The relationships between Edgar Allan Poe and the women in his life - mother, stepmother, wives, paramours - were tenuous at best, disastrous at worst, and yet they provided inspiration and stimulus for some of the finest darkly romantic poems and short stories of the early 19th century. The stark contrast between Poe's idealized views of everlasting love were tempered and clouded by the real life pain and trials that barred him from ever experiencing this pinnacle of spiritual and romantic love. His ideal, his essence, as told through his poems and stories, is not an attainable Eden, but rather an unattainable, nightmarish vision that echoed his real-life tragedies with calculated skill.
From the early loss of his mother to the late-in-life failings at courtship and remarriage, Poe's life was wrought with near-misses and tragic losses, and much like the characters he created, his wounds led to his downfall. His mother's death (Elizabeth Poe was pecked to death by crows at the age of 24), left Poe without a maternal figure for many years.
Poe's feelings of motherlessness caused him to spend his life searching for maternal figures. Whether in the guise of Frances Allan, Virginia Poe, Mary Todd Lincoln, or Sarah Whitman, the women in his life carried with them a sense of potential emotional fulfillment and most also had more than an imagined sense of unrealized ardor. The women Poe looked to all had a very maternal aspect as well as an intellectual or artistic one, and it can be said that perhaps Poe was looking for a cerebral nurturer rather than a corporeal wife.
After the death of his parents, Poe lived with the Allans, a well-to-do Richmond family. Poe had a seemingly normal childhood and adolescence, but following an especially fervent argument with his adoptive father, Poe was court-marshaled from West Point, and went to Baltimore, to live with his aunt, Maria Clemm. The Clemm household consisted of her seventy-five year old mother, her thirteen year old son Henry, and her eight year old daughter Virginia, living "in the mysterious manner in which individuals who cannot take care of themselves, if alone, manage to survive when joined in a group." Again, Poe bonded maternally and he considered Mrs. Clemm as another mother. Poe paid tribute to her in the poem Sonnet to my Mother, one of his most biographically revealing works.
Because the angels in the Heaven above,
Devoutly singing unto one another,
Can find, amid their burning terms of love,
None so devotional as that of "mother,"
Therefore by that sweet name I long have called you:
In setting my Virginia's spirit free.
My mother - my own mother, who died early,
Was but the mother of myself; but you
Are mother to the dead I loved so dearly,
Are thus more precious than the one I knew,
By that infinity with which my wife
Was dearer to my soul than its soul-life.
While this piece in its final form has been heralded as a piece of passionate beauty and melancholy, several drafts reveal the somewhat clumsy way in which Poe grappled with finding ways to express his true feelings:
Mother, I just cannot say
How much it is I miss you today.
I thought of you while walking around
Of how I wished I could show you my town.
You'd like it, Mother, it's cold and dreary
There's a street named 'Main' and a street named 'Leary.'
The immortal bonds of marriage fared no better for Poe, his wife Virginia lived only a few years after their wedding. Right before the death of his wife, Poe wrote The Oval Portrait about his torment during her last few days. In that story, a young bride is painted by her husband, Dorian Grey. Just as Dorian finishes the bride's portrait, she dies and he is cursed to live forever. Although the character is a painter rather than a writer, the autobiographical nature is thinly veiled, and the story expresses his doubts about the harm Poe feels he may have committed to Virginia through his passions and excesses. Yet another ill-fated connection was that with Sarah Whitman. Whitman was an eccentric woman, a widow who dressed in long, flowing garments and held s©ances in her home, and she became enamored of Poe and of his writing. She wore a memento mori, a tiny wooden coffin, around her neck, and wrote poetry. Whitman met Poe while at a luncheon held in honor of the visiting Mary Todd Lincoln. While Poe was initially enamored with the scholarly and stout Mrs. Lincoln, their flirtations were tenuous at best. Sarah Whitman witnessed many fleeting glances and, armed with a vial of smelling salts, an oyster fork, and an issue of the Philadelphia Gazzette, conspired to permanently break the ties Poe and Mrs. Lincoln. Poe was wise to her ways and immediately enamored by Whitman's cunning and shrewdness.
