Text: Hervey Allen, “Chapter 09,” Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe (1926), volume 1, pp. 147-180


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[page 147, unnumbered:]

 

CHAPTER IX
Israfel in Cap and Gown

 

THOMAS JEFFERSON, that dreamer of dreams and political-romanticist, had a great vision. From his high place of Monticello in Albermarle County, Virginia, he looked down across the green slopes of the South-West Mountains and beheld

In the greenest of our valleys

By good angels tenanted,

Once a fair and stately palace

Radiant palace “rear” its head

In the monarch Thought’s dominion. . . . (208)

The valley was the little vale where the hamlet of Charlottesville nestled, and the palace was his vision of the classic courts and cloisters of the University of Virginia.

During his gigantically active intellectual life, Jefferson wrote some thirty-thousand letters, and among these, not a small proportion was devoted to the bringing about of what has in the end proved to be, perhaps, his most solid and far-reaching achievement — “The Oxford of the New World.” Through the barriers of the ignorant indifference of legislatures and the parsimony of selfish individuals, the mercurial eloquence of his restless pen penetrated with a Midas touch; public and private purse strings were loosened for his “Educational Fund,” and in the wild heart of the Alleghanies the domes and colonnades, the serpentine walls, and the five-fold terraced campus of the new University arose as if by magic.

In October, 1823, near the close of his long career, we find Jefferson writing to his friend John Adams “Against . . . tedium vitae, however, my dear friend, I am now fortunately [page 148:] mounted on a hobby, which, indeed, I mounted some thirty or forty years ago, but whose amble is still sufficient to give exercise and amusement to an octogenarian writer. This is the establishment of a University for the education of all succeeding generations of youth in this Republic.”(209) On Monday, March 7, 1825, this vision and hobby became a fact, when without ceremony or ostentation, the University of Virginia opened its doors and fifty youths matriculated, followed by sixty-six more during the first session.

The second session began February 1, 1826, when thirty-four students entered, who by the middle of the month had increased to one hundred and thirty-one. On St. Valentine’s Day the University records show that five students matriculated, and among them is the illustrious name of Poe. The exact entry, spelling and all, is as follows:

Edgar A. Poe: / 19 January, 1809 / John Allen Richmond, Va. / and the Schools of Ancient and Modern Languages.(210)

Poe’s entry is number one hundred thirty-six in a total enrolment of one hundred and seventy-seven for the entire session, which ended at Christmas, 1826.(210)

Of the parting with Frances Allan nothing is known. No mother leaves her boy at a University without realizing that she has resigned her complete control, and has committed her son to the doubtful currents of adult life. The peculiar tenderness of the tie which bound her to Edgar must have wrung both their hearts, for the future was troubled. Doubtless she saw him “settled,” and drove back over the cold February hills with a troubled heart to the disturbing situation in her own house at Richmond, which she must now face alone; nor could her knowledge of her foster-son’s impulsive and passionate temperament have left her without forebodings about the months to follow. For the first time in his life, Poe was left completely alone. He was about to be subjected [page 149:] to the difficult test of freedom, and the environment into which he had been thrown was not without decided temptations.

Jefferson’s ideas about the University were peculiar, in some respects they were the most advanced of their age, and in others they partook of that idealistic and impractical turn of mind, which, arising from a too fond estimate of human nature, has in some of its major aspects proved almost fatal to the Republic over which the soul of the philosopher yearned. It was only by the early modification of some of his pet theories that the University was saved from anarchy.

From an educational standpoint, the organization of the new school was forward looking, a radical departure from established methods, but on the whole excellent. A highly competent and learned faculty had been cajoled by the glowing letters of the “Old Man Eloquent” into lending the luster of their foreign degrees and exotic reputations to the traditionless school which needed them. In 1826 six out of the eight professors were foreign born, and were irreverently referred to by the students as “those damned foreign professors.” The faculty in Poe’s day consisted of Professors Blaettermann, Bonnycasitle, Dunglison, Emmet, Key, Lomax, Long and Tucker. Seven of these men bore the best of scholastic reputations, being for the most part Englishmen from Cambridge and Oxford, with the exception of Professor Blaettermann, who was a German of profound and pedantic classical learning. George Tucker had been persuaded to leave a career in the halls of Congress to undertake the Chair of Moral Philosophy. He was the Chairman of the Faculty, which frequently met for disciplinary sessions, and afterward distinguished himself as an economist, essayist, historian, and biographer of Jefferson.(211)

The courses were of a continental character that was probably too advanced to suit the preparatory and secondary education of the American youths who were then subjected to them, but to Poe, who had received a more ample and thorough grounding in English schools, they offered an opportunity of which he took [page 150:] advantage. A field in which, as the records prove, he distinguished himself. This field, as might be supposed, for a young poet in love with words, was that of language.

Jefferson himself, while Governor of Virginia at an earlier date, had first introduced the formal study of modern languages into America. The organization of “his” new University offered him the opportunity for further educational innovations. Among the most notable of these was the abolition of the class system in favor of a modified form of the elective system of German Universities, the introduction of an optional period of training in military drill, the establishment of workshops for practical education, somewhat along the lines of modern industrial training, the encouragement of vaccination by gratis treatment, and the permission of optional attendance at chapel. Over all of these, the reactionary pedagogues shook their doubtful heads, and none more doubtfully than George Ticknor at Harvard. Some of these departures, though philosophically sound, were too far ahead of their time and went down to defeat.(212)

Above all, of course, or it would not have been Jeffersonian, the University of Virginia was to be democratic; the students were to govern themselves as individuals, and when discipline became necessary, it was to be by the intervention of the local arm of the civil law. This item in particular, naturally enough broke down completely, scholastic anarchy and student escapades disturbed the peace of the College, Charlottesville and the plantations about, until the faculty threatened to resign in a body and obtained the authority to exert a sufficient internal control from above, and the establishment of a more efficient method of police. In the midst of this era of airy confusion and adolescent nonsense, young Poe arrived. That, in some sense, he was its victim there can be little doubt. One of his college-mates has left us an excellent picture of the times.(212) [page 151:]

To the first sessions of this admirable school poured in the Southern youth, most of them intent upon availing themselves of the advantages afforded. Among them, however, were many who had little other object than to combine enjoyment with the preparatory routine of a liberal education. Some of this class arrived with unlimited means, others with elegant equipages. One came from the Eastern Shore with a tandem of blooded horses, a servant, a fowling-piece, and a pointer or two. Some were afflicted with habits of extravagance and contempt for the toilsome acquisition of knowledge. These not only indulged in unseemly fun in the college, but invaded the little courthouse town of Charlottesville, where they were objects of admiration, with those at least who had goods to sell or horses to hire. Mr. Jefferson having assumed that these high-spirited coadjutors in the defense of our constitutional ramparts comprehended his patriotic motives, had provided no discipline for their scholastic deportment. He confided that the restraints of propriety would be sufficient to make them behave themselves as gentlemen. They certainly did behave themselves as gentlemen of the highest style. They gamed, fought duels, attended weddings for thirty miles around, and went in debt in the most liberal manner. Mr. Jefferson often invited some of the students to dine at Monticello, where they were entertained with that urbane hospitality for which he was so remarkable. The repasts inclined no doubt to the French style of cookery, which had led Patrick Henry to dose a diatribe against his doctrines with the crowning charge, “He hath abjured his native victuals!” Little is remembered of these honored entertainments except that the great statesman commended a Swiss wine of the most acid and astringent character, then regarded as a sorry substitute for the “peach and honey” of the period. . . .

