Text: James A. Harrison, “Chapter 01,” Life and Letters of Edgar Allan Poe (1903), pp. 1-34


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[page 1, unnumbered:]

EDGAR ALLAN POE.

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BIOGRAPHY.

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CHAPTER I.

1809-1824.

POE’S ANCESTRY, BIRTH, AND EARLIER YEARS AT RICHMOND: SCHOOL-DAYS IN ENGLAND AND VIRGINIA.

I.

WHEN he was five-and-twenty years old Edgar Allan Poe wrote the following letter to his life-long friend Kennedy, author of “Swallow Barn,” “Horseshoe Robinson,” etc., and afterwards Secretary of the Navy under President Fillmore, in 1852:

BALTIMORE, November, 1834.

DEAR SIR: I have a favor to beg of you which I thought it best to ask in writing, because, sincerely, I had not courage to ask it in person. I am indeed too well aware that I have no claim whatever to your attention, and that even the manner of my introduction to your notice was at the best equivocal. Since the day you first saw me, my situation in life has altered materially. At that time I looked forward to the inheritance of a large fortune, and, in the meantime, was in receipt of an annuity for my support. This was allowed me by a gentleman of Virginia (Mr. Jno. Allan) who adopted me at [page 2:] the age of two years (both my parents being dead), and who, until lately, always treated me with the affection of a father. But a second marriage on his part, and I dare say many follies on my own, at length ended in a quarrel between us. He is now dead, and has left me nothing. I am thrown entirely capon my own resources, with no profession and very few friends. Worse than all this, I am at length penniless. Indeed no circumstances less urgent would have induced me to risk your friendship by troubling you with my distresses. But I could not help thinking that if my situation was stated — as you could state it — to Carey & Lea,(1) they might be led to aid me with a small sum in consideration of my MS. now in their hands. This would relieve my immediate wants, and I could then look forward more confidently to better days. At all events receive the assurance of my gratitude for what you have already done.

Most respectfully, your obedient servant,  
EDGAR ALLAN POE.

This letter is an epitome in brief of Poe’s whole career, containing as it does indubitable data as to his early life, intimations of his marvellous precocity (second only to that of Shelley, Heine, Feats, or Hugo), and indications of the long-lasting misery in which his short life (also like that of Shelley and Keats) was to be spent.

Poe, the poet Virginian, as he loved to call himself — “I am a Virginian, — at least I call myself one, for I have resided all my life, until within the last few years, in Richmond,” he says to his friend F. W. Thomas — was born in Boston, January 19, 1809. [page 3:] He was not “born in Baltimore, in January, 1811,”(1) a as Griswold’s memoir puts it, — perhaps following a wrong date given by Poe himself, — repeating the statement in “Prose Writers of America” (second edition: Philadelphia, Carey & Hart, 1847); an error enlarged unintentionally by James Russell Lowell in the February number of Graham’s Magazine, 1845, who says that “Mr. Poe was then [1845] about thirty-two years of age” and “still in the prime of life.” In his later years Poe either could not or would not tell the truth about his age.

The fact is however undeniable that Poe was born in Boston, disagreeable as the fact was to him — all through his life, and that his first volume — the famous “Tamerlane and Other Poems,” of 1827 — bore on its titlepage, “By a Bostonian,” in capital letters.

With the peculiar perversity with which children sometimes rail at their mothers, however, Poe perpetually railed at Boston and treated her as the unfortunate noverca of the Roman plays; and Boston in return has avenged herself on her wayward child by bringing railing accusations against him and supplying for him an endless chain of embittered biographers.

The biographers of Poe are indebted to Mr. John H. Ingram(2) for the surest testimony, obtained from the poet’s family in Baltimore, as to his ancestry.

There is no good reason,” says John P. Poe, Esq., of Baltimore,” to suppose that the ancestors of [page 4:] Edgar A. Poe were descended from the Le Poers [the Anglo-Norman family who passed from Italy to France, and from France to England, Wales, and Ireland, and with whom Mrs. Sarah Helen Whitman, the poet’s fiancée in 1848 connected her own and Poe’s progenitors]. John Poe, the progenitor of the family in America, emigrated from the north of Ireland a number of years before the Revolution, and purchased a farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, whence he afterwards removed to Cecil County, Maryland. At the time of the Revolution he was residing at Baltimore. His wife was Jane McBride, believed to be a sister [not a daughter, as frequently stated] of James McBride, Admiral of the Blue, and M. P. for Plymouth in 1785.”

Mrs. Clemm, Poe’s aunt and mother-in-law, says, “My father was born in Ireland, but his parents left there when he was only six weeks old, and he was so patriotic that he never would acknowledge he was any other than an American. He lived in Baltimore from the time of the Revolution; he took my mother there from Pennsylvania, a bride.”(1)

General David Poe, the poet’s grandfather, was a distinguished veteran of the American Revolution, a devoted friend of Lafayette (for whose ragged troops in 1781 Mrs. Poe personally cut out and superintended the manufacture of five hundred garments), and quartermaster-general of the American forces in Baltimore.

David, the eldest son of General Poe, was the poet’s father.

Beverley Tucker, the well-known contributor to The Southern Literary Messenger and author of “The [page 5:] Partizan Leader,” wrote in 1835 that he “remembered Poe’s beautiful mother when a girl.“

This beautiful girl had elements of the sprite about her, being a “girl without a country,” born in mid-ocean while her English mother was journeying across the Atlantic from England to America, and she possessed rare talents for singing, dancing, and acting. No one can look at the portrait of Elizabeth Arnold (for such was her maiden name) without seeing in it foreshadowings of those ethereal Eleonoras and Ligeias that haunted the poet’s dreams with their delicate impalpabilities, their Indian-summer-like vagueness: the childlike figure, the great, wide open, mysterious eyes, the abundant curling hair confined in the quaint bonnet of a hundred years ago and shadowing the brow in raven masses, the high waist and attenuated arms clasped in an Empire robe of faint, flowered design, the tiny but rounded neck and shoulders, the head proudly erect. It is the face of an elf, a sprite, an Undine who was to be the mother of the most elfish, the most unearthly of poets, whose luminous dark-gray eyes had a glint of the supernatural in them and reflected, as he says in one of his earliest poems, “the wilder‘d” nature of the man.

