[Note: Poe to Snodgrass, January 17, 1841: “Your letters are always welcome -- albeit ‘few and far between’ (what an infamous tautology is that by the bye, for visits that are few must be far between) . . .” Also mentioned in Pinakidia and Marginalia.]
[page 754, column 1:]
POE AT WEST POINT.
NUMBER 28 South Barracks, in the last months of the year of our Lord 1830, was pretty generally regarded as a hard room. Cadets who aspired to high standing on the Merit Roll were not much given to visiting it, at least in daytime. To compensate in some measure for this neglect, however, the inspecting-officer was uncommonly punctual in his visits, and rarely failed to find some subject for his daily report of demerit. The old barracks have passed away, and are now only a dream of stone and mortar; but the records of the sins of omission and commission of Number 28 [column 2:] and its occupants remain, and are filed carefully away among the dusty archives of the Academy.
Edgar A. Poe was one of the occupants of the room. “Old P----” and the writer of this sketch completed the household. The first conversation I had with Poe after we became installed as room-mates was characteristic of the man. A volume of Campbell’s Poems was lying upon my table, and he tossed it contemptuously aside, with the curt remark: “Campbell is a plagiarist;” then without waiting for a reply he picked up the book, and turned the leaves over rapidly until he found the passage he was looking for.
“There,” said he, “is a line more often quoted than any other passage of his: ‘Like angel visits few and far between,’ and he stole it bodily from Blair’s Grave. Not satisfied with the theft, he has spoiled it in the effort to disguise it. Blair wrote ‘Like angel visits short and far between.’ Campbell’s ‘few and far between’ is mere tautology.”
Poe at that time, though only about twenty years of age, had the appearance of being much older. He had a worn, weary, discontented look, not easily forgotten by those who were intimate with him. Poe was easily fretted by any jest at his expense, and was not a little annoyed by a story that some of the class got up, to the effect that he had procured a cadet’s appointment for his son, and the boy having died, the father had substituted himself in his place. Another report current in the corps was that he was a grandson of Benedict Arnold. Some good-natured friend told him of it, and Poe did not contradict it, but seemed rather pleased than otherwise at the mistake.
Very early in his brief career at the Point he established a high reputation for genius, and poems and squibs of local interest were daily issued from Number 28 and went the round of the Classes. One of the first things of the kind that he perpetrated was a diatribe in which all of the officers of the Academy, from Colonel Thayer down, were duly if not favorably noticed. I can recall but one stanza. It ran thus:
“John Locke was a very great name;
Joe Locke was a greater in short;
The former was well known to Fame,
The latter well known to Report.”
Joe Locke, it may be remarked by way of explanation, was one of the instructors of tactics, and ex-officio Inspector of Barracks, and supervisor of the morals and deportment of cadets generally. In this capacity it was his duty to report to head-quarters every violation of the regulations falling under his observation; a duty in which he was in nowise remiss, as the occupants of Number 28 could severally testify.
The studies of the Academy Poe utterly ignored. I doubt if he ever studied a page of Lacroix, unless it was to glance hastily over it in the lecture-room, while others of his section were reciting. It was evident from the first that he had no intention of going through with the course, and both the Professors and Cadets
[page 755:]of the older classes had set him down for a “January Colt,” before the corps had been in barracks a week.
Poe disappointed them, however, for he did not remain until the January examination, that pons asinorum of plebe life at West Point. He resigned, I think, early in December, having been a member of the corps a little over five months.
Some month or two after he had left, it was announced that a volume of his poems would be published by subscription, at the price of two dollars and fifty cents per copy. Permission was granted by Colonel Thayer to the corps to subscribe for the book, and as no cadet was ever known to neglect any opportunity of spending his pay, the subscription was pretty near universal. The book was received with a general expression of disgust. It was a puny volume, of about fifty pages, bound in boards and badly printed on coarse paper, and worse than all, it contained not one of the squibs and satires upon which his reputation at the Academy had been built up. Few of the poems contained in that collection now appear in any of the editions of his works, and such as have been preserved have been very much altered for the better.
For months afterward quotations from Poe formed the standing material for jests in the corps, and his reputation for genius went down at once to zero. I doubt if even the “Raven” of his after-years ever entirely effaced from the minds of his class the impression received from that volume.
The unfortunate habit that proved the bane of his after-life had even at that time taken strong hold upon him, and Number 28 was seldom without a bottle of Benny Haven’s best brandy. I don’t think he was ever intoxicated while at the Academy, but he had already acquired the more dangerous habit of constant drinking.
Keeping up the communications with our base of supplies at “Old Benny’s” was one of the problems that occupied a good deal more of our thoughts than any of the propositions in Legendre; but, upon the whole, this branch of the commissary department of Number 28 was a success; and many a thirsty soul, with not enough of pluck to run the blockade himself; would steal into our room between tatoo and taps to try the merits of the last importation.
