Text: John H. Ingram, “Chapter 02,” Edgar Allan Poe: Life, Letters, and Opinions (1880), pp. 10-19


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[page 10:]

CHAPTER II.

CHILDHOOD.

EDGAR ALLAN POE was born at Boston, on the 19th of January 1809. His parents’ professional engagements and restricted means could not have permitted them to give any very cordial welcome to this addition to their limited ménage. When the child was only five weeks old it was taken by its parents to Baltimore, and left in the charge of its grandfather’s household, where the beauty and talent of its mother appear to have effected a reconciliation between the General and his prodigal son. After staying some months with his relatives in Maryland, Edgar was reclaimed by his parents, and apparently stayed with his mother until her death in 1811.

The poor little orphan is recorded to have already manifested promise of great beauty. At the solicitations of his wife, Mr. John Allan agreed to adopt the boy, who, for several subsequent years, was to be known as Edgar Allan. Mr. Allan, a native of Ayrshire, Scotland, had emigrated to the United [page 11:] States, and settled in Virginia, where he made a considerable fortune by the purchase and export of tobacco at the time when he adopted this child he was only thirty-one, although, apparently, he had been already long married. Not only was Edgar a handsome and precocious boy, but be was in some way related to his godfather, who had, therefore, every cause to compassionate the little orphan’s condition. In the home of his adoptive parents the boy found much of the luxury wealth could provide, and in the person of Mrs. Allan as much affection as a childless wife could bestow. Edgar won the admiration, even if he did not gain the affection, of Mr. Allan, who became extremely proud of his youthful protégé, and treated him in many respects as his own son. Although little that is trustworthy can now be learned of the poet’s early days, it is worth record that a tenacious memory and a musical ear are said to have enabled him to learn by rote, and declaim with effect, the finest passages of English poetry, to the evening visitors at his godfather’s house. The justness of his emphasis, and his evident appreciation of the poems he recited, made a striking impression upon his audience, while every heart was won by the ingenuous simplicity and agreeable manners of the pretty little elocutionist.” Gratifying as these exhibitions may have been to Mr. Allan’s vanity, the probable consequence of such a system of recurring excitements [page 12:] upon the boy’s morbidly nervous organisation could scarcely fail to prove injurious. Indeed, in after years, the poet bitterly bewailed the pernicious effects of his childhood’s misdirected aims. “I am,” he declared, “the descendant of a race whose imaginative and easily excitable temperament has at all times rendered them remarkable; and in my earliest infancy I gave evidence of having fully inherited the family character. As I advanced in years it was more strongly developed, becoming, for many reasons, a cause of serious disquietude to my friends, and of positive injury to myself. . . . My voice was a household law, and, at an age when few children have abandoned their leading strings, I was left to the guidance of my own will, and became, in all but name, the master of my own actions.”

After receiving the rudiments of his education in an academy at Richmond, Pee accompanied the Allans to Europe, whither they were called on matters connected with the disposal of some property left to Mr. Allan by a relative. Edgar is supposed to have visited several portions of Great Britain in the company of his adoptive parents, and a sister of Mrs. Allan’s. Upon their arrival in London, in 1816, the boy was placed at a school in Stoke Newington, then a distinct town, but now a suburb of the metropolis. Part of the time Edgar was under the charge of the Rev. Dr. Bransby, the Allans resided in the vicinity of Russell [page 13:] Square, whither every recurring Friday he returned, remaining with them until the following Monday.*

The Rev. Dr. Bransby, afterwards so quaintly portrayed by Poe in his story of William Wilson, “is remembered as having had the reputation of being a thorough scholar, very apt at quotation, especially from Shakespeare and Horace,” and also as “a strict disciplinarian.” When young “Allan,” as Edgar was styled, was placed under Dr. Bransby’s care, he was found to be “very backward with his studies, not having had any regular instruction;” but when he left the Stoke Newington Manor House School, “he was able to speak French, construe any easy Latin author, and was far better acquainted with history and literature than many boys of a more advanced age, who had had greater advantages than he had.“† “Edgar Allan” was described by Dr. Bransby as “a quick and clever boy,” who “would have been a very good boy had he not been spoilt by his parents;” as he termed the Allans; “but they spoilt him, and allowed him an extravagant amount of pocket-money, which enabled him to get into all manner of mischief. Still I liked the boy,” added the schoolmaster; “poor fellow, his parents spoilt him.”

