In one of the last letters he would ever write, Edgar Poe told his aunt, Maria Clemm, “I think [Elmira] loves me more devotedly than any one I ever knew & I cannot help loving her in return.” In the same note, he spoke of his desire to marry Elmira, the woman to whom he had been engaged twenty two years earlier and who had inspired a number of his poems written during those two decades.
“Elmira” was Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton, one of the people who had the greatest influence on Poe’s life and work. When their first engagement was broken by her father, the eighteen-year-old Poe wrote about his sense of loss in poems including “Tamerlane,” “Song,” and “To Elmira.” Even Poe’s brother, William Henry Leonard Poe, wrote a short story about the doomed romance. A few critics also believe both Poe’s poem “To One in Paradise” and his 1848 version of “To Helen” describe the garden Poe and Elmira used to hide from her disapproving parents during their courtship. Years later, after a twenty-seven-year-old Poe encountered a married Elmira Shelton at a Richmond party, he wrote “To Zante” about the experience. The poem’s refrain of “No more!” foreshadowed the famous refrain of “Nevermore,” which would be published eight years later.
At the age of forty, when Poe renewed his engagement to the widowed Shelton, he may have told her she was his “Lost Lenore,” but it is unlikely that he had actually written “The Raven” about her. He may even have told her “Annabel Lee” had been written about her for there are echoes of their first courtship in such lines as “She was a child, and I was a child…” But other women may also have claims to inspiring the poem (if it was, in fact, based on any person in particular).
The significance of “Annabel Lee” to their relationship may, however, be reflected in the account of his desire to have it published for the first time with their wedding announcement in the local papers. Since Poe died just ten days before they would have been married, the poem was instead first printed at the end of his obituary written by Rufus Griswold in the New York Daily Tribune (although Poe had actually sold it to his John Sartain’s Union Magazine). As Poe lay dying in a Baltimore hospital, he repeatedly told his physician he had a wife in Richmond to whom he needed to return. Though the marriage had not yet taken place, Poe’s “wife” might have been Elmira Shelton.
Upon hearing word of Poe’s death, Shelton wrote to Poe’s aunt Maria Clemm, that he had been “the dearest object on earth.” Shelton then wrote Poe’s attending physician John J. Moran, “Mr. Poe was more to me than any other living being” and expressing her desire to know everything about Poe’s final days.
In her remaining years, Shelton spoke little of Poe and refused to cooperate with Poe’s biographers when they requested interviews. One of Shelton’s granddaughters, who lived with her, later claimed to know nothing of Poe’s relationship with her grandmother until around 1876, probably when she read about it in one of Poe’s biographies. In an 1875 interview with Richmond sculptor and historian Edward V. Valentine, Shelton, likely embarrassed by her connection with such an infamous figure as Poe (whose first biography had portrayed him as a drunken madman in an attempt to impugn Poe’s character), went so far as to deny she had actually been engaged to Poe in 1849, but this is contradicted by one of Shelton’s own letters written to Maria Clemm on September 22, 1849 in which Shelton clearly implies she is engaged to Poe. The newspapers at the time also reported that “It was universally reported that he was engaged to be married. The lady was a widow, of wealth and beauty, who was an old flame of his, and whom he declared to be the ideal and original of his Lenore.” (John M. Daniel. Richmond Semi-Weekly Examiner. October 12, 1849). When Shelton finally granted John Moran an interview for his book A Defense of Edgar Allan Poe (1885), she verified that she had indeed been engaged to Poe. In the same book, Moran repeatedly refers to Shelton as “[Poe’s] ‘Annabel Lee,’” further spreading the rumor that Poe had written the poem about her. After Shelton’s death in 1888, her obituary in the Richmond Whig bore the headline “Poe’s First and Last Love.”
Since Shelton was so reluctant to speak about Poe, many of the facts of their relationship remain secret, and what has come to light is often a mixture of legend and truth. It is known that Shelton kept as souvenirs of the author a daguerreotype of Poe (known today as the “Traylor Daguerreotype”), a mother-of-pearl purse, a locket containing Poe’s hair, a drawing Poe made of her as a teenager, and an albumen print photograph of Poe. The latter was printed decades after Poe’s death.
When the Poe Museum opened in 1922, Shelton’s great granddaughter, Mrs. Elsie W. Pearson, was one of its founding members and later left Shelton’s daguerreotype, eyeglasses, and photograph of Poe to the museum. Other Shelton descendants, Thomas and William Cobb, also donated Shelton family items to the Poe Museum, continuing the tradition of Shelton family support of the museum. Visitors to the museum can today see some of these items on display as reminders of the role Shelton played in Poe’s life.
Given Shelton’s influence over Poe’s life and work, one might be surprised to know that she is buried in an unmarked grave next to her husband’s severely weathered and barely readable monument. This October, the Poe Museum, which was instrumental in marking the grave of Poe’s mother and in placing a plaque on the grave of Poe’s first love, Jane Stanard, will finally mark the grave of Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton in Richmond’s Shockoe Hill Cemetery. You are invited to attend the historic unveiling on Saturday, October 7, 2012 at 1 PM and to pay long overdue homage to a woman who, as the muse of a great poet, helped shape the course of world literature.