Rich currents of Irish, Scotch, English, and American blood ran together in his palpitating veins and produced a psychic blend unlike that of any other American poet: Celtic mysticism, Irish fervor, Scotch melody, the iris-tipped fantasy of the Shelleys and the Coleridges, and the independence and alertness of the transatlantic American into whom all the Old-World characteristics had been born, on whom all these treasures of music and imagination, of passion and mystery had been bestowed by some fairy godmother. [page 6:] Elizabeth Arnold was a widow when she married David Poe, Jr., in 1805, her first husband having been the light comedian C. D. Hopkins. He died in October, 1805, and the Poe marriage followed shortly after. Mr. George E. Woodberry, in his painstaking biography,(1) traces out the Bohemian wanderings of grandmother Arnold, Elizabeth Arnold, Mrs. Hopkins, David Poe, and Elizabeth Arnold Poe, from Maine to Charleston and from New York aqd Boston to Richmond, Washington, Norfolk, and Petersburg, where the gay little company (sad enough at times) performed all sorts of pieces in which the arch, roguish, Ariel-like nature of Mrs. Poe drew the attention of critics, and in which her great versatility now enabled her to impersonate tender Ophelias and Cordelias, Palmyms and Sigismundas, now to sing and dance Polish minuets to David Poe’s reels and horn-pipes.

Mr. Woodberry has killed the elopement slander there was no elopement; and David Poe was simply a wayward, handsome, theatre-loving young gallant of twenty-five who joined the Hopkins Company in 1804, and became a strolling player like Will Shakspere and Jean Poquelin Mohere, giving up forever his jaw-books and his uncle’s home in Augusta, Georgia, in favor of the boards.

After their marriage the two became “Virginia Comedians,” and the career of the couple may be traced in the various gazettes and periodicals of the time, especially in the so-called “elegant literature” of the period.

At length a stop — in Boston — came to the wanderings: January 19, 1809, Mrs. Poe did not appear — but Edgar did? [page 7:]

Three weeks after, the poor little woman — whose great eyes look out on us so wistfully from the miniature so passionately beloved by her son — was singing and dancing again merrily before the Boston boards, — with that merriment that must have been nigh to heart-break, for she was now the mother of two little sons, William Henry Leonard and Edgar (followed two years later by Rosalie Poe), with no steady or reliable means of support, and her husband probably already attacked by consumption. All her life the mother engaged in a life-and-death struggle with poverty and penury, like her gifted son: all their lives mother and son were entangled in that vast Disaster which came to such thrilling expression in “The Raven,” sinking in “desperate seas” of misery and succumbing at last to the storm and stress of life, the one in Richmond, the other in Baltimore.

“For my little son Edgar, who should ever love Boston, the place of his birth, and where his mother found her best and most sympathetic friends”: such are the words(1) written in delicate caligraphy by the mother on the back of a little picture which she painted and bequeathed to her son; words, however, written before the final tragedy, a fore-knowledge of which would perhaps have substituted Richmond for Boston, and the lifelong Virginia friends for the casual Boston theatre acquaintances.

It is singular that some of these Boston friends had the names of Usher and Wilson, names afterwards so celebrated in the tales of the author.

The year 1811 found the players in Richmond, Virginia, — if, indeed, David Poe was at this time living, which is at least doubtful. Little Rosalie (who [page 8:] lived until 1874 and died in the Epiphany Church Home at Washington, D. C., an object of charity) came after her father’s death to add to the troubles and distresses of the mother.

The two short years which Edgar Poe had already lived had been signalized by some remarkable things the year of his birth was indeed an Annus Mirabilis. His favorite poets, Elizabeth Barrett Barrett (to whom, as — “the noblest of her sex” he dedicated ,The Raven and Other Poems” in 1845) and Alfred Tennyson (“the greatest poet that ever lived“) were born in that year; Charles Darwin, who revolutionized science, and Chopin — and Mendelssohn, the great musicians; Abraham Lincoln, the great Southern emancipator; Gladstone, the famous orator; Fanny Kemble, the subtle interpreter of Shakspere; Oliver Wendell Holmes, the wit and poet, — formed an illustrious galaxy of new-born children — contemporaries of Poe, making the year t Bog, when Madison was president, Metternich prime minister of Austria, and the Battle of Wagram was fought, a starred year in the historic calendar.

No tragedy in later times is more fraught with infinite pathos than the sufferings and death of the Poes in 1811. Travelling in those days was exceedingly difficult and dangerous, accompanied by all the inconveniences, not to say horrors, of the old ” Continental” stage-coach system, terrible roads, and interminable distances. From 1805, when their marriage took place, the Poes incessantly travelled — from Boston to New York, from New York to Philadelphia, Washington, fair South to distant Charleston, Norfolk, Richmond, back to New York again, flitting like wandering birds from bough to bough, in hopes of an [page 9:] engagement, rolling over the country in the wretched vehicles of the time, encumbered with theatrical baggage and two forlorn little babes (sometimes left with Baltimore relatives).

With the mighty will of Ligeia, which in more than one trait appears to be the life of Poe’s mother wrought into a strange and tender story, the delicate woman moves in her appointed task, determined to support herself and her children, until she reached Richmond, Virginia, in August, 1811. All these years it had been romantic and sentimental drama, song, dance, light comedy; Mrs. Poe had represented nymphs and Ariels and cupids, distressed Ophelias and Shaksperian Desdemonas. Now, — it was tragedy, pure and simple — starvation — death.

After Rosalie’s birth the mother fell into a swift decline, beginning to waste and fade like a waxen taper before the inward burnings of consumption. Never surrendering or giving up hope, she went on announcing and acting until the destitution of the family attracted somehow the charitable attention of the Richmond ladies: benefits were arranged by the kindhearted players; and at last the following card appeared in the Enquirer for November 29, 1811:(1)

“TO THE HUMANE HEART.

