Edgar Allan Poe Proposes to Poet Sarah Whitman but Engagement is Called Off
November 1848 Engagement Poe proposes to a poet named Sarah Helen Whitman, who agrees on the condition that he quit drinking. Poe can't live up to the promise, and Whitman calls off the engagement a month later.
Increasingly unstable after his wife's death, Poe attempted to court the poet Sarah Helen Whitman, who lived in Providence, Rhode Island. Their engagement failed, purportedly because of Poe's drinking and erratic behavior. However, there is also strong evidence that Whitman's mother intervened and did much to derail their relationship.
In 1848 Sarah Whitman addressed a Valentine's Day poem to the poet Edgar Allen Poe. He returned the honor by sending her his poem, "To Helen." They found similar literary and metaphysical interests, and became engaged. Sarah insisted on a condition: that he stop drinking.
Why they never actually married is complex. Both were, for their own reasons, reluctant to wed. Sarah's mother, understandably considering her own abandonment by Sarah's father, helped persuade Sarah to insist on an agreement to turn over her (Sarah's) property to her mother, presumably to protect it from Poe. "Friends" and others told Sarah "scandalous" stories about Poe. Poe apparently attempted suicide in the middle of all this, and returned, at least once, to drinking. She called off the wedding; Poe blamed her family. (Less than a year later, after Poe attempted another marriage, this time to Sarah Elmira Royster, he was found unconscious in Baltimore and died in the hospital.)
Whitman and Poe first crossed paths in Providence in July 1845. Poe was attending a lecture by friend and poet Frances Sargent Osgood. As Poe and Osgood walked, they passed the home of Whitman while she was standing in the rose garden behind her house. Poe declined to be introduced to her. By this time, Whitman was already an admirer of Poe's stories. She admitted to friend Mary Hewitt:
"I can never forget the impressions I felt in reading a story of his for the first time... I experienced a sensation of such intense horror that I dared neither look at anything he had written nor even utter his name... By degrees this terror took the character of fascination—I devoured with a half-reluctant and fearful avidity every line that fell from his pen".
A friend, Annie Lynch, had asked Whitman to write a poem for a Valentine's Day party in 1848. She agreed, and wrote one for Poe, though he was not in attendance. Poe heard about the tribute, "To Edgar Allan Poe," and returned the favor by anonymously sending his previously-printed poem "To Helen". Whitman may not have known it was from Poe himself and she did not respond. Three months later, Poe wrote her an entirely new poem, "To Helen," referencing the moment from several years earlier where Poe first saw her in the rose garden behind her house.
Poe was on his way to see Whitman at the time of his alleged suicide attempt. Before boarding a train to Boston from Lowell, Massachusetts on his way to Providence, he took two doses of laudanum. By the time he arrived in Boston he was very sick and close to death. He spent four days in Providence with her immediately after. Though they shared a common interest in literature, Poe was concerned about Whitman's friends, many for whom he had little regard, including Elizabeth F. Ellet, Margaret Fuller, and several other Transcendentalists. He said to her, "My heart is heavy, Helen, for I see that your friends are not my own."
The two exchanged letters and poetry for some time before discussing engagement. After Poe lectured in Providence in December 1848, reciting a poem by Edward Coote Pinkney directly to Whitman, she agreed to an "immediate marriage". Poe agreed to remain sober during their engagement — a vow he violated within only a few days. Whitman's mother discovered that Poe was also pursuing Annie Richmond and childhood sweetheart Sarah Elmira Royster. Even so, the wedding had come so close to occurring that, in January 1849, a newspaper in New London, Connecticut and others announced their union and wished them well. At one point, they chose the wedding date of December 25, 1848, despite criticism of the relationship from friends and enemies alike. Whitman supposedly received an anonymous letter while she was at the library suggesting that Poe had broken his vow to her to stay sober, directly leading to an end of the relationship. Poe said in a letter to Whitman (addressed "Dear Madam") that he blamed her mother for their split. Rufus Wilmot Griswold, Poe's infamous first biographer, claimed that Poe purposefully ended his relationship with Whitman the day before their wedding by committing unnamed drunken "outrages" that, as he wrote in his biography, "made necessary a summons of the police".