The buildings first completed stood in the midst of uncultivated fields and other unattractive scenery. The county of Albemarle contained many families of the highest worth. Indeed, it had furnished many of the most eminent men in the State’s history. Mr. Jefferson, Lewis, the explorer of the Missouri, and perhaps Clark, who captured Kaskaskia from the British; the Minors, Gilmers, Carters, Carrs and others were all natives of Albemarle, but these families were scattered over a large country. The courthouse town of Charlottesville had been the place near which the prisoners captured at Saratoga had been confined. It had been the temporary seat of the Legislature during the invasion or raid by Tarleton. It had a population of several hundred, but at the period now spoken of Mr. Jefferson has recorded, as one of the religious tolerations, that there being no church in the village, each of the principal church persuasions held its services in the court house under a rotation agreed on among themselves. The families of the professors [page 152:] were too limited to furnish social facilities to the students. So far, then, from there being at or around the University a social intercourse of sufficient extent to have provided even reasonable recreation for so many young men, there was not even a public opinion strong enough to rebuke their excesses.

In this there was nothing strange. Station an army or a belligerent body in a small village, and a large element in that body will be demoralized by the ennui of idleness. The same body would find social and public enjoyment in a large city. Systematic drunkenness or persistent gaming are restrained, if not prevented entirely, by the variety of attractions and by the positive enforcement of law in every great metropolis.

The public opinion and corporate ordinances of the village were alike disregarded. The disorder and dissipation of the students were subjects of indignant censure. The few merchants and hotels found their account in this extravagance, though the reckless creation of debt led to the enactment of a statute subsequently by which such debts, when beyond the reasonable wants of a student were declared void. A party of students on a frolic were coming along the road between the village and the University when they suddenly encountered the professor of moral philosophy and political economy. Most of the party escaped; but, one, afterward a distinguished advocate, disdained concealment. “I am, said he, “K.M.M., of Tuskaloosa, Alabama — too firm to fly and far too proud to yield.” “And,” said the professor, “Mr. M. might have added, “almost too drunk to stand.” . . .

The habits of this jeunesse dorée had attracted the reprobation of the municipal authorities, and it was decided to extend the jurisdiction of the commonwealth over these elegant young outlaws. At a session of the grand jury, impaneled for the county of Albemarle, process was issued summoning some of the students to testify as to any violations of the gaming act known to them. No sooner was this summons known than every one who could have criminated his associates left the University and took refuge in a little wooded knoll a mile or so west, determined to remain until the great inquest of the county should have adjourned. The rendezvous then assumed the aspect of a gypsy camp. There was a dear running stream, huge rocks and a surrounding forest. The darkies, delighted with the excitement, ran between the camp and the village bringing supplies of food and drink and intelligence of the hostile movements. With a glass, indeed, the high road and buildings were distinctly visible. Of course, the laws which they had violated received additional infractions, as there was reckless pleasure in playing cards on a table of gneiss or granite and in employing pebbles for counting. [page 153:]

The conjoint effect of legal penalties, scholastic discipline and parental authority, however, terminated these excesses. A few of the richer and more reckless went away, the rest settled down to their legitimate duties, and in two years lie excellent faculty of the University had inaugurated the system and standard of study which gradually ripened into its present reputation for solid and universal learning.

Such, in some of its more objective lineaments, was the scholastic community in which Poe found himself. Like a great many other American Universities, then and now, the learning seems to have been available and the organization of social life nil.

Upon his first matriculating, Edgar Poe was assigned a room on the “West side of the Lawn” from which he soon afterwards removed, for what cause is not known, to room number 13 West Range, the chamber which is now known at the University of Virginia as “Poe’s Room,” being kept vacant and sacred to his memory. The story that Poe first roomed with one Miles George and soon afterwards fought with him, the quarrel being the occasion of Poe’s move, is now known to be untrue.(213) He did, it seems, have a fist fight with young George, with the usual result of a closer friendship between them, but there are no records of his ever having a roommate, and at number 13 West Range he certainly roomed alone.

Poe’s room was pleasantly situated under the second arch to the left, from the walk that divides the west dormitory arcades. It was a combined study and sleeping apartment, about fifteen by twenty feet, with a latticed and a solid door opening out upon the arcade, from which there was then a distant view of the Ragged Mountains. One window looked to the rear over a lawn, then, it seems, used as a wood yard. There was a mantelpiece and a small open fire place.(214)

Here the young poet undoubtedly passed most of his time while [page 154:] at the University, held his long remembered readings and parties, and wrote home the pathetic letters to his family, and those beseeching lover’s complaints and declarations which little Elmira never saw, — or saw too late.(215) The room is dark; it is on a level with the ground, and has in common with other dormitories at the University of Virginia, a quaint, but rather cell-like and faintly melancholy air. In the winter it could not have been anything but cold. The heating arrangements of the time, and of many Southern homes and institutions even to-day, are constructed with an eye to the long Summer, and seem to ignore the Winter and late Fall. Of other facilities there were none. The architects of the period were engrossed with the facades of the ancients, but the baths of Caracalla remained, as in the middle ages, unstudied and unknown.(216)

From the mass of records and reminiscences now available it is possible to reconstruct, with some degree of accuracy, the character of the life and even the daily routine of the students while Edgar Allan Poe was in “cap and gown,” a medieval idea which, by the way, America had not then adopted.

Poe was awakened every morning, probably about half-past five, by William Wertenbaker, secretary to the Faculty, Librarian and general factotum, whose duty it was to see that the students were up, dressed and ready for work. There were probably some sort of hurried ablutions, and then a rush for breakfast to some boarding-house nearby, followed, in Poe’s case, by early morning recitations. His schedule shows that these fell between the hours of seven and nine A.M., and that his course consisted of lectures in Latin, Greek, French, Spanish and Italian.(211) One of his classmates, remembering these occasions, afterward described Poe, “as having been an excellent French and Latin scholar; he could read and speak both languages with great ease, although he could [page 155:] hardly be said to have known either language thoroughly. Greek he read indifferently. Time and again he would enter into the lecture room (Pavilion V, or Pavilion VI where Professors Long and Blaettermann lived) utterly unprepared to recite if called upon. But his brain was so active and his memory so excellent, that only a few moment’s study was necessary, and then he was ready to make the best recitation in the class. To have an opportunity of ‘reading ahead ‘ . . . was all that Poe desired when unprepared. As a consequence of this wonderful faculty he was able to maintain a very high position in his classes, and win for himself the admiration, but more often the envy of his fellow students.”(217) In this account there is an indication of a certain superficial cast to Poe’s learning which agrees well with his immense affectation of it in later times. Tradition has it that the classes of young Dr. Blaettermann, who had come to the University via London, with a pleasant English bride, were particularly lively. The doctor’s strong German accent, penchant for puns, and inability to keep order, brought about, it seems, some memorable and amusing scenes which Poe must have witnessed but does not seem to have taken an active part in. Indeed, both his scholastic and disciplinary records were officially excellent. The University minute books yield these items:

At a meeting of the Faculty, December 15th, 1826, —

Mr. Long made a report of the examination of the classes belonging to the School of Ancient Languages, and the names of the students who excelled at the examination of these classes:

Senior Latin Class:

GESSNER HARRISON of Rockingham.

ALBERT L. HOLLADAY of Spottsylvania.

BERTHIER JONES of Amelia.

EDGAR A. POE of Richmond City., etc.

II

The names of the students who excelled in the Senior French Class as reported by the Professor of Modern Languages were as follows:

PHILIP ST. GEORGE AMBLER of Richmond City.

JOHN GARY of Campbell. [page 156:]

GESSNER HARRISON of Rockingham.

WM. MICHIE of Hanover.

CONWAY NUTT of Culpepper.

EDGAR A. POE of Richmond City.

WM. SELDEN of Norfolk.

HENRY TUTWILER of Rockingham.

Poe also did excellent work in Italian, and was at one time complimented by Professor Blaettermann for a translation from Tasso. Evidently one poet moved another.

The names on the class lists of these long dead lads, bring back vividly the air of the vanished classroom with all the pathos that an old teacher feels as he turns over the faded leaves of some dusty roll book of years before, while the names and images of those long-lost to conscious memory leap out at him with the recollection of half-forgotten incidents, recalling the ghosts of happy and laughing faces turned to dust, or long hardened into caricatures of their youthful. beauty by the grim mold of manly metal. Wiping such secret, but withal not unkindly mistiness from a pair of pedagogical spectacles, the years of a century roll back before us, and we stand in Professor Blaettermann’s classroom in Pavilion VI at the University of Virginia in the Spring of 1826.

