Text: John Savage, “Edgar Allan Poe,” United States Democratic Review, January 1851, pp. 66-69


[page 66:]



HAVING read what is presented to us of Poe’s life, our first thoughts are canvassed with regard to the weather-cock, unsteady, and many-minded career of his early days; and were we not convinced that he is one of the greatest literary men, even in respect to intellect, power, copiousness, capacity, intensity and execution, that has as yet arisen in this country, we might pass those days by with a few sentences on their romance, indecision, inconsistencies, carelessness, spoiled-childishness and poetic fervor of youth. But one whose name rushes to our lips nearly in the same breath with Charles Brockden Brown, must not be treated so lightly, or without at least briefly looking over the pathway by which such an intellect travelled into its position in the literary realm of its land — and of power over our sympathies. We see him amid the heat and spur of untoward occurrences, vainly endeavoring to machine himself to some life-track, but which his undecided, or more likely, too quickly-suggesting brain, constantly prevented, by ever raising a new and more enticing road, in his own opinion, as he had just entered upon that of his last whim’s determining.

We see him passing through the alembic of his own brain, and through the probationary misfortunes, which seem a necessary test, as well as mirror of a literary life; and after many romantic speculations and some inglorious experience, expand himself into his native element of mind, as naturally as an eagle would take to its native air and mountains after the caging of half a century, or as the spirit of Liberty and Religion prove themselves immortal by being opposed.

Here let us live with him, through his school and early days, ere we become the critic and admirer of his maturity and genius. In early life Poe lost his parents, the principal misfortune of which was his finding in the persons of a Mr. Allan and his lady too indulgent substitutes, who adopted him. This misfortune solely lay in the extraordinary kindness they manifested towards him, by leading him to look forward to them as the prop of his manhood; and we doubt not, that had his kind guardians exercised a more temperate display towards their young charge, we would have found him less vacillating and more steady-minded in that peculiar portion of man’s life which has such an empire over his coming maturity; we mean that doubtful period between school-days and the arrival of manhood — the poetic age — the Augustan era of existence. With regard to the still earlier portion of his life, we find that to their love and benevolence he owes the benefit of travel in foreign countries, and the blessing of a good education; which, as will be seen, was not lost, though it might have been, at times, misapplied by him.

Edgar Allan Poe, born in Baltimore, January, 1811, was the son of David Poe and Elizabeth Arnold. From his grandfather, General Poe, much distinguished in the Revolutionary War, he evidently derived his spirit of chivalry, which manifested itself in his joining the struggles for liberty in Poland and Greece, and which, if it does not give evidence of [page 67:] much forethought, at least speaks favorably of his enthusiastic and ardent love of human freedom, and is a prelude to that spirit which forms a constitutional ingredient of the poetic mind. His family had long been one of the most respectable in Baltimore. About his parents there is a little romance. Here it is, as told by Dr. Griswold:

“His father, David Poe, Jr., the fourth son of the Quarter-Master-General, was several years a law student in Baltimore, but becoming enamored of an English actress, named Elizabeth Arnold, whose prettiness and vivacity, more than her genius for the stage, made her a favorite, he eloped with her, and after a short period, having married her, became himself an actor. They continued six or seven years in the theatres of the principal cities, and finally died, within a few weeks of each other, in Richmond leaving three children, Henry, Edgar, and Rosalie, in utter destitution.”

In 1816, young Poe accompanied Mr. and Mrs. Allan to England, and after passing some time in Scotland, was left for five years at Stoke-Newington to complete his education. Under the assumed name of William Wilson, in the Sketch of the same name, he thus remarks on his school-life: “My earliest recollections of a school-life, are connected with a large, rambling, Elizabethan house, in a misty-looking village of England, where were a vast number of gigantic and gnarled trees, and where all the houses were excessively ancient. In truth, it was a dream-like and spirit-soothing place, that venerable old town. At this moment, in fancy, I feel the refreshing chilliness of its deeply-shadowed avenues, inhale the fragrance of its thousand shrubberies, and thrill anew with ineffable delight, at the deep hollow note of the church-bell, breaking, each hour with sullen and sudden roar, upon the stillness of the dusky atmosphere, in which the fretted Gothic steeple lay imbedded and asleep.” This ancient place, with its crypts and Gothic arches — quaint old staircases, pointed windows and oak ceilings — gnarled trees and angular enclosures, indelibly impressed his mind and character for life. A poetic mind never loses anything which may co-operate with imagination, but ranges about the world a silent collector of all that is beautiful and imposing; taking impressions and biographies, as it were, of all that is delightful, worthy, quaint, or artistic, till a million lives revolve within its own; and like a rich Mosaic, the world of the poet’s brain is peopled with the choicest beings and things of earth and fancy. On this fulcrum, which the experience of observation gives him, the poet often raises even worldly men from their natural sphere, into the joy and beatitude which the revolutions of fancy and culture create in his. Even a casual reader of Poe’s Tales will perceive how true these remarks pertain to him. His minuteness of description was undoubtedly the effect of minute observation, and he tells us himself that the quaint old building of his school-days was to him “veritably a palace of enchantment,” and in his description of it we can readily perceive a very graphic portraiture of his own mind. He says: “There was really no end to its windings — to its incomprehensible subdivisions.” His time at Newington was peculiarly qualified for impressing and feeding his young poetic aspirations. Its ancient structure, and the fact of the students being confined to the antique enclosures contiguous to the academy, with its labyrinth of little staircases; seeing the outside of the ponderous gate, with its “iron bolts and jagged iron spikes,” but thrice weekly, “once every Saturday afternoon, when, attended by two ushers, they were permitted to take brief [page 68:] walks, in a body, through some of the neighboring fields — and twice during Sunday, when they were paraded, in the same formal manner, to the morning and evening service in the one church of the village , of which church the schoolmaster was pastor; created a world of teeming thoughts and inquiries. The house was a sort of labyrinth, and, in his mind, was not far different from the ideas which he connected with infinity. Says he: “During the five years of my residence here, I was never able to ascertain, with precision, in what remote locality lay the little sleeping apartment assigned to myself and some eighteen or twenty other scholars.” All this mysticism, and the analysis which it led to, was not without working its effects on Poe’s mind, and unlike school-days in general, he passed “not in tedium or disgust the years of the third lustrum of his life.” We have every assurance in his candor, when speaking of the impressions of childhood in regard to after life, he says: “In childhood I must have felt with the energy of a man, what I now find stamped upon memory in lines as vivid, as deep, and as durable as the exergues of the Carthagenian medals.” So passed his school days in England.

