“A TERRIBLE CONJUNCTION:” MARRIAGE AND AMERICAN POETRY


“A poet should not marry” –old saying.

The unhappy marriage, or the marriage that never happened, is the marriage of American poetry.

Emerson’s livelihood came from marrying a woman he knew was dying and suing his wife’s family for the fortune after her death.

Longfellow found his wealth in marriage, and sorrow when his wife and the mother of his children burned to death while melting wax to seal a letter.

Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman never married.

After the death of Edgar Poe’s wife, his life was marked by marriages that never quite happened.

Also, Poe’s immense reputation was ruined in 1846 by rumors involving love outside the marriage contract.

Whitman (Helen, not Walt) almost married Poe until others got in the way, including the most powerful media mogul in the U.S. at the time, editor and owner of The New York Tribune, Horace Greeley.  Imagine CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, the New York Times and the New York Post combined: that was Horace Greeley.   Unfortunately for Poe, Greeley was friends with Rufus Griswold.

In a stunning letter Horace Greeley wrote to Griswold in January, 1849 :

“Do you know Sarah Helen Whitman ? Of course you have heard it rumored that she is to marry

Poe. Well, she has seemed to me a good girl, and— you know what Poe is.

Now I know a widow of doubtful age will marry almost any sort of a white man, but this seems to me a terrible conjunction.

Has Mrs. Whitman no friend within your knowledge that can faithfully explain Poe to her ? I never attempted this sort of thing but once, and the net product was two enemies and a hastening of the marriage; but I do think she must be deceived. Mrs. Osgood must know her.”

Poe scholars have been beating the bushes recently for the real story behind the scandalous relationship of Poe and Frances Osgood, and what’s coming out is that their relationship was no dime-store romance or starry-eyed love affair, but something far more complicated.   It turns out Osgood was probably, like Elizabeth Ellet and Margaret Fuller, more foe than friend.

The middle-aged Poe was the kind of tied-to-his-desk, scornful genius who had no interest in the sort of tawdry relationship which his enemies (and the gullible with their dime-store imaginations) have drawn up for him.  True, Poe recited poems in his soft, charismatic voice at literary salons, and as steward of American Letters he did take an interest in a literary society which included women, but he was not a romantic in life; he was an editor looking for a magazine and an American who hated in his blood puffery and British “ill will” towards the United States.  Poe even wrote in a ‘throwing-off-the-gloves’ mood, that America would take its quarrel with Britain “into Africa,” which is quite an ambitious, multi-layered, and belicose thing to say.  That stern anglophile, Emerson, must have been appalled.

Britain and America’s divorce was still an ugly one in the middle of the 19th century. Poe’s famous quarrel with his own northern brethren—New England writers—is not nearly as important as has been claimed.

Poe, in fact, was always reaching out to Boston authors.

In 1842, Poe wrote to the abolitionist poet James Russell Lowell: “Dear Sir,  Learning your design of commencing a Magazine, in Boston, upon the first of January next, I take the liberty of asking whether some arrangement might not be made, by which I should become a regular contributor.”  Lowell’s magazine was launched, and Poe was a regular contributor— while Lowell’s unprofitable venture lasted.   Poe and Lowell remained good friends.

As editor of Graham’s, on at least two separate occasions, Poe asked Longfellow to contribute to the magazine.

Poe wrote to Joseph Snodgrass in 1841, “You are mistaken about The Dial.  I have no quarrel in the world with that illustrious journal, nor it with me.”

It wasn’t New England that was the problem; Poe did resent, but more in the name of democracy, Northern monopoly in American Letters—a reasonable  complaint.  The larger shadow was that Britain was in a cunning position to enjoy U.S. difficulty on the slavery issue—which, after Poe’s murder—did blow up into the holocaust of civil war: a divorce inside of a divorce.  The American civil war gave birth to a creature of Poe-like dimensions in politics: poet and Poe fan Abraham Lincoln.

The best known marriage in 19th century Letters occured in Europe, when Elizabeth Barrett, who had been corresponding with Poe, eloped with Robert Browning.   Later, we can see by reading the letters, that Elizabeth Browning, with many others in Europe, hoped for a divorce between south and north in America over the slavery issue; to those like Barrett Browning, this was a simple moral issue; to others, and this would include those like Poe and Lincoln, it was more complicated and meant loss of unity, and thus a destruction of, the United States.

Margaret Fuller eloped with an Italian count in Italy after dallying with the hearts of Hawthorne and Emerson (though Emerson was like Poe; women found it impossible to dally with a heart of high seriousness set against mere romance).

