Text: Hervey Allen, “Chapter 06,” Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe (1926), volume 1, pp. 90-109


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[page 90, unnumbered:]

 

CHAPTER VI
Israfel Meets Helen

 

THE voyage from England to America was made in thirty-six days, a fairly average passage for the time. Mr. Allan and his family arrived in New York on July 21, 1820, accompanied by young James Galt, then about twenty years old, who came to Richmond apparently at the behest of his wealthy uncle there.(129)

Ships and the sea, which always have a fascination for boys of an adventurous turn, — and by this time Edgar was certainly that, — exercised a peculiar charm for young Poe if one can judge anything from his later stories, so many of which have their scenes laid in a maritime setting. Along with young Galt he would not have failed to take delight in the always-to-a-landsman novel incidents of a transatlantic voyage, and to have become somewhat familiar with the picturesque setting and life of the jack-tar on the sailing ships of the age. Nor could the busy life of the London and New York docks and water-fronts have been lacking in an appeal to his imagination.

A port of the early twenties of the nineteenth century, filled with the square-riggers, barks, Indiamen, Blackwall frigates, and men-of-war of the time, presented a romantic aspect even to contemporary eyes. Gleaming sails, black and yellow hulls careening to the wind, and painted with white stripes along the rows of square grinning port-holes, flashing brasses, bells and cannon, and the chanteys of sailors as the capstan clanked and the anchors walked home to the catheads, — would not have been waste material upon the retina of Edgar Poe even when only twelve years of age. A great full-rigged ship under all sail, with a “bone-in-her-teeth,” graceful gilded figure-head and fluted [page 91:] stern galleries, home from the Indies with all her national bunting and house-flags flying, was a good thing for a young poet to see, something which has unfortunately perished from the earth.

Poe’s sea stories, even the most fanciful, such as The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, exhibit a familiarity with nautical ways and terms which much actual experience at sea was the cause of supplying. Two transatlantic voyages before the age of manhood, and a life spent about the docks, and in seaports, was an unusual and valuable experience for one of the coming figures in American literature. In his voyages upon army transports from Boston to Charleston, and upon his return thence to Hampton Roads, Poe was at a later time to renew his direct acquaintance with the ocean for a considerable time.(130) The magic sights and sounds of the sea have been caught up into lines of his prose and poetry, notably in Annabel Lee and The City in the Sea. One can hardly quote even the titles without making the fact self-evident. In this, Poe has carried on one of the great traditions of English verse, the sea influence, and, that he was able to do so, is largely the happy result of experience rather than a literary tour de force.

The letters of Mr. Allan’s partner, Charles Ellis, written from the new offices of the firm on 15th Street opposite the Bell Tavern (whither they had moved in September, 1817) to his wife, then in the mountains, afford an unusually intimate glimpse into the events upon the return of the Allans and young Poe to Richmond, and of the kind of a world with which young Israfel was about to renew a long broken tie.

It was a hot, fever-ridden community to which they were returning, with customs quite different than those current at Russell Square or Stoke Newington.

Mr. Hughes of the house of Hughes & Armistead stabbed a Mr. Randolph son of Wm. Randolph of Cumberland the other night, at the time it was thought to be mortal, as the dirk punctuated the left side just above the hip to a considerable depth, but Dr. Nelson who attended him, tells me no unfavorable symptoms exist now. Mr. H. is out of town & perhaps will not return. . . . [page 92:]

Of the slaves working about the docks and ships in the sweltering summer weather, Mr. Ellis remarks June 27, 1820, shortly before the Allans returned:

. . . The Richmond gang look as if they would rather be at home, but all goes on very well except the elopement of that troublesome fellow Nelson who went off last Wednesday and has not been heard of since. He is one of the best hands for work I ever saw, but he vexes me exceedingly when he goes off, especially in busy times, little Bill goes about and does some light work, but still complains a good deal, Africas feet is nearly well and indeed I hear no complaining among any of the People except Caty’s child, it is very poor. She says it is very sick. It has no fever nor complaint of the bowels. I fear it is neglected, I have sent it some chicken every day sence I have been up. . . .

So the days had been going on in the little town along the James to which the young Poe was returning to spend the rest of his boyhood and to become familiar with the life of a plantation founded community. On July 3rd Mr. Ellis writes his wife:

. . . Mr. and Mrs. Allan are at last arrived in New York, and as soon as they get on, and settle down a little I shall leave them the bag to hold, and flee to the mountains. . . . Mr. Allan would set out from New York last Friday via Norfolk and I suppose will be here on Friday or Saturday. Mrs. Allan was rather unwell & was resting. The rest was hearty, don’t give yourself any uneasiness about my health. . . . The inhalation of the exhilirating nitric acid gas in this place has gained some amusement among the curious and idle, I have not seen or felt the effects.

