Text: Susan Archer Weiss, “Chapter 05,” Home Life of Poe (1907), pp. 36-40


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[page 36:]

CHAPTER V.

SCHOOLBOY LOVE AFFAIRS.

That Poe was, both as boy and man, unusually susceptible to the influence of feminine charms has been the testimony of all who best knew him. “I never knew the time,” said Mr. Mackenzie, “that Edgar was not in love with some one.”

Nor was it unusual for me, when a girl, to meet with some comely matron who would laughingly admit that she had been “one of Edgar Poe’s sweethearts.” Neither did he confine his boyish gallantries to girls of his own age, but admired grown-up belles and young married ladies as well; though this was probably in a great measure owing to the playful petting with which they treated the handsome and chivalrous boy-lover.

But this was a trait which did not meet with the approval of Miss Jane Mackenzie, sister of the gentleman who adopted Rosalie Poe. This lady, noted for her elegant manners and accomplishments, [page 37:] kept a fashionable “Young Ladies’ Boarding-School,” patronized by the best families of the State; and many a brilliant belle and admired Virginia matron boasted of having received her education at “Miss Jane’s.” As I remember her, she was tall and stately, prim and precise, and was attired generally in black silk and elaborate cap and frizette, a very Lady-Prioress sort of a person. She had the reputation of being exceedingly “strict” in regard to the manners and conduct of her pupils, and was a contrast to the rest of her family, all of whom were remarkably genial.

When Edgar was about fifteen or sixteen he began to make trouble for Miss Jane. Repeatedly she would detect him in secret correspondence with some one of her fair pupils, supplemented on his part by offerings of candy and “original poetry,” his sister Rosalie being the medium of communication. The verses were sometimes compared by the fair recipients and found to be alike, with the exception of slight changes appropriate to each; a practice which he kept up in after years. He possessed some skill in drawing, and it was his habit to make pencil-sketches of his girl [page 38:] friends, with locks of their hair attached to the cards.

Poe himself has told of his boyish devotion to Mrs. Stanard, which made so deep an impression upon the mind and heart of the embryo poet. The story is well known of how he once accompanied little Robert Stanard home from school (to see his pet pigeons and rabbits), and how his heart was won by the gentle and gracious reception given him by the boy’s lovely mother, and the tenderness of tone and manner with which she talked to him; she knowing his pathetic history. In his heart a chord of feeling was stirred which had never before been touched; and thenceforth he regarded her with a passionate and reverential devotion such as we may imagine the religious devotee to feel for the Madonna. He calls this “the first pure and ideal love of his soul,” and possibly it may in time have been increased by the knowledge of the doom which hung above and overtook her at the last — the partial shrouding of the bright intellect, the effect of a hereditary taint. Indeed, it is probable that on this account Poe saw very little if anything of Mrs. Stanard in the two succeeding years, in which time she led a secluded life with her family, dying in April, 1824, at the age of [page 39:] thirty-one. But the impression had been made, and remained with him during his lifetime, forming the one solitary Ideal which pervaded nearly all his poems — the death of the young, lovely and beloved. This experience was probably the beginning of those occasional dreamy and melancholy moods about this time noticed by some of his companions. The living friend of his boyhood’s dream became the “lost Lenore” of his maturer years.

But though Poe deeply felt the loss of this beloved friend, the story is not to be accepted that he was accustomed to go at night to the cemetery where she was buried “and there, prostrate on her grave, weep away the long hours of cold and darkness.” No one who knew Poe in his boyhood, with his horror of cemeteries, of darkness, and of being alone at night, would believe this story, first told by Poe himself to Mrs. Whitman, and by her poetic fancy further embellished. Besides this is the practical refutation afforded by the high brick wall and locked gates of the cemetery, with the strict discipline of the Allan home, which would have made such midnight excursions impossible.

Another account connected with Mrs. Stanard, and repeated by Poe’s biographers until [page 40:] it has become an article of faith with the public, is that the exquisite lines “To Helen” were inspired by and addressed to that lady. If written at ten years of age, as Poe asserts, it will be remembered that he was at this time at school in London, and it was not until two years after his return, and when he was thirteen years of age, that he ever saw Mrs. Stanard. He might have altered the lines to suit her — his “Psyche,” with the pale and “classic face” — and I recall that the “folded scroll” of the first version was afterward changed to “the agate lamp within thy hand,” as more appropriate to Psyche. Poe never made an alteration in his poems that was not an improvement.

Those who knew Mrs. Stanard describe her as slender and graceful, with regular delicate features, a complexion of marble pallor and dark, pensive eyes. A portrait of her which was in possession of her son, Judge Robert Stanard, represented her as a young girl wearing — perhaps in respect to her Scottish descent — a snood in her dark, curling hair.

 


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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 05)