The relationship between Mrs. Whitman and Poe seemed doomed from the start; for while they were in love with the ideas of each other, they seemed to be ignoring the realities of one another. While Poe was seeking a wife, Whitman was seeking a flirtation, and this disparity would cause no end of heartache to both of them. Whitman avoided Poe's advances; claiming her poor health as the reason, she said to Poe "had I youth and health and beauty I would live for you and die with you. Now were I to allow myself to love you, I could only enjoy a bright brief hour of rapture and die."
Poe's attachment and devotion to her finally won out and she agreed to marry him, on the condition that he gave up drinking and stopped using the letter H. These tasks he could not do, and the wedding was called off with much commotion. Poe blamed the interference of Whitman's mother for the end of the engagement, but it was his own alcoholism and insistence on starting all personal correspondences with the phrase "Hi-diddly-ho there," that was the real reason.
Annie Richmond, wife of paper manufacturer Charles Richmond, consoled Poe after his break with Whitman, and the two soon became near-inseparable. In no time, he was writing to her and declaring his intellectual love, and she was the inspiration for his poem For Annie, which shows his pure, deep love for a woman he could not let himself covet.
But my heart it is brighter
Than all of the many
Stars in the sky,
For it sparkles with Annie -
It glows with the light
Of the love of my Annie
With the thought of the light
Of the eyes of my Annie.
For my Annie, the sun will come out tomorrow.
Although this love was purely platonic, hurtful rumors circulated among literary society and Poe vented his bitterness in a letter; "But of one thing rest assured, Annie - from this day forth I shun the pestilential society of literary women. They are heartless, unnatural, venomous, overweight, dishonorable set, with no guiding principles but the love of a large quill and inordinate self-esteem."
Much like their real-life counterparts, the health, physical and mental, of Poe's heroines is tenuous at best, and the relationships formed show that "love and death are indissolubly entwined." Although Poe wrote his works with the intention of publication and sale, the personal cathartic element is inescapable, and his writings offer a window into his psyche. There was a hole in Poe's life, caused by the death of all of his mother-figures, that had never been patched, and the feeling of belonging that he craved was denied him.
After examining Poes idealized, waning women, their lack of blatant sexuality cannot be ignored. Poe seems to prize the spiritual love over the earthly, and in this fashion creates a stronger, and often more morbid bond between his characters, with the spiritual and sensual winning out over the sexual. Sometimes it seems as though his faith lies only in the unworldly, the dreamlike realm, as is shown in Alone:
From childhoods hour I have not been
As others were - I have not seen
As others saw - I could not bring
My passions from a common spring
From the same source I could not have taken
My sorrow; I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone
And all I lov'd, I lov'd alone...
In this, Poe describes his childhood loneliness and his despair with the lack of a permanent connection to the people he encountered in his day-to-day life.
Poe's favorite topic was lost love, the most haunting and melancholic kind of love. The themes that pervade his poems and stories are filled with "the same ethereal women, with their sublime voices, the music of harps and lutes, links with classical beauty." However, Poe saw love, politics, and death as three sides of the same coin. To him, none could not exist without the others.
Grantz, David. The Stricken Eagle: Women in Poe. . 2/5/01.
Mabbott, Thomas Ollive, ed., The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe: Volume 1 Poems, Sonnet to my Mother. Anabell Lee. To Helen. A Valentine. For Annie. Alone. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 1969.
Ostrum, John Ward. The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Guardian Press. 1966.
Poe, Edgar Allan. Tales of Mystery and Imagination. The Fall of the House of Usher. Ligea. Hop-Frog. Secaucus: Castle. 1983.
Quinn A. Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar Allan Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. New York: Harper Collins. 1992.
Van Doren Stern, Philip, ed. The Portable Poe. William Wilson. Eleonora. The Oval Portrait. New York: Penguin Books. 1945.
Copyright 2003 Talulah WhiskerEmail the author if you are interested in learning more!