Text: John H. Ingram, “Chapter 01,” Edgar Allan Poe: Life, Letters, and Opinions (1880), pp. 1-8


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­[page 1, unnumbered:]

EDGAR ALLAN POE.

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CHAPTER I.

PARENTAGE.

EDGAR ALLAN POE was of gentle birth.* His paternal grandfather, General David Poe, the descendant of ancient and highly connected family, was born in Ireland, but, taken at a very early age by his parents to the United States, became a patriotic citizen of his adopted country, and greatly distinguished himself during the War of Independence. The General’s eldest son, David, was destined for the law, and after receiving the usual quantum of education then afforded by the schools of Baltimore — his birthplace — was placed under Mr. William Gwynn, barrister-at-law, to read for the bar.

The youthful student, the future poet’s father, would appear to have found greater attraction in ­[page 2:] the drama than in jurisprudence, and, according to the testimony of a fellow-townsman,* “young Poe and several of his gay companions formed an association called the ‘Thespian Club,’ for the promotion of a taste for the drama. They met in a large room, in a house belonging to General Poe. . . . Here, at their weekly meetings, they recited passages from the old dramatists, and performed the popular plays of the day, for the entertainment of themselves and their friends.” According to the same authority, “David Poe became so infatuated with the stage that be secretly left his home in Baltimore, and went to Charleston, where he was announced to make his ‘first appearance on any stage.’ One of his uncles, William Poe, . . . saw the announcement in the newspapers; he went to Charleston, took David off the stage, and put him in the law office of the Honourable John Forsyth of Augusta,” Georgia, his own (William Poe’s) brother-in-law.

The veritable cause of David’s escapade would appear to have been something even stronger than an infatuation for the stage. Whilst still studying law under Mr. Gwynn, young Poe was sent to Norfolk, Virginia, upon professional business, and there saw and became deeply enamoured of Elizabeth Arnold, a youth ful and beautiful English actress. From Norfolk the ­[page 3:] company to which Miss Arnold was attached migrated to Charleston, whither, apparently, it was followed by the young lady’s admirer. Different reasons have been given to account for the youthful couple’s temporary and compulsory separation; but, have been the facts, they speedily met again, and ultimately were married, the bridegroom being but nineteen, and the bride about the same acre. David Poe’s parents were incensed at the imprudent match, and forbade him the house; and as neither he nor his wife possessed any means of subsistence, they turned to the stage in search of a livelihood.

Many absurd stories have been retailed as to the parentage of Elizabeth Arnold, one widely-circulated rumour declaring her to have been the daughter of General Benedict Arnold, the American traitor. The facts are not yet thoroughly known, but it is believed that her father was an Englishman of very good family, though in impoverished circumstances, who sought refuge in the United States, where he endeavoured to support himself by literature. Elizabeth Arnold herself was born at sea, where her mother is supposed to have died at, or directly after, the child’s birth. The little girl being left fatherless, as well as motherless, whilst still an infant, was, apparently, adopted by some compassionate stranger, and carefully educated for the stage. Eventually the poor little ­[page 4:] orphaned foreigner made her appearance in public, her debut as an actress taking place on August 18th, 1797, at the old John Street Theatre, New York, in the juvenile character of “Maria,” in the farce of The Spoiled Child.* Two nights later she appeared as “Agnes,” in the tragedy of The Mountaineers, and is recorded to have made a very favourable impression by her youth, her beauty, and her precocious ability. Mr. Solee, a well-known impresario of the period, engaged the juvenile débutante for a company he was forming, and under his management, and that of his successors, Messrs. Williamson, Placide, and others, the young English girl became an accomplished actress, ultimately appearing in the leading roles of the tragic drama. Between her first appearance on the New York stage, and her reappearance there in 1806 as Mrs. David Poe, Miss Arnold’s career may be traced at the various theatres of New York, Philadelphia, Norfolk, and Charleston;and it is pleasant to hear her talented son, in the brightest epoch of his own short life, when alluding to his mother’s profession, declare that “no earl was ever prouder of his earldom than he of his descent from a woman who, although well born, hesitated not to consecrate to the drama her brief career of genius and beauty.” ­[page 5:]

In 1806, when Mrs. Poe reappeared in New York, she was accompanied by her husband. The youthful couple were engaged at the new Vauxhall Garden, where the lady made her entrée on the 16th of July, as “Priscilla,” in The Tomboy, whilst Mr. Poe made his first appearance on the New York stage on the 18th, as “Frank,” in Fortune’s Frolic. The lady was young and pretty,” remarks Ireland, “and evinced talent both as singer and actress; the gentleman was literally nothing.”* Eventually the Poes removed from New York to Boston, where they frequently performed. Their various appearances on the stage at the latter city may be traced in i8o8 from the commencement of April until the 3rd of June, the theatre having been opened on the latter date for “one night only,” in honour of the time renowned “Artillery Election.” A noteworthy circumstance, both for the calculators of prenatal influences, and the analytic student of Poe’s works, is that on the 18th of April 1808 — just nine months before the poet’s birth — Mr. and Mrs. Poe appeared in Schiller’s ominous tragedy of The Robbers, and were assisted by their old friends, Mr. and Mrs. Usher. Their thoughts are likely to have been more than usually occupied with the selection of the piece for performance, as it was their benefit night, and, apparently their own ­[page 6:] speculation, they having announced, “That from the great failure and severe losses sustained by their former attempts, they [the Poes and, the Ushers] have been induced to make a joint effort” The role of “Amelia” was assigned to Mrs. Poe, who, towards the end of her brief career, almost invariably undertook the chief female characters, whilst her, husband’s impersonations strangely varied from the leading male down to the most minor personages of the drama.

