Text: George E. Woodberry, “Chapter II,” Edgar Allan Poe (1885), pp. 15-29


[page 15, unnumbered:]


MR. JOHN ALLAN, who now with great reluctance gave his family name to the orphan of the poor actors, had emigrated from Ayrshire, and, as a member of the firm, Ellis & Allan, had already at the age of thirty-one acquired position and for tune in the Virginia tobacco trade. He had been married for some time, but was still childless; and although in admitting a stranger’s offspring to his family he had at first merely yielded to his wife’s urgent entreaties, the black-eyed, curly-haired boy naturally soon became a pet in the empty home, especially as his precocity and beauty blended with the charm of his young affection to minister to the pride as well as touch the heart of the foster-father. At the age of six he could read, draw, and dance; of more showy accomplishments (the long, narrow Virginia table, cleared for dessert, being his stage), his trick before company was to pledge their healths, and his talent was to declaim, for each of which he had, perhaps by inheritance, an equal aptitude. He received the rudiments of knowledge in a private school at Richmond, and spent the [page 16:] three summers following his mother’s death at the White Sulphur Springs, then the fashionable Southern resort; in both places tradition still affords glimpses of him, — a prettily-dressed boy riding his pony or running with his dogs, indulged in public as a general favorite, and fondled at home as an only child. About June 17, 1815,(1) Mr. Allan sailed for England, with his wife, her sister, and Edgar, apparently for a long stay, since he disposed of some of his household goods and effects by auction sale before leaving. He provided an Olive Branch, a Murray’s Reader, and two Murray’s Spelling Books for Edgar’s entertainment during the voyage, and shortly after his arrival placed the child, then six years old, at the Manor House School, Stoke-Newington, a suburb of London.

His residence there 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, [page 17:] 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 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 inclosed the playground. In the seclusion of these grounds Poe’s pent 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 bedroom beyond the many tortuous passages and perplexing little stairways, he first felt the wakening of the conscience, whose self-echoing whispers he after wards heightened into the voice and ghostly terror of the Spanish Hombre Embozado; in that wide, graveled, 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 boy’s eyes of wonder at the thick walls, deep windows [page 18:] and doors, massive with locks and bars, be hind 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, and witness from the scholars remote gallery pew that miraculous weekly transformation in the pulpit,” — This reverend man, with countenance so demurely benign, with robes so glossy and so clerically flowing, with wig so minutely powdered, so rigid and so vast, — could this be he who, of late, with sour visage and in snuffy habiliments, administered, ferule in hand, the Draconian Laws of the academy? Oh, gigantic paradox!”(1)

It seems a monotonous existence; but, touched by the spirit and the flush of boyhood, it was really a full one, the life of keen sensation, of personal rivalries and party strife, the first battle and the first prize. “Oh, le bon temps,” Poe cries, “que ce siecle de fer!” and, indeed, he must have passed many a lonely hour, too, under that meagre and rigid regime of inferior English school-mastery; and though he learned to run and leap, construe Latin and speak French, and during some portion of the time regularly visited the Allans in London, yet, remembering that these five years are the ones in which home ties are drawn closest about the hearts of most American boys, and the lessons of concession learned by them, a too curious mind might discover in this [page 19:] stretch of the boy’s life the first workings of the sinister influence which afterwards struck so im passably the circle of isolation about the man. Dr. Bransby, however, the parson-teacher, remarked nothing in Edgar Allan, as he was called, except that he was clever, but spoilt by “an extravagant amount of pocket money.”(1) The village, indeed, was said by Beaumont and Fletcher to be a place “where ale and cakes are plenty; “but the boy’s wildest excesses were probably in the same raspberry tarts and ginger beer on which at the Grey Friars a year or two later Clive Newcome dissipated his pocketful of sovereigns. Poe, no doubt, took the fun, the homesickness, and the good things as other boys did; and when, in the June of 1820, he left be hind him the old trees and ruinous houses, the mist and fragrance and mould of the drowsy English parish, and returned to Richmond, he was not much different from his mates, except that he made his first trials at verse and kept the manuscripts.

