Text: Susan Archer Weiss, “Chapter 04,” Home Life of Poe (1907), pp. 20-35


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[page 20:]

CHAPTER IV.

POE’S BOYHOOD.

The Allans returned to Richmond in June, 1820, Edgar being then twelve years old. Having no house ready for their reception they were invited by Mr. Ellis, Mr. Allan’s business partner, to his home on Franklin, then as now the fashionable street of the city.

Mr. Allan at once put Edgar to Professor Clarke’s classical school, where he was in intimate association with boys of the best city families.

At the end of this year the Allans removed to a plain cottage-like dwelling at the corner of Clay and Fifth streets, in a quiet and out-of-the-way neighborhood. It consisted of but five rooms on the ground floor and a half story above; and here for some years they resided.

Of Poe as a schoolboy various accounts have been given by former schoolmates, with most of whom he was very popular, while others represent him as reserved and not generally [page 21:] liked. All, however, agree that he was a remarkably bright pupil, with, in the higher classes, but one rival, and that he was high-spirited and the leader in all sorts of fun and frolic.

Mrs. Mackenzie’s eldest son, John, or “Jack,” two years older than Edgar, though not mentioned by any of Poe’s biographers, was the most intimate and trusted of all his lifelong friends. The two were playmates in childhood, and schoolmates and companions up to the time of Poe’s departure for the University. Poe always called Mrs. Mackenzie “Ma,” and was almost as much at home in her house as was his sister.

I remember Mr. John Mackenzie as a portly, jolly, middle-aged gentleman with a florid face and a hearty laugh. This is what he said of Poe after the latter’s death:

“I never saw in him as boy or man a sign of morbidness or melancholy; unless,” he added, “it was when Mrs. Stanard died, when he appeared for some time grieving and depressed. At all other times he was bright and full of fun and high spirits. He delighted in playing practical jokes, masquerading, and making raids on orchards and turnip-patches. Oh, yes; every schoolboy liked a sweet, tender, [page 22:] juicy turnip; and many a time after the apple crop had been gathered in, we might have been seen, a half dozen of us, seated on a rail-fence like so many crows, munching turnips. We didn’t object to a raw sweet potato at times — anything that had the relish of being stolen. On Saturdays we had fish-fries by the river, or tramped into the woods for wild grapes and chinquepins. It was not always that Mr. Allan would allow Edgar to go on these excursions, and more than once he would steal off and join us, though knowing that he would be punished for it.”

“Mr. Allan was a good man in his way,” added Mr. Mackenzie, “but Edgar was not fond of him. He was sharp and exacting, and with his long, hooked nose and small keen eyes looking from under his shaggy eyebrows, always reminded me of a hawk. I know that often, when angry with Edgar, he would threaten to turn him adrift, and that he never allowed him to lose sight of his dependence on his charity.”

Edgar, he said, was allowed a liberal weekly supply of pocket money, but being of a generous disposition and giving treats of taffy and hot gingerbread to his schoolmates at recess, besides being generally extravagant, this supply was always exhausted before the week [page 23:] was out, when he would borrow, and so be kept constantly in debt. He was, however, very prompt in paying off his debts.

Mr. Robert Sully, nephew of the distinguished artist, Thomas Sully, and himself an artist, was through life one of Poe’s firmest friends. A boy of delicate physique and a disposition so sensitive and irritable that few could keep on good terms with him, he was always in difficulties. “I was a dull boy at school,” he said to me; “and Edgar, when he knew that I had an unusually hard lesson, would help me out with it. He would never allow the big boys to teaze me, and was kind to me in every way. I used to admire and in a way envy him, he was so bright, clever and handsome.

“He lived not far from me, just around the corner; and one Saturday he came running up to our house, calling out, “Come along, Rob! We are going to the Hermitage woods for chinquepins, and you must come too. Uncle Billy is going for a load of pine-needles, and we can ride in his wagon.” Now, that showed his consideration; he knowing that I could not walk the long distances that most boys could, and therefore seldom went on one of their excursions.” [page 24:]

In one of Poe’s biographies is an absurd story to the effect that Mr. Clarke, his first teacher, once on detecting him robbing a neighbor’s turnip-patch, tied one of the vegetables about his neck as a token of disgrace, which the boy purposely wore home, when Mr. Allan, in a fury at this insult to his adopted son, called on the teacher and threatened him with personal chastisement. It is scarcely necessary at this day to deny the truth of that story; but the following is what Mr. Clarke himself says about it in an interview with a reporter in Baltimore some years after Poe’s death, he being at that time nearly eighty years old.*

“Edgar had a very sweet disposition. He was always cheerful, brimful of mirth and a very great favorite with his schoolmates. I never had occasion to speak a harsh word to him, much less to make him do penance. He had a great ambition to excel.”

He spoke with pride of Edgar as a student, especially in the classics. He and Nat Howard on one vacation each wrote him a complimentary letter in Latin, both equally excellent [page 25:] in point of scholarship; but Edgar’s was in verse, which Nat could not write.

