Text: John H. Ingram, “Chapter 03,” Edgar Allan Poe: Life, Letters, and Opinions (1880), pp. 20-36


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[page 20:]

CHAPTER III.

BOYHOOD.

IN 1822 Mr. Allan placed his adopted son, who now reassumed his own surname of Poe, in.an academy in Richmond, Virginia, in which city the Allans continued to reside. Many most interesting reminiscences of the embryo poet during his attendance at this preparatory school, then kept by Mr. John Clarke, have been placed at our disposal by fellow pupils of Poe, and the following, from the pen of Colonel John T. L. Preston, husband of Mrs. Margaret J. Preston, the poetess, cannot fail to charm:

“Although I was several years Poe’s junior, we sat together at the same form for a year or more at a classical school in Richmond, Virginia. Our master was John Clarke, of Trinity College, Dublin. At that time his school was the one of highest repute in the metropolis. Master Clarke was a hot-tempered, pedantic, bachelor Irishman; but a Latinist of the first order, according to the style of scholarship of that date, he unquestionably was. I have often heard my mother amuse herself by repeating his pompous assurance that in his school her boy should be taught ‘only the pure Latinity of the Augustan age.’ It is due to his memory* to say, that if her [page 21:] boy was not properly grounded in his rudiments, it was not the fault of his teacher. What else we were taught I have forgotten; but my drilling in Latin, even to its minutiæ, is clear to my view as if lying on the surface of yesterday.

“Edgar Poe might have been at this time fifteen or sixteen, he being one of ‘the oldest boys in the school, and I one of the youngest. His power and accomplishments captivated me, and something in me, or in him, made him take a fancy to me. In the simple school athletics of those days, when a gymnasium had not been heard of, he was facile princeps. He was a swift runner, a wonderful leaper, and what was more rare, a boxer, with some slight training. I remember, too, that he would allow the strongest boy in the school to strike him with full force in the chest. He taught me the secret, and I imitated him, after my measure. It was to inflate the lungs to the uttermost, and at the moment of receiving the blow to exhale the air. It looked surprising, and was, indeed, a little rough; but with a good breast-bone, and some resolution, it was not difficult to stand it. For swimming he was noted, being in many of his athletic proclivities surprisingly like Byron in his youth. There was no one among the schoolboys who would so dare in the midst of the rapids of the James River. I recall one of his races. A challenge to a foot-race had been passed between tire two classical schools of the city: we selected Poe as our champion. The race came off one bright May morning at sunrise, in the Capitol Square. Historical truth compels me to add that on this occasion our school was beaten, and we had to pay up our small bets. Poe ran well, but his competitor was a long legged, Indian-looking fellow, who would have outstripped Atalanta without the help of the golden apples. Ah, how many of those young racers on Capitol [page 22:] Square that fair May morning, and how many of the crowd that so eagerly looked on, are very still now!

“In our Latin exercises in school Poe was among the first — not first without dispute. We had competitors who fairly disputed the palm. Especially one — Nat Howard — afterwards known as one of the ripest scholars in Virginia, and distinguished also as a profound lawyer. If Howard was less brilliant than Poe, he was far more studious; for even then the germs of waywardness were developing in the nascent poet, and even then no inconsiderable portion of his time was given to versifying. But if I put Howard as a Latinist on a level with Poe, I do him full justice. One exercise of the school was a favourite one with Poe: it was what was called ‘capping verses.’ The practice is so absolutely obsolete now, at least in our country, that the term may require explanation.

“Before the close of the school, all the Latinists, without regard to age or respective advancement in the language, were drawn up in a line for ‘capping verses;’ just as, in old-fashioned schools, all scholars had to take their place in the spelling line before dismission. At the head of the line stood the best scholar, who gave from memory some verse of Latin poetry to be ‘capped:’ that is, he challenged all the line to give from memory another verse beginning with the same letter. Whoever was able to do this, took the place of the leader; and in his turn propounded another verse to be capped in like manner. This we called ’simple capping.’ ‘Double capping’ was more difficult, inasmuch as the responding verse must both begin and end with the same letters as the propounded verse. To give an example, and at the same time to illustrate how a memory, like a sieve, may let through what is valuable, and yet retain in its reticulations a worthless [page 23:] speck, I recall a ‘capping’ which, while I have forgotten ten thousand things that would have been serviceable if remembered, comes back to me with distinctness after the lapse of so many years.

