Text: Hervey Allen, “Chapter 04,” Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe (1934), pp. 43-52


[page 43:]


FRANCES ALLAN would undoubtedly have liked to adopt the young Edgar Allan Poe formally and legally but her husband continued to demur. It was only after considerable persuasion and the unexpected force of circumstances that he had at length consented to receive the boy permanently into his household. At first blush his refusal to adopt the child legally, after consenting to his becoming a fixture in the family circle and lending him his name, may seem a captious distinction, but from his point of view many poignant reasons continued to operate for refusing or at least deferring indefinitely such an irrevocable act. In addition to those which have already been rehearsed, there must have been a deep-seated feeling that in a certain way he would be overriding Providence by adopting a child that it had not pleased God to send him in the ordinary course of nature. The Scotch sense of literal reality is almost morbidly honest, and John Allan could not allow even his sympathy and affection to deceive him into believing by legal fiction what was in reality not true. He was willing to indulge his wife, with and for whom he doubtless felt a great sympathy in their mutual childlessness, but he was not willing to commit himself, without further demonstration as to the character of his ward, into declaring him to be the inheritor of his property. All this, and a certain instinctive sense of the vast gulf which separated the temperaments of himself and his ward, something which both of them must have instinctively felt almost from the first — all this, must have decided him that delay was the best policy, and as the good old Scotch adage has it, he had best “bide a wee.”

In this decision he differed profoundly from the feminine impulsiveness of his wife, but the overwhelming desire of a childless woman for an object upon which to lavish the pent up tenderness of thwarted maternity, and the unemotional foresight of a clear-headed man of affairs are two different things. It is impossible to say, even now, which was right, — the blind love of the foster-mother, or the oblique though logical view of the man; possibly the former.

Had Edgar been legally adopted, it is probable that the feeling of eating the bread of strangers, of in the final analysis being an object of charity, of which fact he was often reminded, — it is quite possible that this feeling of inferiority against which he built up an almost [page 44:] morbid pride, destined to be one of the controlling factors in his character, would never have been present at all, or have vanished as time went on.

As it was, Poe was compelled to move in a world of uncertainties, one where the deepest and most intimate ties of life were, as he increasingly realized with the years, dependent upon the impulses of charity.

The illusion of the permanence of home and the immutability of the paternal and maternal relations are the twin rocks upon which a well integrated personality is built and stands. Shatter these, or give them the quality of uncertainty, and the spirit becomes one with the quickstand upon which it feels that life rests.

Even in the endearments of his foster-mother, Poe must have come to realize that he was a substitute for her own child. Her affections were great, but the fact remains that she was not his own mother. If he did not sense it, Mr. Allan on several well authenticated occasions took care to make it painfully clear. As a very young child, Edgar would have actually missed the physical presence of his own mother; as he grew older and her memory dimmed, he must have sought for compensation elsewhere. That Frances Allan met this situation with a plenitude of endearments that undoubtedly had an effect upon Poe’s character there seems every reason to feel. Mrs. Allan’s unusual fondness for children and for her foster-son in particular was the cause of remark at the time and later.(76) That her affection for the little boy was one of the holiest and finest of his many feminine contacts, does not lessen the probabilities of its far-reaching effects. In the same house was also his “Aunt” Nancy Valentine who seems to have been only a little less fond. In the light of modern psychology, it may well seem to many that this is alone sufficient to account for many of the apparent motions of his later life. It may be that from the first Edgar Allan Poe was embarked upon one of those hopeless quests of the soul that drive many artists to the greatest heights of creation and the lowest depths of despair.

