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