“On this night Mrs. Poe, lingering on the bed of disease and surrounded by her children, asks your assistance, and asks it, perhaps, for the last time. The generosity of a Richmond audience can need no other appeal. — For particulars see the bills of the day.” [page 10:]

A few days later, on a date very near the happy and blessed Christmas time, the time of supremely happy mothers and loving children, the curtain rose for the last time on the final act of the tragedy of David Poe and Elizabeth Arnold:

“DECEMBER 10, 1811.

Died, on last Sunday morning, Mrs. Poe, one of the actresses of the company at present playing on the Richmond boards. By the death of this lady the stage has been deprived of one of its chief ornaments; and to say the least of her, she was an interesting actress, and never failed to catch the applause and command the admiration of the beholder.” — Enquirer, December 20, 1811.

If, as Mr. Gill asserts,(1) the father died three days later of the same dread disease, the cup of suffering must have overflowed and the orphaned children been desolate indeed. The Gill Biography further contains an unsupported statement (Appendix, 319) that “Mr. Allan and Mr. Mackenzie, both wealthy and benevolent Scotch gentlemen, having been informed that the Poes were in great distress, sought them out to afford them relief. They were found in wretched lodgings, lying upon a straw-bed, and very sick, Mr. Poe with consumption, and his wife with pneumonia. There was no food in the house. They had no money or fuel, and their clothes had been pawned or sold.

“Two little children were with the parents, in the care of an old Welsh woman who had come over from England with Mrs. Poe, and who was understood to be her mother. The children were half-clad, half-starved, [page 11:] and very much emaciated. The youngest was in a stupor, caused by feeding on bread steeped in gin. The old woman acknowledged that she was in the habit of so feeding them, ‘to steep them quiet and make them strong.‘”

This account has only too many touches of verisimilitude in it.

And the author adds: “Mr. Mackenzie, shocked at this spectacle, took the children to his own house, where they were tenderly cared for. A few days wrought a great change in their appearance, and the beauty and intelligence of little Edgar became a subject of universal comment. William Henry, the elder brother, had already been sent to his grandfather [General Poe] in Baltimore.”

Two weeks and two days later, after Mrs. Poe had been laid to rest in a now unknown grave in one of the beautiful Richmond cemeteries, the Broad Street Theatre where Mr. Placide’s gay little company of Virginia Comedians had so merrily pranced and capered, was consumed in the awful conflagration of Christmas Eve, 1811, in which the governor of Virginia and sixty other persons of high social distinction perished; and from its ashes rose the Monumental Church in memory of the tragic event.

The tragedy quoted in The Conqueror Worm could not have been more sudden and terrible:

“Lo! ’t is a gala night

Within the lonesome latter years:

An angel throng, bewinged, bedight

In veils, and drowned in tears,

Sit in a theatre to see

A play of hopes and fears,

While the orchestra breathes fitfully

The music of the spheres.” [page 12:]

Can the exquisite yet awful imagery of this poem, full as it is of theatre memories, — mimes, puppets, shifting scenery, funereal curtains, phantom forms, — have twined itself somehow about the memory of his mother in connection with the burning of the Richmond Theatre, about which all Virginia never ceased to talk for half a century, and which sent a thrill of horror all over the United States? Little Edgar must often have heard it discussed, and must have watched the memorial church as it slowly rose out of the grave of the theatre where his mother had charmed the Richmond audiences with her beauty and grace so many times long before.(1)

It is asserted that only an accident kept the Allans from the theatre that evening.

II.

RICHMOND, Virginia, is one of the most beautiful places in the old Commonwealth renowned for beautiful sites. Founded more than one hundred and fifty years ago, it got its name from the lovely old English village of Richmond above London near which Cardinal Wolsey had built lordly Hampton Court, with Pope’s Twickenham near by, Stoke Pogis Church and its immortal Elegy in the distance, and Horace Walpole’s villa and the glimmering Thames throwing their clustering associations into the picture.

At Richmond it was (and is) delightful to live, and here, in 1811, having been adopted by Mr. John Allan, an Ayrshire Scotchman from the land of [page 13:] Burns, Edgar Allan Poe took up his abode, a two-year-old child, precociously clever and beautiful. During his most impressionable years, the city was the most intellectual and — with the exception of New Orleans — the gayest city of the South. It was full of old families that had furnished statesmen, legislators, governors, generals, and Congressmen to the United States; the presidents of the United States frequently resorted there in family reunions and on social visits; distinguished foreigners tike Lafayette, after visiting Mount Vernon and Monticello and Montpelier, drifted naturally to the hospitable metropolis of the oldest of the states and were royally entertained with the far-famed Old Virginia profusion.

Little Edgar’s childhood and youth were passed in an atmosphere of sociability, open-air sports, oratory, and elocution. Patrick Henry, the great orator of the Revolution, lay in the neighboring churchyard of Old St. John’s; Chief-Justice Marshall, the greatest of the justices of the Supreme Court, and John Randoph of Roanoke, celebrated for silver voice and stinging sarcasm, were familiar figures in Richmond streets; retired presidents like Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, after they had laid off the robes of office mingled with democratic simplicity in the cultured throngs that haunted the parlors of Capitol Square and Shockoe Hill, or of the suburban homes where the neighboring plantations projected far into the edges of the city. Almost within hailing distance were the pleasant mansions of the Pages (ancestors of Thomas Nelson Page), Wickhams, Cockes, Harrisons, Mayos, and others socially and politically famed in the fashionable annals of the times, and in the city itself were gathered a goodly company of social celebrities. [page 14:]

Richmond has for a century been famous for its schools, classical and denominational, at first taught by English or Irish graduates of famous transatlantic schools, and later by distinguished masters of arts of the University of Virginia.