The city is healthy, except for children teething, and many of them suffer greatly. . . .

CHARLES

The Allans with Miss Valentine and Edgar arrived at Richmond, after a voyage down the coast to Norfolk, on August 2nd, and went to stay at the house of Mr. Ellis as this letter shows.(131)

Richmond, August 7th, 1820

Your letter of the 4th inst. by last nights mail affords me great pleasure, and that of Mr. and Mrs. Allan who are at our home receiving the [page 93:] congratulations of their friends. MrsAllan could she be as even tempered and as accommodating as she has been sence her return, she would make the path through life much more even to herself. . . . I find Mr. Allan can’t do much yet, it will take some time to obtain a knowledge of our affairs & he is engaged in seeing his old friends. Mr. and Mrs. Allan will continue at our home, they are all well but complain of the warm weather. . . .

On August 8th Robert S. Ellis writes to congratulate Mr. and Mrs. Allan upon their safe return, and on August 14th from Charles Ellis, in another letter to his wife, we learn that:

Our friends Mr. and Mrs. Allan, Nancy, and Edgar are very well & you would be surprised to see what health and color Mrs. A. has. They are quite well and satisfied at our house & make out pretty well altho not as well as you would do. They are a little Englishised but it will soon wear off. They talk of going to Stanton. . . .

Edgar Poe remained for the entire Summer at the Ellis house. “Nancy and Edgar stay well,” says John Allan in September. He was now “holding the bag” in good earnest, and not very much in it — and goes on to gossip about cleaning up the old garden across the street, about an old slave who could work no more as her hip “seemed to be dislocated “. . . and prices current on tobacco. The old house on Tobacco Alley and 14th Street was still rented. Mr. Allan set about looking up a new house and secured one fronting West on Clay Street beyond old St. James Church. Nearby lived Dr. Ambler and Bishop Moore “right across on the corner from Clay Street.” It was probably now that Edgar first took to swimming in Shockoe Creek with young Ambler, and to wandering about again with Ebenezer Burling, whose father Thomas printed the Journal of the State Senate. “Aunt” Nancy Valentine was ‘a pleasant companion with a broad humorous face, good for a ramble with the boy out to the Hermitage, or for a game of chess with him when “Ma” was ill, or on rainy days sat sewing by her mahogany work stand. “Pa” was no longer so pleasant as in times past, even more stern than before. A great many things financial and domestic preyed upon his mind. Edgar began more and more to step over to the Mackenzies to see “Rose” and to play with Jack, to stay [page 94:] at Burling’s over night or with the Ellises. England seemed a dream, a new life had begun. Somehow he was already quite lonely and beginning to wonder about it all. Not long afterward he began to write poetry.

Richmond in the 1820’s was a good place for a boy to live in. The meadows, streams, swamps, and forests around about were beautiful, and the valley of the James from Church Hill and the Bluffs, with the yellow river winding away into the distance, or dashing among the wooded islands at the Falls, would present to European eyes, perhaps, a magnificent spectacle, for it is at least five times as large as the Marne and several times greater than the Thames, — like the rest of America upon a continental scale.

The little capital of Virginia had, at that time, a population of about twelve thousand souls. The porches of its pillared churches and political ‘buildings looked down, with a semi-classic stare from its hills, over Georgian houses set amid spacious gardens and green lawns. At its foot ran the key-like flanges of docks, and the black warehouses edged with a tangled fringe of masts, sails, and flags; while around the curve of Penitentiary Hill came gliding the canal boats drawn by tinkling bell-hung mules. Boys swam in the river and creeks; over the fields sounded the plantation bells, or the sonorous roar of the conch-bugle calling the slaves from the fields; the tobacco waved, — and the fortunes of the planters grew.

No community in America had retained more of its prerevolutionary traditions than tide-water Virginia. It was the home of an aristocracy born in the great houses of gentlemen, surrounded by servants and family portraits, the life of a flourishing colony projected forward into another time.

Upon Poe’s return to Richmond in 1820, save for the domestic chimneys, there could scarcely have been a smoke stack in the place.(132) Planters rode about the streets on blooded horses; the carriages of the local gentry whirled by with black coachman and footman; the governor, if he was so minded, and he often was, kept at least a provincial court; the legislature met, and great lawyers argued at the bar. There was a brilliant round of [page 95:] social activities in which the Allans were soon to take their part, an intense local pride, a taste for the arts, and a respect for tradition and inherited rank. In all this, the young Edgar Poe moved and breathed, and had the roots of his being.