The tousled heads of ten or twelve boys in their late teens, at their early morning recitation, are dotted lackadaisically about the whittled benches, trying to imbibe by inspiration from the puzzling text, what they should have learned by candle-light the night before. A mumbled conversation, despite the glare of Professor Blaettermann, is going on in one corner of the room; and on a bench near the front, seated with his cronies Tom Golson, Upton Beale or PhHip Slaughter, their faces shining from the early morning pump and the run to the classroom, sits Edgar Allan Poe. “Mishter Chorge,” says the young German at the desk, are you prepart?” — silence — “Vel den, Mishter Longl Haf you prepart your Tasso? Cherusalem Delifered, virst stanssa, pegin” — George Long, a mild youth of some eighteen summers, given to dining with visiting ex-presidents rather than to the midnight oil, arises and fumbles out some lines. “Ach [page 157:] Gott! dot vill do, Mishter Long, I see you are not Long for dis blace” (laughter and stamping of feet). “Mishter Poe. . . .”

Edgar gets up. He is a little flushed, his large eyes shining with eagerness; a rather slender and delicate boy of seventeen, with a mass of dark hair and an easy carriage. On the little room falls the spell of his low but arresting and unforgettable voice.(218)

The lines roll on with something in them of the sonorous Italian. The surprised class grows hushed; Professor Blaetterman beats time ecstatically with a muttered, “Das is gud, gud!” then — the bell — and the whole class laughing and slapping Poe on the back for having actually wrung an encomium from one of those damned foreign professors, pours out under the peristyle and rushes shouting, boy-like, into the bright spring sunshine of one hundred years ago.

Classes over, the day was Poe’s, and the night too. There were certain periods of military drill taught at that time at the University of Virginia by Mr. Mathews, a West Point graduate.(219) This was one of Jefferson’s hobbies, who felt that the future leaders in the Republic should be trained to arms, and Poe seems to have elected to take the drill probably from the flare given to his military ambition aroused as an officer in the Richmond Junior Volunteers. La Fayette’s praise was evidently not forgotten, nor the exploits of Grandfather David Poe. Edgar seems to have nourished the military tradition considerably, and in a few months it was to bear bitter fruit. The military instructor afterwards recalled Poe, as, “thick-set with a jerky gait and bandy legs,” but as this jars with nearly all other descriptions of the young poet at this time, we may feel certain that the instructor’s recollection was at fault, or that he confused someone else with Poe.(220)

Monday mornings the colored washerwomen made their rounds, of whom no less than seven afterwards asserted that they [page 158:] had all washed for “Marse Eddie Poe,” and quarreled over the honor much as the Greek Cities over Homer’s birth. The afternoons were spent at the library, at the stores, or about “hotels” in Charlottesville, a mile or so away, and there was swimming in the yellow Rivanna, and rambles amid the Ragged Mountains nearby. Lessons, however, were not neglected, and the Reading Room of the Library, then located in Pavilion VI, saw Poe often and deeply immersed in his books.

William Wertenbaker, the librarian, recollected Poe as, “then little more than a boy . . . about five feet two or three inches in height, somewhat bandy legged, but in no sense muscular or given to physical exercises. His face was feminine, with finely marked features, and eyes dark, liquid and expressive. He dressed well and neatly. He was a very attractive companion, genial in his nature, and familiar by the varied life that he had already led, with persons and scenes new to the unsophisticated provincials among whom he was thrown. . . . What, however, impressed his associates most were his remarkable attainments as a classical scholar. . . . Poe was often found in the Library which was then open from three-thirty to five o’clock where he seems to have revelled in the rare and fine collection of standard authors assembled by Jefferson himself. The records show that Edgar A. Poe borrowed these books from the Library, a list which gives us some inkling of his interests outside of class work.

Historie Ancienne . . . . .      — Rollin
Historie Romaine . . . . .    — Rollin
America . . . . . . . . . . . . .    — Robertson
Washington . . . .. . . . . . .    — Marshall
Historie Particuliere . . .   — Voltaire
Nature Displayed . . . . . .    — Dufief(221)

The mixture of romantic history and natural science is characteristic. To the same reading room came Jefferson himself, his well-known figure about the University must have been familiar to Poe. They must have been together frequently in the Library, [page 159:] and it is scarcely possible that at some time some conversation was not exchanged. For all that, Jefferson left no mark on the imagination of Poe. Their worlds of thought, indeed, were universes apart.

Poe’s life at the University of Virginia has hitherto had to be constructed solely from the testimony and reminiscences of his classmates; it is now possible, however, for the first time to add to it the facts given in his own letter to John Allan.(222) Only two of these written from the University remain. It is probable that he wrote several others to his foster-mother but these, if they exist, and they probably do not, have not come to light. In May, 1826, Poe writes to John Allan that he has received from home a uniform coat together with six yards of striped doth for pantaloons, and four pair of socks. He says that the coat, which is a beautiful one, fits him exactly. It seems that at this period some of the students, those at least who took military drill, wore a sort of cadet uniform which accounts for the word “uniform.” The disturbances caused among the student body by the meeting of the local grand jury also comes in for brief mention. Poe says his guardian will no doubt have heard about them by that time, and tells us that those whose names had been put upon the sheriff’s lists had gone on their travels into the woods and mountains taking their bedding and provisions along with them. Poe himself is evidently not among them. The Hegira, it seems, took place the first day of the fright. Finding that those who were “wanted” were thus disappearing into remote places, the faculty now took a hand in the affair and issued a sort of proclamation confining the student body to the dormitories between the hours of eight and ten A.M. during which time the visitation and inquisition of the sheriffs was to take place. Little attention was paid to this, however, and those with troubled consciences took to the woods freely a second time. In consequence of this the faculty the next morning reprimanded several, suspended for two months James Abbot Clarke of Manchester, one of Poe’s old [page 160:] schoolmates at Burke’s Academy, and Armstead Carter from near Charlottesvffle for the rest of the session. Thomas Barclay was dismissed.

The constant fighting, duelling and bickering of the student body also comes in for mention. It was a rude age in some respects and among the students lingered many of the barbarous customs of the American frontier. Poe tells us that a common fight was such an ordinary occurrence that no notice was taken of it. A more savage and feudistic affair between Turner Dixon and one Blow from Norfolk attracted more lasting notice. In the preliminary scuffle Blow it seems had the advantage, but Dixon took revenge by posting him in most indecent terms. This, and Blow’s reply, was for a week the main topic of conversation. All the pillars in the University were turned white with scribbled reminders and counter replies, until finally Dixon was provoked into making another assault on Arthur Smith, one of Blow’s Norfolk friends, by striking him on the head with a stone. At this Smith pulled out a pistol and would have ended the controversy then and there if the weapon had not missed fire. Finally the Proctor of the University took a hand, summoned all the aggrieved parties before a magistrate, and bound them over to keep the peace. The picture given of the lax discipline of the student body at this period, and the hot-headed bickering of young Southern gentlemen brought up in the traditions of the duelling code is illuminating. Poe closes the letter with affectionate messages home to the ladies of the household and a request for a copy of Tacitus Historiae and a further supply of soap!(364)

In a second letter from the University, written to John Allan on September 21st, 1826, Poe tells us of the consternation among the student body at the announcement of the examinations to be given in the following December. As the University had only been under way for two years, he thinks it doubtful whether any diplomas or degrees will be conferred. Other institutions require three or four years before a degree is conferred, he tells us, and there was evidently some feeling that it would be unfair to examine those who had only been there one session, in the same requirements, [page 161:] along with those who had been attending lectures for two. This, of course, covers his own case. Nevertheless, he seems fairly confident. He has been studying hard, he says, in order to prepare, and expects to come off as well as the rest, provided he is not too nervous.