He arrived home with the Allans on August 2, and at once renewed his studies in the English and Classical School of Joseph H. Clarke, who is de scribed as a fiery, pedantic, pompous Irishman from Trinity College, Dublin. Here he read the ordinary classical authors of the old preparatory curriculum, continued his French, and capped Latin verses, a pastime of which he is reported to have been fond. He was lacking in diligence and accuracy, but was [page 20:] quick and brilliant, and when it came the turn of his set to be at the top of the school he had but one rival in scholarship. In athletic exercises, the other half of youthful life, he was especially active, being aided in this, perhaps, by the training of the Manor House playground; slight in figure at first, but robust and tough, he was a swift runner and far leaper, and he possessed, together with some skill in boxing, the English school-boy’s readiness to use it; in particular he was a fine, bold swimmer, and as, since Byron, poets seem to have a prescriptive right to the mention of their aquatic feats, be it once more recorded that in his fifteenth year Poe swam in the James River from Ludlam’s wharf to Warwick Bar, six miles, against a very strong tide and in a hot June sun, and afterwards walked back to the city with little apparent fatigue. He evidently cut a considerable figure in the school; he was its champion in the simple tournaments of those days, prominent in its debating society, and known as a versifier in both a gallant and a satiric vein, — no slight distinction in the eyes of the fellows who listened to the English ode in which, on the retirement of Master Clarke to give place to Master William Burke, in the fall of 1823, he addressed the outgoing principal.

But neither his facile scholarship, nor his aptness in quoting Latin hexameters and stringing English rhymes, nor his fame in the sports made him the favorite of the school. His aristocratic mates, it is [page 21:] said by one of themselves, remembered that he was sprung from the poor actors, and were averse to his leadership. Poe, too, partly it may be because he was aware of the reason for this slight but cutting ostracism, helped it by a defiant and irritable spirit that sometimes broke through the restraint of his well-bred manners. One who was counted nearer to him than the rest describes him as “self-willed, capricious, inclined to be imperious, and though of generous impulses not steadily kind, or even amiable.”(1) The indulgence to which he had been accustomed at home with its resulting lawlessness of nature, and his marked ability with its attendant intellectual pride, contributed somewhat to form this temper; but he was always reserved, a quality especially liable to misconstruction by boys, and in his youth as in later life he never formed the habit — he may not have had the power — of making intimate friends. No one, it would seem, ever knew him. He had his chums in his own and his fags in the younger set, and he showed them his poems just as he quoted Horace, in search of a certain sort, of recognition; he was sensible of affection, too, and capable of warm attachment, as in his friendship for young Sully, the artist’s nephew, who was a refined but difficult boy; amid all such associations, how ever, he lived most to himself. He was a dreamer, too, and in the light of his insubstantial visions, as well as through ruder experience, he felt his solitariness. [page 22:] The sense of social wrong, the brooding disposition, the imaginative temperament, the way ward will, the excitable, impatient, imperious nature — these lines of character were coming out, fainter or stronger, in the moody, self-conscious boy, and he found himself alone and left to his own will. His foster-father was liberal in a worldly way, his foster-mother considerate, forgiving, and faithful, but in spirit as in blood he was of a different strain from them; his kindred were unknown to him, his teachers were the merest pedagogues, his companions cast in another mould. It is not meant that all usual attention was not given to him. He was not neglected, nor were his surroundings unpleasant. Mr. Allan, although he had not yet settled in a house of his own, belonged to the most cultivated and agreeable society that Virginia knew in the days .of her old-fashioned and justly famed courtesy and hospitality, and a childhood spent in association with such gentlemen as Edgar constantly and familiarly met could not fail to be both pleasant and of the highest utility in forming both manner and character. A boy, however, is little sensible of the value of such surroundings, and in the unfolding of his heart Poe may, amid all such mere kindliness, have missed what to a child of genius was of far more consequence, — responsive sympathy, and the secret understanding that springs from love. He was, however it happened, a lonely boy.