Immediately across from Mr. Ellis’ house at Second and Franklin Streets there was then, and for many years later, a beautiful landscaped garden filled with lindens and the scent of winter-blooming roses. Amid its walls and nooks took place many of the incidents of one of the great romances of the poet’s life, and it still flourishes in the lines which have fixed some of its scenes permanently upon the memories of men. But of that hereafter.(133)

The family did not remain very long with Mr. Ellis, but moved in the Autumn of 1820 into their new home,(134) where Edgar must have renewed with peculiar intensity many of the scenes of his earliest recollections, and greeted with mutual curiosity the now budding young ladies and gentlemen with whom he had played as a child.

One of these was Ebenezer Burling whom Poe had met at the Memorial Church. He resided with his widowed mother at a house in Bank Street, and seems to have played a not unimportant rôle in some of the major incidents of the poet’s youth.(135) With Burling, Poe read Robinson Crusoe and the boys then had a boat on the James which seems to have been the genesis of the little pleasure yacht mentioned at the beginning of Arthur Gordon Pym. Burling, it is said, had previously taught Poe to swim.(136) In 1836 Poe wrote the Southern Literary Messenger, harking back to old “Robinson Crusoe days”:

How fondly do we recur in memory to those enchanted days of our boyhood when we first learned to grow serious over Robinson Crusoe! — when we first found the spirit of wild adventure enkindling within us, as by the dim firelight we labored out, line by line, the marvelous import of those pages, and hung breathless and trembling with eagerness [page 96:] over their absorbing — over their enchanting interest. Alas! the days of desolate islands are no more.

At any rate, the boys had many a lark together in “Richmond City” and the country about. A Mrs. C. E. Richardson afterward kept a tavern in Richmond which at one time sheltered Poe in a day of adversity, and Ebenezer, it is said, developed the drink habit early, which may have had some influence upon Poe in company with him there, but that was later on.(137) This Ebenezer Burling, or Berling, as it is sometimes spelled, was not a schoolmate of Poe but attended the school of one William Burns, a Scotch gentleman, who boarded at Parson Blair’s house.(138)

If by some magic we could return to Richmond, Virginia, in the late Autumn of the early twenties after the harvest had been gathered, we might come across Edgar Allan Poe, a well-knit, broad-browed, curly-headed lad with astonishing long-lashed, deep grey eyes, seated with his best chums Jack Mackenzie, Rob Sully, little Bobby Stanard, and Robert Cabell upon a rail fence like so many crows, each munching a tender juicy turnip, or a raw sweet potato with a little salt on it, which, as many a Southern boy knows, is not half bad. On Saturdays there were fish-fries by the river and tramps through the luxuriant Virginia woods above the James after wild grapes and chinquepins.

Edgar was well to the forefront in all of this. Much of the delicate timidity of his baby days had been, superficially at least, cast off. The playgrounds of the schools at Irvine and Stoke Newington had made him an able runner and jumper,(139) and had given him the English schoolboy’s technique and readiness in fisticuffs which must have compelled the respect of his companions and have enabled him to indulge to the full a merry propensity for practical jokes. At one time he appeared as a ghost in the middle of a late card party in Richmond at which General Winfield Scott was present. It is worthy of note that Jack Mackenzie, the foster-brother of Rosalie, who knew him [page 97:] extremely well, and saw him often in his own house where Rosalie Poe had been given refuge and tender care, remarked of him, “I never saw in him as boy or man a sign of morbidness or melancholy, unless it was when Mrs. Stanard (“Helen”) died, when he appeared for some time grieving and oppressed. Aside from this, cards, raids on orchards and turnip patches, swimming in Shockoe Creek, and juvenile masquerades seem to have been the normal order of life.(140)

That there was another side, though, is abundantly evident from other accounts. The truth is, that even at this early date, Edgar Allan Poe began to develop that strange diversity, and the contradictory sides to his personality that have so puzzled and will long continue to intrigue the world. That he was a merry” companion in minor ways, many of his little friends have left their testimony. But that he was also a lonely and sometimes a morbid little boy, already torn and troubled by the riddles of existence, the demands of an esthetic nature for the unattainable, and satisfactions not to be found in the objective life of his companions, is equally certain. We hear of long lonesome tramps, of attempts at juvenile self-expression with both the pen and brush, which only secrecy could save from the inevitable ridicule of boyhood and the ponderous misunderstanding of adults. He was much given to day-dreams and reveries, and to the plucking of flowers and the reading of books. Where the University of Richmond now stands was once a meadow where the young Israfel culled violets. These, with other “feminine” characteristics, must inevitably have relegated him to a world apart from men and little boys. It was the world of vision and of dear-bought dreams.