Among other things, we also learn that the Rotunda was at that time nearly finished and the pillars of the Portico completed, to the great improvement of the appearance of the campus. The books, of which he says there was a fine collection, had recently been moved into the new Library. Another, and peculiarly brutal fight to the finish is also described. Poe saw the entire affair which came off just in front of his door.

One Wickliffe, who, it will appear from the sequel, must have been well-versed in the tactics of gouging and biting, then prevalent in the Western settlements, retired behind West Range to settle his differences with another student, and being the stronger, soon had the latter down and completely at his mercy. Not content with that, he then preceded to bite his antagonist from the shoulder to the elbow. Poe says that he saw the arm afterwards and that the flesh was so seriously torn as to probably necessitate the cutting out of pieces as big as his hand. Poe adds without further explanation, that Wickliffe was from Kentucky. Scarcely a generation before, the same customs had disturbed the constitutional convention when it met at Richmond, Virginia. With such wolfish tactics still lingering about, the situation of Poe when he enraged the young bloods among the gamblers of the place by failing to meet his card debts, may be imagined. Poe’s September letter from the University also informs us that John Allan had already paid him a visit sometime before, and suggests that business may require his presence in Charlottesville about examination time in December. What that business eventually turned out to be, and how momentous the visit was to Poe, must be related shortly.

Of the life about the little hamlet of Charlottesville, then confined to the valley below the college, there remain many authentic traditions. With the opening of the University and the consequent influx of gilded youth, there sprang up a parasitical commercial [page 162:] group which lived upon and exploited the students.(223) Chief among these were the hotel and boarding-house keepers who supplied the young gentlemen scholars with apple-toddy, egg-nog, mint slings, and the famous “peach and honey” of the neighborhood, or who kept dogs for the students, and connived at their clandestine affairs and gambling parties. There is some mention of Poe’s paying some attention to a daughter of one of the boarding-house keepers and taking her to dances, but he does not appear to have taken any unusual part in the bucolic revels of the place, nor to have fallen at any time under the formal censure of the University authorities. The legend that he was expelled has, of course, long ago been exploded.(224) The University records, however yield us this:

The Faculty met December 20th, 1826

Present:   JOHN T. SOMES, Chairman

DR. DUNGLISON

DR. BLAETTERMANN

MR. BONNYCASTLE

MR. TUCKER

MR. KEY

The Chairman presented to the faculty a letter from the Proctor giving information that certain Hotel Keepers during the last session had been in the habit of playing at games of chance with the students in their Dormitories — he also gave the names of the following persons who he had been informed had some knowledge of the facts, Edgar Mason, Turner Dixon, William Seawell, E. Le Branche, Edgar Poe, Drummond Emmanuel Miller, Hugh Pleasants and E. G. Crump who having been summoned to appear . . . etc.

Poe with some others said he knew nothing about it and the matter was dismissed. Evidently, in common with the other school [page 163:] boys, Edgar Poe did not make a very good witness. That he was a devotee if not an adept at gaming, however, the amount of his losses later bear a better witness than he himself did.

The merchants of the town evidently did a thriving trade, mostly, of course, on credit. The parents of the students were required to give surety that their bills would be settled, although there was also an act of the legislature that absolved a student from debts which were found to be “unjust.”(225) The relation existing between careless and spendthrift youths, whose expenses were guaranteed, and irresponsible and avaricious shop-keepers, was one which lent itself to exploitation. In Poe’s case, the situation was undoubtedly aggravated by conditions which have only lately come to light.

Young Poe was known to be the ward, and was said to be the heir of one of the richest men in Virginia.(226) It was probably not only easy and possible for him to exploit his credit to an unusual degree, but he was almost certainly pressed to do so by the shopkeepers who were familiar with his “father’s” circumstances. It would seem that in the matter of clothes particularly, Poe soon ran into considerable debt. This, in itself, would have been a minor extravagance — all the clothes that even a young man of dandiacal inclinations could wear in one session would not have been a serious matter to a father in John Allan’s circumstances — but Poe, it seems, used his clothes and orders upon his tailors to pay his gambling debts. He developed a great leaning for cards and no less than seventeen -broadcloth coats(227) are said to have amply failed to satisfy his ill luck at Loo and Seven-up. This, on the surface, has an ill look for Poe, and that he was culpable to some degree cannot be denied. The real reason for Poe’s “passion for gaming,” which his classmates soon noticed has, however, never been told. Family letters which have recently come to light [page 164:] put a new face upon the matter, a face with a strange and serious expression.

John Allan, it seems, retained such a lively memory of the household controversies prior to Poe’s departure for the University, that, either through previous deliberate intention, or an after-developed unwillingness to give where it hurt — probably the latter — his remittances to his foster-son were not only inadequate but almost nil. In the light of later events, it is scarcely too much to say that the firm Scotch merchant and “millionaire” had embarked upon a policy of embarrassing his foster-son.

Without the revelations contained in some of Poe’s letters which have just been published (September, 1925) his embarrassed and harassed condition while at the University would never have been suspected.(228) Upon leaving for Charlottesville, John Allan provided him with $110. The expenses of attendance were, Poe assures his foster-father, at the lowest possible estimate, $350 a year, and he itemizes his immediate outlay in advance as follows:

 

 

For Board . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .      $ 50.00
For lectures under 2 professors . . . . . . . .      60.00
Room rent in the University . . . . . . . . . .      15.00
For bed . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .      12.00
For room furniture . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .      12.00
  Total . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .      $149.00

 

 

Thus Poe was already $39.00 in debt immediately upon arrival at the University, and, as he says, he had the mortification of being regarded as a beggar because he owed for public property.

In reply to Poe’s expostulations, John Allan did not neglect the opportunity of reproaching his foster-son for not attending three lectures and subjected him to the utmost abuse as if the boy were “the vilest wretch on earth” for running in debt. In compliance with the suspicious Scotchman’s “command” Poe [page 165:] wrote him a letter giving an itemized account of his expenditures. To cover the debt of $39 the merchant sent Poe a check for $40 leaving $1 for “spending money.” Text books at that time were furnished from home. Of these John Allan sent him those which were evidently in stock at Ellis & Allan, among them a Cambridge Mathematics in two volumes, and a set of Gil Blas which had no connection with the courses which Poe was taking.

Poe was obliged to hire a servant and pay for fuel, laundry, and all other expenses and as a consequence again “ran into debt.” It was then, he says, he became “dissolute,” meaning probably that he played cards for money, and adds touchingly that he calls God to witness that he never loved dissipation, but that even the hollow profession of friendship of his companions was a comfort to one whose only crime was that he had never had anyone on Earth who cared for him. His letter is, indeed, a cry of pathetic despair, and the indubitable proof of a parsimony, on the part of his guardian, which, if it was not premeditated, brands him as one of the meanest of mankind. In any event it is beneath contempt.

Poe wrote a letter to James Galt asking for relief which Galt was unable at the time to afford him. Knowing that John Allan was one of the richest men in Virginia, the other Scotchman may well have hesitated. After this he became desperate, Poe says, and involved himself irretrievably in gambling. Towards the end of the term John Allan sent him $100, but it came too late to afford him relief, and he seems to have been literally hounded from the University. Thus, in all, during the entire year at Charlottesville, Poe’s guardian sent him $250, a sum which, in toto, was $100 less than the expenses required. The inference is plain. The result was, that Poe returned to Richmond followed by warrants and under the stigma of “extravagance.” Mr. Allan’s position is clear, for he not only refused to meet the debts of honor but even the bills for sweeping out his “son’s room” and making his bed.(229)

Had John Allan been in straightened circumstances, there might have been some excuse for this strange parsimony, but he [page 166:] was now in the full enjoyment of his uncle’s ample fortune and, at that time, planning expenditures which make Edgar’s expenses, debts and all, seem a bagatelle in comparison. The plain ugly fact seems to be that he disliked the boy because of what he knew, and that Edgar Allan Poe was already cut off with a shilling, and a Scotch shilling at that. Between the two men and an open rupture, was only the fast-wasting form of Frances Allan. To prevent it, even at the last, was the prayer literally on her dying lips as her breath failed.(230)

To pay his way, and even at various times to obtain food and fuel, Poe was thus reduced to the necessity of exploiting his credit in Charlottesville, and to playing cards for what he could make out of them. As always happens in such cases, he was unlucky; the debts remained unpaid, and as a consequence he began to lose caste. Even a gentleman gambler is supposed to play for the excitement and amusement, once his necessities become apparent, he enters a professional but unhonored class. Among the Virginia planters’ sons and Southern youths with whom Poe played, this was particularly true. Even the labor of hands for gain was despised as being performed by slaves, to play for it was beyond the pale.

