Saturday, October 17, 2009

Sarah Helen Whitman's Defense


Dr. Griswold’s Memoir of Edgar Poe has been extensively read and circulated. Its perverted facts and baseless assumptions have been adopted into every subsequent memoir and notice of the poet, and have been translated into many languages. For ten years this great wrong to the dead has passed unchallenged and unrebuked.

It is not our purpose to present specially to review Dr. Griswold’s numerous misrepresentations, and misstatements. Some of the more injurious of these anecdotes were disproved, during the life of Dr. Griswold, in the New York Tribune, and other leading journals, without eliciting from him any public statement in explanation or apology.

We have the authority for stating that many of the disgraceful anecdotes, so industriously collected by Dr. Griswold, are utterly fabulous, while others are perversions of the truth, more injurious in their effects than unmitigated fiction.

We propose simply to point out some unformed critical estimates which have obtained currency among readers who have had but a partial acquaintance with Mr. Poe’s more imaginative writings, and to record our own impressions of the character and genius of the poet, as derived from personal observation and from the testimony of those who knew him.

The peculiar character of Poe’s intellect seemed without a prototype in literature. He had more than De Quincey’s power of analysis, with a constructive unity and completeness of which the great English essayist has given no indication. His pre-eminence in constructive and analytical skill was beginning to be universally admitted, and the fame and prestige of his genius were rapidly increasing.

A recent and not too lenient critic tells us that "it was his sensitiveness to artistic imperfections, rather than any malignity of feeling, that made his criticisms so severe, and procured him a host of enemies among persons towards whom he entertained no personal ill-will."

It is not to be questioned that Poe was a consummate master of language, that he had sounded all the secrets of rhythm, that he understood and availed himself of all its resources. Yet this consummate art was in him united with a rare simplicity. He was the most genuine of enthusiasts. His genius would follow no leadings but those of his own imperial intellect. With all his vast mental resources he could never write an occasional poem, or adapt himself to the taste of a popular audience. His graver narratives and fantasies are often related with an earnest simplicity, solemnity, and apparent fidelity, attributable, not so much to a deliberate artistic purpose, as to that power of vivid and intense conception that made his dreams realities, and his life a dream.

His works are, as if unconsciously, filled with an overwhelming sense of the power and majesty of Deity. They are even dark with reverential awe. His proud intellectual assumption of the supremacy of the individual soul was but an expression of its imperious longings for immortality and its recoil from the haunting phantasms of death and annihilation. The theme of all his more imaginative writings is, as we have said, a love that survives the dissolution of the mortal body and oversweeps the grave. His mental and temperamental idiosyncrasies fitted him to come readily into rapport with psychic and spiritual influences. Many of his strange narratives had a degree of truth in them which he was unwilling to avow. In one of his stories, he makes the narrator say, "I cannot even now regard these experiences as a dream, yet it is difficult to say how otherwise they should be termed. Let us suppose only that the soul of man, today, is on the brink of stupendous psychic discoveries."

Having recorded our earnest protest against the misapprehension of his critics and the misstatements of his biographists, we leave the subject for the present, in the belief that a more impartial memoir of the poet will yet be given to the world, and the story of his sad strange life, when contemplated from a new point of view, will be found to present, at least, a silver lining.

Sarah Helen Whitman,
Providence poet and former fiancée of Poe.

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