Text: James A. Harrison, “Chapter 03,” Complete Works of E. A. Poe , Vol. 01: Biography (1902), 1:64-76


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[page 64:]

CHAPTER III.

1827-1829.

THE EARLY POEMS. THE LEGENDARY YEARS.

IN the life of nearly every literary man who has occupied a conspicuous position in the world’s eye there is a “dark period” — a period of eclipse, obscuration or hibernation — during which he mysteriously disappears, as the religious recluse does in his periodical “retreat,‘’ and is lost to the public gaze. The literary historian immediately thinks of the seasons of obscuration in the careers of Keats and Shelley, of Hugo and Heine, of Coleridge and Gray, of Chateaubriand and Gerard de Nerval — to mention only a few modern instances — and wonders what these men of genius were doing in the eclipse-period.

Poe was no exception to a very general rule. The period 1827-1833 embraces more than a lustrum of shadow only a part of which has been skilfully illuminated by Professor Woodberry’s investigations.

In December, 1826, Poe graduated in Latin and French at the University of Virginia. If one can regard “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” as at all autobiographic — and it is full of local and personal touches that cannot but be regarded as such — he writes at the beginning of this tale:

“During the fall of the year 1827, while residing near Charlottesville, Virginia, I casually made the acquaintance of Mr. Augustus Bedloe.” [page 65:]

This date does not harmonize by a few months with the now known army record of Poe, but it seems to show that he was at least in Virginia a part of the year 1827. The current account is, that he returned to Richmond, entered Mr. Allan’s counting-room, quarrelled with his adopted father on account of the large “debts of honor” he had contracted at cards while at the University, and left the Allan home in consequence.

This account is confirmed by Mr. Allan himself in a letter dated May 6, 1829, in which he says:

“He [Poe] left me in consequence of some gambling at the University at Charlottesville, because (I presume) I refused to sanction a rule that the shop keepers and others had adopted there, making Debts of Honour of all indiscretions. I have much pleasure in asserting that he stood his examination at the close of the year with great credit.”(1)

The second fact of importance for the year 1827 is the appearance at Boston, probably in June, of a diminutive volume: “Tamerlane and Other Poems. By a Bostonian: Boston: Calvin F. S. Thomas . . . Printer”: “the tiniest of tomes, numbering, inclusive of titles and half-titles, only forty pages, and measuring 6 3/8 by 4 1/8 inches. Its diminutiveness” (continues Mr. R. Shepherd), “probably quite as much as the fact that it was’suppressed through circumstances of a private nature,’ accounts for its almost entire disappearance. The motto on the title-page purports to be from Cowper: that from Martial, which closes the Preface (Nos haec novimus esse nihil) was, by a curious coincidence, the very same that figured on the [page 66:] title-page of Alfred and Charles Tennyson’s Louth volume.

“In 1827, when the little Tamerlane booklet was thus modestly ushered into the world, Poe had not yet attained his nineteenth year. Both in promise and in actual performance, it may claim to rank as the most remarkable production that any English-speaking and English-writing poet of this century has published in his teens.

“In this earliest form of it the poem which gives its chief title to the little volume is divided into seventeen sections, of irregular length, containing a total of 406 lines. ‘Tamerlane’ was afterwards remodelled and rewritten, from beginning to end, and in its final form, as it appeared in the author’s edition of 1845, is divided into twenty-three sections, containing a total of 243 lines. Eleven explanatory prose notes are added, which disappear in all subsequent editions. . . . Of the nine , Fugitive Pieces’ which follow, only three, and these in a somewhat altered form, were included by the author in his later collection. The remaining six have never been reprinted in book form” [this was in 1884].(1)

This precious little volume, only forty copies of which are said to have been printed, was published by the nineteen-year-old printer, Calvin F. S. Thomas, then living in Boston. Thomas afterwards moved West and died, probably in Springfield, Mo., in 1876, without being aware that he had ushered into the world the most unique specimen of American poetic genius. [page 67:] The poor lithe volume is now one of the bibliophile’s “nuggets,” and a copy of it, going, at the McKee sale in November, 1900, for $2050, was immediately resold to Mr. F. R. Halsey at an advance of $500.

Poe must have had these poems in his portfolio long before he went to the University; some of them he claims to have written when he was ten years old, — consequently when he was a pupil at Dr. Bransby’s School. In their crude boyish metres one can feel the dancing Ariel spirit of his mother taking form in verse and reincarnating itself, Morella-like, in the work of the child. The elements of strangeness and beauty were all there; quaintness and witchery echo from “those unusual strings,” and the harp of lsrafel is already attuning itself to extraordinary harmonies.

