The Literary Maiden

A compendium of obscure 19th century writing.

Guest Post: “Withered Flowers”-by Levi L. Leland

I am very excited to introduce my first guest post on this site. This article was written by my good friend and colleague, Levi Leland. Mr. Leland’s expertise concerning Poe studies is outsanding, and I am grateful to produce this original article by Mr. Leland on the topic of Sarah Helen Whitman—specifically an awe-inspiring firsthand encounter at her grave. Thank you, Mr. Leland, for preserving Whitman’s name and legacy, and thank you for allowing me to share your personal encounter on this website. -Ann

 

(Photos posted with permission from and credit to the author.)

It was a dim summer day on June 27, 2018. The air was humid and still. With a dozen roses in my hand and a polaroid camera strapped around my shoulder, I made my way out of my car and over to the grave of Sarah Helen Whitman. I was at the North Burial Ground in Providence, Rhode Island, just a short drive from my apartment in West Warwick. I had a purpose on this particular day, for it was the 140th anniversary of the death of Mrs. Whitman. My association to the Providence Poetess was based solely on my infatuation with Edgar Allan Poe, but as I began to learn more about her as an individual and not just as the love interest of Poe, my affection grew deeper.

Upon first inspection of the grave I quickly noticed an arrangement of white poinsettia-looking faux flowers that have been stuck in the ground since my last visit in the autumn of 2017, and even my visit the summer prior. Although the flowers made the overall appearance of the grave a bit homely, I always marvelled at the tribute as well as the mysterious admirer who left them. My other questioning thought was how the flimsy things withstood the weather and the discretion of the maintenance crew all this time! You see, I’ve left tributes at Helen’s grave before, and they always seemed to get either lost or thrown away relatively quickly. Regardless, I made up my mind to remove them from the grave and dispose of them once and for all. They satisfied their purpose there long enough, had they not? Besides, I had a proper dozen of real roses to leave for Helen.

As I pulled them from the earth and placed them aside, I gave the stone a few strokes with my hand, removing some dirt from the letters inset in the marker. I arranged my roses on the stone and took out my camera to take a few photos. As the third or fourth polaroid began printing, a man came out from behind me as if he emerged from thin air. He was shorter in height, a bit haggard, wearing your average pedestrian clothes with a cap. I noticed a hospital bracelet on his wrist, and he had an “At Home Care Sheet” in his hand that more than likely attested for the bracelet. “I thought I was the only one that came here!” he exclaimed with a smile. Returning him with a grin, I told him I was here to pay my respects to Sarah Helen Whitman on the 140th anniversary of her death. The significance of the day was unknown to him and it was purely coincidence that he decided to stop by. Strangely enough, he knew everything about the Power family (Whitman’s maiden name) and he began to give me a little tour of the family plot. He asked me if I’ve ever visited their home on Benefit Street (which of course I had) and I returned with a question in regards to the rose bush in the rear yard of the house. There’s speculation that those roses are the great-great grandchildren of the roses planted by Helen herself; the same roses that Poe first spotted her in under a midnight moon in July of 1848. The gentleman confirmed that he had heard this rumor as well, and even picked one of the roses as a keepsake! We exchanged facts, stories, and questions for quite some time among the final resting places of the deceased in subject.  

Before departing, we shook hands and finally exchanged names. Just as he started to walk away, I stopped him with one last question as I pointed at the ragged cloth petals peeking out from the side of my camera case on the ground, “Do you happen to be the one that left those flowers here?” He replied, “Yeah, I left those here years ago! I don’t know how the dingy things have lasted so long.” I grabbed the arrangement and pushed my roses aside. As I began to pierce the ground with the wire stem, I replied, “Nothing wrong with withered flowers!” And the man disappeared into the clutter of stones in the graveyard.  

WITHERED FLOWERS by Sarah Helen Whitman

Remembrances of happiness! to me
Ye bring sweet thoughts of the year’s purple prime,
Wild, mingling melodies of bird and bee,
That pour on summer winds their silvery chime
Of balmy incense, burdening all the air,
From flowers that by the sunny garden wall
Bloomed at your side, nursed into beauty there
By dews and silent showers: but these to all
Ye bring. Oh! sweeter far than these the spell
Shrined in those fairy urns for me alone;
For me a charm sleeps in each honeyed cell,
Whose power can call back hours of rapture flown,
To the sad heart sweet memories restore,
Tones, looks, and words of love that may return no more.


