Text: William F. Gill, “Chapter 01”, The Life of Edgar Allan Poe, New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1877, pp. 3-6


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­[page 9:]

THE LIFE

OF

EDGAR ALLAN POE.

———♦———

CHAPTER I.

ANCESTRY.

The Origin of the Family Name, Italian — Founding of the Race in Ireland — Family Feud with the Desmonds — Dispersion of the Families by Cromwell — Heroic Defence of Don Isle — The Powers and Lady Blessington — General David Poe — The Poet Counsellor — The Ballad of “Gramachree” — David Poe, Jr., and his Runaway Match — Poe’s Actress Mother — Convivial Southern Customs and their Consequences — Place of Poe’s Birth — Death of Poe’s Parents.

THE name Poe is an old Italian name, and the minutest genealogical research finds it antedating the river Po, which, it is presumed, followed the original spelling of the princely family from which it was named. The family, like that of the Geraldines, and other Anglo-Norman settlers in Ireland, passed from Italy into the north of France, and from France, through England and Wales, into Ireland, where, from their isolated position and other causes, they retained for a long period their hereditary traits, with far less modification, from intermarriage and ­[page 10:] consociation with other races, than did their English compeers.

Meantime, the name underwent various changes in accent and orthography.

We find descendants of the parent family rooted in Ireland as far back as 1327, the name in its Gallic form being spelled le Poer.

The disastrous civil war at this period, in which all the great barons of the country were involved, was occasioned by a personal feud between Arnold le Poer and. Maurice of Desmond, the former having offended the dignity of the Desmond by calling him a rhymer.

We can well imagine that, sprung from a race to which the improvisation of poetry is a second nature, the sensitive ear of the le Poer could illy brook the ruder song of the untutored Celt.

Readers of the life of our poet will probably be impressed with the curious coincidence presented in his life-long battle with less cultured adversaries, with this contest of his Norman ancestor and his less gifted opponent. But the constitutional characteristics of the le Poers were at all times apparently distinguished by these marked combative elements, and as Mrs. Whitman ­[page 11:] remarks, in her admirable exposition of the literary career of Poe,’’the possible influence, on a character so anomalous as that of Edgar Poe, of the mental and constitutional peculiarities of his ancestors, are certainly worthy of note.”

During the reign of Henry II. of England, we find Sir Roger le Poer in Ireland, aa Marshal to Prince John. Here he became the founder of a race connected with some of the most romantic, and chivalrous incidents of Irish history.

The heroic daring of Arnold le Poer, Seneschal of Kilkenny Casde, who, we gather from Mrs. Whitman, interposed, at the ultimate sacrifice of his liberty and his life, to save a noble lady from an ecclesiastical trial for witchcraft, the first ever instituted in the kingdom, was chronicled by Geraldus Cambrensis, and has been commemorated by recent historians.

A transcript of the story, as told by Geraldus, may be found in Ennemoser’s “Magic,” and in White’s’’History of Sorcery.”

The characteristics of the le Poers were marked and distinctive.

They were improvident, adventurous, and recklessly brave. They were deeply involved in the ­[page 12:] Irish troubles of 1641; and when Cromwell invaded Ireland, he pursued them with a special and relentless animosity.

Their families were dispersed their estates ravaged, and their lands forfeited.

Of the three leading branches of the family at the time of Cromwell’s invasion, Kilmaedon, Don Isle, and Curraghmore, only the last escaped his vengeance. The present representative of Curraghmore is the Marquis of Waterford.

Cromwell’s siege of the sea-girt castle and fortress of Don Isle, which was heroically defended by a female descendant of Nicholas le Poer, Baron of Don Isle, is, as represented by Sir Bernard Burke in his “Romance of the Aristocracy,” full of legendary interest. The domain of Powerscourt took its name from the le Poers, and was for centuries in the possession of the family.

Lady Blessington, through her father, Edmond . Power, claimed descent from the same old Norman family.*

A few branches of the family in Ireland still bore the old Italian name De la Poe, which, naturally, in its Anglicized form, became Poe. ­[page 13:]

John Poe, the great-grandfather of Edgar Allan Poe, married a daughter of Admiral McBride, distinguished for his naval achievements, and connected with some of the most illustrious families of England.

