04 October 2012

Poe's Lovelorn Corner of New England

I always think of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) at this time of year.  To me he was the undisputed king of horror and the macabre when I was a child. And still is, for that matter.  (With apologies to Mr. King and Mr. Lovecraft.)

One of my favorite places to visit in New England (although I haven't been there in quite awhile) is the Athenaeum, which will forever be associated in my mind with the sad Mr. Poe.

The Athenaeum—a membership library built in 1838—is everything a library from that period should be: atmospheric, full of lovely oiled wood, polished brass and well-worn leather and, of course shelf after shelf of priceless books.

They say if you drink from the Athenaeum's fountain,you will never leave the city...

And the Athenaeum loves dogs!

According to the library's archives: 'In June of 1953 the board of the Athenaeum authorized a change in regulations: "A shareholder's dog, if on a leash, may accompany his master or mistress into the library." In September, Annie Cooke, the librarian, reported "no startling results to date" involving the Athenaeum's hairy new patrons. Since then, two of the Athenaeum's executive directors have brought their dogs to work. Dogs of members are still very much welcome in the Athenaeum today. All repeat canine visitors head directly for the jar of dog biscuits kept below the Circulation Desk upon entry to the library.'

But back to Mr. Poe. In the years just prior to his death, he was engaged to Sarah Helen Whitman (1803-1878), a poet in her own right.  Again, according to the library's historical records, 'The Athenaeum was the backdrop for several turning points in the romance between Edgar Allan Poe and Sarah Helen Whitman. A lifelong resident of Providence, Whitman was considered one of the "best female poets of America" and enjoyed an almost three-quarters of a century relationship with the Athenaeum. Greatly admiring the writings of one another long before they had corresponded or met, Poe, on a visit to Providence, saw Whitman for the first time in her rose garden behind her house on Benefit St. Poe later claimed that it was upon this first glance of Whitman that he fell in love with her.'  Alas, their love song would soon end, as a direct result of Poe's inability to stop drinking.   

It is poignant to wander through the Athenaeum's corridors, wondering where Edgar and Sarah might have had their trysts.  Did they hold hands in a dark corner, stealing kisses amidst the dusty tomes? 

Was there a favorite area of the library where they met?

Would they read to one another, as lovers from that era sometimes did? Did he bring drafts of his most recent poems for her to hear, and did she do the same?

According to the archives: 'The two would visit the Athenaeum together during their brief yet intense courtship. The relationship even met its end among the alcoves of the library. On December 23, 1848, Poe and Whitman were visiting the Athenaeum when an unnamed someone handed her a note that said Poe had broken his promise and had been drinking again. Whitman immediately called off the wedding, left the library and rushed back to her house. The two would never see each other again and Poe was dead within a year. Whitman would live for almost thirty more years, continuing to spend much of her time at the Athenaeum.'

Sarah spent much of her later years trying to champion Poe's work and nullify the sting of his critics who saw him as a dissolute failure.  She responded by writing and publishing a book: Edgar Poe and His Critics (1860).
French poet Charles Baudelaire was an admirer of Poe. According to the Harris Collection, he related to Poe on many levels:  'Both lived in poverty, suffered from addictions and depression. Both were under appreciated by the literary establishment of their times. Both embraced mysticism, the fantastic, the macabre and the grotesque in their writings. Finally, both were searching for answers to philosophical questions in their aesthetic and literary pursuits.'
Baudelaire translated many of Poe's stories and poems during Poe's lifetime. And many years after both men had died, his translation of "THE RAVEN" was published with illustrations by Jean Gabriel Daragnès (1918). 

In 1868, French author Stephen Mallarmé, also an admirer of Poe, published his own translation of "THE RAVEN" with illustrations by french artist Edouard Manet. I had the good fortune of seeing both his and Baudelaire's manuscripts last Halloween and was captivated by the illustrations!

I was also able to view a bookplate, inscribed by Mallarmé to Sarah Whitman featuring one of Manet's illustrations. In a letter he sent to her with the bookplate he wrote, "Your name mingles with his."  And indeed at the Athenaeum, their two names are forever linked.

 Sarah Helen Whitman bequeathed the inscribed bookplate to the Athenaeum...
a place that held memories of her love as well as her disappointment.

Interior photos taken several years ago on a trip to the Athenaeum.
Dog photo from the Athenaeum's website.
Manuscripts of "THE RAVEN" from the Harris Collection and the Athenaeum's website.


  1. Goodness what a story! I love bookish romances. I met my husband in the English department. This is quite a romantic library! Poor Poe!

  2. It is so romantic, Jacqueline. The atmosphere is so cozy and old-world. I'm sure their ghosts must roam there. I'd like to think so. Perhaps they each drank from that fountain? Thank you so much for stopping by! Have a lovely evening.

  3. As always, such a fascinating post full of so much history and interesting facts that I never knew about Poe. Though sad, I love so many of his writings. I would absolutely love to visit that library.

  4. Lovely to see you here, Nancy! It is open to the public and once or twice I went in and sat in one of the downstairs nooks to read. You can feel the history all around you! I hope you have a lovely holiday weekend.