As a little boy it seems that he cared more for the company of little girls than of boys of his own age, and that his school days were lonely and unhappy.(77) Though not unhealthy he was delicate, a condition in which his foster-mother indulged him, for he was brilliant and beautiful, and soon became the pet of the household and its friends. At a very early date he is said to have shown an innocent but passionate attachment for Catherine Elizabeth Potiaux, a pretty little girl, who [page 44:] as Mrs. Allan’s godchild was one of his first playmates.(78) It was also Mrs. Allan’s particular delight to take him upon calls to her various friends and relations, upon which occasions she is said to have dressed him in a charming costume of a peaked, purple velvet cap with a gold tassel from which his dark curls flowed down, like those of a Restoration periwig, over an ample tucker that disappeared into small baggy trousers of yellow Nankin or silk pongee. Seated upon a davenport, swinging his little buckled shoes in the air, he would gravely look on, while the assembled ladies dressed in the semi-classic empire costumes of the day, with fillets in their hair, chattered about the latest war news and sipped tea.

Sometimes he would be called upon to amuse the company by standing upon a high-backed chair to recite jingles. Tradition has it that the company was both delighted and amused. Even John Allan was not insensible to his juvenile talents, and we have a picture of the young Poe, mounted shoeless upon the long, shining dining room table, after the dessert and cloth had been cleared away, to dance; or standing between the doors of the drawing room at the Fourteenth Street house reciting to a large company, and with a boyish fervor, The Lay of the Last Minstrel. “He wore dark curls and had brilliant eyes, and those who remembered him spoke of the pretty figure he made, with his vivacious ways.”(79) The reward for such occasions was to pledge the healths of the company in sweetened wine and water. Much has been made of this fact, which in all conscience seems harmless and trivial enough.(80)

Of the early life in Richmond of this delightful little boy, who later on felt competent to exchange places with the Archangel Israfel, there remains a mass of legend and some few authentic facts. Perhaps it will not be entirely without some contribution as to the nature of the man as a human being to get a few glimpses of him trying out his young wings even before he aspired to leave the nest.

Some of the earliest and dearest associations of Poe’s life clustered about the old Memorial Church on Broad Street which had been erected on the site of the Richmond Theater as a memorial to those who had perished in the fire.(81) John Allan and Charles Ellis had both subscribed to the fund for its erection, the latter twice as much as his partner,(82) and both had taken out their membership there after leaving St. Johns. [page 47:] This was consonant with a well marked determination to better the social status of the “firm.”

The building was an impressive one with a monument to the sufferers of the fire at the entrance, a rather naive fresco of the heavenly regions on the ceiling, tablets with the Ten Commandments, and a great gold lettered text, “Give Ear O Lord,” just over the chancel. It was the custom of all the children to try out their spelling on this, and Mary Brockenbrough, a little girl one year younger than Poe, remembered looking back and seeing Poe, “a pretty little boy with big eyes and curly hair” hypnotized by the text.

The Allans had pew 80 and, from the end where he usually sat, Poe could see the back of little Mary’s head obliquely in front. Just across the nave was the front pew of Chief Justice Marshall and his long-legged son who sat with the gate open and his feet in the aisle. The Allan pew was directly before the pulpit in which the stout Bishop Moore, rector of the church at that time, held forth, to what effect upon Israfel we can only surmise, probably the usual one.

It was here that Poe first met his youthful companion Ebenezer Burling, of whom more hereafter, and laid that foundation of familiarity with the Bible and the church services and singing which he never lost.(83) One biographer has averred “that phrenologically considered,” the bump of reverence was entirely lacking in both Poe and Rosalie and that they never evinced any interest in the saving works of religion.(84) However that may be, to church he went regularly in the company of Mrs. Allan who was extremely pious. From his foster-father who had a more eighteenth century and encyclopaedic attitude and philosophy, Edgar undoubtedly received or overheard opinions which made him one of the first poets in America to view the world minus the explanation of a miracle working deity, and to take a metaphysical interest in the growing data of science.