Rosalie Poe was adopted by the Mackenzies, who kept a well-known ladies’ school still remembered by persons of the older generation and “old gentlemen of the black stock.” Edgar fell into the hands of kindly folk who taught him at the age of five or six to read, write, draw, paint, and “spout verse” from his adopted father’s dining-table, intermingling the recitations (it is asserted, but only on hearsay evidence) with toasts and potations to the guests. — It seems at least impossible at this date to believe that a hard, stern Scotchman such as Mr. Allan is described to have been, should for the amusement of an evening, so far forget himself and his responsibilities to the poor little waif as deliberately to ruin his constitution and his morals with practices so offensive, alike to decency and common-sense. As an educated Scot, he must have known the history and fortunes of Burns, his Ayrshire fellow-countryman, and must have noted, if he had his eyes open at all, the resemblance between the temperaments of the poet-ploughman and the players’ son.

Much mythical nonsense has been talked and written about the “wealth” of Mr. Allan when he adopted Poe, and about the “luxury” in which the boy was reared in the “palatial home of the Allans.” The fact is, Mr. Allan was a poor man when he adopted Poe and lived upstairs over his store.

A correspondent, in a letter dated December 17, 1900, writes: [page 15:]

“Because the Allans for some half century were known in Richmond as rich people, all the books assume forsooth that Poe’s youth was spoiled by indulgence of luxury and extravagance such as large wealth may command. It may have been, and doubtless was, somewhat spoiled as the adopted child of a good, loving woman, childless herself, but wealth was an unknown factor in that household until the windfall of the Galt legacy in 1825, just before Poe left for the University. That the Allans in 1811, when they adopted Poe, were living upstairs over their store, in which John Allan carried on a small trade, is a fact not discreditable, but inconsistent with wealth, and a great contrast with their later condition. The fact of this mode of business and living rests as yet on traditionary information, of which I have not yet found record proof: but I have no doubt of its correctness.

“The end of the War of 1815 reopened commercial relations with England, presenting fine chances for business enterprise, of which the ‘Scotch factor’ was not slow to take advantage. That the results were unprofitable and disastrous is evidenced by a deed of assignment in 1822, two years after his return to Richmond. The assignment was made on private account and as partner of Ellis and Allan of Richmond, and Allan and Ellis of London.

“The schedule includes household furniture, his negroes, etc., and interest in a small farm inherited by his wife: from which it would seem that he had no realty in his own right. By consent of creditors Allan was allowed to remain in possession of the property until the Trustee be required to sell; with agreement to release if he could settle with creditors. The Deed of Release is not found, and it is probable that he was [page 16:] under stress of the misfortune until relieved by the Galt legacy. . . . Old Mr. Galt was one of the wealthiest men in the state, and John Allan’s share of that wealth (he was Galt’s nephew) made him one of the richest men in a town that had comparatively few large fortunes. The fortune revolutionized the Allan family life, and gave them new position.

“The Galt Will was probated in March, 1825, and the city records show that within three months the legatee, with his newly acquired wealth, bought the house on Main Street, afterwards known as the Allan House.

“Poe’s stay in that house was not more than about six months, before leaving for the University, and for short periods after return therefrom. — I wonder some times how much the sensibilities of the new-rich man may have been offended by satirical comment of the bright youngster who — the critics to the contrary notwithstanding — had keen sense of the humorous, and wonderful talent in all sorts of criticism [witness Dr. Ambler’s account of his satire upon the members of a debating society to which he belonged, aetat. 14; Ingram, I., 30]. I doubt not that some such criticism, not malicious, was one of the ingredients in their subsequent disagreement and quarrel.

“I do not believe that dissipation, and a quarrel about money matters were the real cause of Poe’s leaving Richmond and his self-effacement for two years in the army. Doubtless, after return from the University, there was some such quarrel and falling out, but they do not adequately explain the situation and its results, for which there are far better — and natural — reasons.”

This then at once disposes of the myth of “millionaire” [page 17:] Allan, — certainly not to the discredit of the canny Scot who was persuaded by his excellent wife — a Miss Valentine of Richmond — much against his will, it seems, to adopt the boy.

In June, 1815, — the day before the Battle of Waterloo, — Mr. Allan, his wife, and his wife’s sister, and Edgar sailed for England on this business venture, possibly for a short stay, but, as it turned out, for an entire lustrum of five years.

Thus early into Edgar’s most impressionable fife a slice of Old England, his mother-land, intruded; a bit of Old-World romance beset his infant imagination at its most sensitive period; the spell of Europe, in the time of Waterloo and the great Napoleon, wove itself subtly over his fancy, and he doubtless drank deep of the poetic and semi-mysterious atmosphere of the quaint English town where his foster-father left him — Stoke-Newington, then a suburb of London.

We shall here embellish our narrative with a picturesque quotation from Woodberry’s Life (p. 16):

“His residence there [Stoke-Newington] seems to have left deep marks of remembrance upon his mind, nor is it unlikely that the delight in the ancient, which afterwards characterized him, sprang partly from this early familiarity with a memorable past not yet vanished from the eye and hand. The main village, which has since been lost in the overflow of the metropolis, then consisted of a long elm-embowered street of the Tudor time, following the track of a Roman road; near the old Green, by deeply-shaded walks, that still bear the names of Henry and Elizabeth, stood the houses of Anne Boleyn’s ill-fated lover, Earl Percy, and of her daughter’s fortunate courtier, the favorite Leicester; to the west ran the green lanes, over hazy [page 18:] inland fields, and to the east the more modern street of Queen Anne and early Georgian architecture, where behind its formal box-bordered parterre rose the white Manor House School, old and irregular, sloping in the rear to the high brick wall, with its ponderous spiked and iron-studded gates, which enclosed the playground.

