Text: Una Corbett, “The Schools and the Memory of Poe,” Baltimore Bulletin of Education, XXXIII, No. 3, April 1956, pp. 2-8


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The Schools and the Memory of Poe

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I shall begin my part in this annual meeting of the Edgar Allan Poe Society by expressing my appreciation of your invitation to share in your honoring of this unique genius, profound critic, creative storyteller, and melodious poet. In the hundred and five years since a compositor on The Sun wrote the tragic note from a tavern on Lombard Street calling “aid for a gentleman in great distress and in need of immediate assistance” which brought a doctor and decent care to the dying man, great and distinguished men throughout the world have risen to defend him and have paid homage to his genius in books that are eloquent with gratitude for his own creativeness and for that which he inspired.

I am thinking of such evidence as Tennyson’s reference to Poe as “the literary glory of America”; of Arthur Conan Doyle’s acknowledgement that Poe was the inventor and pioneer whom he humbly followed in his creation of Sherlock Holmes; and of the remarkable statement by Poe’s French admirer and translator, the symbolist poet, Charles Baudelaire; “The first time I opened a book written by him, I saw with fear and delight, not only themes dreamt by me, but sentences, thought by me, written by him, twenty years before.”

The effort to understand Poe and the significance of his work — first a reaction to the vicious attack by his literary executor, Griswold, then continued as indifferent Americans, roused by his fame in Europe, slowly realized that there had been a genius in their midst — has not decreased through the years. More books have been written about Poe than about any other American writer except perhaps Walt Whitman. To these illustrious studies and appreciations there is, of course, nothing that I can add. [column 2:]

In the thirty-two years since the founding of your Society, you have been addressed at these annual memorial services by distinguished scholars and authors, all lovers of Poe and all equipped by their scholarship to bring you new understanding of the nature of Poe’s contribution to literature and new insight into his troubled soul. I hope I can convey to you my humility at finding myself one of this distinguished company. I cannot, like my predecessors on this platform, add to your knowledge of Poe, nor stir your appreciation, nor move you to greater love. Witness of your understanding and love is everywhere about us: in the little house on Amity Street, in the sculptured figure in Wyman Park, in the plaque on the Latrobe house, and above all here in this annual ceremony where you bring together so many diverse groups to lay flowers on the tomb of this poet, dead a hundred and seven years.

No words of mine, then, will deepen your love or enrich your understanding of the great artist we are gathered here to honor. But you have chosen for your subject today, “The Schools and the Memory of Poe,” and you want to honor today certain school people who were active in behalf of Poe in those far away days when his grave lay neglected and unmarked. It happens that the Western High School has been identified with the movement to preserve the memory of Poe from the beginning. It is a part of our tradition, cherished by four generations of teachers and instilled in eleven decades of young girls.

At the time of Poe’s death, the Western High School was housed in the building at the southwest corner of Fayette and Greene Streets. In 1875 when the memorial stone was unveiled, the school was in the building on Fayette Street near Paca, now known as the Fourth Regiment Armory. Propinquity undoubtedly had something to do with Western’s constant interest in the unhappy poet. The Western ­[page 3:] teachers probably fostered his cause in wider school circles, for certain it is that teachers in general and the leaders in the school system became active in the movement to mark the lonely grave. It was at a meeting of the organization representing the entire teaching force, the Public School Teachers Association, that the effort to erect a monument was launched in 1865. At the unveiling ten years later, the superintendent of schools, the principals of the high schools, and teachers conducted the ceremonies, while school children who had contributed pennies to the cause stood around the grave with Baltimore’s leading citizens.

It is commendable that at this critical time in the history of our public schools you are remembering an incident in their infancy that has enriched the cultural life of Baltimore. At a time when many people really believe that Johnny cannot read, when parents challenge school boards because modern knowledge replaces the traditional and familiar, and when leaders in public life do not hesitate to say that too many people are getting too much education, you run counter to this current, indicating as you do by your choice of subject that here is the field where the schools have been constructive. I suspect, in fact, that you think they have done something memorable. In recounting the story of the parts the schools have played in keeping alive the memory of Edgar Allan Poe, I hope not only to confirm this opinion but to clarify the nature of educational ideals in a democracy, and to acquaint you with the warm personalities who have been the glory and the strength of our schools.