Among the many visitors to the house then and later, was Mr. Edward Valentine, a cousin of Mrs. Allan, who was very fond of the boy. He was a great practical joker and by way of being somewhat of a merry rogue himself.(85) This young gentleman taught young Edgar several amusing tricks. One of these was the ancient amusement of snatching a chair away from someone about to sit down. Unfortunately the newly acquired talent was tried upon the person of a portly [page 48:] and extremely dignified lady caller, and tradition has preserved for us the picture of John Allan leading his too pert young charge away for chastisement after the old fashioned manner, and of Mrs. Allan with tears in her eyes hurrying upstairs shortly after to quiet the lamentations of her pet.

As a counterbalance to his wife’s indulgence, Mr. Allan conscientiously set about to train up the boy according to his more severe ideas of the proper way in which the twig should be bent. Consequently, when the child was “good,” he was indulged, but any exhibition of waywardness or disobedience brought down on him the usual punishment of the time which, it was said, was administered to him upon divers occasions with undue severity. To save him from this was the constant aim of the ladies, and even the servants of the household. With their connivance the boy soon learned to shield himself by means of petty subterfuges upon his own part which were doubtless more clever than manly.

The child’s education was early well looked after. As a very little boy, there is a trustworthy legend that he was sent to a “dame school,” which would correspond most nearly to the modern kindergarten, minus much of the element of organized play. This was said to have been kept by an old Scotch lady with a broad Lowland accent, doubtless in itself a recommendation to the parents of many of her charges. Of her, very little is remembered except a rumor that she called Edgar, “her ain wee laddie,” and in after years was said to have brought him presents of the best smoking tobacco she could obtain (sic).(86) Poe also indicates in a seemingly autobiographical passage in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, “He (Mr. Allan) sent me at six years of age to the school of old Mr. Ricketts, a gentleman with only one arm, and of eccentric manner.” It has since been found that there was in Richmond about that time a one-armed schoolmaster by the name of “Ricketts.”(87) One William Richard son also kept a boys’ school where John Allan sent some of the other children in whom he was interested in 1813-14. The truth is, it is not definitely known exactly where and to whom Poe first went to school.

It is fairly certain, however, that shortly before the departure of the Allans for England in 1815, Poe was a student with a Mr. William Erwin who kept a boys school in Richmond at that time.(88) Erwin from his letters seems to have had a dry sense of humor, and in addition to have taken a real interest in his young charge, remarking in a letter [page 49:] some two years after the lad had left him that “He is a charming boy,” and inquiring what he was reading. Evidently, even by 1814 or 1815, Poe was one of those strange freaks of nature in a school, a boy who took a lively interest in his books. Mr. Erwin also received payments from John Allan for Edwin Collier, the natural son, from March 15, 1815, to March 15, 1818. In all probability young Collier attended the school in 1815 at the same time as Edgar Poe.(89) There are also indications that Mr. Allan was educating others of his progeny about this time elsewhere, as the firm of Ellis & Allan was called upon by other teachers for their tuition.(90)

There is another side to Edgar Poe’s childhood for which, by the nature of things, there can be very little documentary evidence, yet one that careful inference has every right to draw. It is that of his intimate association with negroes as a Southern boy brought up in Richmond during the days of slavery, and of the profound affect which their rhythms, melodies and folk-tales must have had upon his imagination.

From earliest childhood Poe must also have listened to a continuous stream of oral narratives and exploits related by the sea captains, merchants and adventurers who sat at his foster-father’s table and later on unburdened themselves before the fire. That much of his flair for sea narrative was the result of this seems a warrantable inference.

That the boy often found himself seated by the glowing hearth of many a negro cabin, or, in the slave quarters, listening to the weird tales of the dark tenants and swaying to the syncopations of their songs is inevitable. Northern critics and biographers seem, largely, to have forgotten that Edgar Allan Poe was a Southerner raised in the South. To them, the importance of his early environment, and the romantic and grotesque incidents of the life about him in his early but impressionable boyhood, must, for the most part, on account of their lack of sympathy with something which they have never experienced or suspected, be forever a closed book.