“Whenever Poe came to Baltimore he would not forget to come and see me, and I would offer him wine. It was the custom, you know. When he became editor of Graham’s Magazine and could afford it, he sent wine to me, gratis. . . . I think that as boy and man Edgar loved me dearly. I am sure I loved him. . . . Yes; he was a dear, open-hearted, cheerful and good boy; and as a man he was a loving and affectionate friend to me. I went to his funeral.”

The old Professor said that Poe’s sister, Rosalie, he had seen when her brother was a pupil of his. “She was at that time about ten years old, was pretty and a very sweet child.”

Poe, after leaving Professor Clarke’s, entered Dr. Burke’s classical school in 1832, where he remained until he went to the University. Here one of his classmates was Dr. Creed Thomas, a noted Richmond physician, who died so late as in 1890. In his reminiscences of Poe, published in a Richmond paper not long before his own death, he says:

“Poe was one of our brightest pupils. He read and scanned the Latin poets with ease when scarcely thirteen years of age. He was [page 26:] an apt student and always recited well, with a great ambition to excel in everything.

“Despite his retiring disposition he was never lacking in courage. There was not a pluckier boy in school. He never provoked a quarrel, but would always stand up for his rights. . . . It was a noticeable fact that he never asked any of his schoolmates to go home with him after school. The boys would frequently on Fridays take dinner or spend the night with each other at their homes, but Poe was never known to enter in this social intercourse. After he left the school ground we saw no more of him until next day.”

Dr. Thomas spoke of Poe’s fondness for the stage. He and several other of the brightest boys held amateur theatricals in an old building rented for the purpose. Poe was one of the best actors; but Mr. Allan, upon learning of it, forbade his having anything to do with these theatricals, a great grievance to the boy.

“A singular fact,” proceeds Dr. Thomas, “is that Poe never got a whipping while at Burke’s. I remember that the boys used to come in for a flogging quite frequently — I got my share. Poe was quiet and dignified during school hours, attending strictly to his studies; [page 27:] and we all used to wonder at his escaping the rod so successfully.”

He adds that Poe was not popular with most of his schoolmates; that his manners were retiring and distant. Doubtless there were boys with whom he did not care to associate, feeling the lack of a congeniality between himself and them. Then there were the prim and priggish class who looked with virtuous disapproval on the robber of apple orchards and turnip-patches, and who in after years never had a good word to say of Poe, whether as boy or man.

It will be observed from Dr. Davis’ account that the “quiet and dignified” manner which distinguished Poe in manhood was natural to him even as a boy.

As regards his never inviting his schoolmates to accompany him home to dinner or to spend the night, this would not have been agreeable to Edgar, who would have preferred having his time to himself for reading or writing his verses, a volume of which he now began to make up. But he was by no means deprived of company at home. The Allans, as has been said, were fond of entertaining their friends, and at their “sociables” and “tea parties” Edgar was generally required to be present, with one or two young friends to keep him company, and often he was treated to a “party” of his own — boys and girls — where a rigid etiquette was required, though dancing and charades were indulged in. This was Mrs. Allan’s idea of affording him enjoyment and cultivating in him elegant and graceful manners; but to him it was most distasteful. Throughout his life he detested social companies. Mrs. Mackenzie, in speaking of the social restraint under which the Allans at this time sought to keep Edgar, said that it was very distasteful to the boy, who liked to choose his companions, and who now, at the age of fifteen, began to be dissatisfied and to think that he was subject to undue restraint at home. She often heard him express the wish that he had been adopted by Mr. Mackenzie instead of by Mr. Allan; and she would talk to him in her motherly way, endeavoring to impress him with a sense of what he owed to the latter. His disposition, she said, was very sweet and affectionate, and he was grateful for any kindness, and always happy to be at her house as much as he was allowed to be from home. Her son John could never be persuaded to visit Edgar at his home, so strict was the etiquette observed at table and in general [page 29:] behavior. She believed that Mr. Allan, in taking charge of Edgar, had been influenced more by a desire to please his wife than any real interest in the child, though he had conscientiously endeavored to do his duty by him. She had once heard him say that Edgar did not know the meaning of the word gratitude; to which she replied that it could not be expected of children, who were not able to understand their obligations; and that she did not at present look for gratitude from Rose, but for affection and obedience. Mrs. Allan was devoted to Edgar and he was very fond of her. It was she, Mrs. Mackenzie thought, rather than her husband, who so extravagantly supplied him with money, seeming to take a pride in his having more than his schoolmates. She was a good and amiable woman, fond of pleasure generally, and less domestic in her tastes than either her husband or sister.

Mr. John Mackenzie, in speaking of Edgar, bore witness to his high spirit and pluckiness in occasional schoolboy encounters, and also to his timidity in regard to being alone at night and his belief in and fear of the supernatural. He had heard Poe say, when grown, that the most horrible thing he could imagine as a boy was to feel an ice-cold hand laid upon [page 30:] his face in a pitch-dark room when alone at night; or to awaken in semi-darkness and see an evil face gazing close into his own; and that these fancies had so haunted him that he would often keep his head under the bed-covering until nearly suffocated.