Our free public schools are an expression of the great movement toward democracy that swept over Europe and America in the early 19th century. The forces of privilege fought their development as visionary and socialistic. However, a society that decides its problems by means of popular vote must accept the responsibility of educating the masses of its citizens.

At the time of our Revolution and [column 2:] through the first two presidencies, few people in our country received any formal education. As the political foundations of our nation became firm, as years of peaceful development brought prosperity to ever widening areas of the population, social and political philosophy became more liberal.

With the election of Jefferson as our third president, we began to assume the content as well as the form of democracy. It was apparent that a nation dedicated as ours is to the proposition that man has inalienable rights which it is the function of government to protect must encourage the free and informed discussion of government policy. For self-rule people must have the opportunity for a full education. This was basic in the political philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, as he wrote in a letter to Washington: “It is an axiom in my mind that our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of the people themselves, and that, too, of the people with a certain degree of instruction.”

The pressure for implementation of this philosophy came from the workingmen’s associations that were coming into being in the 1820’s. When the first voluntary association of workmen was formed in 1828, the establishment of a system of free public schools was a major subject of study by the group. The workmen made it clear that they meant something quite different from “pauper” schools teaching only the basic subjects, for such schools, they stated, could “never secure the common prosperity of a nation, nor confer intellectual as well his political equality on a people.”

By supporting progressive candidates to legislative office, the workmen’s associations and their liberal supporters gradually won the establishment of the public school system. In Baltimore this occurred in 1829, when the City Council approved an ordinance providing a system of elementary education to be financed by public taxation. A decade later this public system of education was extended to include secondary education with the establishment of ­[page 4:] the City College for boys and in 1844 the Eastern and Western high schools for girls.

It should be noted that Baltimore was the first city in the country to establish publicly supported secondary education for girls. This was a golden period in Baltimore’s history, our clipper ships on the seven seas and our trade with the South creating prosperity, ease, and greater interest in culture and education.

The public records of the time refer to the aims of these public schools as seeking to provide a “liberal English education.” It is chiefly on the secondary school level that the new democratic philosophy found its practice. The early high schools were “popular” not classical; they were contemporary in emphasis, not traditional. They were, in fact, in high revolt from the classical grammar school or academy. They were an educational and social protest against those schools whose traditional function was to drill in the classical languages to provide the people with an enlightened clergy. The expanding horizons of a democratic society made a broader educational background essential. Citizens were concerned with the here and the now.

The curricula of the first high schools reflect this change in standards. Mathematics, history, and science were included in the curriculum, and students were required to read and write their native tongue instead of Latin. Although English was dignified by a place in the curriculum, it was not the subject English as we know it today. In the course of study at the Western High School, for example, it is called English and Belles Lettres. An explanatory note rather confounds than clarifies Belles Lettres by stating that this included spelling, reading, grammar, history, ancient and modern geography, rhetoric, logic, composition, mythology, and antiquities.

The early teachers had to justify teaching the native tongue at all. To prevent the accusation that it was a “frill,” they sought to give it disciplinary value by adopting the methods of philology, with [column 2:] voluminous notes on grammar. As the Latin grammar had set the standard for correct Latin, it was believed that an English grammar could do the same for the undisciplined, ever changing, living English language. The emphasis placed on the native tongue is seen in the fact that of the twelve faculty members at the Western High School in 1868, five were teaching some phase of English.

One of the most popular types of English instruction was elocution. The dramatic reading or recitation of a literary passage not only gave practice in the use of good diction and provided opportunity for dramatic interpretation, but it was also entertainment. This was the period of public readings by authors of their own works. Dr. Fagin has told us how much the “histrionic Mr. Poe” enjoyed reading his poems in public and how enraptured his audiences were by his performances. No poetry is better suited to dramatic reading than “The Raven” or “Annabelle [[Annabel]] Lee.”

As for stories, Poe’s famous dictate that a story must be read at one sitting was assurance that tales like “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Masque of the Red Death” were suitable for such public performance. We can be sure that with the emphasis in the schools on the indigenous rather than the classical, on the contemporary rather than the traditional, such masterpieces were in the repertoire of the teacher of elocution. These early teachers brought the literature of the day into their classrooms. A measure of their modernity is grasped if we consider how acceptable today and how widely read in high school literature classes is Dylan Thomas or even T. S. Eliot.