“Nat Howard stood at the head of the line, and gave out for double capping al-verse beginning with d, and ending with m, It passed Edgar Poe, it passed other good scholars, as well it might, until it reached me, a tyro, away down the line. To the surprise of everybody, and not less to my own, there popped into my mind the line of Virgil: —

Ducite ab urbe domum, mea carmina, ducite Daphnim.’

And with pride and amazement I saw myself where I never was before and never was afterwards, — above Nat Howard and Edgar Poe.

“The practice looks absurd, and so it would be now. True, it stored the memory with many good quotations for ready use. But after the fashion of Master Clark — a fashion brought from Trinity — this ‘capping verses’ was much in vogue, and Edgar Poe was an expert at it.

“He was very fond of the Odes of Horace, and repeated them so often in my hearing that I learned by sound the words of many, before I understood their meaning. In the lilting rhythm of the Sapphics and Iambics, his ear, as yet untutored in more complicated harmonies, took special delight. Two odes, in particular, have been humming in my ear all my life since, set to the tune of his recitation: —

‘Jam satis terris nivis atque diræ

Grandinis misit Pater, et rubente’ —

and,

‘Non ebur neque aureum

Mea renidet in domo lacunar,’ &c, [page 24:]

“When I think of his boyhood, his career, and his fate, the poet, whose lines I first learned from his musical lips, supplies me with his epitaph:

‘Ille, mordaci velut icta ferro

Pinus, out impulsa cupressus Euro,

Procidit late, posuitque collum in

Pulvere Teucro.’

“I remember that Poe was also a very fine French scholar. Yet, with all his superiorities, he was not the master-spirit, nor even the favourite, of the school. I assign, from my recollection, this place to Howard. Poe, as I recall my impressions now, was self-willed, capricious, inclined to be imperious, and though of generous impulses, not steadily kind, or even amiable; and so what he would exact was refused to him. I add another thing which had its influence, I am sure.

“At the time of which I speak, Richmond was one of the most aristocratic cities on this side the Atlantic. I hasten to say that this is not so now. Aristocracy, like capping verses, has fallen into desuetude — perhaps for the same reason: times having changed, other things pay better. Richmond was certainly then very, English, and very aristocratic. A school is, of its nature, democratic; but still boys will unconsciously bear about the odour of their fathers’ notions, good or bad. Of Edgar Poe it was known that his parents had been players, and that he was dependent upon the bounty that is bestowed upon an adopted son. All this had the effect of making the boys decline his leadership and on looking back on it since, I fancy it gave him a fierceness he would otherwise not have had. . . .

“Not a little of Poe’s time in school, and out of it, was [page 25:] occupied with writing verses. As we sat together, he would show them to me, and even sometimes ask my opinion, and now and then my assistance. I recall at this moment his consulting me about one particular line, as Ito whether the word ‘great’ would properly rhyme with ‘not.’ It would not surprise me now if I should be able, by looking over his juvenile poems, to identify that very line. As it is my only chance for poetic fame, I must, I think, undertake the search.

“My boyish admiration was so great for my schoolfellow’s genius, that I requested his permission to carry his portfolio home for the inspection of my mother. If her enthusiasm was less than mine, her judgment did not hesitate to praise the verses very highly; and her criticism might well gratify the boyish poet; for she was a lady who to a natural love for literature, inherited from her father, Edmund Randolph,* had added the most thorough and careful culture obtained by the most extensive reading of the English classics, — the established mode of female education in those days. Here, then, you have the first critic to whom were submitted the verses of our world-famed poet. Her warm appreciation of the boy’s genius and work was proof of her own critical taste.”