The boy of eighteen writes the following Preface” “The greater part of the Poems which compose this little volume were written in the year 1821-22, when the author had not completed his fourteenth year. They were of course not intended for publication; why they are now published concerns no one but himself. Of the smaller pieces very little need be said: they perhaps savour too much of egotism; but they were written by one too young to have any knowledge of the world but from his own breast.

“In ‘Tamerlane’ he has endeavoured to expose the folly of even risking the best feelings of the heart at the shrine of Ambition. He is conscious that in this there are many faults (besides that of the general character of the poem), which he flatters himself he could, with little trouble, have corrected, but unlike many of his predecessors, he has been too fond of his earlv productions to amend them in his old age.

“We will not say that he is indifferent as to the [page 68:] success of these Poems — it might stimulate him to other attempts — but he can safely assert that failure will not at all influence him in a resolution already adopted. This is challenging criticism — let it be so. Nos haec novimus esse nihil.”

This was the first of those defiant Prefaces which all his life after Poe was flinging like gauntlets in the faces of his critics: the attitude of one at bay, even then, in his teens.

“The soul, which knows such power, will still

Find Pride the ruler of its will —”

a couplet imitated, consciously or unconsciously, by Cardinal Newman in his famous “Lead, Kindly Light” (“Pride ruled my will: remember not past days“). It gives the fundamental note of “Tamerlane,” whose vagueness is also Poesque in its Qssianic nebulosity. It is full of Moore and Byron (“the sound of revelry by night” actually occurs imbedded in the text, without quotation-marks); its metre is the ancient octosyllable of Gower and the pre-Chaucerians, as if the lad had unconsciously reverted to ancestral musical conditions; dreams, mysteries, blighted hopes, blasted expectations, visions of the night, terrors and tremblings, well up artificially or otherwise in the boy’s imagination and point prophetically — almost mockingly — to his future. A fitful melody, windlike in its aerial waywardness, flits through couplet and stanza and recalls the melodious friction of the air on the strings of a viol: a sigh, a murmuring of the waves, a whispering of parted lips, an elegy breathing from the tremulous pine-tops, could hardly be more faint, sprite-like, poetical than this zephyr-like music, this disembodied passion, these [page 69:] almost inorganic harmonies that each take a line as an oaten reed and utter silken cadences half song, half soliloquy. This little book is more like some extraordinary child-musician’s improvisations than anything else: shell-like murmurings, indefinite, unreal, almost spectral shadows of song here run up and clown the keys with their flitting golden tones, now crushing all the wayward sweetness out of a trampled chord, now up and away through the ascending diapason of some chance-struck air, melting into the “choir invisible.” Trouble, passion, poignant regret are already there — tumult of soul and body, uneasy visionings, phantasy surcharged with intimations of the supernatural, scorn, contempt, rebellion, angel pride, the ” ill demons ” of the latter day already foreshadowed in the plaintive susurrus of many a line, occur in “Tamerlane and Other Poems” in the fitful, unsubstantial flickerings of the phantasy of a gifted and unhappy boy who finds himself caught in print — a Swanhilda without her magic raiment — and wails in vain for the recovery of his incognito.

Another fact of vital importance for the year 1827 was Poe’s enlistment at Boston in the army of the United States under the assumed name of Edgar A. Perry: a fact established by Professor Woodberry through Mr. Robert Lincoln, Secretary of War, and Adjutant-General Drum. This occurred in May, about the time of the publication of the Poems, and opens up one of the most honorable vistas in this short and tragic life. Poe may have been attracted to the army and, afterward, to West Point, from the fact of the University of Virginia having established a system of military drill in 1826, and from the further fact of one of his class-mates, John B. Magruder (afterwards [page 70:] the well-known Confederate general) having left the University that year for West Point.