But there was cause of more heart-torturing worry than unpaid debts or the unflattering opinions of his classmates; no word had come from Elmira. All his ardent, beseeching, and heartbroken letters remained unanswered at a time when, to a young lover, silence is despair. Mr. Royster had intercepted the lovers’ correspondence, and both her parents were pressing upon Elmira the suit of an older, and, in their eyes, a more acceptable man, one Mr. A. Barrett Shelton, a persistent young bachelor, and a man of means and some social distinction. Thinking that Edgar had forgotten her, the little girl reconsidered her promise to Poe and unwillingly acquiesced. That there must have been some collusion between Mr. Royster and John Allan seems an unavoidable conclusion. The two men were friends, and if Mr. Royster had thought that Poe was even to share in John Allan’s estate [page 167:] there can be little doubt that he would have regarded him with more complacence as a son-in-law. From whom he learned that this was not to be the case is not certain, but it is not hard to guess.(231)

Poe’s condition at the University of Virginia was therefore a peculiarly trying one to a sensitive young lad of seventeen “with a feminine face.” Outwardly he was the spoiled and petted heir of a wealthy man with a dangerous but enviable credit among the shopkeepers, a well dressed, handsome, and brilliant young scholar who played too much Loo; inwardly he was the prey to exasperating and debilitating anxieties, worried at the unexpected, unjust, and embarrassing withholding of funds, tortured by the inexplicable silence of the girl whose promise and kiss had gone with him when he left Richmond, and torn between his fear of, and duty towards his guardian, and his sympathy for his fostermother. What he knew, he durst not tell, and it would have done him no good if he had. The letters from John Allan were wormwood and gall, and there was no one to whom in this dilemma he could turn for advice. Then too, what of the future? This also was to be considered. It is not stepping out of the surrounding frame of facts to say that it was a situation so exquisitely perplexing, that at times it was more than he could bear. In an evil hour he resorted to the temporary oblivion and releasing excitement of the bottle.

The motives which first led, and later compelled Poe to resort from time to time to drink, are not mysterious, and are certainly not inexplicable, but they are difficult to discuss and to place in their true light especially in the United States. In a country and age where the vending of alcoholic beverages has become a crime and their interdicted consumption an event of cheap bravado, the visualization of an era when a glass of wine or beer was regarded in the same light, and as inevitable, as turkey soup after Thanksgiving, requires an effort of the imagination which if the average person possesses, he is not willing to exert. Drinking has become romantic; in Poe’s day the spigot was associated with, and for gustatory reasons, preferred to the pump. The gentleman of taste [page 168:] saw to it that his wines were old and properly served, just as the good housewife now exerts herself to have the fish reasonably fresh and not too thoroughly fried. It is true that there were even then total abstainers, but there were also then, as there are now, vegetarians. Tipsyness, especially after dinner was regarded as enviable; drunkenness was unfortunate, — only when the habit became inveterate and disgusting did it really enter the realm of morals. To understand the, cause and nature of Poe’s drinking is essential to the understanding of his character; to misunderstand it is to ignorantly malign the man. Just as De Quincey is forever associated with opium, and Amy Lowell with her cigar, Poe has been credited with the bottle as the source of his inspiration. Mention him in any company, and like a reflex action comes the inevitable question, “Did he drink?” The answer is, “He did”; but to the moral indictment implied, it is no answer at all.

The first mention of Poe’s drinking crops up while he was at the University of Virginia, To be sure, some capital has been made of the fact that on various occasions Poe is known to have tasted wine before. To anyone who is not hopelessly bigoted about the matter, however, these stories can be dismissed as futile attempts by special pleading to lay emphasis on facts which, by their nature, can have no significance. To say that Poe on this or that occasion in his childhood tasted wine, a beverage which, in the age of its universal use must have been in the houses of his foster-father and his friends, is of no more significance than to say that he drank coffee. Had Poe not over-indulged upon occasions some years later, such tittle-tattle would now no more be mentioned than the news that he ate several meals every day. Up until the time of his arrival at the University of Virginia, there is, meticulously speaking, not the slightest trace or indication, nor any evidence upon which to base even a supposition, that he had ever been intoxicated, or that he cared particularly for liquor.

That alcohol played a large and important part in determining the events of his career cannot be denied, but that it was the determining and most important factor is a false conclusion.(232) [page 169:] The proof of these statements will be found in the facts of the poet’s life already related, and those to be set forth in the narrative which is yet to follow.

At the University, Poe for the first time began to drink. The motives which led to this seem to have been somewhat involved and various. In the first place, from his method of imbibing, Poe does not seem to have liked the taste. Your drinkers may be grouped into four several kinds; sippers, tipplers, gulpers, and guzzlers. The Sipper is your exquisite gentleman who inhales the bouquet, is particular as to the temperature, and tastes drop by drop, to the last in his delicate glass, the rare aroma of an old vintage whose date he judges not by figures but by flavor. Tipplers are those who drain the glass in private, slowly but often, judging the brew by the quality and duration of the dreamful aftermath. Gulpers are those who care nothing for the taste, but with a single direct motion send the drink home for the result. Your Guzzler is he who drinks all, as rapidly, as frequently, and as persistently as he can. In this convivial category our hero was of the third degree, a Gulper. “He would always seize the tempting glass, generally unmixed with sugar or water, — in fact perfectly straight and without the least apparent pleasure, swallow the contents, never pausing until the last drop had passed his lips. One glass at a time was all that he could take; but this was sufficient to rouse his whole nervous nature into a state of strongest excitement which found vent in a continuous flow of wild, fascinating talk that enchanted every listener with siren-like power.”(233)

Edgar’s revels were held in his own room. A good fire would be lit, the furniture or other odds and ends sometimes serving for [page 170:] fuel (if the wood yard outside the window was not privateered upon) the table was drawn out and the game began. Several of those who were present at such times, have testified to the fact that Poe seemed under great nervous strain and excitement. When the means for his daily needs depended upon the run of cards, we can understand this. Ill luck would make it worse. Of the strain he was under from other causes, his classmates could, of course, have known nothing. Poe’s drinking, which at worst seems to have been very occasional at the University, probably took place for a variety of reasons.

In the first place as we have seen, it was the custom of the time and the fashion at the University. There must also have been a certain amount of bravado in the young student, in common with many others at a similar stage of development, who want to “Play the man” and impress the world with their manly sophistication. Poe seems to have rather affected the rôle of the finished youth. His experience abroad, his coming from Richmond the “big town” of his group, and the reputed wealth of his “father,” all led him to live up to the jejune ideal which he assumed the others to demand of him. It was the boy’s aim to impress and to be remarkable. There was also another motive, perhaps not a conscious one, but a powerful one. Poe was not to the manner born, In the group of “F.F.V.’s” in which he found himself, he desired to be accepted without question, and the social doubt that his birth implied drove him not only to equal, but to try to exceed his companions in their own modes; to be a remarkable, a strange and a good fellow. As always the thing was overdone. Those who are sure of themselves never need to impress. So the fire burned more brightly, the stakes were perhaps a little higher, and the drinking a little deeper than was necessary. Lastly, but most important of all, in the temporary excitement of wine came selfconfidence and oblivion. It made him confident, and it made him forget. This, at all times, then and in the future, was the main reason for his drinking.

