Text: Col. J. T. L. Preston, “Some Reminiscences of Edgar A. Poe as a Schoolboy,” Edgar Allan Poe: A Memorial Volume, Baltimore: Turnbull Brothers, 1877, pp. 37-42


[page 37, unnumbered:]





MY recollections of Poe are very distinct; but they belong to so brief a space, and to so immature a period of his life, and to a still more immature one of my own, that in recalling them, they seem trivial.

Although I was several years his junior, we sat together on the same form, for a year or more, at a classical school in Richmond, Virginia. Our master was John Clark [[Clarke]], of Trinity College, Dublin. At that time his school was the one of highest repute in the metropolis. One which was to become still more celebrated, under the guidance of Mr. Burke, was just then rising into notice.

Master Clark [[Clarke]] was a hot-tempered, pedantic, bachelor Irishman; but a Latinist of the first order, according to the style of scholarship of that date, he unquestionably was. I have often heard my mother amuse herself by repeating his pompous assurance, that in his school her boy should be taught “only the pure Latinity of the Augustan age.” It is due to his memory to say, that if her boy was not properly grounded in his rudiments, it was not the fault of his teacher. What else we were taught I have forgotten; but my drilling in Latin, even to its minutiæ, is clear to my view as if lying on the surface of yesterday. [page 38:]

Edgar Poe might have been, at this time, fifteen or sixteen — he being one of the oldest boys in the school, and I one of the youngest. His power and accomplishments captivated me, and something in me or in him made him take a fancy to me. In the simple school athletics of those days, where a gymnasium had not been heard of, he was facile princeps. He was a swift runner, a wonderful leaper, and what was more rare, a boxer, with some slight training. I remember too, that he would allow the strongest boy in the school to strike him with full force in the chest. He taught me the secret, and I imitated him after my measure. It was, to inflate the lungs to the uttermost, and at the moment of receiving the blow, to exhale the air. It looked surprising, and was indeed a little rough; but with a good breast-bone and some resolution, it was not difficult to stand it. For swimming he was noted, being in many of his athletic proclivities surprisingly like Byron in his youth. There was no one among the schoolboys who would so dare in the midst of the rapids of the James River. I recall one of his races. A challenge to a foot-race had been passed between the two classical schools of the city. We selected Poe as our champion. The race came off one bright May morning at sunrise, on the Capitol Square. Historical truth compels me to add, that on this occasion our school was beaten, and we had to pay up our small bets. Poe ran well; but his competitor was a long-legged, Indian-looking fellow, who would have outstripped Atalanta without the help of the golden apple. Ah, how many of those young racers on Capitol Square that fair May morning, and how many of the crowd that so eagerly looked on, are very still now!

In our Latin exercises in school, Poe was among the first — not first without dispute. He had competitors who fairly disputed the palm. Especially one “Nat Howard,” afterward known as one of the ripest scholars in Virginia, though distinguished also as a profound lawyer. If Howard was less brilliant than Poe, he was far more studious; for even then the germs of waywardness were [page 39:] developing in the nascent poet, and even then no inconsiderable portion of his time was given to versifying. But if I put Howard, as a Latinist, on a level with Poe, I do him full justice. One exercise of the school was a favorite one with Poe: it was what was called “capping verses.” The practice is so absolutely obsolete now, at least in our country, that the term may require explanation. Before the close of the school, all the Latinists, without regard to age or respective advancement in the language, were drawn up in a line for “capping verses”: just as in old-fashioned schools, all scholars had to take their place in the spelling-line before dismission. At the head of the line stood the best scholar, who gave, from memory, some verse of Latin poetry to be “capped”: that is, he challenged all the line to give, from memory, another verse beginning with the same initial letter. Whoever was able to do this took the place of the leader, and in his turn propounded another verse, to be capped in like manner. This we called “simple capping.” “Double capping” was more difficult, inasmuch as the responding verse must at once begin and also end with the same letters as the propounded verse. To give an example, and at the same time to illustrate how a memory, like a sieve, may let through what is valuable, and yet retain on its reticulations a worthless speck, I recall a capping which, while I have forgotten ten thousand things that would have been serviceable if remembered, comes back to me with distinctness after the lapse of so many years. Nat Howard stood at the head of the line, and gave out for “double capping” a verse beginning with the letter d, and ending with the letter m. It passed Edgar Poe; it passed other good scholars, as well it might, until it reached me, a tiro away down the line. To the surprise of everybody, and not less to my own, there popped into my mind this line of Virgil:

Ducite ab urbe domum, mea carmina, ducite Daphnim —

and with pride and amazement I saw myself where I never was [page 40:] before, and never was afterwards — above Nat Howard and Edgar Poe. This practice looks absurd, and so it would be now. True, it stored the memory with many good quotations for ready use; but what speaker would quote Latin now? And if scholars were required to commit Latin verse, where would be the time for learning such philosophy as, the genitive is the case of the lacking half, or that ubi is the ablative or the locative case of qui? But after the fashion of Master Clark [[Clarke]], a fashion brought from Trinity, this “capping verses “ was much in vogue, and Edgar Poe was an expert at it. He was very fond of the Odes of Horace, and repeated them so often in my hearing that I learned by sound the words of many, before I understood their meaning. In the lilting rhythm of the Sapphics and Iambirs, his ear, as yet untutored in more complicated harmonies, took special delight. Two odes in particular have been humming in my ear all my life since, set to the tune of his recitation:

Jam satis terris, nivis atque diræ

Grandinis misit Peter et rubente —


Non ebur neque anreum

Mea renidet in domo lacunar, &c.

When I think of his boyhood, his career, and his fate, the poet whose lines I first learned from his musical lip, supplies me with his epitaph:

Ille mordaci velut icta ferro

Pinus, aut impulsa cupressus Euro,

Procidit late, posuitque collum in

Pulvere Teucro.

I remember that Poe was also a very fine French scholar. Yet with all his superiorities, he was not the master-spirit, nor even the favorite of the school. I assign, from my recollection, this place to Howard. Poe, as I recall my impressions now, was self-willed, capricious, inclined to be imperious, and though of generous [page 41:] impulses, not steadily kind or even amiable; and so what he would exact was refused to him. I add another thing which had its influence, I am sure. At the time of which I speak, Richmond was one of the most aristocratic cities on this side of the Atlantic. I hasten to say that this is not so now. Aristocracy (like capping verses) has fallen into desuetude — perhaps for the same reason: times having changed, other things pay better. Richmond was certainly then very English and very aristocratic. A school is, of its nature, democratic; but still, boys will unconsciously bear about the odor of their fathers’ notions, good or bad. Of Edgar Poe it was known that his parents were players, and that he was dependent upon the bounty that is bestowed upon as adopted son. All this had the effect of making the boys decline his leadership; and on looking back on it since, I fancy it gave him a fierceness he would otherwise not have had. And, after all, was the instinct of boyhood mistaken? Had Poe been better born and otherwise bred, could he have been just what he was, and what we would be glad to forget?

Not a little of Poe’s time, in school and out of it, was occupied with writing verses. As we sat together he would show them to me, and even sometimes ask my opinion, and now and then my assistance, I recall at this moment his consulting me about one particular line, as to whether the word groat would properly rhyme with such a word as not. It would not surprise me now if I should be able, by looking over his juvenile poems, to identify that very line. As it is my only chance for poetic fame, I must, I think, institute the search!

My boyish admiration was so great for my schoolfellow’s genius, that I requested him to give me permission to carry his portfolio home for the inspection of my mother. If her enthusiasm was less than mine, her judgment did not hesitate to praise the verses very highly; and her criticism might well gratify the boyish poet; for she was a lady who, to a natural love for literature, inherited [page 42:] from her father, Edmund Randolph, had added the most thorough and careful culture obtained by the most extensive reading of the English classics — the established mode of female education in those days. Here, then, you have the first critic to whom were submitted the verses of our world-famed poet. Her warm appreciation of the boy’s genius and work, was proof of her own critical taste.

As I have thus complied with the request you have made, pleasant echoes of those young and happy years have been falling upon my ear. A stern world may, with justice, find fault with the later life of the poet; and his biographer may regret the frailties and the sorrows he has to record; but my reminiscences are only the boyish memories of a morning hour before the shadows had arisen.




The name given as “Clark” was Joseph H. Clarke, Poe’s schoolmaster.

The lines quoted as an epitaph are from Horace, the second part of the “Hymn to Apollo,” Carmen, 4.6.9-12. It may be translated as:

He, even as a pine tree struck by biting steel

Or a cypress thrown to the ground by the east wind,

Fell forward full length and stretched out the neck in

Trojan dust

Here, Horace refers to the death of Achilles at the hands of Apollo, in the guise of Paris.


[S:1 - EAPMV, 1877] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Edgar Allan Poe: A Memorial Volume [Some Reminiscences] (J. T. L. Preston, 1877)