The demands of the citizens for tax-supported schools had brought their establishment. Their curriculum had been set as liberal and non-traditional. Thus the physical and philosophical requirements had been met; but how educational ideals function in practice depended, then as now, upon the nature and quality of the teaching staff. All the evidence indicates that ­[page 5:] these early teachers were a remarkable group. Superior women became teachers because of the limited vocations opened to women a hundred years ago. They were scholarly, with wide intellectual and cultural interests. They seem to have had the stamina of the pioneers they were; they understood the distinction between instruction and education.

Their activities were not confined to the classroom. At this time Baltimore boasted no university to provide leadership in the cultural life of the city. Academies for the education of the well-to-do existed, but their attention was focused on the past. The Enoch Pratt Library had not been born. It was the teachers in the free public schools who nurtured the faltering yet robust contemporary culture. They tried to broaden the interests of their students by relating instruction to the life of the growing community outside.

For example, distinguished visitors from other cities and from Europe were invited to visit the schools and address the students. Contact was maintained with the local musical and art schools. The art patron, William T. Walters, became a benefactor of Eastern and Western High Schools, presenting them copies of classical Greek sculpture. In 1862, an English teacher founded the Peabody Literary and Art Association which had an unbroken history of thirty-nine years. In 1878, two Western students were awarded essay prizes by the Shakespeare Society of London.

It was natural that in this stimulating atmosphere an interest in a local poet who had lived not many blocks away and whose grave was passed on the way to school should be stirred at Western. One teacher in particular, Sara Sigourney Rice, instructor in elocution, was dedicated to the full recognition of his genius and the proper honoring of his memory.

In the little memorial volume recording the ceremonies at the grave when the monument was unveiled in 1875, Miss Rice mentions that the calumnies that had darkened Poe’s name for a generation were [column 2:] beginning to be cleared. Be it noted, however, that the school people who originated the movement for a memorial stone and who nurtured it for ten years worked under the cloud of adverse critical judgment of Poe as an artist as well as the hostile public attitude toward Poe as a man. Emerson had called Poe the “jingle man;” Lowell thought him “three-fifths genius, two-fifths sheer fudge;” Henry James wrote that “an enthusiasm for Poe was the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection.”

Against such august authorities, these teachers remained firm in their differing critical opinion. The common sense which characterizes a democratic culture would not tolerate such individualistic and extreme notions of Poe’s work. These teachers, through their personal understanding of the body of his work and from their experience of his effect upon students, came to a more accurate estimate of his literary worth than the critics. A teacher who has watched a spellbound class thrill to the color of “The Masque of the Red Death” or shudder at the horror of “The Cask of Amontillado” knows that here is genius.

To young people who have no reading background and little interest in art or culture, Poe reveals “the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome” as truly as Mrs. Jane Stannard revealed it to the adolescent Poe. No writer studied in high school English classes has an impact like that of Poe. This is as true today as it was generations ago. The pathos of his life, the mystery of his stories, and the melody of his verse unfailingly stir unplumbed emotions. For many students Poe is their introduction to literature, their first conscious response to poetry.

It should be noted that this understanding and appreciation of Poe’s work was achieved at a time when the study of literary masterpieces for their own sake was not a part of the curriculum. It was not until the 1890’s when the colleges set up entrance requirements that our great classics became a subject for study as, for example, Greek and Latin classics had always ­[page 6:] been studied as literary masterpieces. Although in its origin the public high school was an extension of the elementary school and a preparation for life rather than preparation for higher education, with the acceptance of the democratic belief that every boy and girl has a right to as much education as he can take, the aim of the high school changed from preparation for life to preparation for college. Latin found a place in the curriculum, as well as the great English poets, novelists, and essayists. This shift of emphasis continuing until well after World War I, as well as the entire story of the public school interest in Poe, illustrates the point made recently by the speaker at the Pratt Library seventieth anniversary celebration that the stream of culture when it runs broad does not run thin.

When Gerald Johnson in his address before your society some years ago reminded our men of wealth of the immortality that flows from benefactions to the artistic and cultural life of a community, he remarked, “I am sure that one great teacher brought to the Peabody or the Hopkins, or Goucher would be more of an ornament and honor to the city shall any new office building that could be erected, even though it cost millions.”

I would expand Mr. Johnson’s list to include great teachers in the public schools as exemplified by these early ones whom we honor today as we honor Poe. In setting the pattern of the “free liberal English education” that the public demanded, they laid the foundation of our democratic culture, a culture that without hesitation embraced the genius of Edgar Allan Poe.