The effect upon Poe of even a small quantity was out of all usual proportion. He seems to have been so sensitively organized, that a dram, which to the average man caused only a faint glow, [page 171:] was sufficient to make his actions and conversation unusual. One glass was literally too much; two or three were disastrous; and a continued round of potations reduced him to a quivering caricature of himself, a libel on genius, and a portent of fallen humanity. The aftermath was physical torture, spiritual despair, and the remorse of a “lost” but abnormally sensitive soul. These manifestations are discussed here in the light of what was to follow rather than in connection with Poe’s imbibing at the University, which is important as a beginning and a tendency rather than for its immediate importance.

While at Charlottesville, Poe’s drinking seems to have been noted for its unusual effects upon an already remarkable personality rather than for its frequency. It was not habitual but rare. A visit to his room while one of his parties is underway, in the company of one of his classmates, will perhaps serve to make this clear. A classmate says:(234)

Poe roomed on the West side of the Lawn, I on the East, he afterwards moved to the Western Range (Number 13) — I was often in both rooms and recall the many hours spent therein. . . . He was very excitable and restless, at times wayward, melancholic and morose, but again in his better moods frolicsome, full of fun and a most attractive and agreeable companion. To calm and qidet the excessive nervous excitability under which he labored, he would too often put himself under the influence of the “Invisible Spirit of Wine.”

Another companion remarks: (235)

The particular dissipation of the University at this period was gaming with cards, and into this Poe plunged with a recklessness of nature which acknowledged no restraint. . . . It led to a loss of caste among his high spirited and exclusive associates.

Tom Tucker also tells us:(236)

Poe’s passion for strong drink was as marked and as peculiar as that for cards. It was not the taste of the beverage that influenced him; [page 172:] 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.

Such drinking bears all the marks of being a very juvenile performance, indeed, Baudelaire has called it potations en barbare, but it has about it, laying aside the pitiably boyish bravado, a certain gesture of childlike despair that is significant. No letter from Elmira and several from John Allan down goes a nasty dram which “frequently used him up” — and no wonder, the “peach-honey” of the University was a man’s drink.

West Range was known in Poe’s day as “Rowdy Row” and there were strict rules that the students’ doors must be unbarred when a professor tapped on them, a rule hard to enforce. But not all of the parties in Number 13 were given over to cards and convivialities; these, it seems, in the light of after events have been overstressed. The real boy who dwelt there was of another stamp, or there would not now be over the door of Number 13 “Rowdy Row” a bronze tablet with —

 

 

EDGAR ALLAN POE

MDCCCXXVI

    Domus parva magni poetæ(237)

 

 

Many a long hour in the little dormitory was spent poring over favorite poets, Shelley, Keats, Coleridge and Wordsworth, present now beyond all doubt, and the old favorites Byron and Moore. Here, too, first began to take shape Tamerlane, through which moved the ghost of Elmira as he imagined her, and longed for her walking with him through the wild glens of the Ragged Mountains, that, with Kubla Khan’s magic on his lip, he called the “Mountains of Belur Taglay.” Why were his letters never answered? Did he suspect the truth before the term was over — [page 173:]

I pictured to my fancy’s eye

Her silent, deep astonishment,

When a few fleeting years gone by

(For short the time my high hope lent

To its most desperate intent,)

She might recall in him, whom Fame

Had gilded with a conqueror’s name

(With glory — such as might inspire

Perforce, a passing thought of one,

Whom she had deem’d in his own fire

Wither’d and blasted; who had gone

A traitor, violate of the truth

So plighted in his early youth,)

Her own Alexis, who should plight

The love he plighted then — again,

And raise his infancy’s delight,

The bride and queen of Tamerlane. — (238)

Ah, yes! He would show her that he was faithful, he, whom she had thought forgetful. To her he would return and make her his bride and queen when fame was his! How delightful, how youthful, and how pathetic! In the meanwhile he crammed his mind from “many an ancient volume of forgotten lore,” and treasured all those honeyed fancies that cloy the too sweet lines of Al Aaraaf.

The Sephalica, budding with young bees,

Upreared its purple stem around her knees, —

he writes, culling the rich vowels of the flower’s name from the pages of Nature Displayed flung at random on the table — “bees — bees” — there occurs the ready rhyme of “knees” and the vision of a certain intriguing petticoat flaunted from a sofa in a parlor on Second Street in Richmond, then Elmira standing up to her knees among flowers in the Enchanted Garden just as they were said to have sprung about the feet of Sapho, and the lines say themselves. But that will never do. No, he is the scholar now, too, and the young poet solemnly notes of the sephalica, “This flower is much noticed by Lewenhoeck and Tournefort, the bee feeding upon its blossom becomes intoxicated.”(239) One [page 174:] wonders how anybody with a name like Lewenhoeck could have noticed anything so charming. Nor did he keep these fancies entirely to himself. “Poe was fond of quoting poetic authors and reading poetic productions of his own, with which his friends were delighted and entertained; suddenly a change would come over him; then he would with a piece of charcoal evince his versatile genius by sketching upon the walls of his dormitory, whimsical, fanciful and grotesque figures, with so much artistic skill, as to leave us in doubt whether Poe in future life would be a painter or a poet.”(240) Among these sketches were grotesques of the plates of an edition of Byron. What an enthusiasm and a necessity for self-expression was pent up in these close walls!

The company that gathered about the fire in Number 13 to listen. to some of the early American Short Stories and the impassioned voice of Israfel reciting his own poetry, was a brilliant one and comprised some of the future leaders of the time.(241) Those who listened to Poe then never forgot him. Between the glasses of hot apple-toddy, the bursts of laughter and the green oaths of youth, the anecdotes about the campus queans, the idiosyncrasies of the faculty, and the latest student duel, Poe would read something he had just written, putting his whole soul into his gestures and the low melodious modulations of his voice, while the fire flickered and the long candle shadows waved to and fro. Then followed an open expression of opinions.(242) “On one occasion Poe read a story of great length to some of his friends who, in a spirit of jest, spoke lightly of its merits, and jokingly told him that his hero’s name ‘Gaffy’ occurred too often. His proud spirit would not stand such open rebuke, so in a fit of anger, before his friends could prevent him, he had flung every sheet into a blazing fire, and thus was lost a story of more than ordinary parts which, unlike most of his stories, was intensely amusing, entirely free from his usual somber coloring and sad conclusions merged in a mist of impenetrable gloom. He was for [page 175:] a long time afterwards called by those in his particular circle ‘Gaffy’ Poe, a name that he never altogether relished.” And so, as might have been expected, the proud “Alexis” who was to come back as the conquering hero, “gilded by fame,” to make Elmira his queen and his bride, had become “Gaffy”! The name followed him to West Point. But there is nearly always affection in a nickname, even ridicule is familiar, and Poe was evidently liked. “Whatever Poe may have been in after years,” says a classmate and intimate friend, “he was at the University as true and perfect a friend as the waywardness of his nature would allow. There was never then the least trace of insincerity.”

With all of its distractions, this was seed-time for a great harvest. Under Professor Long, who had a passion for geography in its relation to history, may have first arisen Poe’s minute knowledge of the bizarre facts in the customs and landscapes of “far countrees,” and the curiosity to continue the research out of which tales could be fabricated with that “imaginative-realism” in which he delighted. Professor George Tucker, who touched even the dry data of statistics and treatises on population with the virile wand of interest, could scarcely have failed to attract Poe, for while Poe was at the University, Tucker was writing a story called A Voyage to the Moon,(243) after the very manner followed later by his pupil in his Balloon Hoax, Hans Pfaall, and the like. Poe not infrequently visited the faculty at. home and such things as lunar voyages may have been discussed. It was a topic upon which Edgar would love to enlarge. Keats longed for the moon like a child; Poe with his combined mathematics and poetry imagined that he reached it.

