“Ultima Thule”

This daguerreotype is undoubtedly the most iconic and celebrated image of Poe that exists today. It was taken in Providence, Rhode Island on November 9, 1848, at the studio of Masury and Hartshorn at 25 Westminster Street.

Sarah Helen Whitman was the one who coined the name “Ultima Thule” for this daguerreotype, taking the term used in Poe’s poem “Dream-Land” where he writes:

“I have reached these lands but newly
From an ultimate dim Thule —
From a wild weird clime that lieth, sublime
Out of SPACE — out of TIME.”

The phrase “Ultima Thule” is Latin, meaning “extreme limits of travel and discovery.”

After Whitman’s rejection to marrying Poe, he attempted suicide by consuming one of the two ounces of laudanum that he had obtained (probably from William Jewett Pabodie). He boarded a train to Boston, and upon arrival, took the first dose of the drug. Poe had miscalculated the strength of the dose, rendering him too ill and delirious to take the second one to finish the job. That occurrence was just four days before he sat for this portrait.

Not only was this likeness captured after that near-lethal suicide attempt, but also a day after a heavy drinking binge. Whitman described the image in a letter to Poe biographer John Henry Ingram: “It was taken after a wild distracted night, and all the stormy grandeur of that via Dolorosa had left its sullen shadow on his brow.” That “wild distracted night” Whitman described took place at the Earl House where Poe was staying in Providence, when he began to drink heavily through the night. At some point during the evening, Poe encountered a man we know only as Mr. MacFarlane. MacFarlane was evidently an admirer of the poet and took care of Poe throughout the night of his intoxication. MacFarlane was the one who commissioned this daguerreotype the next day. After the sitting, Poe made his way to the home of Mrs. Whitman, where she recounted that he arrived in great distress, “calling upon me to save him from some terrible impending doom. The tones of his voice were appalling & rang through the house. Never have I heard anything so awful, even to sublimity. It was long before I could nerve myself to see him. . . . When my mother requested me to have a cup of strong coffee prepared for him, he clung to me so frantically as to tear away a piece of the muslin dress I wore.” Helen’s mother, Anna Power, had called a local physician, Dr. Oakee, to have a look at the frantic Poe. Dr. Oakie advised that Poe stay at the home of a friend, so that he would have a proper eye kept on him. William Pabodie took Poe in and cared for him over the next few days.

The original daguerreotype remained on display at the studio of Masury and Hartshorn until they relocated to Boston in 1850. They passed the daguerreotype down to their assistants, the Manchester Brothers, who were then operating a studio of their own on Westminster Street in Providence. It remained with them until around 1860 when it vanished for good. Fortunately, at least five copies were made of the daguerreotype before this occurred. It’s still undetermined whether it was stolen, lost, or destroyed.

The above daguerreotype is one of at least five copies taken from the original.