For if there is one thing more than any other which sets off that portion of the Union where Poe was raised, the Old South, “Uncle Sam’s Other Country,” from all other sections, it is the exotic and withal grotesque presence and influence of the negro. He, more than [page 50:] any other factor, he, and the soft languor of its sub-tropical springs and summers, are responsible for the combined squalor and glamor of its ancient villages and towns. Here transplanted to a new environment in a more boreal continent, the negro has created for himself another native habitat, and no one who lives there can fail to come under the peculiar and oft-times fatal influence of his methodical-chaos of life. To this influence the receptive and imaginative mind of young Poe was constantly subjected during the most impressionable years of his childhood.(91)

Like all well bred Virginia boys, he had his own negro “mammy” up until the time when the family left for England in 1812.(92) The life of the white man overshadows and often checks the exuberance and strangeness of the modus vivendi of the darky; the “black secrets” and the magic of his real existence are seldom penetrated by the adult members of the dominant race. Children, however, are always privileged characters, and young Edgar, as a prime favorite and pet of the family, must often have sat by their firesides in the rooms of his foster-father’s house-servants in Richmond, or in the slave-quarters and cabins upon the plantations at which he was a frequent visitor.

There he must have feasted upon corn-pone and listened, while many a tale of Bre’r Rabbit and his ilk went round, while the ghosts, and “hants” and spooks of an ignorant but imaginative and superstitious people walked with hair-raising effect, and songs with melancholy harmonies and strange rhythms beat themselves into his consciousness with that peculiar ecstasy and abandon which only children and the still half-savage individuals of a childish race can experience. Here it was then, rather than upon some mythical journey to France or Russia, that he first laid the foundation for his weird imaginings and the strange “new” cadences which he was to succeed later on in grafting upon the main stream of English poetry. Here too may have arisen his flair for the bizarre, and the concept that birds and animals were speaking characters, and that fear of graves and corpses and the paraphernalia of the charnel, so peculiarly a characteristic of the negro, which haunted him through the rest of his life. Reliable tradition, indeed, has preserved some incidents which confirm the probability.

One Summer, when Edgar was about six years old, the Allans paid a visit to one of the smaller Virginia Springs, and on their way back to Richmond stopped to visit Mrs. Allan’s relatives, the Valentines, at Staunton. Edward Valentine, whose interest in Edgar has already [page 51:] been remarked, was fond of organizing wrestling matches for small money prizes between Edgar and the little pickaninnies with whom he played. He would also take young Poe about the country driving, or seated behind him on horseback. Valentine is responsible for the story that once as they were returning from the country post-office, where Edgar had astonished the rustics with his infant learning by reading a newspaper aloud to them,(93) on the way home, they passed a log cabin near which were several graves. The boy betrayed such nervous terror that Mr. Valentine was forced to take Edgar from his seat behind, and hold him before him on the horse, while the boy kept crying out, “They will run after us and drag me down.” Upon being questioned later, he admitted that it had been the custom of his “mammy” to take him at night to the servant’s quarters — “Where many a tale of grave-yard ghost went round” — and he had been regaled with gruesome stories of cemeteries and horrible apparitions. To such incidents as these there can be little doubt that American Literature owes a considerable debt. The time had come, however, when Edgar Poe was to be removed temporarily from such plantation influences and plunged into the midst of an older, and perhaps more civilized and complicated world. With the cessation of hostilities after the Treaty of Ghent in 1815, John Allan had decided to pay a long deferred visit to England and Scotland, and the family went abroad.

The early Spring and Summer of 1815 must have been largely occupied by the family preparations for the voyage in which Edgar would naturally have taken a lively interest. Frances Allan had been hurt in an accident and the departure was delayed. We catch a final authentic but fleeting glimpse of the boy at this time, when the easy flow of his happy childhood in Richmond was about to be interrupted by an important remove. From the reminiscences of one Dr. C. A. Ambler,(94) afterwards a well known physician, we learn that about this time he used to swim with Edgar Poe at a pool in Shockoe Creek, then situated where the shops of the C. & O. Railroad now stand. Dr. Ambler says that he stripped with Edgar day after day, and that the boy was of a delicate physique and rather timid disposition, taking to the water a [page 52:] bit reluctantly.(95) The testimony as to Poe’s physical development in childhood is not without value, and in many particulars confirms the evidence as to his early appearance. That he was about to be removed to a more bracing climate and exposed to the vigorous and sometimes brutal influences of the playgrounds of English schools for the next five years, cannot but have exerted a powerful influence upon his mental and physical equipment. The sunlight of Virginia, and the mists and snows of Scotland and Stoke Newington are two different things.



