Text: Douglas Sherley, “Old Oddity Papers — IV [Part 01],” Virginia University Magazine, March 1880, vol. XIX, No. 6, pp. 376-381


­[page 376:]






THERE ARE several periods in the life of Edgar Allan Poe that are overshadowed like the man himself, by a mist of uncertainty and false reports that the strong sunlight of these latter years of diligent investigation and laborious literary research have as yet been unable to clear away, save only perhaps in some small degree or minor detail. Those years spent in the ­[page 377:] Manor-House school at Stoke-Newington, England; his stay here at the University during the second session; and that more than a year of unrecorded wanderings in the Old Country.

That first period he has himself beautifully pictured in that half-biographical, strongly suggestive tale of his own life, “William Wilson.” These are his words, and they with the context are about all that we know of that early period that seems to have been given over almost entirely to an ideal life of day dreams and quiet, delightful reverie: “My earliest recollections,” says he, “of a school-life are connected with a large, rambling Elizabethan house, in a misty In village of England, where were a vast number of gigantic and gnarled trees, and where all the houses were excessively ancient. In truth, it was a dreamlike and spirit-soothing place, that venerable old town. At this moment in fancy I feel the refreshing chilliness of its deeply-shadowed avenues, inhale the fragrance of its thousand shrubberies, and thrill anew with indefinable delight, at the deep, hollow note of the church-bell, breaking; each hour with sullen and sudden roar upon the stillness of the dusky atmosphere in which the fretted Gothic. steeple lay imbedded and asleep.”

Of the third period, his wanderings in a foreign land, we know absolutely nothing. So wild have been the stories told concerning that time that it is not surprising that they have been used to prove a denial in regard to his ever having left this country at the time supposed; but the mere fact of his having gone abroad can hardly be doubted. Nothing could ever induce him to talk about that period of his life.

But it is of this second period that we have mentioned — his stay here at the University — that we now propose to dwell upon for a little while. And over this particular period there seems to be nearly, if not quite, as much obscurity ­[page 378:] as over any other period of this strange man’s peculiarly eventful life.

While the late Dr. Socrates Maupin was Chairman of the University Faculty, he, in answer to oft-repeated enquiries concerning Poe’s career while here, obtained from Mr. Wertenbaker an accurate statement concerning Edgar Allan Poe that has appeared in several memoirs of his life, and that most satisfactorily refutes the long-current, widely circulated notion that Poe was expelled from this institution.

This manly, straightforward explanation from the pen of our much-loved and venerable Librarian that we are under the impression also appeared some years ago in an issue of this Magazine, is, as far as we know, the only authentic account of Poe while here at the University. But by a mere chance the collector of the Old Oddity Papers is now enabled to bring to light a few hitherto unpublished facts concerning Poe and his short University career.

Appended to an article — “Our University — George Long,” in the last number (February) of the Magazine, there was the following note:

“Any information concerning the former Professors of the University and all other interesting information connected therewith, will be very gladly received by the writer, Direct communications to D7XS6=N, care of A. P. Bibb, Ass. Postmaster, University of Va.”

Quite a number of Magazines were mailed to the different addresses, kindly furnished by Mr. Wertenbaker, of a good many old students; especially to those who had been here during some of the early sessions of the University.

This note has met with some very prompt and curious responses from those men who in their old age vividly remember the happy days spent here, and who yet feel so deep an interest in their Alma Mater.

Two of these letters in particular have been placed at the disposal of the Old Oddity Paper collector, one of them concerning Edgar Allan Poe, who was an intimate friend while here of this old student, who indited the interesting ­[page 379:] epistle now before us. The other one is somewhat of a biographical sketch of a varied career here in which an absorbing love affair, that ever afterwards strongly colored the man’s whole existence, plays a prominent part; this latter one we purpose touching upon in the next number of the Old Oddity Papers, that is to be styled “The Romance of College Life.”

The writer of the first letter mentioned, relating to Poe, was undoubtedly one of The Boys. He says that while such men as Gessner Harrison, Henry Tutwiler and Phil. Cocke were studying hard and were very observant of all the college obligations, that Poe and himself and their gay, rollicking set of jovial companions were in for having what they always had, the best of times, and as a consequence were much given to non-attendance at lectures, and entertaining a good-humored disregard for all restraints and regulations imposed by the Faculty.