Considerable mention is made of Poe’s enthusiasm for drawing, and there remains at least one drawing of his own hand, around which cluster the tenderest and saddest of memories. Poe seems always to have visualized with a keen eye for shadow and color, and with sufficient vividness to make him desire to reproduce his impressions. In this propensity he doubtless met [page 98:] some sympathy at the hands of young Robert Sully(141) who came of a family of artists, and became a creditable one himself in after life. From Sully one gets a softer and more endearing picture. Young Sully was somewhat delicate, and so sensitive and irritable that few of his companions could remain on good terms with him for long periods. In view of this, the little glimpse he gives us of Poe is doubly interesting. “I was a dull boy at school,” Sully says, “and Edgar when he knew that I had an unusually hard lesson would help me with it. He would never allow the big boys to tease me, and was kind to me in every way. I used to admire and envy him, he was so bright, clever and handsome. He lived not far from me, just around the corner, and one Saturday he came running up to our house, calling out, ‘ Come along, Rob! We are going to the ‘ Hermitage Woods ‘ for chinquepins, and you must come, too. Uncle Billy is going for a load of pine-needles, and we can ride in his wagon.’” In the shadow that soon falls over the life of this child of misfortune, the picture of the “bright” young Edgar and his little friend Rob rattling off with their childish arms around each other in Uncle Billy’s old wagon, is like a gleam of sunlight across a somber landscape. In the future it was not often the clouds parted, even for so brief a glimpse as this. No wonder that later he was to look back upon these halycon days in Richmond as a Utopia of memory in which to take refuge from a cruel world.

That the friendship with the Sullys was a close one is shown by the fact that Robert’s uncle, Thomas Sully, the well-known American artist, some time later made a miniature portrait of the young Poe, then at the beginning of his fame, in the attitude of one of the portraits of Byron.(142)

Immediately upon his returning to Richmond John Allan placed his foster-son in the English and Classical School of one Joseph H. Clarke, of Trinity College, Dublin, who has been described as a fiery, pompous, and pedantic Irishman, making his living by assuming the rôle of perceptor to the sons of the more [page 99:] fashionable families of Richmond.(148) Like most Irishmen, however, indications are not lacking that he possessed a softer and more genial side.

The curriculum was that of the old fashioned preparatory school of the day, a continuation of the Latin, French, and primary mathematics of the English Schools which Poe had already attended. In America, perhaps, there was even then some attempt at actually teaching the spoken language, and of reading some of its more classic literature, Johnson, Addison, Goldsmith or Pope. That Edgar was well advanced in Latin for a boy of his years, and that the cost of his education was not unduly heavy, this interesting receipt found among his foster-father’s papers will testify:

 

 

  Mr. JOHN ALLAN, Dr.    
  To present quarter’s tuition of    
Master Poe from June 11th to Sept 11 – 1822 . . .       $12.50  
  1. Horace 3 50, Cicero de Off. 62 1/2 . . . . . .       4.12 1/2
  1. Copy book, paper Pen & Ink . . . . . . . . . .            .87 1/2
       $17.50  
Rec’d pay  
JOS. H. CLARKE(143)

 

 

On another bill dated March 11, 1822 there is a charge of $1 for a “Portion of Fuel.”(148) No further text books are mentioned.

At this rate young Edgar’s schooling could not have cost much over $60.00 a year. Even this, however, is paid in installments during 1822, which jibes with the accounts of Mr. Allan’s financial embarrassment at the time.(143)

Mr. Allan’s English ventures had not been successful, and had displeased both his partner, Charles Ellis, and his uncle, William Galt, upon the backing of whose fortune in the final analysis, rested the credit of the firm. Mr. Allan, was at one time forced to a personal assignment to his creditors, but, by a special arrangement, was left in actual possession of his various [page 100:] properties.(144) The record of mortgages upon the family real estate immediately prior to the year 1823, show that, to say the least, Edgar’s guardian must have been forced to live with considerable prudence and an eye to the pennies.(144) This in conjunction with the legends as to the early pampering of Edgar by “a princely merchant” and the possible result of the effect of business worries upon John Allan’s none too affable temper, may have a direct bearing upon the early life of Poe. There must have been times when the atmosphere of the family circle, despite the gentle presence of Frances Allan and the gaiety of Anne Valentine, reeked with Scotch gloom.

During these periods of gloom and family friction, Edgar would spend the night at Burling’s house which met with strong disapproval from Mr. Allan.

As to what went on in the garret of the house on the corner of Clay and Fifth Streets, it is not hard to hazard a fairly accurate guess. There can be no doubt that it was very early Edgar Allan Poe’s ambition to be a poet.(145) Some of his schoolmates in Richmond early noted in him a certain aloofness, and a tendency to withdraw to his room and shut himself up to scribble verses. That the desire for creative writing was so strong upon a lad of fourteen or fifteen that he would leave the games and pastimes of his schoolfellows to go alone to his room and write verses is something of major importance in the story of his life.

