The Poe-Lovecraft Connection

 

Edgar Allan Poe
(Jan. 19, 1809 - Oct. 7, 1849)

Edgar Allan Poe is one of many 19th century contributors to a truly American literary tradition. While he is often identified with stories of horror and the supernatural, he wrote in many genres, including lyric poetry, literary criticism, gothic novels, detective fiction, and mystery fiction. Fantasy and Science Fiction owe a lot to Poe's pioneering efforts in those genres. Poe is known today as the Father of Detective Fiction.

Poe is generally associated with New York City and Baltimore, Maryland, but he also visited my own old haunt, Providence, Rhode Island, where he almost married Sarah Helen Whitman.

 

 

 

 

Sarah Helen Whitman
(Jan. 19, 1803 - June 17, 1878)

Sarah Helen Power Whitman was born in Providence to a wealthy family, married poet and write John Winslow Whitman in 1828 and moved to Boston where her husband died in 1833. She published essays defending Romantic and Transcendentalist writers, published poetry in ladies' magazines, and became an activist in progressive education, women's rights, universal manhood suffrage, among others. In 1848, she addressed a Valentine's Day poem to Edgar Allan Poe, who responded with his poem "To Helen," and eventually they became engaged though they never married because Poe could not follow her one requirement for marriage, that he stop drinking.

 

 

 

The Sarah Helen Whitman house sits at the top of College Hill in Providence, Rhode Island, on historic Benefit Street. The city has maintained the 18th century charm of the street with its many historic houses. Sarah lived here from 1816-1863, according to the plaque that identifies the house.

 

 

If one walks gingerly down the steep incline of College Hill next to Sarah's house, the nearby church with its graveyard is visible at the bottom of the hill on the right.

 

 

The Cathedral of St. John (Episcopal) is one of the oldest Episcopal churches in Rhode Island, having been built in 1810. It represents one of the four original colonial parishes in the state.

 

 

Built into the side of College Hill behind the church, the cemetery is typical for its time, filled with old tombstones so weather-worn that they are sometimes impossible to read. It is said, appropriately enough, that Edgar Allan Poe proposed to Sarah under this tree at the back of the graveyard.

 

Edgar Allan Poe influenced many writers who came after him. One of them was modern American writer H. P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft was a Providence, Rhode Island native who worked as a ghostwriter, revisionist, amateur journalist, astrologer for a local Providence newspaper, and poet. He is thought to be the early 20th century's most important supernatural horror writer. While some people complain that his writing is verbose, his work has an uncanny ability to instill an unsettling feeling in his readers. He was an admirer of Poe's work, but was nonetheless an original.

 

 

 

Lovecraft is buried in the historic Swan Point Cemetery in Providence. His grave is a destination of pilgrimage for his fans who have been known to light candles on his tombstone. In this photo, taken in August, 2002, someone has planted a pumpkin, which was well on its way to producing fruit just in time or Halloween. His gravestone is engraved with Lovecraft's epitaph: "I am Providence."

 

 

This house, a few doors down Benefit Street from Sarah Whitman's home, is the model for the house in Lovecraft's story, "The Shunned House."

 

           

To Helen
Edgar Allan Poe
 

Helen, thy beauty is to me
   Like those Nicean barks of yore,
That gently, o'er a perfumed sea,
   The weary, wayworn wanderer bore
   To his own native shore.

On desperate seas long wont to roam,
   Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
   To the glory that was Greece
And the grandeur that was Rome.

Lo! in yon brilliant window-niche
   How statue-like I see thee stand,
   The agate lamp within thy hand!
Ah, Psyche, from the regions which
   Are Holy Land!

 

More Information

 

An excellent source of information about Poe is available at the Edgar Allan Poe Society website.

Information about Lovecraft is available in the H. P. Lovecraft Archives.

Suggested reading: Michael Bell, /Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England Vampires, Carroll & Graf, 2001.

Take a virtual walking tour of Benefit Street courtesy of The Lovecraft Archives.