The details of the early movement to honor Poe by the erection of a monument at his grave are simply told. When Poe died in 1849 this church hall not yet been built. The land where the church and the present graveyard now stand was a cemetery of the First Presbyterian Church. On a raw afternoon in October, the body of Poe was interred in his grandfather’s lot in the interior of the graveyard while [column 2:] seven or eight mourners stood forlornly by. A cousin, Neilson Poe ordered a stone for the grave, but by accident the stone was destroyed before it was placed on the grave, and for several years no further effort was made to have the spot where Poe lay identified.

It was on the anniversary of Poe’s death sixteen years later at a meeting of the Public School Teachers Association in the hall of the Western High School that the movement to erect a suitable monument was launched. The principal of No. 8 Grammar School, Mr. John Basil, proposed the motion that a committee be set up to devise some means best adapted . . . “to perpetuate the memory of one who has contributed so largely to American Literature.”

This committee reported in favor of the erection of a monument, and the work of raising the funds began at once. Two literary entertainments were given under the direction of Sara Sigourney Rice with the City College and the Eastern High School joining with Western in the fund-raising effort. By 1871 the committee had raised $587.02. It was felt that this could be increased to a thousand dollars through public donations and that the monument could be ordered. Mr. George A. Frederick, architect for the new City Hall, was asked to design a monument to cost about that sum. When it was decided to place a medallion portrait of the poet on the monument, the sculptor Frederick Volck was commissioned, and a bas-relief bust was made from a portrait. This raised the cost of the monument to $1,500. Of this sum $900 was raised by the schools, some by contributions of pennies by the school children, a custom we perpetuate at Western by an annual collection of Poe pennies to pay for our memorial wreath. The remainder of the money, about $600 was the gift of a former Baltimorean, Mr. George Childs, a Philadelphia publisher and philanthropist.

The task of raising the money fell largely upon Miss Rice. At the unveiling ceremony she was given the greatest possible credit for having shepherded the movement ­[page 7:] to its final success. It was her idea to inform contemporary poets of the approaching memorial ceremony and to invite them to be present. Tennyson and Swinburne wrote warm appreciations. Mallarme sent a sonnet, “Le Tombeau d’Edgar Poe.” Whittier, Longfellow, Bryant, and Holmes sent appreciative letters from New York and New England. Only Walt Whitman, stricken two years before with paralysis, made the effort to come down from Camden to do honor to the poet who like himself had suffered public opprobrium and rejection.

Before the unveiling ceremony occurred, it was decided to move the grave to a more accessible spot in the churchyard. The President of the School Board, Mr. John T. Morris, was able to arrange for the use of the lot where the monument now stands, and where the bodies of Poe’s wife, Virginia, and his beloved aunt, Mrs. Clemm, lie beside him.

The dedication ceremony in the afternoon of November 17, 1875, was under the direction of school people. The commemoratory speeches were delivered in the main hall of the Western High School, not in the Westminster Church, which might have seemed a more dignified background for so solemn an occasion. The principals of the three high schools were present, the faculty of the City College and of Western, the president of the Baltimore School Board and the State Superintendent of Schools. With them on the platform sat the Provost of the Peabody Institute, the poet’s cousin, Neilson Poe, Professor Joseph Clarke whose school in Richmond Poe had attended and such prominent citizens as Judge Garey and Mr. Summerfield Baldwin.

The President of City College told the story of the movement to erect the monument, Miss Rice read the letters she had received from Tennyson, Mallarme, and other absent poets, and the Superintendent of Schools gave an eloquent address on the literary genius of Poe. There was music by the Philharmonic Society, “The Raven” was read, and Mr. John H. B. Latrobe and [column 2:] Neilson Poe gave reminiscences of the poet. Then a procession formed to walk down the street to the grave, led by the Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Henry E. Shepherd with Walt Whitman, dressed in a long, loose grey mantle, walking beside him, and Miss Rice immediately behind them. In her record of the occasion Miss Rice does not mention the presence of the good grey poet, as if she were perhaps frightened by her audacity in inviting him. To us, today, however, the presence of Walt Whitman at the head of that procession walking beside the Superintendent of Schools is a symbol of the liberal, progressive culture that had been achieved by the public schools in the less than fifty years of their existence.