Poetry, in the frankly objective civilization of the United States, which has largely given itself over to the conquest of a continent and a preoccupation with things for their own sake, is a lonely, and in all save its last honorable stages, a discounted art. The physical form in which it congeals is expensive to produce, requires the cooperation of others, is silent in itself, and has almost no marketable value. Hence, the young person who chooses the art of poetry in which to embody the forms and [page 101:] enginery of his imagination, is suspected to be doing nothing at all, or to be a little mad. In any case, his interruption upon any pretext whatsoever is thought of as being of no importance whatever. The inevitable and unhealthy conclusion is therefore forced upon such a one by the entire world that he is a being set apart. That his art may be part and parcel of his surroundings and of vital importance to his neighbors, is usually a posthumous discovery. To write poetry he must dream with an intensity that transcends reality; to focus his dreams he requires uninterrupted leisure; and to find this he must hide himself. The result is only too often the feeling of a hunted thing, a sense of remoteness from the life about, and a nervous system jangled by the million interruptions of family ‘and economic life. Above all there is no one to whom he may go to learn his art; or if there is, the result is usually fatal. It is essential, then, that any great poet should begin young, or by the time he has mastered his tools he may be too old to produce. That all of this, including the nervous stress of contempt and interruptions, played its part in the experience of Poe is an almost inevitable conclusion.

It is pertinent to note, therefore, that like Keats and Shelley, Poe began to write very early. Some of the contents of his first book, he claims to have composed at the age of fourteen; nor is this at variance with what we know of his rather precocious development which James Galt noticed even in the conversation of the little boy at Irvine. That he was encouraged at home by Frances Allan, both tradition and the knowledge of his foster-mother’s character seem to definitely indicate. Even John Allan is said to have taken a secret pride in the boy’s effusions and to have read them upon occasions to the amusement of his friends, who pronounced them “trash.”(146) At any rate, sometime toward the end of Edgar’s attendance upon Master Clarke, John Allan is known to have shown the Irish schoolmaster a whole manuscript of collected verses by his youthful ward.(147)

These do not seem to have been simply the occasional doggerel which all sentimental young fellows at some time during their [page 102:] life write to the eyebrows of their calf-loves, but a whole “volume” of verses to an entire townful of young ladies. The object cannot have been to make all the girls love him at once, such Mormon propensities in an adolescent boy would, indeed, have been alarming. Even at the risk of rating the attraction of the ladies to be secondary, it looks very much as if the primary interest of the young poet must have been in the poems themselves. These must have been completed before Edgar was fifteen, as old Master Clarke, the schoolmaster, said that Mr. Allan showed them to him with a view of getting his judgment upon the wisdom of their publication, before the Fall of 1823 when that worthy Irishman retired from the headship of the Academy, vice Master Burke. As to what his comments were, we can guess. It has since been claimed that some of these early verses were those printed in Baltimore in 1823, signed “Edgar,” but since the verses themselves show no literary evidence to warrant the assumption, the “fact” can be dismissed.

More amorous verses, however, continued to drip from the enamoured pen of the young author, if the statements of several Richmond ladies are to be relied on. These particular ones about 1823 or 1824 seem to have been addressed largely to the belles of a fashionable boarding school kept by Miss Jane Mackenzie, the sister of the Mrs. William Mackenzie who had taken Rosalie into her home. “She was,” says a lady biographer,(148) “tall and stately, prim and precise, and was attired generally in black silk and elaborate cap and frizette, a very lady-prioress sort of person. . . . When Edgar was about fifteen or sixteen he began to make trouble for Miss Jane.”

This “trouble” took the form of clandestine correspondence with the fair virgins immured behind the walls of Miss Jane. The missives were, it appears, supplemented by candy and offerings of “original poetry.” It was Edgar’s habit to make pencil sketches of the girls who had most smitten his fancy, and to request these favored maidens to attach locks of their hair to the cards. Little sister, Rosalie, who is described at this time, as a “pretty child with blue eyes, rosy cheeks, and of a sweet disposition,” [page 103:] was the postman for Eros until the indignation of Miss Jane and the slipper of Mrs. Mackenzie rudely discouraged the messenger of romance.

Rosalie appears to have been very fond of her brother, whom she saw frequently at church and as a constant visitor at the Mackenzies, the home of one of Edgar’s closest chums, young Jack. She followed the two boys about after school, and romped with them whenever she could. Later on this propensity to follow Edgar was to become embarrassing, due largely to an unfortunate development, or rather lack of development, which came over the girl when she was about twelve years old. Up to that age she seems to have developed in a healthy and usual way, but from then on she ceased to function as a normal human being. Probably due to a defective heredity, the sister of Edgar Allan Poe, while apparently healthy physically, retained the mentality of an adolescent. To the extent that Edgar was plus, Rosalie was minus. Viewed in the cold light of modern psychology, there can ‘be little doubt that they were both abnormal types. Poe was a genius; Rosalie was a moron.