In a letter on Poe to Elizabeth Barrett Browning just after Poe’s death, Fuller, friends with Emerson and Horace Greeley—the publisher of Griswold’s “Ludwig” obituary—shows herself to be Griswold-like:  “…several women loved him, but it seemed more with passionate illusion which he amused himself by inducing than with sympathy; I think he really had no friend.”

In another odd twist, Osgood published a poem in the Broadway Journal in 1845 when Poe was the editor there, called “To the Lady Geraldine,” in which a gossipy woman is attacked.  “Geraldine” is not identified, but “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship” was the name of a famous poem published in 1844 by Barrett, before she met Robert, and in that poem she refers to Wordsworth,—the old poet wished to visit her, but could not, on account of her health—Tennyson, whom she adored, and Robert Browning.   Barrett had not eloped with Robert yet in 1845, and Poe was pictured as one of the many male poets hungering after Barrett’s affection during this time.

Poe dedicated his 1845 Poems to Elizabeth Barrett.

A marriage of sane and profitable domesticity versus insane and passionate divorce (Osgood, for instance, was separated from her painter husband during the time of her Poe-scandal in the period around 1845) was the ruling trope in Letters during the tumultuous pre-Civil War, Poe and Barrett era during the 1840s.   Poe wished for domestic bliss, not wild affairs; he wished for a growing America, not one torn apart by the slavery issue.

As a Southerner acheiving great fame in the North in 1845 and then crashing and burning in scandal in 1846, Poe is a symbol of America’s failed marriage as a nation.

In the 20th century, what does marriage and romance between poets symbolize?

T.S. Eliot’s marriage to an Englishwoman was an impetuous “burning of boats” in Eliot’s own words, to leap from America to England.   Reading “Prufrock,” one is not surpised at the poet’s disastrous marriage.

W.H. Auden marrying—to help someone escape the Nazis.  That might be the most symbolic marriage of the 20th century.

The tragedy of  the English Ted Hughes and the American Sylvia Plath doesn’t transcend what it is; that tragedy and the tragedy of Hughe’s subsequent marriage is a mere festering of flesh: petty, personal, stupid, wrong.

The most famous marriage among the Beats ended in a stupid “William Tell” death.

Further on in American literary history, we have the marriage of American, Jorie Graham, and South African-born Peter Sacks, a relationship best known for something even more petty: an act of foetry with partner Bin Ramke.

How sad that in Letters, the landmark history of marriage is the landmark history of the broken.

Surely happy marriages in Letters exist; we just don’t know about them.

Unfortunately for the muse of love, the “NO” of Maud Gonne, the Irish patriot, refusing the William Butler Yeats of dubious politics, rings more profoundly, down the years, in the annals of literature, than any affirmation.

Had Whitman married Poe, perhaps it would have all been different.

3 Comments

  1. thomasbrady said,

    February 13, 2010 at 4:24 pm

    Whitman’s poem to Poe, a posthumous tribute, is bombast, but glorious bombast it is, and the woman poet, nay, the woman, seems sincere. Wouldn’t any of us love to have such a poem written for us?

    Vainly my heart had with thy sorceries striven:
    It had no refuge from thy love, —no Heaven
    But in thy fatal presence; —from afar
    It owned thy power and trembled like a star
    O’erfraught with light and splendor. Could I deem
    How dark a shadow should obscure its beam?—
    Could I believe that pain could ever dwell
    Where thy bright presence cast its blissful spell?
    Thou wert my proud palladium;—could I fear
    The avenging Destinies when thou wert near?—
    Thou wert my Destiny;—thy song, thy fame,
    The wild enchantments clustering round thy name,
    Were my soul’s heritage, its royal dower;
    It’s glory and its kingdom and its power!

  2. Undine said,

    February 18, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    “It turns out Osgood was probably, like Elizabeth Ellet and Margaret Fuller, more foe than friend.”

    You know, I thought I was the only person who had come to that conclusion. That quote of Greeley’s you cite is something that I wish would get more attention.

  3. thomasbrady said,

    February 18, 2010 at 7:28 pm

    Thanks, Undine.

    I read “Poe and Fanny” by John May: nicely done on some levels, but Poe comes across as a cretin, and Fanny rather two-dimensional.

    Greeley, who has never had a real biography, was, in fact, a cretin, and Griswold gets all the attention as the writer, but Greeley none, as the publisher, of the Ludwig obituary.

    If there were people who wanted to ‘get’ Poe, and I believe there were, in a situation involving a famous poet/journalist, you don’t get him yourself, you send someone else, on an apparently unrelated errand.

    I believe the heartbreaking fact is that in the few years before and after Poe’s death, the women poets of his day chose Griswold, the anthologist, over Poe, believing the former could more easily make them famous.

    Fascinating story, yet to be fully told.

    Thomas