About the Author

I’m a Rhode Island-based Edgar Allan Poe aficionado and member of the Poe Studies Association. My focus is representing Poe’s ties to lil’ Rhody and the “Providence Poetess” Sarah Helen Whitman. If I’m not sipping coffee and creating art of some sort, I’m probably exploring an old cemetery (consider me a Taphophile). I’m a dog-dad to the adorable shar-pei/pitbull mix, Ginny Poe! I’m a penpal as well, and if you’re interested in corresponding via snail mail, please contact me through any of my social media outlets and let me know! They are as follows:

“Stanzas: the Riddle” from the Knickerbocker

Stanzas: the Riddle.
By J. L. B[?].
From the Knickerbocker, Vol. 49, April, 1857, pg. 381.

I.
MY lady is certainly pretty,
My lady is certainly fair:
She’s charming, she’s graceful, she’s witty,
She sings like a bird in the air;
But then, sure the deuce must be in it!
I think she is all I could love;
Her glance, when by chance I can win it,
Lacks something my pulses to move.

II.
I’m cold, or she must be colder,
(I wonder now which it can be:)
Or the love, with which others behold her,
Would waken some feeling in me.
‘T is puzzling, indeed quite a riddle,
When one cannot read his own heart;
But finds, when he gets to the middle,
He’s just where he was at the start.

III.
Do I love her, or not? that’s the puzzle,
And who shall unravel the thread
That binds up my heart like a muzzle,
And smothers the thoughts in my head?
If I thought now it would not o’ertask her,
My fancies to take from the shelf,
Like a bundle of books, I would ask her,
This minute to read me myself!

IV.
Do I love her, or not? will she tell me?
If so I should much like to know;
And where that same passion befel me?
And how does its presence here show?
And then when my heart, beyond doubt, it
Is clear she has truthfully shown,
I venture to hope, while about it,
She’ll tell me the state of her own.

“The Lecturer” by J. Honeywell

The Lecturer.
By J. Honeywell
From the Knickerbocker, Volume 49, February, 1857, pg. 211.

I HAVE been to hear the lecture,
With a crowd of other folks,
Where we marvelled at the wisdom
That overlaid the jokes,
And the bits of queer philosophy,
And humoristic strokes.

It’s astonishing to me
How a lecturer gets along,
And contrives to make his points
So intolerably strong,
That the tears and laughter clash
Like a sermon and a song.

Perhaps the secret lies
In the large amount of pay
Which the speaker nightly gets
For his doings in that way;
A divining rod to point
Where arts of pleasing lay.

Ah! me, if that is so,
And men have wit to sell:
If a fifty-dollar bill
Makes so little learning tell,
I pray the golden bucket
May go often to the well.

I knew before, that gold
Had overwhelming power;
Now I see it can condense
A flood into a shower,
And cram a life’s research
Into lectures of an hour.

I with that some committee
Would apply the test to me:
I would overhaul my brain
Where the learning used to be,
And all the wit I knew
The light of day should see.

I do believe that I,
With what is in my head—
Native genius and the crop
Of what I may have read,
Compressed, could make a book
About as good as ‘Dred.’

Up now a subject pops:
The trial I will dare!
So ye grave committee-men,
Your darling notes prepare:
Be prompt! for well you know
I can’t go everywhere!

“Midsummer” by Alfred Billings Street

Midsummer
By Alfred Billings Street

An August day! a dreamy haze
Films air, and mingles with the skies,
Sweetly the rich dark sunshine plays,
Bronzing each object where it lies.
Outlines are melted in the gauze
That Nature veils; the fitful breeze
From the thick pine, low murmuring draws;
Then dies in flutterings midst the trees.
The bee is slumbering in the thistle,
And, now and then, a broken whistle
A tread—a hum—a tap—is heard
Through the dry leaves, in grass and bush,
As insect, animal, and bird
Rouse, brief from their lethargic hush.
Then, e’en these pleasant sounds would cease,
And a dead stillness all things lock,
The aspen seem like sculptured rock,
And not a tassel-thread be shaken
The monarch-pine’s deep trance to waken,
And Nature settle prone in drowsy peace.
The misty blue—the distant masses,
The air, in woven purple glimmering,
The shiver transiently that passes
Over the leaves, as though each tree
Gave one brief sigh—the slumberous shimmering
Of the red light—invested seem
With some sweet charm, that soft, serene,
Mellows the gold—the blue—the green
Into mild temper’d harmony,
And melts the sounds that intervene,
As scarce to break the quiet, till we deem
Nature herself transform’d to that of Fancy’s dream.

“A Child’s Ghost Story” by Bret Harte

I am indebted to Mr. Velella for introducing this poignant story to us in his article, “Harte: goblins and ghosts,” on his website, the American Literary Blog (which I cannot recommend enough).

A Child’s Ghost Story
By Bret Harte
From Stories and Poems and Other Uncollected Writings by Bret Harte, pp. 33-36.

