Text: John H. Ingram, “Chapter 05,” Edgar Allan Poe: Life, Letters, and Opinions (1880), pp. 43-53


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[page 43:]

CHAPTER V.

ALMA MATER.

THE University of Virginia, or “Jefferson’s University,” as it has been frequently called in honour of President Jefferson, by whom it was founded, is beautifully situated upon an extensive plateau in the centre of the Old Dominion. It is surrounded by some of the most picturesque scenery in the United States, and in every respect reflects credit upon its worthy and disinterested founder. The establishment of this University was a darling, and indeed a daring, scheme of President Jefferson; and had occupied a very large portion of his time from the first inception of the plan in 1779, until the opening of the institution on March 7th, 1825. The founder’s labours in connection with the — University were immense, and even after all opposition, latent and declared, had been overcome by the successful completion of the various buildings connected with it; and by the engagement of such men for the professorships as Charles Bonnycastle, the late Thomas Hewitt Key, George Long, [page 44:] Dunglison, Blättermann, and other well-known men, his difficulties were by no means ended. His idea had been to make the students their own governors, and in lieu of punishments, to rely upon appeals to their honour and patriotism. A code of laws was framed in accordance with these views, but unfortunately proved useless; and the appeals to “their reason, their hopes, and their generous feelings,” which the illustrious patriot had so firmly relied upon for swaying the youthful multitude, ended in confusion. This disaster arose, apparently, from a mistaken view the students took of the duties required of them. The librarian, Mr. William Wertenbaker, the only surviving officer of the earliest régime, informs us: —

“The session of 1825 was commenced without any discipline at all, and without an effort on the part of the Faculty to enforce obedience to the laws. They were expecting and waiting for the students to inaugurate Mr. Jefferson’s system of self-government, but this they resolutely refused to do. Neither the entreaties of Mr. Jefferson, nor the persuasion of the professors, could induce a single student to accept the office of Censor. The plan was that a Board of Censors, consisting of six of the most discreet students, should inquire into the facts in all cases of minor offences, and name the punishment which they thought proportioned to the offence.

“In this state of affairs, and for several months, insubordination, lawlessness, and riot ruled the institution, and became so intolerable to the professors that they suspended operations, and tendered their resignations to the Board of Visitors. The [page 45:] Board met immediately; abandoned the plan of self-government; enacted new laws; ordered a course of rigid discipline to be pursued, and invested the Faculty with full authority to rule and govern the institution.

“In exercising the power now granted them, the Faculty (as in the circumstances it was quite natural for them to do) perhaps erred in going to the opposite extreme of punishing offenders with too great severity. . . At no period during the past history of the University were the Faculty more diligent in ferreting out offenders, and more severe in punishing them, than during the session of 1826. . . .

“Mr. Poe was a student during the second session, which commenced February 1st, and terminated December 15th, 1826. He signed the matriculation book on the 14th of February, and remained in good standing until the session closed. . . . He entered the schools of Ancient and Modern Languages, attending the lectures on Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, and Italian. I was a member of the last three classes, and can testify that he was tolerably regular in his attendance, and a successful student, having obtained distinction at the final examination in Latin and French, and this was at that time the highest honour a student could obtain. The present regulations in regard to degrees had not then been adopted. Under existing regulations, he would have graduated in the two languages above-named, and have been entitled to diplomas.”

Dr. Harrison, Chairman of the Faculty, fully confirms this statement of Poe’s classmate, stating that the poet was a great favourite among his fellow-students at Charlottesville, and that he is remembered for the remarkable rapidity with which he prepared his recitations, [page 46:] and their general accuracy; his translations from the living languages being especially noteworthy.

Many of his classmates still retain a vivid recollection of their gifted companion, not from the fact of any particular geniality or bonhomie on his part, for he was always of a wayward and exclusive disposition, but from his self-reliant pride, and from the indisputable fact that he was facile princeps in nearly all their pursuits, mental and physical. Mr. John Willis, a fellow-student at the University,* recalls Poe as one who “had many noble qualities,” and whom nature had endowed “with more of genius, and a far greater diversity of talent, than any other whom it had been my lot to have known,” but, adds this gentleman, “his disposition was rather retiring, and he had few intimate associates.”