At the grave during the singing of the “Dirge” written for the occasion and sung so beautifully today by Mr. Looney, President Elliott of City College and Miss Rice, English teacher at Western, pulled aside the muslin covering and the monument stood revealed.

A great crowd of people including the elementary children from the corner school stood around on the corner of Fayette and Greene Streets, many unable to get into the graveyard. The theatrical company then playing at Ford’s Opera House deposited a floral wreath upon the monument in tribute to the parents of Poe, both actors who had played in Baltimore. This is a precedent, if any is needed, for the annual custom of placing wreaths on the tomb as we have done today.

After 1875, the next great ceremony in honor of Poe occurred in 1909 on the hundredth anniversary of his birth. In the planning of this ceremony another Western teacher took an active part. This was our poet, Lizette Woodworth Reese, who was the first president of the Edgar Allan Poe Memorial Society. In memory of Poe, Miss Reese wrote for the occasion a poem called “Westminster Churchyard.” Since we are celebrating this year the one hundredth anniversary of Lizette Woodworth Reese’s birth on January 9, 1956, it seems appropriate to read this tribute from our most serene poet to our most troubled one. ­ [page 8:]

(Edgar Allan Poe)

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Stone calls to stone, and roof to roof;

Dust unto dust; —

Lo, in the midst, starry, aloof —

Like white of April blown by last year’s stalks

Across the gust —

A Presence walks.


It is the Shape of Song;

About it throng,

Great Others, and the first is Tears;

The ended years;

And every old and every lonely thing;

Old thirsts that to old hungers cry;

The poignancies of earth and sky;

The little sobbing of the spring.


He heeds them not;

They are forgot;

For him, behind this ancient wall,

The Best of all —

The short day sped;

A roof; a bed;

No years;

No tears.


Not this the strain

Of hill or lane;

Of orchards with their humble country musk,

And bent old trees,

And companies of small black bees;

Of gardens at the dusk,

Where down the hush,

A thrush

His heartbreak spills;

Of daffodils

By farmhouse doors a windy sight,

A yellow gust driven down the light.


Nor his the note

That trumpeted of war,

Of ancient creed;

Strange, innocent, remote

His reed

A wind along the hollows of an echoing shore:

Each day was but a pool within the grass,

A haunted space,

Where saw he as in glass,

But Wonder, with her dim, drowned face.


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For Wonder was his kin,

His very twin;

Blood of his blood indeed,

And steadfast to his need; —

The ecstasies of cloud and sky;

The cry out in the dark;

The half lit spark

That lures from earth to star;

The fleeting footsteps far and far;

The skirts so nigh, so nigh,

These drew he from their ghostly mesh

And made them flesh;

We reach dull hands, for we would know;

They fade; they go;

Yea, he and they together,

Into another weather.


A strange, autumnal verse;

Where griefs their griefs rehearse;

A flaw of rain within the air;

Black pools; the bough gone bare;

And red dead leaves and broken wall;

The flare of tempest driven behind them all.


Yet ever is his music such,

So rapt of touch,

It mellows all the ache,

And the heartbreak;

We cannot weep, but we stand wistful-eyed,

Like children at the eventide,

In some fast darkening spot,

Who hear their mother call, but see her not.


Oh, truest singer east or west! —

Not for the poor handful of hire,

But for the fury of the song,

The unescapable desire,

He sang his short life out, and it was best;

His wage was hunger; it was long

Betwixt the days of blame and jeers,

And that which set him with his peers;

A fragmentary song, yet dear to Art;

Its numbers hold

Enough of music for new world and old,

To shake them to the heart.


And now, many a summer’s weather,

Now, many a winter’s storms together,

The wind; the shower;

The blooms; the snows;

Have petaled into this brief hour,

And drop upon his dust a rose.


Roof calls to roof and stone to stone; —

Like white of April blown

The gust along —

The Shape of Song!


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

1 - Teacher of English, Western High School, addressing the Thirty-fourth Annual Commemoration ceremony of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore in the Westminster Church, January 22, 1956.

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

2 - Edgar Allan Poe — “A Centenary Tribute,’’ (Baltimore, Maryland, 1910) pp. 15-17



This lecture was delivered by Una Corbett, a Teacher of English at Western High School, at the Thirty-Fourth Annual Commemoration Program of the Poe Society in the Westminster Church, January 22, 1956.


[S:1 - SMP, 1956] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - The Schools and the Memory of Poe (U. Corbett, 1956)