“In the seclusion of these grounds Poe spent his school-days from his eighth [?] to his thirteenth year; there in the long, narrow, low school-room, oak-ceiled, gothic-windowed, with its irregular, black, jackknife-hewed desks and the sacred corner-boxes for master and ushers (in one of them once sat the murderer, Eugene Aram), he conned his Latin and mispronounced his French; in the bed-roam beyond the many tortuous passages and perplexing little stairways, he first felt the wakening of the conscience, whose self-echoing whispers he afterwards heightened into the voice and ghostly terror of the Spanish Hombre Embozado; in that wide, gravelled, treeless, and benchless playground he trained his muscles in the sports, and when on Saturday afternoon the mighty gate swung open he and his mates filed out to walk beneath the gigantic and gnarled trees amid which once lived Shakespeare’s friend Essex, or to gaze with a boy’s eyes of wonder at the thick walls, deep windows and doors, massive with locks and bars, behind which Robinson Crusoe was written; and on Sunday, after the holiday ramble, he would obey the summons of the hollow-toned church-bell, sounding from its fretted tower.”

In this Old-World town, therefore, with its meandering lanes and elm-embowered pleasaunces, Edgar Poe was placed by the Allans, and there he was for [page 19:] the first time regularly trained in English, Latin, mathematics, and French. All about him were associations of a venerable antiquity; boys of genius like himself though older — Byron, Shelley, Keats — were beginning in these memorable five or six years to utter the first musical pipings of the most musically gifted of English poets, all of them living then at no great distance from Stoke-Newington; England was in the flush and exultation of the Waterloo period, after the shame and humiliation of the Battle of New Orleans fought just six months before. The boy could not but have been impressed by the stir and glory of the time.

Dr. Bransby, his teacher, and the ancient Manor House School, imbedded themselves so deeply in his ductile memory that they were enshrined later in his “William Wilson,” which in one of his letters he calls his best story. The broad, benignant face of the doctor smiled complacently out of a huge wig that made him look like a lord chancellor; his ready erudition revelled in quotations from Horace and Shakspere (spoken of by Poe with so deep a reverence in the Letter prefixed to the 1831 edition of his Poems), and he remembered his little American pupil well enough to speak in after years kindly of his aptitude while criticising his over-abundant pocket-money.

Poe’s English education, thus so favorably begun in England under a learned ecclesiastic, never ceased to be conducted by Englishmen or Irishmen, for after he returned with the Allans to Richmond in 1820, he was successively coached by Messrs. Clarke and Burke at their classical academies, and when he went to the University of Virginia in 1826, all the professors with two exceptions were accomplished Englishmen. Even [page 20:] as a boy Poe was placed by Col. J. T. L. Preston (a friend of the present writer) on a level with “Nat” Howard, afterwards known as one of the most distinguished Latinists in the South, and a school-boy contemporary, at Clarke’s, of Poe.

“To dream,” cries Poe in an autobiographic passage in “The Assignation,” — “to dream has been the business of my life. I have therefore framed for myself as you see, a bower of dreams.”

This “bower of dreams” doubtless began its aerial architecture among the immemorial elms, the misty, fragrances and shadows, the poetic reveries, the trance like tranquillities of this time when the English schoolboy, ten or twelve years old, had already begun to scribble the little volume which he handed to Mr. Allan, and to be haunted by rhythmic fancies and tantalizing poetic thirsts.

Nor will the conscientious biographer overlook what must have been the curious psychological effects of the sea on Poe’s sensitive temperament during the longdrawn-out ocean voyages of eighty years ago, when a month was a quick passage across the gray Atlantic, and the precocious child, first at six, then at twelve or thirteen, spent a month or two of existence amid the midsummer splendors of the June seas. No one has depicted wind in all its myriad and magic shapes and forms and sensations, or water in its infinite diversities of color and motion, more graphically than the author of “Arthur Gordon Pym,” “A MS. found in a Bottle,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” whether the one is gently agitating the whispering curtains of the lady Rowena’s bed-chamber or the other is swallowing in its mystic embrace the crumbling battlements of the last of the Ushers. The Eolian [page 21:] petulance of the poet’s fancy, the 5helleyan versatility of phrase and rhythm with which he portrays wind and water, storm and calm, tarn and lake, interpreting the thousand-fold mysteries of the air and unlocking thrills of suggestion and horror from its chambered recesses, must all at least have starred to germinate in these lengthened boyish ocean travels. Both times he crossed the Atlantic in June when the glory of the stars would be revealed in all their midsummer beauty, and when “Astarte’s bediamonded crescent” and the starry hieroglyphs of heaven would stain themselves on the heavens in pigments of fire, ever to be treasured up in “Al Aaraaf” and many another star-poem or star allusion. The “MS. found in a Bottle” is a water-poem from beginning to end, written at an early age when the youth was vividly reminiscent of actual experience. The zephyrlike gossamer women of the Tales are incarnations of whispering winds; their movements are the breezy undulations of air travelling over bending grain; their melodious voices are the lyrics of the wind articulating themselves in flutelike throats; and full of passion and pregnancy of meaning are the musical inflections that exhale from their lips as perfumes exhale from the chalices of flowers.

In 1820 we find the travellers again at home in their beloved Virginia, beloved by Poe for many reasons, and in later days because it bore the name of his idolized wife.

Col. Thomas Mann Randolph, son-in-law of the illustrious Jefferson, was Governor of Virginia when the family returned home; a wave of prosperity had passed over the country since the Battle of New Orleans and the Battle of Waterloo; Napoleon was [page 22:] dying at St. Helena; and the Bourbon Restoration had sent a thrill of joy through aristocratic France the world seemed to rest. The firm of Ellis and Allan, dealing in the famous “Virginia leaf” now rejoicing in a world-wide reputation, was beginning to look up, though there is no evidence for the assertion that it had acquired great fortune at this time; prosperous it had been, as we see from the following sketch of Poe’s boyhood furnished the writer by the late Col. T. H. Ellis, son of the senior member of the firm.(1) This final statement of Colonel Ellis will correct several mistakes of the biographies, which assert that Mr. Allan went abroad to settle an estate, etc. It gives also an authentic reference to the place and time of David Poe’s death: “her husband had died not long before, in Norfolk;” and shows that the names “Edgar Allan” and “Rose Mackenzie” were the baptismal names of the two younger children.