To his sojourn in England Poe looked back with [page 14:] anything but ungrateful reminiscences, as a reference to his tale of William Wilson proves. His description of Stoke Newington, as it was when he resided there, is unusually accurate in its suggestive details. Many of the features of his school and school-life are reproduced with a graphicality unequalled anywhere, save in the parallel records of Balzac’s “Louis Lambert.” It is not presuming too much upon the probabilities to suggest, that much of the gloom and glamour which pervade Poe’s writings originated in the strangeness and isolation of the lad’s position in that foreign and “excessively ancient house,” of that “misty looking village of England.” The dreamy walks, even now overshadowed by immemorial elms, and the mouldering dwellings that then abounded — some few remain — in the vicinity of his English schoolhouse, could not fail to exercise a marked influence upon a mind so morbidly sensitive to impressions as was Poe’s; nor can it be doubted that in the lustrum of his life there spent he acquired some portion at least of that curious and outré classic lore which, in after years, became one of the chief ornaments of his weird works.

When Poe resided at Stoke Newington the Manor House school-grounds occupied a very large area; but of late years, owing to the continuous encroachments of enterprising builders, they have been much circumscribed [page 15:] in extent, and the house greatly altered in appearance. The description of the place, as well as the representation of his school-life there, had, the poet declared, been faithfully given in William Wilson, but in order to trace out this vraisemblance — at least, as regards the building and some minor data — the earliest known version of the story must be referred to, subsequent revisions which it afterwards underwent at its author’s hands having somewhat detracted from its fidelity to fact. “The large, rambling, Elizabethan house,” into which Poe ultimately, and evidently for the purpose of heightening the picturesque effect, metamorphosed the “old, irregular, and cottage-built” dwelling, portrayed more correctly the appearance of a fine old manorial residence that formerly faced the school, but which quite recently has been ruthlessly razed for “improvements.”

“In truth,” remarks the soi-disant “William Wilson,” it was a dream-like and spirit-soothing place, that venerable old town,” and it is not strange the boy’s plastic mind should have retained, indelibly imprinted upon it, a vivid impression of “the refreshing chilliness of its deeply-shadowed avenues,” and, in fancy, “inhale the fragrance of its thousand shrubberies, and tbrill anew with indefinable delight at the deep hollow note of the church-bell, breaking each hour, with sullen and sudden roar, upon the stillness [page 16:] of the dusky atmosphere in which the old fretted Gothic steeple lay imbedded and asleep.”

Within this dream-engendering place the quondam Edgar Allan spent about five years of his brief existence; and, notwithstanding the apparent monotony of school-life, was doubtless fully justified in looking back upon the days passed in that venerable academy with pleasurable feelings. “The teeming brain of childhood,” to repeat Poe’s own words, “requires no external world of incident to occupy or amuse it. The morning’s awakening, the nightly summons to bed; the connings, the recitations, the periodical half holidays and perambulations; the playground, with its broils, its pastimes, its intrigues — these, by a mental sorcery long forgotten, were made to involve a wilderness of sensation, a world of rich incident, a universe of varied emotion, of excitement the most passionate and spirit-stirring. ‘Oh, le bon temps, que ce siècle de fer!‘”

“Old and irregular,” as the poet described it, the house still is. “The grounds,” he remarks further, ” were extensive, and a high and solid brick wall, topped with a bed of mortar and broken glass, encompassed the whole. This prison-like rampart formed the limit of our domain; beyond it we saw but thrice a week — once every Saturday afternoon, when, attended by two ushers, we were permitted to take brief walks in a body through some of the neighbouring fields — and twice during Sunday, when we were paraded in the same [page 17:] formal manner to the morning and evening service in tlreone church of the village. Of this church the principal of our school was pastor. With how deep a spirit of wonder and perplexity was I wont to regard him from our remote pew in the gallery, as, with step solemn and slow, he ascended the pulpit! This reverend man, with countenance so demurely benign, with robes so glossy and so clerically flowing, with wig so minutely powdered, so rigid and so vast, — could this be he who, of late, with sour visage, and in snuffy habiliments, administered, ferule in hand, the Draconian laws of the academy? Oh, gigantic paradox, too utterly monstrous for solution!