Notwithstanding this good, easy kind of convivial life, Poe and his North Carolina friend (who wishes to have his name withheld) managed to spend a great portion of their time in the University Library, engaged in reading the histories of Lingard and Hume; while to them the whole field of English poetry from Chaucer to Scott was perfectly familiar, and it was one of their favorite pastimes to engage for hours in writing to each other those passages of particular beauty and striking thought that had most especially attracted their attention.

How delightful it must have been, plucking delicious lotus-leaves from off the same “enchanted stem, laden with flower and fruit,” with such a one as Edgar Allan Poe! Not strange that the writer looks back with so much genuine pleasure to those days of his life spent here at the University — days that might be termed, by those matter-of-fact but well-meaning people who are so utterly devoid of the keen appreciation of an inter-communion of congenial souls, as misspent time and woful neglect of the opportunities of the ­[page 380:] golden hours of youth that never come again. After all there seems to be a touch of grim philosophy in the old saying that we are “never young but once.[[”]]

The Soul of Genius cannot uncomplainingly bear the distasteful and ever-burdensome trammels of a hum-drum, everyday, commonplace life. It is, therefore, not a matter of much surprise that the methodical ploddings up the well-beaten road that led to knowledge were not to the liking of such men as Poe and his friend. They were eager to wander aside from off the much-travelled paths. The roadside flowers within the reach of all and that were covered with the dust of that broad avenue called “Everybody’s Way,” had no sweet attractiveness for them; but over the high walls of sameness and conventionality, that shut in this broad avenue and on which were written “You are forbidden to climb’’ — over on that other side beyond the crowd they loved to wander in new-made paths, gathering those intellectual blossoms unsullied by the dust that falls from off the feet of the money-seeking, worldly-wise multitude.

There is nothing that we should more strongly deprecate than that too often indulged tendency of morbidly believing that one’s self is misunderstood and not sufficiently appreciated. This is a tendency that seems to be quite perfectly developed in very young and foolish boys who are much given to a voluminous supply of unbearable rhymes or, perhaps, even venture on “An Ode to Spring,” or that “namby-pamby sentimentality” indigenous to the mental soil of the silly school-girl that finds vent in a flood of copious tears shed on the bosom of some dear friend of three days’ standing, to whom an everlasting (?) friendship has been pledged, and who on perhaps the very next day assumes the formidable shape of the most bitter and sworn enemy, and who was an insatiate appetite for powdered chalk, slate-pencils and pickles. Like Tennyson’s poor Mariana, they declare themselves aweary of this cold, unappreciative world and rashly wish themselves dead, and who, if the truth was ­[page 381:] really known, are most likely subject to violent attacks of dyspepsia, or diurnal after-dinner spells of a bad indigestion.

Yet notwithstanding this common and to a great extent lamentably true notion of being misunderstood, there is another class entirely different from the one just named. People who from their earliest recollection have actually suffered an inexpressible amount of embarrassment and misery from the painful consciousness of being so different from their fellow-creatures, and who have spent years in the vain effort to be commonplace, and thus save themselves from the critical observation of those with whom they mingle in the affairs of daily life.

To this latter class, according to his intimate friend, belonged Edgar Allan Poe.

This friend’s description of Poe is an almost exact counterpart of Lord Beaconsfield’s portraiture of his remarkable father, Isaac Disraeli: “* * * indicating by the whole carriage of his life, that he was of a different order from those among whom he lived. Timid, susceptible, lost in reverie, fond of solitude or seeking no better company than a book, the years had stolen on, till he had arrived at that mournful period of boyhood when eccentricities excite attention and command no sympathy.”

Just such a boy was Edgar Allan Poe when seventeen years of age and a student at the University. In his own particular little circle of choice and true friends, he was very highly thought of, and perhaps by some of them partly understood, but among the great body of students he was forced into that position of a peculiar uniqueness, born of a marked individuality, and a satisfied consciousness of being something more than the ordinary run of the easy-going, jostling crowd of commonplace humanity.




The unnamed student from North Carolina is identified in the second installment of this article as Thomas Goode Tucker. Douglas Sherley may have been George Douglass Sherley (1857-1917), who was born in Louisville, KY, died in Martinsville, IN, and is buried in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, KY. On the paper wrappers for the Virginia University Magazine, his name appears only as Douglas Sherley, noting that he was a member of the Jefferson Society and one of the editors.


[S:1 - VUM, 1880] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Old Oddity Papers: IV [Part 01] (D. Sherley, 1880)