One paragraph of Colonel Preston’s recollections throws a lurid and most suggestive light upon the causes which rendered the boy’s early life unhappy, and tended to blight his budding hopes. Although, as seen, mixing with scions of the best families, and endowed with the innate pride derivable from gentle [page 26:] birth — fostered by all the indulgences of wealth and the consciousness of intellect — Edgar Poe was made to feel that his parentage was obscure, and his position in society dependent upon the charitable caprice of a benefactor. Many boys might have endured such a condition of life with equanimity, but to one of this lad’s temperament it must have been a source of continual torment, and all allusions to it ball and wormwood for his haughty spirit. Generally, Mr. Allan appears to have been proud of his handsome and precocious godson, and willing enough to provide him with the advantages proffered by educational institutions; but of parental affection, and of that family sympathy for which the poor orphan boy yearned — as his words and works prove — he seems to have been utterly devoid. Not but what the imperious youth was frequently indulged in all money could purchase, yet the pettings and rebuffs which he was alternately subjected to were scarcely calculated to conciliate his disposition. Throughout life a morbid sensitiveness to affection was one of Poe’s most distinguishing traits, and it was the want of this which drove him frequently to seek in the society of dumb creatures the love denied him, or which he sometimes believed denied him, by human beings. In his terrible tale of The Black Cat there is a paragraph which those who were intimately acquainted with its author will at once [page 27:] recognise the autobiographical fidelity of. “From my infancy,” remarks Poe, “I was noted for the docility and humanity of my disposition. My tenderness:,of heart was even so conspicuous as to make me the jest of my companions. I was especially fond of animals, and was indulged by my parents with a great variety of pets. With these I spent most of my time, and never was so happy as when feeding and caressing them. This peculiarity of character brew with my growth, and in my manhood I derived from it one of my principal sources of pleasure. To those who have cherished an affection for a faithful and sagacious dog, I need hardly be at the trouble of explaining the nature or the intensity of the gratification thus derivable. There is something in the unselfish and self-sacrificing love of a brute, which goes directly to the heart of him who has had frequent occasion to test the paltry friendship and gossamer fidelity of mere man.”

Many of Poe’s schoolfellows at the Richmond Academy corroborate and supplement Colonel Preston’s reminiscences. Dr. R. C. Ambler writes: ” I recollect my old playmate Edgar Allan Poe. I passed my early life in the city of Richmond, and in the years 1823-24 I was in the habit of constant intercourse with the boy. No one now living, I dare say, had better opportunities of becoming acquainted with his physique, as for two summers we stripped together for [page 28:] a bath daily, and learned to swim in the same pool in Shockoe Creek. . . . Poe was not apt at learning to swim, though at a subsequent period he became famous for swimming from Mayo’s Bridge to Warwick.” In allusion to this long remembered boyish feat, the poet himself remarked, “Any ’swimmer in the falls’ in my days would have swum the Hellespont, and thought nothing of the matter. I swam from Ludlam’s Wharf to Warwick (six miles) in a hot June sun, against one of the strongest tides ever known in the river. It would have been a feat comparatively easy to swim twenty miles in still water. I would not think much,” concluded Poe, in his strain of not infrequent exaggeration, “of attempting to swim the British Channel from Dover to Calais.” Whatever he might not think much of “attempting,” the lad did not, certainly, shrink from doing a deed of no little daring in his famous swim, an account of which is thus furnished by Colonel Robert Mayo, junior, at that time a companion and schoolmate of the poet: — “I started with Poe in his celebrated swim from Richmond to Warwick Bar, six miles down James River. The day was oppressively hot, and I concluded rather than endure the infliction to stop at Tree Hill, three miles from town. Poe, however, braved the sun and kept on, reaching the goal, but emerging from the water with neck, face, and back blistered.” [page 29:]

The truth of this feat having been publicly question, Poe, who was intolerant of contradiction, obtained fro in Dr. Cabell and published the following certification of his prowess: —

“I was one of several who witnessed this swimming feat. We accompanied Mr. Poe in boats. Messrs. Robert Stannard, John Lyle (since dead), Robert Saunders, John Munford, I think, and one or two others, were also of the party. Mr. Poe did not seem at all fatigued, and walked back to Richmond immediately after the feat — which was undertaken for a wager. ROBERT G. CABELL.”