And there were the Ragged Mountains! — Poe knew a private and little-trod path that led there, to glens glistering in the Spring with the bleached flame of the dogwood blossoms, or brilliant beyond European imagination after the first frosts with the pied motley of the scarlet and golden Virginia Fall. Here he could find solitude and dream of Elmira, and make poems “upon a dim, warm, misty day, toward the close of November, and during the strange interregnum, of the seasons which in America is termed [page 176:] the Indian summer.”(244) Of what he saw and thought there, let him speak for himself when “. . . attended only by a dog upon a long ramble among the chain of wild and dreary hills that lie westward and southward of Charlottesville.”

The thick and peculiar mist, or smoke, which distinguishes the Indian summer, and which hung heavily over all objects, served no doubt, to deepen the vague impressions which these objects created. So dense was this pleasant fog that I could at no time see more than a dozen yards of the path before me. This path was excessively sinuous, and as the sun could not be seen, I soon lost all idea of the direction in which I journeyed. . . . In the quivering of a leaf in the line of a blade of grass in the shape of a trefoil — in the humming of a bee — in the gleaming of a dew drop — in the breathing of wind — in the faint odors that came from the forest there came a whole universe of suggestion — a gay and motley train of rhapsodical and unmethodical thought.

This was a very excellent classroom, indeed, for a poet, and there is no better incubator in the world for dreams than the sun diffused in warm mist.

Thus slipped the months away. On July 4th Jefferson had died and Poe heard the old University bell tolled for the first time to mark his passing. Edgar was himself secretary of the “Jefferson Literary Society,”(245) a type of organization that in the college life of the time provided not only literary and oratorical occasions, but became a convenient means for the formal recognition of cliques; it filled very largely the place of the modern fraternity. In a Southern college, the death of its great founder would not fail to be marked by the student orators of the time. It was still the age of the spoken word.(246) But the Fall of 1826 was marked [page 177:] for Edgar Poe by an event which must have caused him more immediate and genuine sorrow than the death of Jefferson. Some time in the late Autumn of the year John Allan seems to have visited Charlottesville. It was no mere matter of academic interest that drew his reluctant feet to the University; certain manuscripts bearing his foster-son’s signature had come to light, not poems, but bills payable.

As the term drew to its close near the Christmas holidays, the merchants of Charlottesville who supplied the University students, doubtless began to want to see the color of money before their gay young customers departed from the neighborhood. Bills were sent home and the usual difficulties began. Owing to his guardians untimely parsimony in sending Edgar almost no cash allowance at all, the boy had no doubt had to use his credit to an unusual extent to begin with.

One can imagine the almost apoplectic effect of the cold record of his ward’s progress along the primrose path, when presented in dollars and cents to the purse-careful Scotchman. John Allan seems to have called James Hill, ordered out the carriage, and driven post-haste over to Charlottesville. Nor would two days journey over the mountain roads of Virginia, in the McAdamless year of grace 1826, have served to smooth his wrath. He had plenty of time to think over what he would do and say, and as usual his action was vigorous and his remarks characteristic.

The interview between Edgar and his guardian at Number 13 must have been a fiery one. Poe’s proceedings had been, indeed, most unfortunate. The result was fraught with tremendous consequences to his future. Mr. Allan no doubt found a rather recalcitrant and exasperated youth to deal with; the whole story came out inevitably, as the bills were there to expose it; and Poe was curtly informed that his University career was over.

Whatever drinking there had been, must have been made the most of, and the gambling debts were, of course, inexcusable in [page 177:] the eyes of the older man. These, Mr. Allan refused to pay. He may have settled some of those for which he was legally responsible and afterward have driven away in high dudgeon, nor would it be any balm to his feelings, under the circumstances, that to a certain extent his attempt to put his ward on short commons had resulted in his having to pay more in the end. Edgar’s brilliant scholastic record gave him nothing to complain of, so the affair was entirely financial. When all is said and done, a few apple-toddies could not have weighed very heavily in the scale except to lend extra force to the older man’s invective. Poe’s predicament will scarcely be evident to modern eyes. In his day, imprisonment for debt was still in full force; the laws of Virginia were stringent, and the boy, as soon as the news of his guardian’s attitude got about, which must have been instanter, would find himself pursued by warrants.(247) Until the debts were satisfied, he could not return to the county where they had been contracted, and in a short while processes were issued which drove him from the state. By simply withholding his aid, John Allan automatically made Poe’s return impossible. Whatever indiscretions Poe may have committed, there is no evidence that he deserved a punishment which involved the whole of his future. Mr. Allan was not legally responsible for the gambling debts, but a few hundred dollars would have staved off the merchants at Charlottesville. The cold fact remains that the goad merchant did not think that his foster-son was worth this. The threat to his Scotch purse was unforgivable. A few years later he made ample provision for his natural children in his will, legacies which, although a long and scandalous litigation was involved, his second wife undertook to set aside. In possession of a great fortune, $250 was the extreme limit of his effort to carry out his promise to give Poe a liberal education. In short the “jig was up.” Poe had lost his opportunity of a University education, and had to face alone the demands for the payment of his debts of honor, doubtless to him the most unpleasant aspect of the affair. As a result of the situation he [page 179:] seems, as one of his classmates says “to have lost caste.” The last of the Charlottesville episode closed in gloom. From William Wertenbaker, who was a close friend of Edgar, we have a vivid description of the final hours at the University.

On the night of December 20th, 1826, or thereabouts, the two young men spent the early hours of the evening at the house of one of the faculty, probably Professor Tucker, or Professor Blaettermann, whose conversation and young English wife must have attracted the boys to the fireside. After the visit, Wertenbaker and Poe walked over to “the small dwelling of a great poet” in West Range, where Poe began to smash up the furniture. This he burned with sundry papers, and the accumulated rubbish of ‘the term in the little fireplace, meanwhile telling his troubles, in a gloomy and foreboding vein, to William Wertenbaker, a sympathetic listener.

It was a cold night in December, and his fire having gone pretty nearly out, by the aid of some tallow candles, and the fragments of a small table which he broke up for the purpose, 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 large amount of money he had wasted and of the debts he had contracted during the session. If my memory is not at fault he estimated his indebtedness at $2000, and, though they were gaining debts, he was earnest, and emphatic in the declaration that he was bound by honor to pay, at the earliest opportunity, every cent of them.(248)

William Wertenbaker probably went home about midnight, leaving Edgar to fall asleep by the flickering shadows of the dying fire as the last sticks of his little table, upon which Tamerlane and Other Poems had come into being, slowly turned into ashes, the ashes of lost opportunity.

The next day he climbed on the Charlottesville coach in company with Philip St. George Ambler, Robert Hunter, Zaccheus Lee, Creed Thomas, and other youths of Richmond, Washington, and the vicinity, and started for home. They must have stopped overnight on the way, and arrived in Richmond the day before [page 180:] Christmas, 1826. Poe brought with him a small trunk, in which were the remnants of a considerable wardrobe, the spoil of the Charlottesville merchants, a few cherished books, and the manuscripts of some of the poems which appeared in Boston about six months later.(249) The prodigal had returned. As he ran up the steps of the big house on Main Street, dressed in a “London hat, a super-blue broadcloth suit with gilt buttons, a velvet vest and drab pantaloons,”(250) he probably had no hallucinations as to the fatted calf, or that John Allan, under the circumstances, would rehearse the paternal rôle in the parable. But he seems to have been met with fondly welcoming arms by Frances Allan and his dear “Aunt Nancy.” Holly was in all the windows, and mistletoe festooned the chandeliers, but where was Elmira?

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 147:]

208.  There is no attempt here, of course, to imply that Poe meant these lines to apply to the University.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 148:]

209.  The letter is given here as it was partly quoted by Edwin A. Alderman, President of the University of Virginia, in the Virginia Quarterly Review for April, 1925, pages 78-84. To Dr. Alderman I am also indebted for other facts.

