Text: William F. Gill, “Chapter 02”, The Life of Edgar Allan Poe, New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1877, pp. 21-39


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[page 21:]

CHAPTER II.

CHILDHOOD.

1809-1826.

Birth of the Poet — Early Beauty and Fascination — Poe’s Foster Father — Precocious Predilection for the Muses — At School in England — Stoke Newington and Rev. Dr. Bransby — At School in Richmond — First Ideal Love — Death of Helen Stannard — First Volume of Juvenile Poems — At the University of Virginia — Testimony of the Faculty of the University — Morbid and Sensitive Temperament — Athletic Achievements.

EDGAR ALLAN POE was born in Boston, on the 19th of January, 1809.

Born to privation, marked before his birth with the brand of his father’s vice, the orphan of two years seemed called upon to face an abject future. But a glamour of sunshine, at least, was destined to illume his path. It was but a glamour, a glamour that proved in the end but as a winding-sheet to the hopes of our poet. The extraordinary beauty and captivating manners of Edgar unfortunately won the attention of a gentleman residing in Richmond, Mr. John Allan, a man of wealth and position. We use [page 22:] the word “unfortunately,” advisedly, since the imaginative child must have received, among the first impressions of his new home, the idea of the great inheritance to which he was to look forward, and have become at the outset surcharged with the spirit of self-willed independence, which such anticipations were calculated to create and strengthen. Mr. Allan’s income was princely, and as he had no children, there was no reserve in the admission that he designed his adopted son to be the inheritor of his fortune.

These were the poet’s halcyon days; and even at this early time he evinced his predilection for the muses. Mr. Stoddard tells us that he was remarkable for a tenacious memory and a musical ear, and that he was accustomed to declaim the finest passages of English poetry to the evening visitors at Mr. Allan’s house, with great effect. The most insensible of his audience could not fail to be struck with the justness of his emphasis, and his evident appreciation of the poems he recited, while every heart was won by the ingenuous simplicity and agreeable manners of the precocious elocutionist.

Friends of the Allans describe Edgar in his [page 23:] childhood as a beautiful and interesting child; bright, affectionate, and generous; and, though often impetuous and wayward, never sullen nor ill-natured. His adopted parents were very proud of him. He was dressed like a prince, and indulged in every possible way. He had a pony to ride out, his own dogs to accompany it, and a groom in livery.

Mr. Allan was not, however, invariably indulgent. He was quick-tempered, and sometimes punished Edgar with great severity. Mrs. Allan, who was deeply attached to him, always took the boy’s part. He returned his foster-mother’s devotion, and, so long as she lived, their attachment was never broken, even by Mr. Allan’s threats of displeasure. Edgar, as a child, never cherished resentment on account of real or imaginary grievances. He would put his arms around his foster-father’s neck, and embrace and kiss him, immediately after being punished. He was not backward either in sentimental attachments among his juvenile playmates.

He had always some favorite goddess among his playmates, and, so long as his fancy lasted, he would overwhelm her with offerings of fruit, [page 24:] flowers, and presents purchased with his- own pocket-money, with which he was always liberally supplied. Once, while at a dinner-party, he had a narrow escape from drowning, having fallen from a catalpa-tree into a pool below. He was rescued; and then, it was ascertained that he had climbed the tree in order to be left behind by his foster-father, that he might not be torn from the society of a little girl with whom he had become smitten at the party.

A pretty trick taught the boy by Mr. Allan, to display his precocity at these parties, unquestionably deepened his pre-natal sensitiveness to the effects of liquor. This was, to drink the healths of the company in a glass of diluted wine. He would stand upon a chair, raise his glass with all the courtly ceremony of those Old Dominion days, then take a sip gracefully, and with a roguish laugh, reseat himself, amid the applause of the company.

Mr. Edward Valentine of Virginia, who knew the Allans intimately at this time, speaks of the boy’s cleverness as something remarkable. He could read, draw, and dance when but six years of age. [page 25:]

When at the White Sulphur Springs, the favorite summer resort of the south, he used to accompany Mr. Valentine’s father on long rides, seated on the saddle before or behind him, with a collection of newspapers, which he would good-naturedly read to any one whom they met. He was ready, too, for a sparring-match with the negro boys, when occasion offered, and he won many a prize for vanquishing those hard-headed black amoors.

With little or no restraint upon it, his impetuous, eager, and restless disposition led him into many mischievous pranks, for which he seldom received the reproof which he deserved.