This reserve of Poe is noticed and confirmed by many others who came in general contact with him. Mr. Thomas Bolling, another of his fellow-students; says, “I was acquainted with him in his youthful days, but that was about all. My impression was, and is, that no one could say that he knew him. He wore a melancholy face always, and even his smile — for I do not ever remember to have seen him laugh — seemed to be forced. When he engaged sometimes with others in athletic exercises, in which, so far as high or long [page 47:] jumping, I believe he excelled all the rest, Poe, with the same ever sad face, appeared to participate in what was amusement to the others, more as a task than sport. Upon one occasion, upon a slight declivity, he ran and jumped twenty feet, which was more than the others could do, although some attained nineteen feet. His chief competitor in these exercises was Labranche, an especial friend of mine from Louisiana, who, although of lower stature by several inches, had had the advantage, previous to entering the University, of being educated in France, where gymnastics are taught and practised as part of the course.” Powell, in his Authors of America, alludes to Poe having had the habit of covering the walls of his dormitory with charcoal sketches; Mr. John Willis states that he had a talent for drawing, and that the walls of his room at college were completely covered with his crayon sketches, whilst Mr. Bolling mentions in connection with his artistic facility the following suggestive incidents. The two young men invested in Byron’s Poems, purchasing copies of an English edition that contained several handsome steel engravings, Poe appeared much interested in these plates, and upon visiting him a few days later, Mr. Bolling found him engaged in copying one with crayon on the ceiling of his dormitory. He continued to amuse himself in this way from time to time, says our authority, until he had filled all the space in his [page 48:] room. These life-size figures were, in the memory of those who saw them, extremely ornamental and attractive, but all such vestiges of his boyish aspirations have long since disappeared. Mr. Bolling remarks that he never saw Poe attempt to sketch anything on paper, as if, indeed, such material afforded too limited a space for the boundless fancies of his youthful ambition.

Mr. Bolling remembers that when he was talking to his eccentric associate, Poe continued to scratch away with his pencil as if writing, and when his visitor jestingly remarked on his want of politeness, lie answered that he had been all attention, and proved that he had by suitable comment, giving as a reason for his apparent want of courtesy that he was trying to divide his mind — carry on a conversation, and at the same time write sense on a totally different subject! Several times did Mr. Bolling detect him engaged in these attempts at mental division; and he says the verses handed to him as the part results of the dual labours certainly rhymed pretty well. Whether this reminiscence only affords an early instance of Poe’s inveterate love of quizzical mystification, or, as is more probable, of his attempts at mental analysis, it is wonderfully suggestive of the later man.

Powell records that the poet’s time at the University [page 49:] was divided between lectures, debating societies, and rambles in the Blue Ridge mountains, and of this last-named occupation — so congenial to one who shrank from contact with unsympathising or uncomprehending companions — Poe has left some vivid reminiscences in various parts of his works. Alone, or accompanied only by a dog, he was in the habit of making long expeditions into what he deemed the “wild and dreary hills that lie westward and southward of Charlottesville, and are there dignified by the title of the Ragged Mountains.” Alluding to a solitary ramble through the unfrequented fastnesses of this chain of lofty hills, he indulges in the following train of ideas, so accordant with his theories of thought: — ‘The scenery which presented itself on all sides, although scarcely entitled to be called grand, had about it an indescribable and, to me, a delicious aspect of dreary desolation. The solitude seemed absolutely virgin. I could not help believing that the green sods and the gray rocks upon which I trod had been trodden never before by the foot of a human being. So entirely secluded, and in fact inaccessible, except through a series of accidents, is the entrance of the ravine, that it is by no means impossible that I was indeed the first adventurer — the very first and sole adventurer who had ever penetrated its recesses.”