The recollections of this period of Poe’s youth, both apocryphal and genuine, are many and various. Even some of those which are well authenticated, however, are not all pertinent to his development, and for the most part assume the nature of irrelevant small-talk and gossip. But a few of the memories of Col. Thomas H. Ellis, the son of Charles Ellis, who was on peculiar terms of intimacy with both Poe and the Allans are worth recording.(149)

Among other things about Poe, he says that “He was very beautiful, yet brave and manly for one so young. No boy ever had a greater influence over me than he had. He was indeed a leader among his playmates.” Tom Ellis remembered that one day Edgar Poe took him off into the fields and woods near Belvedere, an estate that then belonged to Judge Bushrod Washington, and kept the little fellow there all day, while he shot a lot of the good judge’s domestic fowls. For this Mr. Allan gave his “son” a good whipping when he returned late that evening. Poe also [page 104:] taught Tom how to shoot, swim, and play bandy, and once “rescued” the little chap from drowning after throwing him into the river ‘at the Falls in order to teach him to swim. Edgar also chased Tom’s little sister Jane into hysterics with a toy snake which caused considerable family difficulties. The Allans it seems, significantly enough, would have liked to adopt this little girl as their daughter, and showered the family of the “senior partner” with the “largest Christmas and birthday gifts which they received.” Colonel Ellis recalled Poe’s having taken first prize in elocution when he competed with Channing Moore, Gary Wickham, Andrew Johnston, Nat Howard and others. “He was trained in all the habits of the most polished society. There was not a brighter, more graceful, or more attractive boy in the city than Edgar Allan Poe.” Of the social affairs in the Allan household about this time, however, we get a somewhat different picture from young Jack Mackenzie.

That young gentleman, it appears, could not abide the ordeal of a meal at the Allans. “Mr. Allan was a good man in his way,” he said, “but Edgar was not fond of him. He was sharp and exacting, and with his long, hooked nose, and small keen eyes looking from under his shaggy eyebrows, he always reminded me of a hawk. I know that often when angry with Edgar he would threaten to turn him adrift, and that he never allowed him to lose sight of his dependence on his charity.” The Allans, who were fond of giving teas and “sociables,” required Edgar to be present, usually with one or two boy friends, and occasionally he was given a party of his own when both boys and girls were invited. On such occasions, despite the charm of Mrs. Allan and the good fun of “Aunt Nancy” Valentine, a rigid etiquette reigned, and Mr. Allan used these occasions quite obviously to cultivate in Edgar the stilted manners which the code of the time prescribed, a type of social behavior more consonant with the inclinations and training of Mr. Allan, than that of higher Virginia society.

Formalities, important as Mr. Allan may have thought them to be, could not have troubled Edgar very much at this time. He seems to have led a double life of dreaming and verse making [page 105:] on the one hand, and a thoroughly harum-scarum existence on the other. He was fond of stealing off with three of four cronies to swim in the James near Rocketts or the pool below the Falls, where he met, and apparently enjoyed, the society of the young toughs of that neighborhood known to all boys of Richmond as “Butcher Cats.” When the water was low, they would wade over the rocky bed of the James to the far bank and set fish-traps along the shores of its willow-islands. Here Edgar with Burling and others led a more or less “Huck Finn”-“Tom Sawyer” kind of existence during the summers, and developed a wholesome, and, for a boy of his years, an unusual physique in muscle at least. On the James, indeed, occurred the “great” feat of his boyhood, when he more than satisfied the Byronic tradition. Poe himself was proud of his athletic accomplishment, and as late as May, 1835, wrote to Mr. White the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger about some mention of the incident which was remembered for years in Richmond:

The writer seems to compare my swim with that of Lord Bryon, whereas there can be no comparison between them. Any swimmer ‘in the falls’ in my days, would have swum the Hellespont, and thought nothing of the matter. I swam from Ludlow’s wharf to Warwick (six miles), in a hot June sun, against one of the strongest tides ever known in the river. It would have been a feat comparatively easy to swim twenty miles in still water. I would not think much of attempting to swim the British channel from Dover to Calais.(150)

Edgar was evidently considerable of a hero. Quite a little crowd gathered to see him start. Master Burke, the schoolmaster, followed in a boat; with Robert Cabell, little Robert Stanard, and some others trying to keep abreast of them along the banks. Poe succeeded in reaching his goal and walked home afterwards apparently none the worse for wear, and in triumph. Such, however, was not the experience of little Rob Stanard who returned home very late, covered with mud and soaked. His excuse to his father, Judge Robert Stanard, was that “he had been walking [page 106:] down the river bank watching Edgar Poe swim to Warwick.”(151) As to what followed immediately history is silent. Yet the acquaintance of these two lads was important. Out of it sprang the first great emotional experience of Edgar Poe’s life, and one of the supreme lyrical utterances of romantic poetry.