A yet more dangerous exploit in natation is recorded of the daring boy by Colonel Mayo. One day in midwinter, when standing on the banks of the James River, Poe bantered his companion into jumping in, in order to swim to a certain point with him. After floundering about in the nearly frozen stream for some time they reached the piles upon which Mayo’s Bridge then rested, and were glad enough to stop and try to gain the shore by climbing up the log abutment to the bridge. To their dismay, upon reaching the bridge, they discovered that its flooring overlapped the abutment by several feet, and that ascent by such means was impossible. Nothing remained for them but to descend and retrace their steps, which, weary and partly frozen, they did: Poe reached the land in an exhausted state, whilst Mayo was fished out by a friendly boat, [page 30:] just as he was about to succumb. On getting ashore, Poe was seized with a violent attack of vomiting, and both the lads were ill for several weeks. Colonel Mayo recalls Poe to mind as a haughty, handsome, impetuous boy, self-willed, defiant, and not indisposed for fight, but with great mental power and an ever-present anxiety to grapple with and solve difficult mental problems.

Dr. Ambler, recurring to this period of Poe’s career, remarks, “Of course I was too young at that date to appreciate the poet’s mental capabilities; but I remember to have heard some verses of his, in the shape of a satire upon the members of a debating society to which he belonged. . . I cannot recall a line of these verses, but do remember that I envied him his ability to write them. These lines, as far as I know, were never published, but were circulated in manuscript among the boys, and were, probably, the first known out of his family.”

Mr. John Clarke having relinquished the guidance of the Richmond school was succeeded, in the autumn of 1823, by a Mr. William Burke, and amongst the pupils who remained in his charge was Edgar Allan Poe. Mr. Andrew Johnston, another of his schoolfellows at Richmond, states that when he went to Mr. Burke’s, on the 1st of October 1823, he found Poe there. ” I knew him before,” he writes, ” but not [page 31:] well, there being two, if not three, years difference in our ages. We went to school together all through 1824, and the early part of 1825, Some time in the latter year (I cannot recollect at what time exactly) he left the school. . . Poe was a much more advanced scholar than any of us; but there was no other class for him — that being the highest — and he bad nothing to do, or but little, to keep his headship of the class. I dare say he liked it well, for he was fond of desultory reading, and even then wrote verses. . . We all recognised and admired his great and varied talents, and were proud of him as the most distinguished schoolboy of the town. At that time Poe was slight in person and figure, but well made, active, sinewy, and graceful. In athletic exercises he was foremost. Especially, be was the best, the most daring, and most enduring swimmer that I ever saw in the water. . . . His disposition was amiable, and his manners pleasant and courteous.“*

These somewhat similarly minded reminiscences by the poet’s playmates — doubtless slightly, albeit unconsciously, biassed in tone by the after celebrity of Poe — serve to illustrate and prove that even at that early age the lad had strongly impressed his comrades with a belief in his intellectual superiority, and that he had already begun to entertain a proud and somewhat [page 32:] pugnacious contempt for those less richly endowed by nature. Other equally marked idiosyncrasies of his character — extraordinary fidelity of friendship, and intense sensitiveness to kindness — are strikingly portrayed by some well-authenticated incidents in this period of his life, and to which the late Mrs. Whitman was the first to draw attention.* The correctness of her remarks in connection with these episodes have been amply confirmed by the correspondence of Mrs. Clemm and Poe himself. Referring to the passionate, almost fanatical, devotion of the poet for those who became the objects of his affection, Mrs. Whitman relates this characteristic anecdote of his boyhood:

“While at the academy in Richmond, he one day accompanied a schoolmate to his home, where he saw for the first time Mrs. H[elen] S[tannard], the mother of his young friend. This lady, on entering the room, took his band and spoke some gentle and gracious words of welcome, which so penetrated the sensitive heart of the orphan boy as to deprive him of the power of speech, and for a time almost of conscious ness itself. He returned home in a dream, with but one thought, one hope in life — to hear again the sweet and gracious words that had made the desolate world so beautiful to him, and filled his lonely heart with [page 33:] the oppression of a new joy. This lady afterwards became the confidant of all his boyish sorrows, and hers was the one redeeming influence that saved and guided him in the earlier days of his turbulent and passionate youth.”