From genealogical records transmitted by him to his son David Poe, the grandfather of the poet, who was but two years of age when his parents left Ireland, it appears that different modes. of spelling the name were adopted by different members of the same family.

David Poe was accustomed to speak of the Chevalier le Poer, a friend of the Marquis de Grammont, as having been of his father’s family.

The grandfather of our poet was an officer in the Maryland line during the war of the Revolution, and an intimate friend of General LaFayette.

General Poe was, in the true sense of the word, a patriot. To furnish provisions, forage and clothing to the destitute government troops, he stripped himself of his entire patrimony. For this, he never instituted a claim, nor for services rendered to the United States as an officer; but for actual money loaned, he claimed forty thousand dollars. Owing to technical informalities in the vouchers ­[page 14:] (which consisted principally of letters from Washington and LaFayette), he received no portion of the sum. The Maryland legislature, however, subsequently allowed his widow a pension, and, in the preamble of the act, expressed their satisfaction of the equity of the claim while they deplored the legal insufficiency of the proofs to support it. General Poe was one of the most intimate personal friends of LaFayette, who, during his memorable visit to America in 1824, called upon the widow, publicly acknowledged the obligations of the country to her husband, expressed his astonishment at finding her in comparative indigence, and evinced his strong indignation at the narrow-minded policy of the government. We gather a few particulars of this interview from the late “Baltimore Gazette,” and other papers of the time: “General LaFayette affectionately embraced Mrs. Poe, exclaiming at the same time, in tears,’ The last time I embraced you, madame, you were younger and more blooming than now.’ He visited, with his staff, the grave of General Poe, in ‘the First Presbyterian Church-yard,’ and kneeling on the ground, kissed the sod above him, and, weeping, exclaimed, ­[page 15:]Ici repose un cœur noble!’ — here lies a noble heart! — a just tribute to the memory of a good, if not a great, man.”

A relative of David Poe, belonging to the Irish branch, although a lawyer by profession, was, like his now famous descendant, possessed of the divine afflatus, and one of his ballads so fascinated Robert Bums, the Scottish poet, that he included it in a collection of Scottish songs and ballads, ancient and modern, which, with anecdotes of their authors, says Cunningham, exists in the handwriting of Bums in an interleaved copy of the first four volumes of Johnson’s “Musical Museum,” which the poet presented to Captain Riddel, of Friar’s Corse.

We quote the beautiful ballad, with Bums’ introductory comment:

“The song of ‘Gramachree’ was composed by Mr. Poe, a counsellor at law in Dublin. This anecdote I had from a gentleman who knew the lady, the ‘Molly,’ who is the subject of the song, and to whom Mr. Poe sent the first manuscript of these most beautiful verses.* I do not remember any single line that has more pathos than ­[page 16:]

“ ‘How can she break the honest heart

That wears her in its core!’”

————

As down on Banna’s banks I stray’d,

One evening in May,

The little birds in blithest notes

Made vocal every spray;

They sang their little notes of love!

They sang them o’er and o’er:

Ah! gramachree, mo challie nouge.

Mo Molly Astore.

 

The daisy pied, and all the sweets

The dawn of nature yields.

The primrose pale, the violet blue.

Lay scatter’d o’er the fields;

Such fragrance in the bosom lies

Of her whom I adore:

Ah I gramachree, mo challie nouge,

Mo Molly Astore.

 

I laid me down upon a bank.

Bewailing my sad fate.

That doom’d me thus the slave of love,

And cruel Molly’s hate. ­[page 17:]

How can she break the honest heart

That wears her in its core!

Ah! gramachree, mo challie nouge,

Mo Molly Astore.

 

You said jou loved me, Molly dear:

Ah! why did I believe?

Yes, who could think such tender words

Were meant but to deceive?

That love was all I ask’d on earth,

Nay, Heaven could give no more!

Ah! gramachree, mo challie nouge,

Mo Molly Astore.