On his return to America, he subsequently entered the University of Virginia, at Charlottesville, and, it is said, led rather a dissolute life, exercising his abilities alternately in caricaturing the professors and carrying off the first honors of the college. His career here was careless and unthinking but is another evidence of his power and ability when applied. By the latter he was always enabled, notwithstanding his idleness, to hold a respectable place before his tutors, and at last rousing himself from his precarious mode of study, he swept the first honors. ‘Twas about this time he formed the idea of setting off for Greece, with the intention of joining in the revolutionary struggle in that land, which every student looks upon as a birthright. A companion, who had entertained the like feelings, abandoned the idea, and left the enthusiastic young poet to revel alone in dreams of freedom for his loved classic land. He consequently set out, and having reached St. Petersburgh, got into difficulties, we are informed, through an “irregularity in his passport”; or, as Dr. Griswold, seemingly better informed, tells us, that Mr. Middleton, of South Carolina, then Minister in the Russian capital, “was summoned one morning to save him (Poe) from penalties incurred in a drunken debauch.” Whichever way it was, through Mr. Middleton’s kindness our author was set at liberty; but, instead of prosecuting his idea of becoming a Greek Patriot, returned to his native land. On his return, one of those incidents, which seem, by some inscrutable design, the lot of poets and men of genius to encounter, awaited him. His benefactress, Mrs. Allan, for whom he had much regard, was dead. He arrived at Richmond the day after her obsequies. Fortune seems ever toiling after dramatic effect, in playing foul of the literary man. Fancy the poet going to liberate Greece, all but in the Russian chains; and returning disappointed, to unbosom himself with his friends, to find his benefactress dead — his hopes of joy, like his Grecian campaign, a vision. Reconciling his past thoughtlessness with Mr. Allan, he determined to enter on a military life, and with this intent sought a home in West Point Academy. Again fortune was at her tricks, and only seemed anxious to get him out of the way to place another in his stead, in the shape of a young wife for his old benefactor. The birth of a child followed this ill-matched union, and coeval with that event the death of Edgar Poe’s hopes of [page 69:] inheriting his adopted father’s property. At West Point he prosecuted his studies energetically for a few weeks; but the evil habit of dissipation, to which he had been unfortunately prone, waylaid and prostrated him. “He neglected his duties and disobeyed orders; and in ten months from his matriculation he was cashiered.” Fortune, like a Will-o’-the-wisp, now struck a light over Poland, and thither our disappointed youth looked for refuge, hoping, no doubt, to divert his mind from the maddening thoughts which his situation must have given rise to.

Again his resolves were frittered to the air. Warsaw fell, and with it Poland. He returned to Baltimore, and, to continue the melo-dramatic effect of his life of effects, was in just at the death of Mr. Allan. Of course he had nothing to expect from the widow but coldness; and it were well for him if he had had to work his own way from boyhood, minus the hopes of a fortune from a benefactor. He had energy enough, if well guided, but it was only when a dispute occurred with his adopted parents, that a momentary flash of independence lit up his mind and actions, and he then darted off on some grand scheme, which his own unsteady ideas overrated; not always guided with that stoic fortitude which is a presage of success. A slight thing could turn him from his purpose, and then thinking it better to make up with his friends, and live happy, he would return until another match set a train of disquietude agoing. Such occurrences were but too frequent; his unstable, and anything but filial conduct, towards one who acted with more kindness than a sensible parent should, and a mode of action, to us, unaccountable under the peculiar circumstances, together with his unquiet temper, bring those occurrences, alas! but too often before our view, and, we are sorry to believe, into an importance which his character, as a man, cannot afford to contrast. Nevertheless, it is right we should view them impartially, and in good faith to our conscience. His return from St. Petersburgh we think an instance of the unsteadiness of purpose we have spoken of. Perhaps the Consul could not get his passports regulated, or new ones for him; but we think it highly possible that he might have made southwards in another direction towards Greece. He was much nearer to it than America, but his mind was of that construction which cherished desultory action, and the fire of anticipated glory was burnt out at the prospect of a life in chains, dungeoned or in Siberia. Cowardice we do not aver it was; but the fatal effects of meeting a benefactor, and the ideas of comfort which the having such reared in his brain. A farther proof of this is his falling out with his adopted parents; if instead of the desultory action which his mind manifested, he had had a well-regulated train of ideas, he would not have incensed his friends against him. He knew that be was indebted to them for his education, and more, and, at least, he ought to have shown gratitude and respect. if he did not love them. Whereas, it is evident he rarely tried to conciliate them, or seek the advice, which a person acting as a father had a right to give, and be heard in giving.

[[(To be continued.)]]




As is true for so many items of the period, many of the biographical details about Poe are unreliable.



[S:0 - USDR, 1851] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Edgar Allan Poe (J. Savage, 1850)