“On the 8th of December, 1811, Mrs. Poe, of English birth, one of the actresses of the company then playing on the Richmond boards, died in Rich mond, leaving three children. Her husband had died not long before, in Norfolk. She had made herself a favorite with those who were in the habit of attending the theatre, which was then the fashionable entertainment with educated people, both in this country and England. There was general sympathy for the little orphans left by her. The eldest of the three, William Henry, was adopted by his grandfather, Mr. Poe, of Baltimore, a gentleman of social position there, and of family pride, who had been much offended by his son’s [page 23:] marriage with an actress. This child died young, but lived long enough to develop rare promise. The second child, born January 19, 1809, was adopted by Mr. and Mrs. John Allan, of Richmond; the youngest, a daughter, was adopted by Mr. and Mrs. William Mackenzie, also of Richmond; and the names Edgar Allan and Rose Mackenzie were given in baptism by the Rev. John Buchanan, D. D., at the residence of Mr. John Richard, who was a friend of all the parties concerned.

The death of Mrs. Poe occurred eighteen days before the burning of the Richmond Theatre, and it is not improbable that Mr. and Mrs. Allan would have been present on that occasion but for the circumstance that they were spending the Christmas holidays at Mr. Boller Cocke’s, at Turkey Island, with Edgar. Mr. Allan and my father were partners in business. They had been raised together as clerks in the store of Mr. William Gait, who was the most successful merchant of his day in Virginia. The business of Ellis and Allan, beginning in 1800, so prospered that after the war of 1812-15 they determined to establish a branch house in London, for which purpose Mr. Allan went abroad and remained in England five years. He was accompanied by his wife (a cousin of my mother), by his sister-in-law, Miss Anne M. Valentine, and by his adopted son. On their return, his own house having been leased, so that he could not get possession of it, Mr. Allan and his family became members of my father’s family, and lived with us, I suppose, nearly a year. It was then and there that my recollections of Edgar A. Poe began.

“He was very beautiful, yet brave and manly for one so young. No boy ever had a greater influence [page 24:] over me than he had. He was, indeed, a leader among his playmates; but my admiration for him scarcely knew bounds. The consequence was, he led me to do many a forbidden thing, for which I was duly punished. The only whipping I ever knew Mr. Allan to give him was for carrying me into the fields and woods beyond ‘Belvidere,’ adjacent to what is now Hollywood Cemetery, one Saturday, and keeping me there all day and until after dark, without anybody at home knowing where we were; and for shooting a lot of domestic fowls, belonging to the proprietor of ‘Belvidere,’ who was at that time, I think, judge Bushrod Washington. He taught me to shoot, to swim, to skate, to play bandy; and I ought to mention that he once saved me from drowning — for having thrown me into the falls headlong, that I might ’strike out’ for myself, he presently found it necessary to come to my help or it would have been too late! Mr. and Mrs. Allan, having no children of their own, lavished upon him their whole affection; he was sent to the best schools, he was taught every accomplishment that a boy could acquire, he was trained to all the habits of the most polished society. There was not a brighter, more graceful or more attractive boy in the city than Edgar Allan Poe. Talent for declamation was one of his gifts. I well remember a public exhibition at the close of a course of instruction in elocution which he had attended, and my delight when, in the presence of a large and distinguished company, he bore off the prize in competition with Channing Moore, Cary Wickham, Andrew Johnston, Nat Howard, and others who were regarded as among the most promising of the Richmond boys. [page 25:]

“Not content with an adopted son, Mr. and Mrs. Allan desired to adopt a daughter also, and were constantly begging for my sister, now Mrs. Beverley Tucker. The intimacy between the two familiesmy father’s and Mr. Allan’s — was naturally very close; on one side — I mean the side of the Ellis boys and girls — our largest Christmas gifts, birthday presents, etc., came from the Allans. Edgar was once guilty of a piece of meanness for which I have not forgiven him to this day. With our father and mother we had gone down to spend Christmas evening with the Allans. Among the toys provided for our entertainment was a snake — a long, slim, shiny thing made in sections, which were fastened to each other by wires, and a boy, by taking hold of the tail and holding it out from his body, could make it wriggle and dart about in the most lifelike manner. This hideous imitation of a serpent Edgar took in his hand, and kept poking it at my sister Jane until it almost ran her crazy.

“Of course I knew about his swim of seven miles in James River down to Warwick, accompanied by Robert G. Cabell, Robert C. Stanard, and perhaps two or three other schoolboys, with Mr. William Burke, their schoolmaster, who went along in a rowboat to rescue him in case his strength should fail. I knew also of his Thespian performances, when he and William F. Ritchie and James Greenhow and Creed Thomas and Richard Cary Ambler and other schoolmates appeared in dramatic character under a tent erected on a vacant lot one or two squares beyond what is now St. James’ Church on Fifth Street — admittance fee, one cent! But never was I prouder of him than when, dressed in the uniform of the [page 26:] ‘Junior Morgan Riflemen’ to volunteer company composed of boys, and which General Lafayette, in his memorable visit to Richmond, selected as his bodyguard), he walked up and down in front of the marquee erected on the Capitol Square, under which the old general held a grand reception in October, 1824.

“One evening there was a meeting of the Gentlemen’s Whist Club at my father’s house. The members and a few invited guests had assembled and were seated at whist tables set out all over the large parlor, and things were as quiet as they were on a certain I night before Christmas,’ of which we have read, when a ghost appeared! The ghost, no doubt, expected and intended to frighten the whole body of whist players, who were in truth stirred to a com motion. General Winfield Scott, one of the invited guests, with the resolution and promptness of an old soldier, sprang forward as if he was leading a charge in Lundy’s Lane. Dr. Philip Thornton, of Rappahannock, another guest, was, however, nearer to the door and quicker than he. Presently the ghost, finding himself closely pressed, began to retreat, backing around the room, yet keeping his face to the foe, and as the Doctor was reaching out and trying to seize the ghost’s nose with the view to twitch it off, the ghost was ‘larruping’ him over the shoulder with the long cane which he carried in one hand, while with the other hand he was struggling to keep from being tripped by the sheet which enveloped his body. When finally forced to surrender and the mask was taken from his face, Edgar laughed as heartily as ever a ghost did before.