The result of one of these foraging parties after supplies created for a time no little excitement in the South Barracks. People had been burned and hung in effigy, from time immemorial, but it was reserved for Number 28 to witness the eating of a Professor in effigy.
It was a dark, cold, drizzling night, in the last days of November, when this event came off. The brandy bottle had been empty for two days, and just at dusk Poe proposed that we should draw straws -- the one who drew the shortest to go down to Old Benny’s and replenish our stock. The straws were drawn, and the lot fell on me.
Provided with four pounds of candles and Poe’s last blanket, for traffic (silver and gold we had not, but such as we had we gave unto Benny), I started just as the bugle sounded to quarters. It was a rough road to travel, but I knew every foot of it by night or day, and reached my place of destination in safety, but drenched to the skin. Old Benny was not in the best of humors that evening. Candles and blankets and regulation shoes, and similar articles of traffic, had accumulated largely on his hands, and the market for them was dull in that neighborhood. His chicken-suppers and bottles of brandy had disappeared very rapidly of late, and he had received little or no money in return.
At last, however, I succeeded in exchanging the candles and blanket for a bottle of brandy and the hardest-featured, loudest-voiced old gander that it has ever been my lot to encounter. To chop the bird’s head off before venturing into barracks with him was a matter of pure necessity; and thus, in fact, old Benny rendered him before delivery. I reached the suburbs of the barracks about nine o’clock. The bottle had not as much brandy in it as when I left old Benny’s; but I was very confident I had not spilled any. I had carried the gander first over one shoulder and then over the other, and the consequence was that not only my shirt-front but my face and hands were as bloody as the entire contents of the old gander’s veins and arteries could well make them.
Poe was on the look-out, and met me some distance from the barracks, and my appearance at once inspired him with the idea of a grand hoax. Our plans were perfected in an instant. The gander was tied, neck and feet and wings together, and the bloody feathers bristling in every direction gave it a nondescript appearance that would have defied recognition as a gander by the most astute naturalist on the continent. Poe took charge of the bottle, and preceded me to the room. “Old P.” was puzzling his brains over the binomial theorem, and a visitor from the north barracks was in the room awaiting the result of my expedition.
Poe had taken his seat, and pretended to be absorbed in the mysteries of “Lecons Francaises.” Laying the gander down at the outside of the door, I walked or rather staggered into the room, pretending to be very drunk, and exhibiting in clothes and face a spectacle not often seen off the stage.
“My God! what has happened?” exclaimed Poe, with well-acted horror.
“Old K----, Old K----!” I repeated several times, and with gestures intended to be particularly savage.
“Well, what of him?” asked Poe.
“He won’t stop me on the road any more!” and I produced a large knife that we had stained with the few drops of blood that remained in the old gander. “I have killed him!”
“Nonsense!” said Poe. “You are only trying one of your tricks on us.” [page 756:]
“I didn’t suppose you would believe me,” I replied; “so I cut off his head and brought it into barracks. Here it is!”
And reaching out of the door I caught the gander by the legs, and giving it one fearful swing around my head dashed it at the only candle in the room, and left them all in darkness with what two of them believed to be the head of one of the Professors. The visitor leaped through the window and alighted in the slop-tub, and made fast time for his own room in the North Barracks--spreading, as he went, the report that I had killed old K----, and that his head was then in Number 28. The story gained ready credence, and for a time the excitement in barracks ran high. When we lit the candle again “Old P----” was sitting in one corner a blank picture of horror, and was some time before we could restore him to reason.
The gander was skinned -- picking the feathers off was out of the question--and after taps we cut him up in small pieces and cooked him in a tin wash-basin, over an anthracite fire, without seasoning of any kind. It was perhaps the hardest supper on record, but we went through with it without flinching. We had set out to eat Old K---- in effigy, and we did it; whether he ever learned of the honors we paid him that night I never learned.
Upon the whole the impression left by Poe in his short career at West Point was highly favorable to him. If he made no fast friends, he left no enemies behind him. But up to that time he had given no indications of the genius which has since secured for him a world-wide fame. His acquaintance with English literature was extensive and accurate, and his verbal memory wonderful. He would repeat both prose and poetry by the hour, and seldom or never repeated the same passage twice to the same audience.
The whole bent of his mind at that time seemed to be toward criticism -- or, more properly speaking, caviling. Whether it was Shakespeare or Byron, Addison or Johnson -- the acknowledged classic or the latest poetaster -- all came in alike for his critical censure. He seemed to take especial delight in caviling at passages that had received the most unequivocal stamp of general approval. I never heard him speak in terms of praise of any English writer, living or dead. I never met him after he left the Academy in December, 1830; and hence my recollections and impressions of him are wholly uninfluenced by his after-life.
~~~ End of Text ~~~
[S:0 - HM, 1867]