January 19, 2011

I wander in pale dreams away

Sarah Helen Whitman was born in Providence, Rhode Island on January 19, 1803, six years to the day before her future betrothed Edgar Allan Poe. Whitman and Poe ultimately never married but their short engagement has overshadowed her role as one of the most famous women poets in the middle of the 19th century.

Her poem "The Past" (1846):

Thick darkness broodeth o'er the world:
The raven pinions of the Night,
Close on her silent bosom furled,
Reflect no gleam of orient light.
 E'en the wild Norland fires that mocked
The faint bloom of the eastern sky,
Now leave me, in close darkness locked.
To night's weird realm of phantasy.

Borne from pale shadow-lands remote,
A morphean music, wildly sweet,
Seems, on the starless gloom, to float,
Like the white-pinioned Paraclete.
Softly into my dream it flows,
Then faints into the silence drear;
While from the hollow dark outgrows
The phantom Past, pale gliding near.

The visioned Past; so strangely fair!
So veiled in shadowy, soft regrets,
So steeped in sadness, like the air
That lingers when the day-star sets!
Ah! could I fold it to my heart,
On its cold lip my kisses press,
This waste of aching life impart,
To win it back from nothingness!

I loathe the purple light of day,
And shun the morning's golden star,
Beside that shadowy form to stray,
For ever near, yet oh how far!
Thin as a cloud of summer even,
All beauty from my gaze it bars;
Shuts out the silver cope of heaven,
And glooms athwart the dying stars.

Cold, sad, and spectral, by my side,
It breathes of love's ethereal bloom—
Of bridal memories, long affied
To the dread silence of the tomb:
Sweet, cloistered memories, that the heart
Shuts close within its chalice cold;
Faint perfumes, that no more dispart
From the bruised lily's floral fold.

"My soul is weary of her life;"
My heart sinks with a slow despair;
The solemn, star-lit hours are rife
With phantasy; the noontide glare,
And the cool morning, fancy free,
Are false with shadows; for the day
Brings no blithe sense of verity,
Nor wins from twilight thoughts away.

Oh, bathe me in the Lethean stream,
And feed me on the lotus flowers;
Shut out this false, bewildering dream,
This memory of departed hours!
Sweet haunting dream! so strangely fair—
So veiled in shadowy, soft regrets—
So steeped in sadness, like the air
That lingers when the day-star sets!

The Future can no charm confer,
My heart's deep solitudes to break;
No angel's foot again shall stir
The waters of that silent lake.
I wander in pale dreams away,
And shun the morning's golden star,
To follow still that failing ray,
For ever near, yet oh how far!


  1. Happy Birthday to Helen and Edgar!

  2. Well, one can certainly see how those two would have hit it off!

    I am somewhat familiar with Whitman's biography and her relationship with Poe, but please provide a date for her poem you reproduce here. Also, was she heavily influenced by EAP, or was she of a similar dark/moody sensibility of her own?

    Happy E.A. Poe birthday to you, Rob-- Baltimore no-show toaster aside. 2009 may truly have marked the "end of an era," as far as that goes. But hail, faux-Poe-toasters (if of serious intent): someone may want to keep the tradition alive, and devotees waiting in the cold and freezing rain at his grave during an all-night vigil deserve some Poe-like entertainment.

  3. Sorry, I normally add that information. The above poem is "The Past," circa February 1846. Her poetry is nothing like Poe's, though she had a few that were clearly in reference to him or his work (there is one called "'The Raven'", for example). She was influenced by both Spiritualism and Transcendentalism. I haven't read much of her work, partly because I don't enjoy it. If others are more knowledgeable, jump in!