“In February, 1826, Poe was entered as a student [page 27:] at the University of Virginia. There began that course of conduct which, step by step, led to the wretchedness of the after part of his life. Sad, inexpressibly sad, and pathetic it was, indeed.”

This sketch gives us a vivid account of the spirited, handsome, gifted boy as he appeared seventy-five years ago to one of his intimate friends and playmates, the son of his foster-father’s partner, even then full of precocious elocutionary and athletic talents, spoiled, wayward, devoted to practical jokes and open-air sports, a leader in school, accomplished in all the pastimes of the day, — skating, swimming like a Leander or a Byron, leaping, running, acting in the Thespian performances, drilling in the military company, and — getting a too-rare chastisement for his capricious and thoughtless conduct.

Another interesting glimpse of Poe at this time is afforded by the following account sent the writer by Dr. Hugh Wythe Davis of Richmond, Virginia, whose uncle, Dr. Creed Thomas, was Poe’s deskmate at Burke’s School. Dr. Thomas was very intimate with Poe in after years also, and died only a few months ago, aged eighty-seven:

“Dr. Thomas was educated at Burke’s School in Richmond, Virginia, and at the University of Medicine of Maryland. At the first-named institution, which stood near the present site of Ford’s Hotel, he was a deskmate of Edgar Allan Poe during the years 1823, 1824, and 1825, and a schoolfellow of the Stanards, Cabells, Seldens. Selden told somebody that Poe was a liar or a rascal. The embryo poet heard of it, and soon the boys were engaged in a fight. Selden was heavier than Poe whom he pommelled vigorously for some time. The delicate boy appeared [page 28:] to submit with little resistance. Finally Poe turned the tables on Selden, and much to the surprise of the spectators, administered a sound whipping. When asked why he permitted Selden to pommel his head so long, Poe replied that he was waiting for his adversary to get out of breath before showing him a few things in the art of fighting.

Poe was a quiet, peaceful youngster, and seldom got into a difficulty with his schoolmates. He was as plucky as any boy at school, however, and never per mitted himself to be imposed upon. When it came to a question of looking after his individual rights, however, the young classic asserted himself. He was not at all popular with his schoolmates, being too retiring in disposition and singularly unsociable in manner. The only two boys he was intimate with were Monroe Stanard, who afterwards became judge Stanard, and Robert G. Cabell. He was quite fond of both of them, and the three boys were continually in each other’s company. It was a noticeable fact that hey never asked any of his schoolmates to go home with’ him after school. Other boys would frequently spend the night or take dinner with each other at their homes, but Poe was seldom known to enter into this social intercourse. After he left the play-grounds at school that was an end of his sociability until the next day. Dr. Thomas was a member with Poe, Beverley Anderson, and William F. Ritchie, of the Thespian Society, that had its headquarters in the old wooden building which stood on the northeast corner of Sixth and Marshall Streets. Poe was a member, of this society, contrary to the wishes of Mr. Allan. He had undoubted talent in this direction. The audience usually numbered about forty or fifty. A small admission [page 29:] fee was charged, and this was divided between the actors, who used it as pin money. A singular fact, Dr. Thomas used to say, was that Poe never got a whipping at school. He remembered that the other boys used to come in for a flogging quite frequently, and that he got his share. Mr. Burke believed in the moral power of the birch. He accepted the theory, ’Spare the rod and spoil the child,’ as a matter of course, and the consequence was that whippings were so frequent that they created no sensation among the scholars who witnessed them.”(1)

It is thus seen to be untrue that “no one knew him;” on the contrary, the boy Poe had many devoted friends: Ellis, Thomas, Stanard, and Cabell are distinctly mentioned, or mention themselves, among them; and later, when he went to the University, these friends increased in number and cordiality Tucker, Burwell, Beale, Slaughter, Wertembaker, Willis, Ambler, all testified to their friendship, many of them in their written recollections. The “marvellous boy that perished in his pride” was not prouder; Leopardi, agonized by humiliating deformity, could not at times hold more aloof; the shrinking and shadowy Tennyson, wandering over his lawns, did not recoil at times with more physical horror from contact with the clamorous world; but there is nothing in Poe’s early years to justify the assertion that he passed them in supreme loneliness.(2) [page 30:]

His feeling of unmeasured superiority to his schoolmates in book-learning and athletic accomplishments; his boyish gift of rhyming readily; the applause of his teachers and playmates at the performances of the infant prodigy; and the undisguised admiration of the home-circle for his dramatic and poetic powers, undoubtedly enhanced an innate self-consciousness which never left Poe to his latest breath; but it is baseless useless, and cruel to affirm that he was “the man in the crowd” pursued even as a child by relentless instincts of solitariness.

There are two spots in this normal childhood that loom up with shining distinctness: the episode with Mrs. Jane Stith Stanard, and his first love.

We quote a passage from Mrs. Whitman’s “Edgar Poe and his Critics,” pp. 48-55, in which this charming biographer and defender of the poet gives us a glimpse of the boy at fourteen in the throes of a first affection:

“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.[tanard],(1) the mother of his young friend. This lady, on entering the room, took his hand 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 consciousness 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 the oppression of a new joy. This lady afterwards [page 31:] became the confidante 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.”

When she died of mental alienation in 1824, it is related that the boy-poet would not give her up, but haunted her grave in the April and autumnal nights with the passionate feeling of undying companionship, even with the dead, which afterwards ran like a line of fire through his romances of death, trance, and sentience after death.

This abiding element of Poe’s life, his intimacy with Mrs. Stanard, and her sorrowful death, furnished the theme for that exquisite woman-clement in his poems which beads itself into a string of pearls and runs now in shadowy and beautiful shapes of dreamlike Melusines through his Tales, now coins itself into cameo-like stanzas, “To Helen,” “Lenore,” “Annabel Lee” or the lost “Ulalume,” in stanzas as imperishable in beauty as those which rise wraithlike from the passion and spume of the early life of Goethe. What would these two lives indeed — Goethe’s and Poe’s — be without their rich idealizations of woman snatched from Dreamland, but hovering in the mid-air of actual experience!