“The examination of documents” (says Professor Woodberry, in “The Atlantic Monthly” for December, 1880 “both at Washington and elsewhere has been exhaustive. From these papers it appears that on May 26, 1827, Poe enlisted at Boston in the army of the United States as a private soldier, under the name of Edgar A. Perry. He stated that he was born at Boston, and was by occupation a clerk; and although minors were then accepted into the service, he gave his age as twenty-two years. He had, says the record, gray eyes, brown hair, and a fair complexion; was five feet eight inches in height. He was at once assigned to Battery H of the First Artillery, then serving in the harbor at Fort Independence; on October 31 the battery was ordered to Fort Moultrie, Charleston, S. C., and exactly one year later to Fortress Monroe, Virginia. The officers under whom he served are dead, but it appears that he discharged his duties as company clerk and assistant in the commissariat department so as to win the goodwill of his superiors. On January z, 1 82,9, he was appointed Sergeant-Major, a promotion which, by the invariable custom of the army, was given only for merit. He now made his circumstances known to Mr. Allan, and shortly after Mrs. Allan’s death, February 28, 1829, he returned to Richmond on leave of absence. Of this furlough there is no record, but on February 28 he is reported on the rolls as present for duty.”

The only discrepancy with the facts in this account is that of his personal appearance: he had black hair and a dark, clear, olive complexion, instead of the “brown hair and fair complexion” of the army description. [page 71:]

This account is further absolutely authenticated by the letters of Colonel James House, Adjutant-General Lowndes, Lieutenant-Colonel Worth, Captain Gris wold, and Lieutenant Howard, three of whom were connected with the same regiment and one was commandant of Fortress Monroe.

The most gratifying feature of this discovery is that it not only eliminates from his biography the wild stories about Poe’s journey to Europe in the cause of the Greeks, the escapade at St. Petersburg, and the romance of the French duel, novel, etc., but that it unfolds an admirable record of unblemished conduct, prompt and faithful performance of military duties, freedom from bad habits, and the unhesitating recommendation of his superior officers. Lieutenant Howard admiringly writes of his “unexceptionable conduct” and his excellence as a clerk: “his habits are good, and entirely free from drinking.”

Captain Griswold testifies that — up to this date” (Jan. 1, 1829), “he has been exemplary in his deportment, prompt and faithful in the discharge of his duties — and is highly worthy of confidence.”

Colonel Worth, in command of Fortress Monroe, adds: “I have known and had an opportunity of observing the conduct of the above-mentioned SergeantMajor Poe some three months during which his deportment has been highly praiseworthy and deserving of confidence. His education is of a very high order and he appears to be free from bad habits, in fact the testimony of Lieutenant Howard and Adjutant Griswold is full to that point. Understanding he is, thro’ his friends, an applicant for cadet’s warrant, I unhesitatingly recommend him as promising to acquit himself of the obligation of that station studiously and faith. fully.” [page 72:]

Poe, having according to the army requirements procured a substitute, was honorably discharged from the service April 15, with this splendid record of silent and devoted service testified to by his army associates. The wayward, spoiled, impulsive boy had in two years turned out to be the conscientious, exemplary soldier — a sergeant-major in his twentieth year. It is delightful indeed to substitute these creditable facts for the feverish romance and fabulous gossip of contemporaries who doubtless applied to Poe some of the adventures said to have occurred to his gifted but unfortunate elder brother, William Henry Leonard, who was a cadet in the navy and who died in July, 1831.

Brilliant reminiscences of Poe’s service in the army adhere to his South Carolina romance, “The GoldBug,” to the “Balloon Hoax,” and to the humorous “Man that was Used Up.”

Through these two eventful years, too, “Al Aaraaf and Minor Poems” was ripening in the young soldier’s brain and showing the ideal side of the mechani. cal routine of the army. These shadowy years have left their crystalline deposit in poems, in which an increasing purpose, a maturer power, a richer and less adumbrated imagination, a finer metrical skill are ap parent. Perhaps the precision of the army routine had something to do with the growing precision of Poe’s style, a precision which grew on him while he lived and which is sometimes in his more faultless prose almost painful. His intense feeling for rhythm may have been energized by the measured tread of soldiers’ feet, the martial regularity of all their movements, the inflexible order of their evolutions, the symmetry of whatever they did.

While the West Point project was maturing in his [page 73:] mind and purpose, he went to Baltimore, became more fully acquainted with his Maryland kindred, and was introduced to William Gwynn, editor of “The Federal Gazette and Baltimore Daily Advertiser,” to whom he showed the MS. of “Al Aaraaf.” About this MS. he fell into correspondence with John Neal of Boston, then editor of “The Yankee and Boston Literary Gazette,” a man who proved a lifelong friend of the penniless author and who gave him through the columns of “The Yankee” excellent literary advice. The communications between author and editor appeared in the new series, iii. 169, and vi. 295-298, and the journal contains two poems by Poe not hitherto found in any collected edition of his works. One of them is called “The Magician” and is as follows:

THE MAGICIAN.

Magician

Thou dark, sea-stirring Storm,

Whence comest thou in thy might?

