a more modest establishment. There is actually no indication that Poe so much as saw Mrs. Osgood during his overnight stop-over in Providence, or was even aware she was in the city. In short, whichever way you look at it, Whitman's account of what she claimed Osgood told her has problems. (Although in regards to her story, it should be noted that Mrs. Whitman not only knew both Poe and Osgood, but she had many contacts among New York's gossipy and cruel literary circles. Thus, she would know as well as anyone the true nature of their relationship. Particularly when she was in her self-appointed role of Poe's personal defender/love interest, her guileless openness about depicting Poe and Osgood in each other's society indicates her knowledge that their relations had been wholly innocent.)Rufus W. Griswold and Edgar Allan PoeIt is very curious how much of what we're told about the Poe/Whitman relationship originated from the Reverend Doctor Rufus Wilmot Griswold. He was the first to state publicly that the poem Poe published in November 1848 to an unknown addressee was written for Sarah Helen Whitman. She afterwards endorsed this tale, of course, stating that she received this poem as an anonymous manuscript in the spring of that year. Unfortunately, we have no proof this was the case, as this reputed manuscript disappeared. Whitman claimed she sent it to a psychic for a "reading," in whose hands it vanished without a trace. (Corroborating evidence for Mrs. W's stories had a way of doing that.)

Many months before they met, Poe supposedly sent Whitman a copy of his first "To Helen," torn out of one of his books. The mailing gave no indication that he was the sender, but, according to Whitman, a male New York acquaintance of his who happened to be visiting Providence identified Poe's handwriting on the envelope. This "acquaintance" may very well have been Griswold.

Similarly, the romantic tale of Whitman unknowingly captivating Poe's attention during this midnight walk of his was also first recorded by the good Doctor. Whitman herself claimed not to know how Griswold heard the story. She vaguely assumed he learned about it from Mrs. Osgood, but it taxes one's brain to come up with a motive for Osgood--who had had a falling-out with Whitman--to give Griswold this information. And if such a dramatic incident truly happened, why did Poe himself never write to Whitman about it? And if, as Griswold claimed, "I saw thee once..." referred to that encounter, why did he describe it as happening in October, when the poem describes a "July midnight?"Edgar Allan Poe To HelenIt is undoubtedly impossible for anyone this side of the grave to find definitive answers to all these conundrums, but these are nevertheless questions that Poe scholars must ask themselves.

***A footnote: Mrs. Whitman possessed a bound set of the "Broadway Journal," which she said Poe gave her in October 1848. Among the handwritten annotations is the comment, "N. B.--The poem which I sent you contained all the events of a dream which occurred to me soon after I knew you. Ligeia was also suggested by a dream. Observe the eyes in both tale & poem."

Years later, after George W. Eveleth learned of this annotation, he pointed out to Mrs. Whitman the obvious discrepancy: She claimed that the "I saw thee once..." poem was sent to her long before she and Poe met. So how to explain Poe's reference to writing the poem "after I knew you?"

Mrs. Whitman always had an explanation for everything. She--rather too stridently--wrote Eveleth that what Poe had actually written was that this poem, and the dream which inspired it, occurred to him "soon after I knew you through Mrs. Osgood's description." She said she had cut out those last four words and sent it to someone wanting a sample of Poe's handwriting. (This alleged scrap of writing--who'd have dreamed it?--vanished.) She offered this same alibi to John H. Ingram, who appears to have politely ignored it.

Whatever else one might have to say about Sarah Helen Power Whitman, one certainly has to give the lady high credit for ingenuity. Or perhaps it was all simply thanks to the ether she was constantly inhaling.

(Poe & Griswold images: NYPL Digital Gallery)