Just in time for the city's Edgar Allan Poe festivities, Barbara Wells Sarudy, former director of the Maryland Humanities Council, has provided a guest post about the women in his life -- and their impact on his work. Lost love was a common theme for Poe, as she notes. For pictures of the women, check out her post on the Women in American History blog. Here's Barbara:
I became interested in Poe and his strange relationship with women years ago as an undergrad lit major. When we moved to Baltimore, Poe kept popping up in my mind, sort of daring me to look at that question again. Poe's most recurring gothic themes deal with women and death. And even some of his literary criticism, which was usually merciless, seemed almost seductive, when he wrote of literary women. But by now I was a historian, looking for clues in his life, rather than in his work.
Both of Poe's parents were actors who died when Poe was just turning 3. Of his mother, Poe wrote in 1835, "I myself never knew her...the want of parental affection has been the heaviest of my trials." Taking pity on the toddler, tobacco exporter John Allan & his wife Frances raised Poe as a foster child in Richmond. But they did not adopt the young boy, who would always be known as the poor orphan of an itinerant actress.
When they sent him to the University of Virginia, he excelled academically but ran up so much gambling debt; that they forced him to drop out in less than a year. In 1828, Poe worried about losing his foster mother's love, "I hope she will not let my wayward disposition wear away the love she used to have for me"
He returned from the university to find that his longtime childhood sweetheart had married another in his absence. Now his foster parents & his first love had abandoned him; just as his birth parents had. In 1835, the 27-year-old Poe married Virginia Clemm, his 13-year-old cousin from Baltimore.
Poe was devoted to his child bride. He guided her education, personally tutoring her in the classics & math. She excelled at singing & piano lessons. But only seven years into the marriage, Poe found out that his bride was dying of tuberculosis. Virginia's diminishing health drove Poe into deep depression, to heavy drinking, & into romantic friendships with other women. Some of his female companions helped him deal with Virginia's approaching death, while others angrily turned on him.
Poe became editor of the New York Broadway Journal in the spring of 1845. Here he met "Fanny" Osgood, estranged wife of portrait painter, Samuel S. Osgood. Poe fell in love with the woman he described, "She is ardent, sensitive, impulsive...slender to fragility, graceful...complexion usually pale."
When the winter weather became too much for the frail Mrs. Osgood's health, she left New York for a season. Taking advantage of her absence, a younger author, Mrs. Elizabeth Ellet, began a relationship with the ever lonely, ever searching Poe. The jealousy between the two women led to Poe's dying wife Virginia finding out about his affairs. On January 30, 1847, Virginia died.
Poe wrote to a friend about a year later of how Virginia's 6 years of illness affected him. "Each time I felt all the agonies of her death...I loved her more dearly...But I am constitutionally sensitive--nervous, in a very unusual degree. I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity...During these fits of absolute unconsciousness I drank, God only knows how often or how much."
Poe continued drinking, and he continued searching for a woman to love who would not die or leave him. He declared to author Sarah Helen Whitman, on October 1, 1848, "From that hour I loved you...that the very first dawn of human love burst upon the icy night of my spirit...you awoke in me a shuddering sixth sense, vaguely compounded of fear, ecstatic happiness, and a wild, inexplicable sentiment that resembled nothing so nearly as the consciousness of guilt."
Shortly after Miss Whitman rejected him, mostly because of his excessive drinking, Poe met & fell in love with Annie Richmond. Mrs. Richmond, wife of paper manufacturer Charles Richmond of Lowell, Massachusettes, lovingly consoled Poe. On November 16, 1848, he wrote to Annie, "Ah beloved...do I not love you Annie? do you not love me? Is not this all?...Can you, my Annie, bear to think I am another’s?"
After being dismissed by Whitman and finally realizing that the married Annie was unattainable, Poe sought out his first young love, Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton, now a widow in Richmond. On September, 1849, Poe wrote his last letter to his mother-in-law, "Elmira...I think she loves me more devotedly than any one I ever knew & I cannot help loving her in return...if possible I will get married." But, on October 7, 1849, at age 40, Poe died alone after collapsing at a tavern in Baltimore, without ever achieving an ongoing, loving connection with a woman; just as the married narrators of his tales never are able to attain lasting relationships with their brides.
Edgar Allan Poe wrote, “Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem... Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all poetical tones...The death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world—-and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”