The tie which often exists thus between an older and a younger playmate, is one of the dearest and most serene of human associations. It is not a complicated one, and there are no selfish motives in it. The recognition and protection of the older boy, whose superior mental and physical development give him an almost magic superiority, the recognition of which is delightful, is returned whole-heartedly by the younger partner in the form of undisguised admiration, trust, and affection, to which only the term, “hero worship,” can apply. Between Edgar Poe and Rob Stanard such a friendship seems to have existed. It is probable that Poe found in the high bred delicacy and sensitive nature of the younger boy, for such from many accounts he appears to have been, a refuge from the more boisterous and insensate natures about him. What more natural then, than that little Rob should take his hero Edgar home and exhibit him proudly to the family, who had doubtless been regaled with accounts of his charm, prowess, and virtues. It is the essence of a hero that he has no faults.

So it came about, one important day for poetry, that Rob Stanard took Eddie Poe home to show him his pet rabbits and pigeons. After these were duly, and no doubt satisfactorily admired, for Edgar was always very fond of pets, considering that animals were in many respects superior to men, young Bob probably invited him into the house to meet his mother, Mrs. Jane Stith Stanard. One can imagine the two quaintly dressed boys entering the old house together to meet “mother,” That meeting was to be the awakening encounter and emotional inspiration of his manhood.

Mrs. Stanard was in one of the front rooms standing by a window niche. The light falling upon her, caught in her dark [page 107:] ringlets crossed by a white snood, glowed in the classic folds of her gown, and flowed about her slenderly graceful figure. Her face, the lineaments of which were turned toward Poe, was tinted by the gold of leaf-filtered sunshine. To the astonished boy her very being and body seemed to radiate light.(152) “This is Edgar Poe, mother,” said little Robert. “This is ‘Helen,’ Edgar,” said a voice in the boy’s soul, “in her behold the comfort of great beauty.” On the bewildered ears of the young poet fell the sweet voice of Mrs. Stanard thanking him for his kindness to her little son and bidding him welcome with gracious words to her house.

Poe went home in a dream from which he never fully aroused himself.(153) In Mrs. Stanard he had found the chivalrous ideal of a young boy’s first idolatry and the material comfort of sympathy and appreciation, for it is probable that to Mrs. Stanard he read his verses, and received from her both helpful criticism and wise encouragement. What she meant to him, only an aspiring young poet, left an orphan, and a worshiper of beauty could know. That there were many visits to her house during the course of several years, and not one only, as has been so often stated, is certain.

Judge Robert Stanard’s house, where Poe’s “Helen,” and his little friend Robert lived, is still standing. It is on Ninth Street facing Capital [[Capitol]] Square in Richmond, and in the days of Poe’s boyhood had a portico and marble stoop with brass rails in front. Its garden, which was a beautiful one, occupied almost the entire square. Here in the midst of fragrant Southern bloom and. the sudden wings of little Rob’s pigeons, Edgar must often have sat in some quiet nook with Rob and his mother, read his poems, and listened to the words of encouragement which fell with a double [page 108:] value from such beautiful lips. There are many recollections in the Stanard family of young Poe’s intimacy with all the inmates of the house, and the sweet tie of sympathy existing between Mrs. Stanard and the handsome young lad was remarked by all. John C. Stanard, a nephew of Robert’s father, remembers coming to the house one day and knocking for some time without any response. He finally heard steps as if someone inside were trying to make as little noise as possible. Then the door was opened by little Robert Stanard and Edgar Poe, both of whom looked embarrassed. He found that the family was out, and that the servants had taken advantage of their absence to go out, too. The two boys had been playing a forbidden game of cards, and after his knock were hiding the pack before they let him in. In the face of such testimony it is idle to say that Poe met “Helen” only once.(151)

Both Mrs. Stanard and Edgar Poe were types of those supersensitive natures whose higher inner processes take place in that holy land of sensibility, the western border of which so often marches with the kingdom of insanity. Both of them were to trespass over this boundary in the dark caravan of melancholy, Edgar for occasional sojourns, but “Helen” to be lost permanently amid the strange gleams and shadows of that realm only a few years later. Between these kindred there had arisen an instinctive and instant bond of sympathy. For an instant before they passed into the night, their fingers touched, and Edgar for once was completely happy in another’s presence.

I have been happy, tho’ but in a dream.

I have been happy and I love the theme,

Wrote Poe three or four years later in his first book.

Thus to have found this first real love and the maternal tenderness, which filled the greatest need in his life, combined in a single person was a piece of psychic good fortune of momentous import to Poe. What was said in their conversations is too long in the past to know, probably nothing of great verbal import. These talks, however, seem to have marked those periods, when for a few instants the clock ticked off a few moments [page 109:] when Edgar Allan Poe found himself completely at home in this world.