210.  Harrison, Life and Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, vol. I, page 38. Note that Poe did not give the place of his birth as Woodberry states vol. I, 1909, page 32. “Allen” is a misspelling, of course.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 149:]

211.  Life and Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, J. A. Harrison, Chapter II. Also various other articles and pamphlets dealing with the establishment of the University of Virginia.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 150:]

212.  Reminiscences of William M. Burwell from the New Orleans Times Democrat for May 18, 1884. Burwell’s facts about Poe are not always to be taken without reservations, but his descriptions of contemporary life with Poe, when at the University, there is no reason to doubt as they are in many other ways confirmed. The text here is an excerpt from the Alumni Bulletin, University of Virginia, for April, 1923.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 153:]

213.  Letter of Dr. Miles George to Mr. Edward V. Valentine of Richmond, later sent to J. B. Ingram and now in the Ingram collection of Poe Papers at the University of Virginia, printed in the Alumni Bulletin, University of Virginia, for April, 1923. This letter contradicts flatly and ultimately many of Thomas Goode Tucker’s “too complete memories” which have been so often followed by Poe biographers.

214.  From data gathered on a visit to the University of Virginia in July, 1925.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 154:]

215.  Few of Poe’s biographers seem to have realized that the young student who inhabited No. 13 West Range in 1826 was under stress of great anxiety about home matters. An unhappy love affair, plus home dissensions and great financial embarrassment, all of which Poe experienced here, is enough to unsettle any college freshman. Henry Poe was away on a cruise.

216.  Even the means of obtaining fire was still in the flint and tinder age. Pocket matches, at a considerable cost, were introduced from England about a year later.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 155:]

217.  Reminiscences of Thomas G. Tucker, confirmed by similar memories of other classmates of Poe, and by the University records. Tucker wrote an article called Edgar Allan Poe while a Student at the University of Virginia, much quoted from.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 157:]

218.  The scene is reproduced here from contemporary accounts of such recitations and the peculiarities of Professor Blaettermann. Poe’s translation of Tasso is specifically mentioned.

219.  J. H. Harrison, Life and Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, chapter II, page 39.

220.  Mr. Mathews, the drill master, seems to have followed Thomas Tucker’s description which is at fault.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 158:]

221.  Recollections of William Wertenbaker, Librarian of the University of Viginia in The Independent for September, 1900.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 159:]

222.  The facts narrated in this and the ensuing paragraph are taken from two of Poe’s own letters to John Allan while at the University, first published in the Valentine Museum Poe Letters, pages 37-44 “letters Nos. 1 and 2,” now available for the first time.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 162:]

223.  In a letter from West Point to John Allan, dated January 3rd, 1830, Poe specifically states that he was compelled to borrow money from “Jews” in Charlottesville at exorbitant rates of interest.

224.  William Wertenbaker’s recollections made in 1869 — “I was myself a member of the last three (Poe’s) classes, and can testify that he was tolerably regular in his attendance, and a successful student, having attained distinction at the Final Examination in Latin and French; and this was at that time the highest honor a student could obtain. The present regulations in regard to degrees had not been adopted. Under the existing regulations he would have graduated in the two languages above named, and have been entitled to diplomas —” The Independent for September, 1900.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 163:]

225.  It was probably this statute that John Allan afterward took as a legal ground for refusal to pay Poe’s debts. Bills of merchandise purchased by Poe from Charlottesville merchants were rendered to the firm of Ellis & Allan as late as 1835. These items are to be found in the Ellis & Allan Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D. C. See page 154 this volume.

226.  Poe seems to have made considerable capital of this on various occasions.

227.  R. H. Stoddard Memoir, page 34, W. J. Middleton [[Widdleton]], publisher, 1875.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 164:]

228.  The facts in the discussion which follows are taken from the Valentine Museum Poe Letters published by Lippincott of Philadelphia, in 1925, and hitherto inaccessible to former biographers. See particularly letter “No. 24” dated at West Point, January 3rd, 1830, pages 253-258.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 166:]

229  See the letter from Geo. W. Spotswood, Chapter X, page 189, also note 263.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 166:]

230.  See Chapter XH, page 231, also James Galt’s testimony given by J. H. Whitty Complete Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, large edition, appendix page 195.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 167:]

231.  See Chapter VIII note 186, page 133.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 168, running to the bottom of page 169:]

232.  Many of the “Medical,” “Psychological,” and “Psychoanalytical,” etc., etc., lives of Poe are vitiated by the fact that the premise of biographical facts [page 169:] from which their conclusions are drawn is at fault, due to the statements of old biographies that rest on legendary sources. To put the case mildly, for instance, very little is really known of Poe’s heredity. The real character of his parents and immediate grandparents cannot be ascertained with sufficient clearness to warrant any scientific conclusions. See the appendix for a discussion of Poe’s heredity.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 169:]

233.  Reminiscences of Thomas G. Tucker, Poe’s classmate. Peter the Great of Russia had caused a great furor in England in the Seventeenth Century by a similar method of drinking. Bishop Burnett says it was Peter’s custom to drink large bumpers of brandy, raw, before breakfast, and to gulp them down. The Muscovite seems to have derived much pleasure from the performance, and in contradistinction to Poe, “liked the taste.”

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 171:]

234.  Dr. Miles George in a letter to Edward V. Valentine of Richmond, May 18, 1880. This letter is now in the Ingram collection at the University of Virginia.

235.  William M. Burwell, May 18, 1884, in the New Orleans Times Democrat.

236.  Thomas Goode Tucker to Douglas Sherley letter April 5, 1880. Also quoted by Prof. Woodberry vol. i, 1909, page 33.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 172:]

237.  The inscription seems to be after that on the house of Erasmus in the Hoogestraate, Rotterdam.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 173:]

238.  From the 1827 version of Tamerlane, stanza XII.

239.  See Poe’s own notes to Al Aaraaf.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 174:]

240.  Dr. Miles George to Edward V. Valentine, letter, May 5, 1880, now in the Ingram collection, University of Virginia.

241.  For a long list of the distinguished men who were at the University of Virginia with Poe, see Harrison, Life and Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, vol. I.

242.  Thomas Goode Tucker is quoted here.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 175:]

243.  Published in the American Quarterly Review in 1827.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 176:]

244.  The quotations here are from Poe’s Tale of the Ragged Mountains, published in Godey’s Lady’s Book for 1844.

245  Some doubt has been thrown on the authenticity of Poe’s signature as the secretary of this society.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 176, running to the bottom of page 177:]

246.  When the History of Oratory in the United States is written, as it ought to be, the large part played in national political movements by the literary societies in American schools and colleges will become apparent. Starting as senuine debating groups, in which argumentation was actually studied and practised, these forensic-social groups gradually deteriorated; parliamentary procedure devolved into a patter and ritual; the laws of evidence were disregarded, and the palm awarded to the loquaciously-eloquent, whose flights were unhindered by the weight [page 177:] of logic. One of these “orators” from Buncombe County, North Carolina, who was elected to the United States Congress, has added a new word to the language, buncombe, later shortened, to bunk. The necessity for the word is by no means sectional.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 178:]

247.  In Poe’s last letter to John Allan from West Point he specifically states that he was hounded out of Richmond by warrants. See Valentine Museum Poe Letters, letter No. 24, page 256.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 179:]

248.  This is one of the most authentic glimpses of Poe at the University that we have. William Wertenbaker afterward became Librarian of the University of Virginia. It was his “profession” to cherish the literary memories of the place.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 180:]

249.  Tamerlane and Other Poems. It is also even possible that the notes and many of the lines of Al Aaraaf were in existence at this date as it bears the stamp of having been conceived where a library was available and leisure to use it. Al Aaraaf was published in 1829. Poe afterward used it as a mine for later poems, Zante, etc.

250.  Poe purchased these articles on December 4, 1826, from Samuel Leitch, Jr., a Charlottesville merchant. Mr. Allan refused to pay the bill, now in the Ellis & Allan Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D. C., Poe’s name on the bill is misspelled Powe.

 


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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 09)