There was once a child whom people thought odd and queer. He was a puny little fellow. The only thing big about him was his head, and that was so disproportioned to the rest of the body, that some people laughed when they saw him. And to complete his grotesqueness, his parents, who were very learned people—and foolish as very learned people sometimes are—gave him a strange, queer name, “Poeta,” which meant a great deal, so they said; but his old nurse and his little sister called him “Etty,” which meant only that they loved him, and which I think was a great deal more pleasant, if not as sensible.
Not but that his parents were very proud of his peculiarities and queer ways. But they were very severe and strict with him. He deserved it, for he was fretful, peevish, and impatient. He imagined continually that people did n’t love him as he would like them to, which was partly the case; and he was moody and querulous sometimes; and instead of trying to find out why, and what could be done to help it, he would lie down in his little crib and hate everybody. And then his big head, which was always bothering him, would ache dreadfully.
But when he strayed into the green fields with his little sister, who could tell better than “Etty” what the birds said to each other, what the leaves of the big elms were always whispering, and the strange stories that the brook babbled to the stones as it ran away to the distant sea? And although he was not strong enough to play like larger boys with these things, he was fond of lying under the big elm, with his little sister supporting his head on her lap, watching all this, and telling her about it and many other wonderful things.
But I am sorry to say that he would sometimes tell very queer and strange stories; he would tell of goblins as high as the elm, and of ghosts that haunted the little churchyard where their grandmother slept; and he would continue to repeat them, getting more and more terrifying in intensity, until his little “Gracie” would open her big blue eyes in pretty terror, and catch his gesticulating hand.
“There now, Etty, dear,” she once said, “I don’t believe there are any ghosts.”
“Is n’t there,” said Etty, in deep scorn.
“No! Did you ever see any, Etty?”
(This was another sort of thing, you know, and poor Etty could n’t say that he had, but he was confident that other people had seen them.)
“Well,” said Gracie, “I don’t believe there are any. I know that dead people lie in their graves and make the grass grow; but if I die, I’ll come back to you and be a ghost.”
And so to these little children, the seasons were told over in flowers and fruits and different games; and it was kite time, and the lilacs were in blossom when a great hush and quiet fell upon their home. People walked about whispering to each other, and Etty was kept alone in a room until he was frightened and his head ached. But then Gracie did not come to him to console him. And when he could not stand it any longer he crept into a little bedroom, from which an awe seemed to spread over the whole house, and there was a smell of mignonette, and something white lying on the bed, and on top of that again a pinched little white face that he knew. And Etty cried.
His sister had died in early spring, and now it was the season when the rosy-cheeked apples are piled away in the barn, and the red leaves in the corners of the lane, and the nights were getting chilly, and Etty, whose health was poor, was lying in his crib watching the bright fire, thinking of the flowers that had passed away, when something soft and cool stole over his face and rested upon his forehead. It was a little hand—Gracie’s, and Gracie stood beside him.
He remembered what she had told him, and knew it was Gracie’s ghost and he was not frightened. But he whispered to her, and she soothed his aching head, and told him that when he was weary, and his head ached, she would come to him again, and that she was permitted to visit him only that she might soothe him when in trouble and keep him from harm. This and much more she whispered to him in the quiet little nursery, and at last holding her hand in his, he fell asleep.
He did not dare to tell his father or mother, or the people about him, of Gracie’s ghost. He knew they would look upon it as one of his peculiarities and he dreaded their disbelief. He did not dare to tell it to the Reverend Calvin Choakumchild, who gave him a great many very nice tracts, and talked to him a good deal about the “Holy Ghost.” He did not dare to tell it to Betsy, his nurse, who had frightened him often with hobgoblins and spectres. So he laid away his little secret in a quiet shelf in his memory, just as her toys had been put away in a corner of the great cupboard.
But Etty grew up a man and strong and well proportioned. His head no longer seemed to him so large, and people did not laugh at him. His old name gave place to Mr. So-and-So. But when he would get weary, his head would ache as it did when he was a boy, and the doctors, many of whom had D.D. written to their name, could do him no good. How welcome, then, was Gracie’s ghost, and her cool, soft touch, and her whispered words.
But he fell into wicked courses and among wicked men. And when his head would ache, as it often did from dissipation and excesses, he did not dare to invoke in such company Gracie’s ghost. So he fell sick and grew worse, and at last the doctors gave him up.
At the close of a bright spring day when he lay tossing upon his bed, she came and placed her hand upon his head; the dull throbbing and feverish heat passed away. He heard the whispering of the leaves of the old elm again, and the birds talking to each other, and even the foolish talk of the brook. It was saying, “He is coming.” And then with his hand holding one of Gracie’s, and her other upon his forehead, he floated out with the brook toward the distant, distant sea.
Children, have you ever seen “Gracie’s ghost”?