He was not especially obedient to Mr. Allan; which is not to be wondered at, considering how he was petted and indulged by him; and, on one occasion, when punishment was threatened for disobedience, the boy met the issue with an adroitness that showed his marked precocity. After pleading with Mrs. Allan, and finding that she could not interfere, he proceeded to the garden, collected a goodly bundle of switches, and, returning to the house, silently presented them to Mr. Allan. “What are these for?” inquired [page 26:] the father. “To whip me with,” replied the little five-year-old, clasping his hands behind him, erecting his head fearlessly, and fixing his large, dark eyes upon those of his guardian. As he had shrewdly foreseen, Mr. Allan was not proof against this martyr-like courage, and the punishment was satisfactorily compromised.

Up to the age of six, Edgar had never been sent regularly to school. He had, it is true, been occasionally instructed by private teachers, but in a desultory way, and with no pretence of discipline; but in 1817, Mr. and Mrs. Allan, being obliged to pay a long visit to England, to settle an estate there, Edgar, now Edgar Allan, after his adopted father, was taken with them, and for the first time placed under the restraint of regular school discipline, at the school of the Rev. John Bransby, at Stoke-Newington.

Poe’s partly autobiographical description of this school is found in one of his matchless short stories, “William Wilson”; “How quaint an old building was this! . . . The lateral branches were innumerable — inconceivable. . . . During the five years of my residence here, I was never able to ascertain with precision, in what remote [page 27:] locality lay the little sleeping apartment assigned to myself and some eighteen or twenty other scholars. The school-room was the largest in the house — I could not help thinking, in the world. It was very long, narrow, and dismally low, with pointed Gothic windows and a ceiling of oak. In a remote and terror-inspiring angle was a square inclosure of eight or ten feet, comprising the sanctum, ‘during hours,’ of our principal, the Reverend Dr. Bransby. It was a solid structure, with massy door, sooner than open which in the absence of the ‘Dominie,’ we would all have perished by the peinie forte et dure. . . .

“Encompassed by the massy walls of this venerable academy, I passed, yet not in tedium or disgust, the years of the third lustrum of my life. The teeming brain of childhood requires no external world of incident to occupy or amuse it; and the apparent dismal monotony of a school was replete with more intense excitement than my riper youth has derived from luxury, or my full manhood from crime. Yet I must believe that my first mental development had in it much of the uncommon — even much of the outre. [page 28:] Upon mankind at large the events of very early existence rarely leave in mature age any definite impression. All is gray shadow — a weak and irregular remembrance — an indistinct regathering of feeble pleasures and phantasmagoric pains. “With me this is not so. 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, as durable as the exergues of the Carthaginian medals.”[[(c)]]

After a two years’ sojourn in England the Allans returned to Richmond, where Poe was sent to the school of Professor Joseph H. Clarke, of Trinity College, Dublin. Here he took the usual English studies, and was inducted into the classics. He had already taken Latin at Stoke-Newington, and Professor Clarke found him an apt scholar. During his five years’ course there he read most of the standard classics in Latin and Greek, and, as might have been expected, showed a strong preference for poetry, and a corresponding aversion for mathematics. He wrote poems, chivalrously inscribed to his girl playmates, and, when he was ten years of age, prepared them for the press, and handed them [page 29:] to Mr. Allan for publication. It is due to the judicious advice of Professor Clarke that the verses were not published at that time. It is, however, to be regretted that they were not printed then, that the volume might have served as an enduring monument of the poet’s remarkable literary precocity. Their publication could hardly have intensified the boy’s self-esteem, already inordinately developed by the continued indulgences of Mr. Allan.

Both Professor Clarke and the surviving schoolmates of Poe unite in speaking of him as a generous, brave, and unselfish boy. His favorites were John S. L. Preston, now colonel in the United States army, and instructor in the Virginia Military Institute, and Robert Sully, nephew of the artist, Thomas Sully. Young Sully, who afterwards became an artist of more than ordinary talent, was, as a boy, of delicate physique, and of the most refined and sensitive temperament, yet so irritable and suspicious, as to render it almost impossible for even his best friends to keep on good terms with him.

In all young Sully’s numerous boyish disputes with his fellows, Poe always championed [page 30:] him, getting many a hard blow in shielding his friend. To the day of the poet’s death there existed between these two an unbroken friendship. Mrs. Weiss truly says, that this evidence as to the character of Poe’s real disposition is one of many examples of the untruthfulness of Griswold’s characterization of him as “morose,” “choleric,” and “wholly unamiable;”a statement uncorroborated by a single person who knew the poet in his early life.