The restrictions sought to be placed upon Poe’s associations and amusements served only to render him more democratic. He, with two or three of his young friends of congenial tastes, were fond of stealing off for a bath in the river near Rocketts or below the Falls, in company with the hardy, adventurous boys of those localities, who were known as “river rats.” It was from them that he learned to swim, to row and, when the river was low, to wade across its rocky bed to the willowy islands and set fish-traps. When in Richmond in after years, he told how he had met with some of these former companions, and how much he had enjoyed talking with them about “old times” on the river.

As regards religious influences and teachings in the Allan home, it does not appear that Edgar was especially subject to these. Mr. and Mrs. Allan were members of St. John’s Episcopal church and punctilious in all church observances, and they required of Edgar a [page 31:] strict attendance at Sunday school and his presence in the family pew during divine service. But in those days it was not thought necessary for professed Christians to deny themselves social pleasures. On Sundays luxurious dinners were provided, to which friends were invited from church, and rides and drives were indulged in. Edgar was sent to dancing school, and Mrs. Allan had her dancing entertainments and her husband his card parties, which were attended by some of the most prominent professional men of the city; amusements which, as is well known, exposed Episcopalians to the charge of worldliness by other denominations. At all these entertainments wine flowed freely.

I have an impression, too vague to be asserted as fact, that Edgar Poe was confirmed at the same time with his sister and Mary Mackenzie, at St. John’s church, and by the clergyman who had baptized them. To any inquiry as to his religious denomination, he always answered, “I am an Episcopalian.” But it was often remarked upon by their friends in Richmond that neither he nor Rosalie had ever been known to manifest a sign of religious feeling or of interest in religious things. It was noticeable in both that, phrenologically [page 32:] considered, the organ of veneration was so undeveloped as to give a depressed or flat appearance to the top of the head when seen in profile. And it was known to Poe’s intimate friends that, while he believed in a Supreme Power, he had no faith in the doctrine of the Divinity of Christ. Hence he was as a bark at sea with a guiding star in view but no rudder to direct its course. His eager seeking for truth was ever but a groping in darkness, with now and then a faint, far-away ray of the light of Truth flashing upon his sight — as we see in Eureka.

Yet Poe was careful to offer no disrespect to religion, and he was a frequent attendant at church and a great lover of church music.

Great injustice has been done the Allans by Poe’s biographers in representing them as responsible for his early dissipation. By all the story has been repeated of how the child of three or four years was accustomed to be given a glass of wine at dinner parties and required to drink the health of the company.

It was no unusual thing for little children to be taught this trick for the amusement of company, as from my own recollections I can myself aver. But the liquor given them was simply a little sweetened wine and water. As [page 33:] Edgar grew older he was, like other boys in his position — as the Mackenzies — allowed his glass of wine at table; but no word was ever heard of his being fond of wine until his return from the University.

I have heard a Richmond gentleman who was Poe’s chum at the University speak of the latter’s peculiar manner of drinking. He was no connoisseur, they said, in either wine or other liquors, and seemed to care little for their mere taste or flavor. “You never saw him critically discussing his wine or smacking his lips over its excellence; but he would generally swallow his glass at a draught, as though it had been water — especially when he was in any way worried.” In this way he would soon become intoxicated, while his companions remained sober. “He had the weakest head of any one that I ever knew,” said this gentleman, who attributed his dissipation while at the University, not to a natural inclination, but to a weakness of will which allowed himself to be easily influenced by his companions.

Hitherto we have seen in Poe, the schoolboy, only what was amiable and lovable; but now, in his sixteenth year, he began to show [page 34:] that beneath this were springs of bitterness which, when disturbed, could arouse him to a passion and a power hitherto unsuspected.

I never heard of but one authentic instance of his being subject to slight or “snubbing” while a boy on account of his parentage or his dependent position in Mr. Allan’s family, although several writers have taken it for granted that such was the case. What effect such treatment would have had upon him is evinced in the instance in question, in which a young man, a sprig of an aristocratic family, chose to object to association with the son of actors, and not only made a point of ignoring him on all occasions, but made offensive allusions to him as a “charity boy.” This last being reported to Edgar, aroused in him a resentment which found expression in a rhyming lampoon upon “Don Pompiosa,” so brimfull of wit, sarcasm and keenest ridicule that it was circulated throughout the city for some time, though none knew who was the author. The young man in question could not make his appearance upon the street without being pointed out and laughed at, with audible allusions to “Don Pompiosa,” and was, it was said, at length actually driven from the town, leaving [page 35:] Poe triumphant. This was the forerunner of those keen literary onslaughts which in after years made Poe as a critic the terror of his enemies.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 24:]

*  This account, clipped from a Baltimore paper, was given by Professor Clarke’s son to a Richmond reporter in 1894.

 


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - HLFP, 1907] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Home Life of Poe (S. A. Weiss) (Chapter 04)