Under these circumstances there is no inherent [page 23:] unlikelihood in the story that rests only on his own words, that one clay, in the home of a much younger schoolmate, when his friend’s mother, lovely, gentle, and gracious, spoke to him with some unusual tenderness, the tones thrilled him with a new sen sation, and kindled within him, in his own phrase, the first purely ideal love of his soul. To this lady, Jane Stith Stanard, he became strongly attached, as a lonely boy of fourteen, whose affections were beginning to wander from an unsympathetic home, naturally would; but she was his confidant and friend only for a short time. She died April 28, 1824, at the early age of thirty-one years; and for a long while he haunted her grave by night, brooding on the mystery of the dead, and there in the sigh of the dry grasses and the louder moan of autumn winds his young heart caught the first faint notes of that paean of passionate regret and self-sprung terror which afterward, struck on his lyre, became the Io Triomphe of despair. The fascination of this lady did not cease with her life, but grew with his years; the direct experience of death in her loss was the ground on which his imagination long worked, and determined the early bent of his mind toward a sombre supernaturalism. One need not try to disentangle the bare facts from this, as it seems, almost legendary anecdote;(1) however much its romantic element may have been heightened, [page 24:]

still, through all the unconscious transformations of time and genius, the individuality of Poe is plainly discernible in two of its marked traits, — his tendency to idealize a woman’s memory, and the kin ship of his emotional beliefs with superstition.

Poe left Master Burke’s in March, 1825, and spent the remainder of the year in preparing him self, with the aid of private instruction, for the University of Virginia, then in its first session. In his not too scanty leisure hours he nursed his first flame, in the ordinary way of mortal love, by his devotions to a neighbor’s daughter, younger than himself, Miss Sarah Elmira Royster; but, her father diligently intercepting all letters, this romance ended on the young lady’s part in an early marriage, and on Poe’s in some reproachful stanzas à la Byron, wherein the rejected suitor seeks to immortalize the fair one’s infidelity. The inamorata’s reminiscences of her lover, too, are prettily conventional: he was, she says,(1) beautiful, sad, and silent, but as she adds that he was fond of music and clever at his sketching, particularly of herself, he evidently, like undistinguished youths, found humble means to overcome the difficulties of conversation. The most fondly recollected hours of this year, however (the last in which he lived under the same roof with Mr. Allan), must have been spent in the pleasant and spacious home which Mr. Allan purchased in this summer for his settled [page 25:] abode. From its high southward windows he would look down on the green islands that stud the foaming rapids of the James, and see across the winding river the village of Manchester and the wooded fields beyond, bathed in the warm after noon; or, stepping out between the shutters upon the adjoining wide-roofed balcony with its sanded floor, where stood the fine London telescope that, perhaps, gave to his childish mind its bent toward astronomy, would look at the stars, or more idly would watch the moonlight falling on the myrtles and jessamines, the box and the fig-trees, the grape vines and raspberry bushes planted by the former Andalusian owner in the quiet garden close, which, now wild and desolate, keeps no fragrance save the romance of his memory. To that fair prospect, the landscape of his innocent years, he was unconsciously bidding farewell.

On February 14, 1826, he wrote his name, and the place and date of his birth, in the matriculation book of the University of Virginia, and entered the schools of ancient and modern languages. He was now seventeen years old, somewhat short in stature, thick-set, compact, bow-legged, with the rapid and jerky gait of an English boy; his natural shyness had become a fixed reserve; his face, clustered about by dark, curly hair, wore usually a grave and melancholy expression, the look that comes rather from the habit of reverie than any actual sadness, but his features would kindle with [page 26:] lively animation when, as frequently happened, he grew warm in his cause. He divided his time, after the custom of undergraduates, between the recitation room, the punch bowl, the card table, athletic sports, and pedestrianism. He was a member of the classes in Latin and Greek, French, Spanish, and Italian, and attended them regularly; but being facile rather than studious, he did not acquire a critical knowledge of these languages. Outside he moved in a jolly set. At first he had roomed with a chum, one Miles George, of Richmond, on the lawn, to adopt the local description, but after a quarrel and pugilistic duel in correct form between them (the combatants shook hands at the end of it) Poe settled in No. 13 West Range, decorated the walls with charcoal sketches out of Byron, and there gathered the fellows to enjoy peach and honey, as the delectable old-time Southern punch was called, and to play at loo or seven-up. Both in drinking and in card -playing Poe acted capriciously, and either was or affected to be the creature of impulse.