They were interrupted by the advance across the dial of the shadow which was to completely envelope “Helen” and to wrap her from the sight of Edgar. Mrs. Stanard was going insane. In April, 1824, she died at the age of thirty-one. Azrael had scored two in what was to be an increasingly intimate association with Israfel. Jane Stith Stanard was buried in Shockoe Cemetery where she now lies with the other members of her family, among whom is “little Bob.” A pall of violets, those “myriad types of the human eye” have filled the little inclosure with eternal spring.(154)

There is an immortal story that Poe haunted the spot. He said that he did, in a confession to another Helen years later, and tradition seems to confirm the tale. That his great grief was noted even by his companions, is a matter of record. Undoubtedly behind the little gate rests the most ideal love of the man’s soul. There is another inscription upon the stone, but for posterity there is only one epitaph —

TO HELEN

Helen, thy beauty is to me

Like those Nicean barks of yore,

That gently, o’er a perfumed sea

The weary, wayworn wanderer bore

To his own native shore.

 

On desperate seas long wont to roam,

Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,

Thy Naiad airs have brought me home

To the glory that was Greece,

And the grandeur that was Rome.

 

Lo! in yon brilliant window-niche,

How statue-like I see thee stand,

The agate lamp within thy hand!

Ah! Psyche, from the regions which

Are Holy Land!

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 90:]

129.  Woodberry, 1909, vol. i, page 24.

“Galt” — J. H. Whitty, large edition, Appendix, page 206.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 91:]

130.  See Chapter XI.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 92:]

131.  Also Woodberry, Weiss, etc.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 94:]

132.  Many old prints of Richmond show this delightful condition.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 95:]

133.  See Chapter VIIL

134.  E. V. Valentine to the author, Richmond, July, 1925.

135.  J. H. Whitty Memoir, large edition, page XXIV.

136.  J. H. Whitty Memoir, large edition, page XXV.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 96:]

137.  J. H. Whitty Memoir, large edition, page XXIX.

138.  Information gathered from the Ingram Papers.

139.  There are several stories and authentic ones of Poe’s powers as a runner and jumper.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 97:]

140.  Mrs. Susan Archer Weiss in her Home Life of Poe, not always reliable, gives John Mackenzie’s own account of the intimacy between Poe and himself.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 98:]

141.  Nephew of the American artist, Thomas Sully.

142.  The author has certain intelligence of the existence of this portrait but is not at liberty to divulge full information owing to the conditions of the owner.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 99:]

143.  Receipts for Poe’s tuition under Master Clarke in the Ellis & Allan Papers. Photostats in possession of the author. Also see Woodberry, 1909, page 24

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 100:]

144.  Woodberry, 1909, page 27, etc., the assets of Ellis & Allan were bought in at public auction by John Allan’s uncle William Galt who in 1825 returned them by bequest. See Appendix.

145.  For the statements here, I am relying on statements in the preface to Poe’s first book in 1827, and many other indications gleaned from various sources too numerous to list.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 101:]

146.  R. H. Stoddard Memoir, page 27. Stoddard is to be taken with a grain of salt.

147.  Statement by Master Clarke.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 102:]

148.  Mrs. Susan Archer Weiss.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 103:]

149.  Harrison’s Life of Poe, pages 23, 24, 25.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 104:]

150.  Published in the Southern Literary Messenger and also quoted by Ingram. For the incident see also Harrison, Woodberry, etc.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 106:]

151.  Reminiscences of John C. Stanard furnished to the author by W. G. Stanard, President of the Virginia Historical Association, August, 1925,

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 107:]

152.  There is, of course, no precise contemporary account of the actual scene of this meeting. I am giving the descriptions from a knowledge of the house and descriptions of a portrait of Jane Stith Stanard. The poem To Helen seems to be the first hand impression of a beloved person bathed in and radiating light.

153.  Poe’s own statement to Mrs. Helen Whitman that Jane Stith Stanard was Poe’s “Helen” is attested beyond all dispute by the knowledge of the Stanard family, and a copy of the 1845 edition of Poe’s poems given to Mrs. Whitman by him. On page 91 of the first volume, the poem To Helen appears, besides the title of which is the word “Stannard” written in Poe’s own hand in pencil. Catalogue of American Artists’ Association, April 28, 1924.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 109:]

154.  The epitaphs of the Stanard family read: “Jane Stith Stanard . . . departed this life on the 28th of April, in the year 1824, in the 31st year of her age.” “Robert Stanard (husband) born 17th Aug. 1781, died 14th May, 1846.”

“Robert Craig Stanard (Poe’s playmate) born on the 7th of May, 1814 and died in Richmond on the 2nd of June, 1857.” Hence Poe was about fifteen when he first saw “Helen,” and little Rob, ten.

 


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - HVA26, 1926] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe (H. Allen) (Chapter 06)