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 43:]

76.  See Mrs. Galt’s letter to Frances Allan about the Galt children from Irvine, Scotland, in 1818, Chapter V, page 73.

77.  Poe in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine for April, 1840. “Since the sad experience of my schoolboy days to this present writing, I have seen little to sustain the notion held by some folks, that schoolboys are the happiest of all mortals.”

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 44:]

78.  J. H. Whitty, Memoir, large edition, page xxiv.

79.  Woodberry.

80.  See the discussion of Poe’s early drinking in Chapter IX, page 137.

81.  The history of this church is in itself very interesting and closely connected with the successful reestablishment of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Virginia which had suffered a serious eclipse during the Revolution. Among those prominently concerned with it were Bushrod Washington and Chief Justice Marshall.

82.  The bills and receipts for this are in the Ellis & Allan Papers at Washington.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 47:]

83.  I am indebted to the kindness of Mrs. Mary Newton Stanard for the reminiscences of her grandmother, Mary Brockenbrough, here included. See also J. H. Whitty’s Memoir, large edition, page XXV. Also Mrs. Shew’s account of Poe in church, taken from the Ingram Papers.

84.  Mrs. Susan Archer Weiss in The Home Life of Poe.

85.  For several amusing facts about this gentleman I am indebted to Mr. Edward V. Valentine, the well known sculptor, of Richmond, Virginia, which he related to me in July, 1925.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 48:]

86.  This story rests upon evidence that can be questioned.

87.  I am indebted for the sources of this information to Mr. J. H. Whitty’s Memoir to The Complete Poems.

88.  Letter from William Erwin dated Richmond, November 27th, 1817, to John Allan in London.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 49:]

89.  Letter from William Erwin to John Allan from Richmond, Virginia, November 29, 1815.

Letter from John Allan to William Erwin from London, England, March 21, 1818.

90.  Young Collier seems to have been withdrawn from his former schoolmaster, William Richardson, sometime in 1814 and to have entered with William Erwin, March, 1815. Whether Poe went to school also under William Richardson, or whether Erwin succeeded Richardson in the business is not clear. The whereabouts and names of the other children have only a remote connection with Poe at this time, and, for obvious reasons, they are not elaborated upon in the text.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 50:]

91.  One biographer avoids much of this by saying, “The psychology of a poet’s boyhood is obscure.”

92.  Possibly the “Juliet” or the “Eudocia” mentioned by receipts and the bills of sale as being in John Allan’s household. See note 45 ante.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 51:]

93.  There is an interesting letter in the Ellis & Allan Papers which throws considerable light on the state of culture among the poorer up-country whites at this time, in which one of the Elliscs depicts their incredulity over his prediction of an eclipse of the sun, and their superstitious astonishment at its fulfilment. The mental condition of these “poor whites” seems to have approached that of the medieval peasant during the early renaissance.

94.  This information is given in a letter from Dr. Ambler to Edward V. Valentine of Richmond, which the latter read to the author in July, 1925. The story of Shockoe Creek and its peregrinations and floods is closely interwoven with the history and fate of Richmond. In the early Nineteenth Century, a sudden flood in this stream prevented the perpetration of a massacre by an uprising of the slaves.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 52:]

95.  Dr. Ambler states Poe was about “nine years old at this time.” As Poe was in England during his ninth year, the doctor is mistaken on this point, Poe’s later prowess as a swimmer is in contrast with this early timidity.






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