 

Oh! had I all the flocks that graze

On yonder yellow hill.

Or low’d for me the numerous herds

That yon green pastures fill.

With her I love I’d gladly share

My kine and fleecy store:

Ah! gramachree, mo challie nouge.

Mo Molly Astore.

 

Two turtle doves, above my head,

Sat courting on a bow;

I envy’d them their happiness,

To see them bill and coo;

Such fondness once for me she show’df

But now, alas! ‘tis o’er

Ah! gramachree, mo challie nouge.

Mo Molly Astore. ­[page 18:]

 

Then fare thee well, my Molly dear,

Thy loss I still shall moan;

Whilst life remains in Strephon’s heart.

Twill beat for thee alone.

Though thou art false, may Heaven on thee

Its choicest blessings pour!

Ah! gramachree, mo challie nouge,

Mo Molly Astore.

General Poe married a Pennsylvania lady by the name of Cairnes, who is still remembered as having been a woman famous for her singular beauty. They had five children, of whom the fourth, David, was the father of the poet. The manners and customs prevailing among the better class of Southerners, at this period when David Poe, Jr., was growing into manhood, were litde calculated to foster healthful moral restraints in the younger generation.

The punch-bowl was as indispensable a fixture in the hall as was the card-basket, and potations from the generous liquor were as freely and innocently indulged in as are draughts of ice-water at the present time. The custom probably came into vogue during the days of the Revolution, and doubtless answered well for campaigners, with irksome out-of-door duties. In the ­[page 19:] warm climate of the South its baleful effects soon came to be felt, but not until the manhood of many well-intentioned young men had been unwittingly sacrificed by the acquisition of a habit of drink quite beyond control. David Poe, Jr., not unnaturally, fell a victim to the indulgences of the flowing bowl, and manifested indications of a weakness which excited great solicitude among his family and friends.

While yet a law student in the office of William Gwynne, Esq., Baltimore, Maryland, he became enamoured with Elizabeth Arnold, a young English actress of considerable repute, and, at the age of eighteen, eloped with and married her.

His parents, with the reprehensible contempt for the stage which then obtained, and which, more is the pity, still obtains to a great degree, disowned the younjg man, and he was thrown upon his own resources. Naturally enough, he went upon the stage, supporting his wife in several of her engagements throughout the country, but, with his limited experience, never, of course, attaining any position of importance.

Upon the birth of their first child, William Henry Leonard Poe, a reconciliation between ­[page 20:] him and his family was, according to some accounts, cemented; but we doubt if David Poe returned to the paternal mansion, for Edgar was born in Boston, while his mother was playing an engagement there, and all accounts agree that the couple remained upon the stage up to the time of their death. Mrs. Poe died from pneumonia, during an engagement at the Richmond Theatre, December 8, 1811.

In the files of the Richmond Enquirer of that year, under date of December 10, is found the following obituary notice:

“Died, on Sunday last, Mrs. Poe, one of the actresses of the company now playing on the Richmond boards. By the death of this lady the stage has been deprived of one of its brightest ornaments, and, to say th least of her, she was an interesting actress, and never failed to catch the applause and command the admiration of the beholder.”

Poe’s father was one of the victims of the burning of the Richmond Theatre on the 26th of the same month in which Mrs. Poe died.*

Their three orphaned children, William Henry, Edgar, and Rosalie, all of tender years, were left unprovided for, but the general sympathy aroused at the time by the fire was extended to them, and they were all well cared for by kind friends.


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 12:]

* Illustrated London News, June 9, 1849.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 15, running to the bottom of page 16:]

* Burns also apologized for placing an Irish poem in a ­[page 16:] collection in which it had no legitimate place. He evidently wished to embalm Mr. Poe’s exquisite verses in a permanent form, and was willing, in his admiration of them, to disregard the fitness of things.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 20:]

* Some authorities state that Mr. Poe died of consumption, two weeks after the death of his wife.


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Notes:

None.

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[S:0 - WFG, 1877] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - The Life of Edgar Allan Poe [Chapter 01] (W. F. Gill, 1877)