The Swan Point cemetery was established in 1846, just two years before Poe and Helen would be strolling among the graves together during their courtship. It was one of the first garden cemeteries in the country, and you can find notables such as Civil War Veterans, Union Generals, Rhode Island Governors, and H.P. Lovecraft interred there.
While evidence tells us that Edgar Allan Poe first proposed to Sarah Helen Whitman in a cemetery, it leaves us with the question, which one? While there was a cemetery right in the backyard of the Power family home (the cemetery of St. John’s Cathedral) it’s highly unlikely that Poe and Helen would’ve felt comfortable in that setting when Mrs. Power’s disapproving glare would be following them from the window of the house just above the hill. The North Burial Ground is another likely candidate, but if we reference the following stanzas of Helen’s “Sonnets To Poe,” where she talks about the proposal, it puts a specific picture in our head.
We met beneath September’s gorgeous beams:
Long in my house of life thy star had reigned;
Its mournful splendor trembled through my dreams,
Nor with the night’s phantasmal glories waned.
We wandered thoughtfully o’er golden meads
To a lone woodland, lit by starry flowers,
Where a wild solitary pathway leads
Through mouldering sepulchres and cypress bowers.
A dreamy sadness filled the autumnal air —
By a low, nameless grave I stood beside thee,
My heart according to thy murmured prayer
The full sweet answers that my lips denied thee.
O mournful faith, on that dread altar sealed —
Sad dawn of love in realms of death revealed!
On our lone pathway bloomed no earthly hopes —
Sorrow and death were near us, as we stood
Where the dim forest, from the upland slopes,
Swept darkly to the sea. The enchanted wood
Thrilled, as by some foreboding terror stirred;
And as the waves broke on the lonely shore,
In their low monotone, methought I heard
A solemn voice that sighed, “Ye meet no more.”
There, while the level sunbeams seemed to burn
Through the long aisles of red, autumnal gloom —
Where stately, storied cenotaphs inurn
Sweet human hopes, too fair on earth to bloom —
Was the bud reaped, whose petals, pure and cold,
Sleep on my heart till Heaven the flower unfold.
Helen gives us wonderfully detailed descriptions in her lines recollecting the affair, and if we take them literally, she describes sloping lands sweeping to a body of water. Could she have been referencing the Seekonk river, whose shore meets the eastern end of the cemetery? While the North Burial Ground’s landscape is nowhere near as elaborate as Swan Point’s, with no large body of water in view of the cemetery, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Poe asked for Helen’s hand there, and Helen just romanticized the occasion for the sake of good poetry. But if we look at another one of Helen’s poems addressed to Poe titled “The Last Flowers,” the opening stanza reads:
Dost thou remember that Autumnal day
When by the Seekonk’s lonely wave we stood, And marked the languor of repose that lay, Softer than sleep, on valley, wave, and wood?
Here, she specifically mentions the Seekonk River but doesn’t specifically mention a proposal. But if we piece the two poems together to create a whole story, it’s pretty safe to say Poe first proposed to Whitman at Swan Point Cemetery.
Below are two photos of the entrance of Swan Point, as well as two photos of the Seekonk River bordering the east end of the cemetery. It should be noted that photography inside the cemetery is prohibited, and you are required to obtain a special permit to take and publish a photo inside the cemetery. You can contact the cemetery for further details and instructions.