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Poe-Me Monday - Poe’s Women, Part 1

The death, then, of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.”

– Edgar Allan Poe, The Philosophy of Composition, 1846

Edgar Allan Poe clearly had an appreciation for beauty in all its forms, but especially for a beautiful woman. In the context of his 19th-century upbringing in Richmond, Virginia, Poe was taught the Southern chivalric code. He often displayed these values throughout his life. Poe loved often from afar, he wrote poetry to those he admired, and he dreamed of a romantic, mutual admiration in his copious correspondence. Losing his mother at the age of three left him longing for love in every woman he ever met, and in his later life, Poe seemed desperate for any true affection he could call his own. Below is a brief history of some of the women entangled in Poe's web of affection

Elizabeth Arnold Poe, Painting

Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins Poe (Eliza) - Mother of Edgar Allan Poe, Eliza was born in England and came to America as an actress. At a young age, she was married to the actor Charles Hopkins, but after his death, she married the young, handsome David Poe, Jr. As a traveling actress of the time, she would have memorized around 70 plays by the age of 15 and be able to perform them at a moment’s notice. Eliza was a popular actress who won rave reviews for her performances, but she succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 24. She left three children, William Henry, Edgar, and Rosalie to be raised by family and friends. Edgar was two or three years old when his mother died of tuberculosis.

Francis Allan, Painting by Thomas Sully

Francis 'Fanny' Allan - Poe’s foster mother, Fanny, was likely the driving force in bringing young Edgar into the Allan household to raise as her own. She lavished the young orphan with affection and education that would be the basis for his career as a writer. Edgar defended her honor when he discovered her husband’s infidelity, and he was outspoken in condemning his foster father. When Fanny became ill, Edgar’s relationship with his foster father began to deteriorate, and her influence began to wane. After her death from tuberculosis, John Allan would sever all ties with his wards.

Jane Stith Stanard, Painting

Jane Stith Stanard - The mother of a childhood friend, Jane Stanard welcomed and sympathized with the motherless Poe. Jane must have seen the lonely troubled soul within the boy, and she became a substitute parent of sorts. She encouraged his artistic pursuits, and her death marked yet another beautiful young woman’s death in Poe’s life. It’s said that he often visited her grave and carried her memory throughout his life. His poem, To Helen, where he alluded to Jane as Hellen of Troy, was written in her memory:

To Helen

Helen, thy beauty is to me

Like those Nicean barks of yore,

That gently, o’er a perfum’d sea,

The weary way-worn 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 beauty of fair Greece,

And the grandeur of old Rome.

Lo! in that little window-niche

How statue-like I see thee stand!

The folded scroll within thy hand —

A Psyche from the regions which

Are Holy-Land!

Edgar A Poe, 1835

Elmira Royster Shelton, Daguerreotype

Elmira Royster Shelton - Elmira would have a unique distinction in Edgar Allan Poe’s life: she was both his first and his last fiancée. As a young man in Richmond, Poe met her as part of his social circle. He was clearly infatuated with the beautiful, young 15-year-old when he was just a year older. The couple secretly promised to wed, though Elmira’s father vocally condemned the match. When Poe left for the University of Virginia, Mr. Royster intercepted the letters exchanged between the pair and convinced his daughter that the poet had lost interest in her. At the age of 17, she would marry another man and give birth to four children with him. Her husband died in 1844 when Edgar was married to Virginia. It was in 1848, just before Poe’s death that he would re-enter her life and propose marriage to her again. This time, it was her children who did not approve of the match, and she put off the ceremony. By several accounts, they were engaged at the time of Poe’s death. It has been speculated that Elmira inspired the “lost Lenore” written about in The Raven.

“For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—

Nameless here for evermore.”

Edgar A Poe, 1845

Next: Poe’s Women, Part 2, Virginia Clemm Poe

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