Nay; wait, thou dim and weary form,

Storm-spirit, I call thee — ‘t is mine of right,

Arrest thee in thy troubled flight.

Storm-Spirit

Thou askest me whence I came, —

I came o‘er the sleeping sea;

It roused at my torrent of storm and flame,

And howled aloud in its agony,

And swelled to the sky — that sleepy sea.

Thou askest me what I met —

A ship from the Indian shore; [page 74:]

A tall, proud ship with her sails all set,

Far down in the sea that ship I bore

My storm’s wild rushing wings before.

And her men will forever lie

Below the unquiet sea;

And tears will dim full many an eye

Of those who shall widows and orphans be,

And their days be years — for their misery.

A boat with a starving crew,

For hunger they starved and swore,

While the blood from a fellow’s veins they drew,

I came upon them with rush and roar —

Far under the waves that boat I bore.

Two ships in a fearful fight,

Where a hundred guns did flash

I came upon them — no time for flight,

But under the sea their timbers crash,

And over their guns the wild waves dash.

A wretch on a single plank,

And I tossed him on the shore;

A night and a day of the sea he drank,

But the wearied wretch to the land I bore,

And now he walketh the earth once more.

Magician

Storm-spirit, go on thy path! —

The spirit has spread his wings,

And comes on the sea with a rush of wrath,

As a war-horse when he springs;

And over the earth — nor stop nor stay —

The winds of the Storm King go out on their way. [page 65:]

“Early in 1829” (says Mr. E. L. Didier, in his Biography, p. 39) “we find Poe in Baltimore, with a manuscript volume of verses, which in a few months was published in a thin octavo, bound in boards, crimson sprinkled, with yellow linen back. . . . The Peabody Library of Baltimore has a copy of this rare volume, which I have carefully examined. It numbers seventy-one pages. On the sixth page is the Dedication

“Who drinks the deepest? Here’s to him.’ ‘Al Aaraaf’ is printed the same as now, except eight unimportant verbal changes. ‘Tamerlane,’ which is dedicated to John Neal, is preceded by an advertisement, as follows: ‘This poem was printed for publication in Boston, in the year 1827, but suppressed through circumstances of a private nature.’ There is only one word changed in the whole poem. After ‘Tamerlane’ follow nine miscellaneous poems, all of which, with the exception of the first and part of the eighth, are in the last editions of Poe’s works. The first of these miscellaneous poems consists of four stanzas, and is headed — To ———.’ It has never been reprinted in full, but the third stanza contains the germ of “A Dream within a Dream.’ ”

“The book” (adds Mr. Didier) “was printed by Matchett & Woods, who printed the Baltimore City Directory for nearly half a century.”

So far from there being “only one word changed” in the “Tamerlane,” it was entirely rewritten.

Of “Al Aaraaf” the critics have made a nine days’ wonder: its melodious incoherence has left it a jumble of jewelled words that have caught their iridescence partly from Moore and partly from the inconsequence and nebulous radiance of the poet’s nascent [page 76:] fancy. Poe himself says, in his letter to Neal, ‘Al Aaraaf’(1) a has same good poetry, and much extravagance, which I have not had time to throw away. ‘Al Aaraaf’ is a tale of another world — the star discovered by Tycho Brahe, which appeared and disappeared so suddenly — or rather, it is no tale at all.” It is indeed a tale — with the “tale” left out.

It was unfavorably reviewed by the Baltimore “Minerva and Emerald” edited by J. H. Hewitt and Rufus Dawes, the latter of whom Poe remembered later among those whom he flagellated in “Minor Contemporaries.”

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 65:]

1.  Woodberry, Life, p. 42.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 66:]

1.  Tamerlane and Other Poems. By Edgar Allan Poe. First Published at Boston in 1827 and now First Republished from a Unique Copy of the Original Edition, with a Preface. By Richard Herne Shepherd. London. George Redway: MDCCCLXXXIV.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 76:]

1.  “ ‘Al Arâf,’ or ‘Al Aaraaf,’ as the poet preferred styling it, is designed by the Mahommedan imagination as an abode wherein a gentle system of purgatory is instituted for the benefit of those who, though too good for hell, are not fitted for heaven.” — Ingram, I., 78.


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Notes:

The poem “The Magician” is a rejected item, see Mabbott, I, (1969), item 35.


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[S:0 - CWEAP, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - Complete Works of E. A. Poe (Vol. 01 - Biography) (J. A. Harrison) (Chapter 03)