The poet’s inherited histrionic tendencies, of which we find fitful gleams, both in his life and in his works, were occasionally illustrated at this epoch of his life. He frequently masqueraded under various guises, successfully deluding his most intimate acquaintances.

Once, when asked why he did not go upon the stage, the poet replied, that he had considered the idea, and felt that he would succeed as an actor, but that the publicity and bustling life of the stage was unsuited to his tastes.

Professor Clarke removed from Richmond in 1823. His school was taken by Mr. William Burke, and, under him, the poet remained until the summer of 1825. [page 31:]

Here the embryo poet experienced what he wrote of, in the last year of his life, as “the one idolatrous and purely ideal love of his passionate boyhood.” As instancing a peculiar phase of Poe’s character, his sad, remorseful pity for the departed, which, as Mrs. Whitman writes, is everywhere a distinguishing feature in his prose and poetry, this characteristic incident, which the lady describes in her monograph on Poe, affords a striking illustration.

One day, while at the academy at Richmond, he accompanied a schoolmate to his home, where he saw for the first time Mrs. Helen Stannard, the mother of his young friend.

This lady, on entering the room, took his hand and spoke some gentle, gracious words of welcome, which so penetrated the sensitive heart of the orphan boy as to deprive him of the power of speech, and, for a time, almost of consciousness itself.

He returned home in a dream, with but one thought, one hope in life: to hear again the sweet, gracious words of welcome that had made the desolate world so beautiful to him, and filled his lonely heart with the oppression of a new joy. [page 32:]

Mrs. Stannard afterwards became the confidant of all his boyish sorrows; and hers was the one redeeming influence that saved and guided him m the earlier days of his turbulent and passionate youth.

When she died, his grief was so boundless, that for months after her decease, he made nightly visits to the cemetery where the object of his boyish idolatry lay entombed.

His predisposition to loneliness and melancholy, found a welcome outlet here; and it was on the coldest and dreariest nights, when the autumnal rains fell, and winds wailed mournfully over the graves, that he lingered longest and came away most regretfully.

His boy-love for this lady was the inspiration of many of his exquisite creations. Her image, long and tenderly cherished, suggested the three exquisite stanzas to Helen* which first appeared in one of the earlier editions of his poetry, — stanzas [page 33:] written in his youth, which James Russell Lowell says have in them a grace and symmetry of outline such as few poets ever attain, and which are valuable as displaying “what can only be expressed by the contradictory phrase of innate experience.”

“In 1822,” says Dr. Griswold, “he entered the university at Charlottesville, Virginia, where he led a very dissipated life. The manners which then prevailed there were extremely dissolute, and he was known as the wildest and most reckless student of his class; but his unusual opportunities, and the remarkable ease with which he mastered the most difficult studies, kept him all the while in the first rank for scholarship, and he would have graduated with the highest honors, had not his gambling, intemperance and other vices induced his expulsion from the university.”

This is all false from beginning to end, and is absurd, likewise, on the biographer’s own showing. If Poe was born in 1811, as Griswold states, he would at this time (1822) have been eleven years of age. Rather a precocious age, is it not, for one to whom is ascribed the rĂ´1e of a rake and a gambler? As a matter of fact, Poe [page 34:] did not enter the university until 1826, being then just seventeen years of age.

The testimony of Dr. S. Maupin, president of the University of Virginia, and of Mr. William Werten baker, the secretary, effectually refutes the mendacities of Poe’s original biographer upon this point. Mr. Wertenbaker writes, —

“Edgar A. Poe was a student of the University of Virginia during the second session, which commenced February 1, 1826, and terminated December 15 of the same year. He signed the matriculation book on the 16th of February, and remained in good standing as a student till the session closed.

“He was born on the 19th of January, 1809, being a little under seventeen when he entered the institution. He belonged to the school of ancient and modern languages, and, as I was myself a member of the latter, I can testify that he was tolerably regular in attendance, and a very successful student, having obtained distinction in it in the final examination, — the highest a student could then obtain, the present regulation in regard to degrees not having been at the time adopted. [page 35:]

“On one occasion Prof. Batterman requested his Italian class to render into English verse a portion of the lesson in Tasso, assigned for the next lecture. Mr. Poe was the only one who complied with the request. He was highly complimented by the professor for his performance. Although I had a passing acquaintance with Mr. Poe from an early period of the session, it was not till near its close that I had any social intercourse with him.