Writing on this same subject, Mrs. Clemm records that he entertained a most profound devotion for this lady, and that “when he — was unhappy at home (which was very often the case), he went to her for sympathy, for consolation, and for advice.” Put, alas! the sad destiny which appeared to haunt the poor lad, and all dear to him, overtook his beloved friend! This lady herself was overwhelmed by fearful and peculiar sorrows, and at the very moment when her guiding voice was most needed, fell a prey to mental alienation, and when she died and was entombed in a neighbouring cemetery, her poor boyish admirer could not endure the thought of her lying there lonely and forsaken in her vaulted home. For months after her decease, Poe — like his great Hungarian contemporary Petofi, at the grave of his girl-love Etelka — would go nightly to visit the tomb of his revered friend, and when the nights were very drear and cold, “when the autumnal rains fell, and the winds wailed mournfully over the graves, he lingered longest, and came away most regretfully.”

For years, if not for life, the memory of this [page 34:] unfortunate lady tinged all Poe’s fancies, and filled his mind with saddening things. In a letter, written within a twelvemonth of his own death, to Mrs. Whitman, the poet broke through his usual reticence as to the facts of his early life, and confessed that his exquisitely beautiful stanzas “To Helen,“* were inspired by the memory of this lady — by “the one idolatrous and purely ideal love” of his tempest-tossed boyhood. In the early versions of his youthful verses, the name of “Helen” continually recurs, and it was undoubtedly to her that he devoted “The Poean,” a juvenile poem which subsequently he greatly improved in both rhythm and form, and republished under the musical name of “Lenore.” The weird thoughts which he experienced when he beheld this lady robed in her grave garments are hinted at in “Irene,“† and the description which he gave to a friend of the fantasies that haunted his brain during his desolate vigils in the cemetery,-the nameless fears and indescribable phantasmata —

“Flapping from out their Condor wings

Invisible Woe!”

she compares to those which overwhelmed De Quincey at the burial of his sweet sister-playmate.

Those willing to study Poe’s idiosyncrasies should [page 35:] not object to linger over this little-known epoch of his story, because we are indeed convinced that in “those solitary churchyard vigils, with all their associated memories,” Mrs. Whitman has found “a key to much that seems strange and abnormal in the poet’s after life.” There can be no doubt that those who would seek the clue to the psychological phenomena of his strange existence — “that intellect,” as Poe himself remarked, which would try to reduce his “phantasm to the commonplace” — must know, and even analyse this phase of his being. The mind which could so steadfastly trace, step by step, the gruesome gradations of sentience after death, as does Edgar Poe in his weird “Colloquy of Monos and Una,” must indeed have been one that had frequently sought to — wrest its earthy secrets from the charnel house.

Throughout life Poe was haunted by the idea that the dead are not wholly dead to consciousness — was haunted, as Mrs. Whitman says, “by ideas of terror and indescribable awe, at the thought of that mysterious waking sleep, that powerless and dim vitality, in which ‘the dead’ are presumed, according to our popular theology, to await ‘the general resurrection at the last day’ ” — and it was this feeling, those who knew him believe, that restrained him more than once from contracting another marriage after his beloved [page 36:] wife’s death. The feeling, so powerfully expounded in some of his tales and his poems* —

Lest the dead, who is forsaken,

May not be happy now,” —

overclouded his mind until the very last days of his “lonesome latter years.”


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 20:]

* Professor John Clarke is still alive. — J. H. I.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 25:]

* The well-known statesman. — J. H. I.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 31:]

* Didier, Life of Edgar A. Poe, pp. 33, 34.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 32:]

* Edgar Poe and has Critics, pp. 48-55.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 34:]

* Beginning, “Helen, thy beauty is to me.”

† Published in 1831.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 36:]

* Compare “Eleonora;” The Bridal Ballad;” and article “Undine,” in Marginalia.


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - EAP:HLLO, 1880] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - E. A. P.: His Life, Letters and Opinions (J. H. Ingram) (Chapter 03)