“It was the image of this lady” continues (Mrs. Whitman), “long and tenderly and sorrowfully cherished, that suggested the stanzas ‘To Helen,’ published among the poems written in his youth, which Russell Lowell says have in them a grace and symmetry of outline such as few poets ever attain, and which are valuable as displaying I what can only be expressed by the contradictory phrase of innate experience.’” [page 32:]

“Helen, thy beauty is to me

Like those Nicaean barks of yore

That gently o‘er a perfumed sea

The wary, wayworn wanderer bore

To his own native shore.”

“In a letter now before us” (continues the lady), written within a twelvemonth of his death, Edgar Poe speaks of the love which inspired these verses as the ‘one, idolatrous,’ and purely ideal love of his passionate boyhood. In one of the numbers of ‘Russell’s Magazine,’ there is a transcript of the first published version of the exquisite poem entitled ‘Lenore,’ commencing —

“ ‘Ah! broken is the golden bowl! the spirit flown forever.

Let the bell toll: a saintly soul floats on the Stygian River.’

“It is remarkable, that, in this earlier version, instead of LENORE, we have the name of HELEN. The lines were afterwards greatly altered, and improved in structure and expression; and the name of Lenore was introduced, apparently for its adaptation to rhythmical effect.”

With Sarah Eimira Royster, a neighbor of Mr. Allan’s, came a real love-affair. This young lady was a year or two younger than the mature Poe (aged sixteen or so) and met his advances in an amiable and appreciative spirit.” He was a gentleman” (she writes) Olin every sense of the word. He was one of the most fascinating and refined men I ever knew. I never saw him under the influence of wine. I admired him more than any man I ever knew.”

In an earlier letter the same lady continues:(1) [page 33:] “Edgar was a beautiful boy; he was not very talkative, and his general manner was sad, but when he did talk his conversation was very pleasant. He was devoted to the first Mrs. Allan, and she to him. Of his own parents he never spoke. I have seen his brother Henry, who was in the navy. He had very a few associates, but he was very intimate with Ebenezer Berling, a widow’s son, of about the same age as himself. Berling was an interesting, intelligent young man, but somewhat inclined to dissipation. They used to visit our house together very frequently.

“Edgar was warm and zealous in any cause he was interested in, being enthusiastic and impulsive. He had strong prejudices, and hated everything coarse and unrefined. I can still remember him saying to me, when an acquaintance made an unladylike remark, t I am surprised you should associate with anyone who could make such a remark!’

“He was very generous. He drew beautifully and drew a pencil likeness of me in a few minutes. He was passionately fond of music. . . . It distresses me greatly when I see anything scurrilous written about him. Do not believe a tenth part of what is said. It is chiefly produced by jealousy and envy. I have the greatest respect for his memory. Our acquaintance was kept up until he left to go to the University, and during the time he was at the University he wrote to me frequently. But my father intercepted the letters because we were too young — for no other reason. I was between fifteen and sixteen when we were engaged. I was not aware that he had written to me from the University until after I was married, when I was seventeen, to Mr. Shelton.”

Thus the Ideal and the Real jostle each other in [page 34:] actual life: “the one like the shield of bronze whose color was so long contested by the knights of fable; “the other, “presenting at least a silver lining.”(1)

The year 1875 seems to have been spent by Poe in busy preparation, under private tutors, for entrance into the University of Virginia. The University, planned and founded by Jefferson, had opened the year before and had attracted great attention all over the country. Its magnificent buildings, its corps of accomplished European professors, drawn mostly from England, its novel system of elective studies, and its hitherto unknown and untried system of democratic self-government by the students themselves, had interested educators everywhere, and many eyes were turned curiously on Jefferson’s experiment.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 2:]

1.  In a note Mr. Kennedy explains: “This refers to the volume of Tales sent to Carey & Lea — ‘Tales of the Arabesque,’ etc., — being two series submitted for the prize, for which one was chosen, and two others at my suggestion sent to Carey & Lea.” — J. P. K.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 3:]

1.  Edgar A. Poe’s Miscellaneous Works, Redfield, New York, 1849, p. xxiii.

2.  Edgar Allan Poe: His Life, Letters, and Opinions: By John H. Ingram: London, 1880: John Hogg: 2 vols.: p. 245, Vol. II., W. F. Gill (London, 1878), pp. 9-20.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 4:]

1.  Ingram, Vol. II., p. 249 seq.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 6:]

1.  Edgar Allan Poe: American Men of Letters, pp. 1-14.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 7:]

7.  Ingram, I., 6.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 9:]

1.  The author is indebted to Dr. Wm. Hand Browne for these clippings, which are accurately reprinted.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 10:]

1.  Life of Edgar A. Poe, p. 20; Chatto & Windus: 1878.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 12:]

1.  There was even a long-lasting tradition that the Poes had been burned alive in the theatre.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 22:]

1.  Here reprinted by the courtesy of the editor of the New York Independent, in which the account first appeared, September, 1900.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 29:]

1.  Obituary Notice of Dr. Creed Thomas, Richmond Dispatch, Feb. 24, 1899.

2.  See Mrs. Whitman’s “Edgar Poe and his Critics,” Preface to the First Edition, 1860, where a similar statement is warmly combated. Cf. the utterances of A. Lang, N. Y. Independent, Nov. 23, 1899, who doubts whether Poe was even a “gentleman.”

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 30:]

1.  Really, Mrs. Jane Stith Stanard: Poe disliked the name Jane, and substituted Helen for it.

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

1.  Appleton’s Journal, May, 1878.

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

1.  Mrs. S. H. Whitman, “Edgar Poe and his Critics,” p. 69.


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - LLEAP, 1903] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - Life and Letters of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Chapter 01)