“After spending an evening together at a private house, he invited me to his room. It was a cold night in December, and his fire having gone nearly out, by the aid of some candle ends and the wreck of a table he soon rekindled it, and by its comfortable blaze I spent a very pleasant hour with him. On this occasion he spoke with regret of the amount of money he had wasted, and the debts he had contracted.

“In a biographical sketch of Mr. Poe, I have seen it stated that he was at one time expelled from the university, but that he afterwards returned and graduated with the highest honors. This is entirely a mistake. He spent but one session at the university, and at no time did he fall under [page 36:] the censure of the faculty. He was not at tliat time addicted to drinking, but had an ungovernable passion for card-playing. Mr. Poe was older than his biographer represents him. His age, I have no doubt,’ was correctly entered on the matriculation book.”

In a brief note accompanying the statement of the secretary, Mr. Wertenbaker, the president of the university, Mr. S. Maupin, writes, —

“Mr. Wertenbaker’s statement is full upon all the points specified, and is worthy of entire confidence. I may add that there is nothing in the faculty records to the prejudice of Mr. Poe.

“He appears to have been a successful student, having obtained distinctions in Latin and French at the closing examination of 1826. He never formally graduated here, no provision for conferring degrees of any kind having been made at the time he was a student here.”

In further confirmation of the correctness of Mr. Wertenbaker’s estimate of Poe at this time, the following extracts from a manuscript letter, written by a schoolmate, Mr. John Willis, of Orange County, Virginia, may be cited:

“Poe had many noble qualities, and nature had endowed him with more of genius, and a far greater diversity of talent, [page 37:] than any other whom it had been my lot to have known. He had a fine talent for drawing, and the walls of his room at college were completely covered with his crayon sketches. His disposition was rather retiring and he had few intimate associates.

. . .” I trust you will be able to collect enough to vindicate the character of Edgar Poe from every aspersion; for, whatever may have been the errors, the misfortunes or the frailties of his after-life, in the days of his youth, when first entering upon manhood, his bosom was warmed by sentiments of the most generous and noble character.

“Very respectfully yours,  
“JOHN WILLIS.”

That Poe’s morbid, sensitive temperament did not predispose him to conviviality is, indeed, evidenced in some of his partly autobiographical stories. His affectionate disposition, indeed, found little response, either from his proud yet indulgent foster father, or from his youthful playmates; and it is evident, from reading his own description of his isolation at this time, as given in “The Black Cat,” that he grew up self-ostracized from most of the usual associations with others that are common in childhood.

“From my infancy I was noted for the docility and humanity of my disposition. My tenderness of heart was even so conspicuous as to make me [page 39:] the jest of my companions. I was especially fond of animals, and was indulged by my parents with a great variety of pets. With these I spent most of my time, and never was so happy as when feeding and caressing them.

“This peculiarity grew with my growth, and in my manhood I derived from it one of my principal sources of pleasure.

“To those who have cherished an affection for a faithful and sagacious dog, I need hardly be at the trouble of explaining the nature or the intensity of the gratification thus derivable.

“There is something in the unselfish and self-sacrificing love of a brute, which goes directly to the heart of him who has had frequent occasion to test the paltry friendship and gossamer fidelity of mere man.”

Poe, however, was not a morbid recluse. In these youthful days we find him emulating the daring deeds of his Norman ancestors, in gymnastic feats, that, but for attested documentary evidence, would scarcely be credited.

He was very proud of his athletic achievements as, indeed, he had good reason to be.

“At one period he was known to leap the distance [page 39:] of twenty-one feet six inches, on a dead level, with a run of twenty yards. A most remarkable swim of his is also on record in the columns of the ‘Richmond Enquirer,’ and other Richmond papers. It took place in his fifteenth year. He swam, on a hot July day, against a three-knot tide, from Ludlam’s wharf on James River, to Warwick — a distance of seven miles and a half, — fully equal to thirty miles in still water. The impossibility of resting, even for a moment, by floating, in a task such as this, renders it Herculean, and the feat has never been equalled by any one, properly authenticated..

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 32:]

*  Helen, of the poem entitled “The Pæan,” which he subsequently re-wrote and greatly improved under the now familiar name “Lenore,” was unquestionably Helen Stannard.

 


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Notes:

In this chapter, Gill made substantial revisions on pp. 22-30.

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[S:0 - WFG, 1877] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - The Life of Edgar Allan Poe [Chapter 02] (W. F. Gill, 1877)