“At an angle of the ponderous wall frowned a more ponderous gate. It was riveted and studded with iron bolts, and surmounted with jagged iron spikes. What impressions of deep awe did it inspire! It was never opened save for the three periodical egressions and ingressions already mentioned; then, in every creak of its mighty hinges, we found a plenitude of mystery — a world of matter for solemn remark, or for more solemn meditation.

“The extensive enclosure was irregular in form, having many capacious recesses. Of these, three or four of the largest constituted the playground. It was level, and covered with fine hard gravel. I well remember it bad no trees, nor benches, nor anything similar within it. Of course it was in the rear of the house. In front lay a small parterre, planted with box and other shrubs; but through this sacred division we passed only upon rare occasions indeed — such as a first advent to school or final departure thence, or perhaps, when a parent or friend having called for us, we joyfully took our way home for the Christmas or Midsummer holidays.

“But the house! — how quaint an old building was this! — [page 18:] to me how veritably a palace of enchantment! There was really no end to its windings — to its incomprehensible sub divisions. It was difficult, at any given time, to say with certainty upon which of its two stories one happened to be. From each room to every other there were sure to be found three or four steps either in ascent or descent. Then the lateral branches were innumerable — inconceivable — and so returning in upon themselves, that our most exact ideas in regard to the whole mansion were not very far different from those with which we pondered upon infinity. During the five years of my residence here, I was never able to ascertain, with precision, in what remote locality lay the little sleeping apartment assigned to myself and some eighteen or twenty other scholars.

“The schoolroom was the largest in the house — I could not help thinking, in the world. It was very long, narrow, and dismally low, with pointed Gothic windows and a ceiling of oak. In a remote and terror-inspiring angle was a square enclosure of eight or ten feet, comprising the sanctum, ‘during hours,’ of our principal, the Reverend Dr. Bransby. It was a solid structure, with massy door, sooner than open which, in the absence of the ‘Dominie,’ we would all have willingly perished by the peine forte et dune. In other angles were two other similar boxes, far less reverenced, indeed, but still greatly matters of awe. One of these was the pulpit of the ’ classical’ usher, one of the ‘English and mathematical.’ Interspersed about the room, crossing and recrossing in endless irregularity, were innumerable benches and desks, black, ancient, and time-worn, piled desperately with much-bethumbed books, and so beseamed with initial letters, names at full length, grotesque figures, and other multiplied efforts of the knife, as to have entirely lost what little of original [page 19:] form might have been their portion in days long departed. A huge bucket with water stood at one extremity of the room, and a clock of stupendous dimensions at the other.”

“The ardour, the enthusiasm, and the imperiousness,” which are declared to have rendered the “William Wilson” of the story a marked character among his schoolmates, so that by slow but natural gradations he obtained an ascendency over all not greatly older than himself, may safely be assumed to represent Poe’s own idiosyncrasies, even at this early epoch of his life. A consistency of passion and thought, however diverted or thwarted by occasional circumstance, runs through Poe’s whole career, and what was truly representative of him at the first is found a faithful portraiture at the last. “In childhood,” he exclaims, “I must have felt with the energy of a man what I now find stamped upon memory in lines as vivid, as deep, and as durable, as the exergues of the Carthaginian medals.”

The lad was recalled to America in 1821, and for some months spent his time in what lie termed “mere idleness,” but which really consisted in composing verses, and in thinking out future poems. Indeed, as he subsequently states, in the interesting Preface to his first printed book, its contents were written during the years 1821-22, and before the author had completed his fourteenth year.


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 13:]

* Mrs. Clemm’s Letters to Judge Neilson Poe.

Athenæum, No. 2660, pp, 496-97, October 19, 1878.


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Notes:

None.


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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 02)