But these lonely rambles and their attendant day-dreams [page 50:] were the occasional relaxations of a hard-working student; among the professors he had the reputation of being a sober, quiet, orderly young man, and the officials of the University bear witness to the fact that his behaviour was uniformly that of an intelligent and polished gentleman. In evidence of his generally studious conduct Mr. Wertenbaker records that, “on one occasion Professor Blättermann requested his Italian class to render into English verse a portion of the lesson in Tasso, which he had assigned them for the next lecture. He did not require this of them as a regular class exercise, but recommended it as one from which he thought the student would derive benefit. At the next lecture on Italian, the professor stated from his chair that ‘Mr. Poe was the only member of the class who had responded to his suggestion,’ and paid a very high compliment to his performance.”

Referring to his own personal experience of the youthful poet, Mr. Wertenbaker says, “As librarian I had frequent official intercourse with Mr. Poe, but it was at or near the close of the Session before I met him in the social circle. After spending an evening together at a private house, he invited me, on our return, into his room. 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 [page 51:] 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 lie had contracted, during the session. If my memory be not at fault, he estimated his indebtedness at $2000, and though they were gaming debts, he was earnest and emphatic in the declaration that he was bound by honour to pay them at the earliest opportunity.” Whilst at the University, Poe appears to have been much addicted to gambling, seeking, in the temporary excitement and absorbing nature of cards, that refuge from sorrowful thought which he subsequently sought for in other sources. Although his practice of gaming did escape detection, Mr. Wertenbaker assures us that “the hardihood, intemperance, and reckless wildness imputed to him by biographers — had he been guilty of them — must inevitably have come to the knowledge of the Faculty, and met with merited punishment. The records,” he continues, “of which I was then, and am still, the custodian, attest that at no time during the Session did he fall under the censure of the Faculty.” Although Poe may, and doubtless did, occasionally take his share in a college frolic, Mr. Wertenbaker most emphatically repudiates the assertion that he was habitually intemperate, adding, ” I often [page 52:] saw him in the lecture room and in the library, but never in the slightest degree under the influence of intoxicating liquors.”

“Poe’s connection with the University was dissolved by the termination of the session, on the 15th of December 1826, when he wanted little more than a month to attain the age of eighteen. The date of his birth was plainly entered in his own handwriting on the matriculation book. . . He never returned to the University, and I think it probable that the night I visited him was the last he spent here,” says our informant, drawing this inference from the fact that, having no further need of his candles and table, the poet used them for fuel.

As an interesting and suggestive memento of Poe’s residence at Charlottesville, Mr. Wertenbaker has furnished us with a copy, from the register, of a list of books the poet borrowed from the library whilst a student; and those who have studied his works will recognise the good use made, in after life, of the young collegian’s selection. Rollin’s “Histoire Ancienne,” “Histoire Romaine,” Robertson’s “America,” Marshall’s “Washington,” Voltaire’s “Histoire Particulière,” and Dufief’s “Nature Displayed,” are the works he made use of.

Short as was Edgar Poe’s University career, he left such honourable memories behind him, that his alma [page 53:] mater has been only too proud to enrol his name among her sons. His adopted father, however, does not appear to have regarded his godson’s collegiate proceedings with equal favour; whatever view he may have taken of the lad’s scholastic successes, he resolutely refused to liquidate his gambling debts — his debts of honour — and the consequence was a violent altercation, terminating in the young student hastily quitting his home, with the determination of trusting to his own resources to make his way in the world. For a time he appears to have thought of supporting himself by literature, and, like most neophytes in that career, commenced with a volume of verse. Additional motive for his hasty departure from Richmond may be found in the fact of Miss Royster’s marriage to Mr. Shelton, an event doubtless commemorated in some lines “To —,” included in his first — the 1827 — volume, beginning

“I saw thee on the bridal day,

When a burning blush came o‘er thee;

Though happiness around thee lay,

The world all love before thee.”

It may well be conjectured that a youth of Poe’s proud and impetuous disposition would scarcely remain plodding quietly at home, constantly in sight of another enjoying happiness which he had, presumedly, lost.


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 46:]

* In a letter to the late Mrs. Whitman.


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Notes:

The chairman of the faculty at the University of Virginia in 1880 was Dr. James F. Harrison, who should not be convused with Dr. James Albert Harrsion, who, slightly later, also taught at the University of Virginia, and ultimately edited a 17-volume collection of Poe’s works (published in 1902).


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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 05)