“Poe’s passion for strong drink,” writes one of his intimate college mates, “was as marked and as peculiar as that for cards. It was not the taste of the beverage that influenced him; without a sip or smack of the mouth he would seize a full glass, without water or sugar, and send it home at a single gulp. This frequently used him up; “but if not, he rarely returned to the charge.”(1) [page 27:]

If the full glass was one of peach and honey, or merely of the peach brandy unmixed, Poe’s susceptibility to such a draught, it should be remarked, by no means indicates a weak head, particularly in a youth of seventeen; but this fashion of drinking en barbare (as Baudelaire styles it) he kept up through life. Not intoxication, however, but gambling, was then his vice; and for this, too, as was to be expected from his excitable temperament, he was ill adapted, or else luck ran strong against him, since he ended the year with heavy debts of honor. By his recklessness in card-playing he is said to have lost caste in the aristocratic cliques. What ever his private history may have been, he did not come under the notice of the Faculty, which is stated to have been at that time unusually watch ful and strict; but as the administration of the University was somewhat peculiar, owing to the theories of its founder, Jefferson, an anecdote of the time will make the facts clearer.

It seems that the Faculty desired to check gambling, which had reached a great height, and as in Jefferson’s judgment as much of the discipline as possible should be left to the civil authorities, arrangements were made to observe, indict, and try the principal offenders. One morning the county sheriff and his posse appeared at the doorway of a [page 28:] lecture room where the students, already warned, were answering roll-call; a glance was enough for suspicion, and a shadow of suspicion for flight, as they made good their escape by windows and doors, and, eluding pursuit by striking into an unfrequented by-path for a wooded knoll on the skirts of the Ragged Mountains, safe among the hills they enjoyed their favorite diversion unmolested, until at the end of a three days vacation they were allowed to respond to the roll-call in peace.

Under such rules of government as this story im plies, freedom from censure by the Faculty is not convincing proof of a blameless life; but there is no reason to suppose that Poe’s habits, judged by the standard of morals that obtained where he was, gave occasion for much unfavorable remark, or were widely different from the habits of those members of his own set who became the pious judge and the acceptable Episcopalian clergyman. He plunged into debt as did others whose extravagance at the tradesmen’s shops and the hotels led to the enactment of a statute that declared all debts beyond the reasonable wants of a student null and void. But amid the dissipations of his private life, he found leisure to cultivate his own genius, and would gather his friends about him to listen to some extravaganza of his invention, read in declamatory tones, or to some poem he had made during his long solitary rambles in the Ragged Mountains. He still had no confidential friends. “No one knew [page 29:] him,” is the unanimous testimony of his classmates; but they all describe him consistently in terms that show he was a spirited youth, who led a self-ab sorbed life, frequently of hig % h intensity, but was easily diverted into the commonplace pleasures of a fashionable set, and probably entered on them with the more recklessness because of his habitual reserve. While Poe was still at the University, however, Mr. Allan thought it best to inquire into the state of his affairs personally, and went up to Charlottesville, where he paid all of his debts that he thought just; but, not being a father to take his boy’s luck without wincing, he refused to honor losses at play, which amounted to about twenty-five hundred dollars.(1) At the close of the session, December 15, 1826, Poe came home with the high est honors in Latin and French; but this did not mollify his guardian, who, instead of allowing him to return, placed him in his own counting-room. From this confinement Poe soon broke, and went out to seek his fortune in the world.


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 16:]

1. Colonel Thomas H. Ellis, to the author, May 28, 1884. These statements regarding Mr. Allan’s absence are based on the books of the firm, Ellis & Allan, in Colonel Ellis’s possession.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 18:]

1. Works, iii. 419.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 19:]

1. The Athenæum, No. 2660, p. 497, October 19, 1878.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 21:]

1. Ingram, i. 24.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 23:]

1. Edgar Poe and his Critics, by Sarah Helen Whitman. New York: Rudd & Carleton, 1860: p. 49.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 24:]

1. Appletons Journal, N. S., iv. 429 (May, 1878).

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 26, running to the bottom of page 27:]

1. Thomas Goode Tucker to Douglass Sherley, Esq., April 5, 1880. MS. The substance of this and other letters from Mr. [page 27:] Tucker was embodied by Mr. Sherley in an article in the Virginia University Magazine, 1880. Cf. “Edgar A. Poe and his College Companions,” New Orleans Times-Democrat, May 18, 1884.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 29:]

1. Edgar Allan Poe. A letter by Colonel Thomas H. Ellis to the editor of the Richmond Standard, April 22, 1881.





[S:0 - EAP, 1885] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Edgar Allan Poe (G. E. Woodberry) (Chapter I)