What became of the Poes during the summer, or what they did for a livelihood until the winter season of 1808-9 commenced, can only be conjectured. Other means of subsistence than those derived from their dramatic labours may have been provided by Mrs. Poe’s abilities: she was an accomplished artist, and left one or two sketches that have been much admired. One of her paintings, that ultimately came into the possession of her celebrated son, was a view of “Boston Harbour: Morning, 1808;” and upon the back of it was inscribed, in a neatly-written round hand, not very dissimilar from the poet’s own beautiful caligraphy, a description ending with the words, “For my little son Edgar, who should ever love Boston, the place of his birth, and where his mother found her best and most sympathetic friends.”

During the winter of 1808-9, the Poes frequently ­[page 7:] appeared on the Boston boards. On the 7th of January, Mrs. Poe was absent from the performance, and on the i 9th, her second son, Edgar, was born. In less than a month the young mother reappeared; and continued playing in Boston until the 9th of April, when she took her. benefit, assuming the Shakesperian rĂ´les of “Ophelia” and “Cordelia,” whilst her husband, whose health was probably breaking, had to content himself with the minor character of “Laertes,” Upon this occasion, as also upon many others, Mrs. Poe sang “a favourite song.”

At the close of the Boston season the young couple, after paying a short visit to Baltimore in order to fetch their little boy from General Poe’s, where he was staying, flitted back to New York. On the 6th of September they appeared at the Park Theatre of that city, in The Castle Spectre, as “Hassan and Angela.”* They wintered in New York, remaining there until the beginning of July, when they removed to Richmond, Virginia, where, it is believed, early in 1811, David Poe died of consumption. Some months after their father’s decease a third child, Rosalie, was born. Mrs. Poe’s own health now began to fail rapidly, and in consequence of her inability to continue her professional engagements, her circumstances became truly deplorable. These facts becoming known, certain ­[page 8:] ladies interested themselves on her behalf, and ministered to her wants. A Mrs. Richards and other Richmond ladies who visited the dying actress, frequently commented, in a manner that has left a lasting impression, upon Mrs. Poe’s evident refinement of manner; and, despite her poverty and sickness, the exquisite neatness of herself and her surroundings. All help, however, was now of slight avail, for on Sunday the 8th of December, the unfortunate lady followed her husband to the tomb, like him dying of decline. On the Tuesday following her death, the Richmond Enquirer contained this announcement: —

“DIED. — On Sunday last, Mrs. Poe, one of the actresses of the company at present playing on the Richmond Boards. By the death of this Lady the Stage has been deprived of one of its chief ornaments. And to say the least of her, she was an interesting Actress, and never failed to catch the applause, and command the admiration, of the beholder.”

Beyond the fleeting memory of her beauty and talent, Mrs. Poe left little for her three fatherless children; but, in after years, the sketches above referred to, and a parcel of her letters, were cherished by her illustrious son, among his most highly-valued treasures. Evidently she was a woman of great intellectual capacity, as is indeed displayed in her portrait by a breadth of brow similar to that possessed by Edgar Poe, and to conceal the masculine appearance of ­[page 9:] which she was accustomed to wear her hair low down over her forehead, as shown in the portrait accompanying the second volume.*

Upon the death of their surviving parent, David Poe’s three children-in accordance with a custom not — unusual in republican countries-were adopted by comparative strangers. Edgar was taken by Mr. John Allan, a wealthy Scotch merchant, married to an American lady and settled in Virginia; William Henry Leonard, the date and place of whose birth is still uncertain, by some relative or friend in Baltimore, and Rosalie, by the family of another Scotchman named McKenzie.


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 1:]

*  Vide Appendix A, for Ancestry.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 2:]

*  E. L. Didier, Life of Edgar A. Poe, pp. 23, 24.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 4:]

*  Ireland, Records of the New York Stage, vol. i. p. 42.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 5:]

*  Records of the New York Stage.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 7:]

*  Dunlop, History of the American Stage, vol. ii p. 265.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 9:]

*  The miniature from which our portrait is copied, is one that accompanied the poet through all his wanderings. Shortly before his death he gave it to a very valued friend, from whom we received it. A second portrait of Mrs. Poe, it may be remarked, remained in the possession of her famous son until his decease, but its subsequent fate is unknown to us. — J. H. I.

  Vide Appendix B.

  Vide Appendix C.


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Notes:

The miniature portrait of Poe’s mother is now in the Gimble Collection of the Philadelphia Free Public Library. It seems most likely that this portrait is a copy made for Poe by Mrs. Shew, and that the original portrait was lost along with Poe’s valise in Philadelphia in 1849. This supposition would help to explain the somewhat odd proportions of the eyes and face in the portrait as it is now known, as Mrs. Shew, while not without talent, was hardly a trained artist.


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[S:0 - EAP:HLLO, 1880] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - E. A. P.: His Life, Letters and Opinions (J. H. Ingram) (Chapter 01)