Text: Charles W. Kent, “Poe’s Student Days at the University of Virginia,” Bookman, January 1917, Vol. 44, no. 5, pp. 517-525


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[page 517, continued:]

POE’S STUDENT DAYS AT THE
UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA

[column 1:]

NINETY years ago Edgar Allan Poe became a student in the University of Virginia. His entire sojourn here lies between St. Valentine’s Day and Christmas, while his connection with the University covered exactly ten months and a day. There was at the time nothing strange, surprising, or even exceptional in his career, which would readily have been merged into hundreds of others equally uneventful and been forgot but for his subsequent fame. But this renown has carried the University’s name to remote lands and made every incident of his student days, however insignificant in itself, of universal interest. Indeed, any fact in Poe’s life is of value in enabling us to determine his erratic orbit and in furnishing us substantial material out of which imagination may make real the full picture of his perplexing life.

There was displayed by his earliest biographers a singular and perverse facility [page 518, continued:] in creating for him an incongruous and impossible University experience, but the later students of his life here have striven zealously to discover and to disclose every fact. This they have done frankly, but not always with a due appreciation of the significance of these facts, and certainly not always with full sympathy for Poe himself.

Among the investigators of his University period Mr. Douglas Shirley (University of Virginia Magazine, March and April, 1880) and Mr. Schuyler Poitevent (idem, December, 1897) were most successful in adding to our limited store of knowledge. The facts furnished by them and by earlier students have, as far as possible, been verified as a basis for this sketch, which, however, contains other material, procured by a minute examination of all University records and by personal interviews. The University of Virginia, for many years lingering an unfinished creation in the fruitful brain of its prescient founder, Thomas Jefferson, was so far completed in 1825 that on Monday, March 7, the first session began, but without ceremony or celebration. There were fifty students present on that day, and during the whole session, which closed on December 15, there were one hundred and sixteen students.

The session was peculiarly stormy. The professors, who were mainly English, and seem to have been unpopular because of that fact, were the victims of unpardonable disrespect. The faculty-meetings in the first session, when so many matters of policy should have engaged the attention of those called to direct aright the infant University, [column 2:] were largely given up to disciplining students guilty of the use of ardent and vinous liquors, or of gambling. There were open outbreaks as well as personal rebellion against rules. The University seemed in imminent peril- from within, because of the unrestrained wildness, rampant disrespect, and obstreperous conduct of a body of immature young men, who mistook this new liberty for license.

The second session began on February 1, 1826. On that day thirty-four students matriculated. After that they came in day by day, until by Tuesday, February 14, one hundred and thirty-one students had matriculated. On the 14th five students entered, among them Edgar Allan Poe, who was No. 136 out of a total enrolment for the session of one hundred and seventy-seven.

In the matriculation book, at the very bottom of the page, as shown in the cut, the line runs:

               |  Long.  |  Blätter.  |      Remarks.    
Edgar A. Poe.  |  19 Jan: 1809  |  John Allen [[Allan]]  |  Richmond  |  1  |  1  |   

Unfortunately this is not in Poe’s handwriting. The lists of students for both 1825 and 1826 were neatly copied out by the same hand that wrote the formal pledge required of all students in 1827 and since that day. Presumably the copyist was Mr. Brockenborough, the Proctor. The blank space under Remarks is itself of interest, and is prima facie evidence that Poe did not at any time during the session sever his connection with the University; for comments in this column show that of the one hundred and seventy-seven students of the session six withdrew, three were suspended, three dismissed, and three expelled, but no one of these records stands against Poe.

According to the unimpeached testimony [page 519, continued:] of a college mate and warm personal friend, Thomas Goode Tucker, Poe roomed at first on the Lawn with Miles George, of Richmond. There is no evidence of any kind to show the location of this Lawn room. Miles George (born September 17, 1807), the son of Bird George, of Richmond, Virginia, matriculated on February 3, 1826, entering the classes of Professors Long and Key, and remained at the University two sessions. While he does not seem to have been engaged in any of the disturbances or guilty of any misdemeanours, he was not reported by any of his professors among those who excelled in their examinations. He afterward graduated from the Medical College of Pennsylvania.

Early in the session Poe and George had some difficulty. The cause of this youthful disagreement is unknown, and in all probability was not at all serious. The result, however, of the discord was a fisticuff in a field near the University, after which the participants shook hands and parted in peace. George remained in possession of the Lawn room and Poe moved to West Range.

If remaining in possession of the territory formerly occupied is good ground for inference as to the victor, then Poe was probably whipped by his older companion. Perhaps, however, Poe’s withdrawal was merely one of the conditions of their amicable settlement and does not point to his defeat.

It is true that Poe was just past seventeen, but his athletic record was already well established. He was “rather short of stature, thick and somewhat compactly set, but very active, being quite an expert in athletic and gymnastic arts.” It may spoil a poetic illusion to add that “he was bow-legged and walked rapidly, with a certain jerkiness in his hurried movements.” His greatest athletic achievement dates from June, 1825, when he swam, under a hot sun, from Ludlam’s Wharf (Richmond) to Warwick, a distance of six miles, against a very strong tide. “Any swimmer in the Falls in my days,” says Poe, “would [column 2:] have swum the Hellespont and thought nothing of the matter.” This feat on the James, which is duly attested, was indeed remarkable for a boy, and in a measure justifies his boast that he could swim the English Channel from Dover to Calais. But Poe’s prowess was not confined to swimming. He had the reputation of being the best young boxer in Richmond; and if in fights he ever had to exercise the valorous discretion of flight, he could readily have outstripped most contestants, for his swiftness in running was noted among his companions. His athletic record in field sports, however, would have been made in the running broad jump, for during his early life, probably here at the University, he jumped twenty-one feet six inches on a level, with a running start of twenty yards. His chief competitor in athletic contests here was one of the Labranche brothers, of New Orleans, who had been educated in France and trained in physical exercise. But the sad-faced Poe took his sports seriously, and exhibited little boyish enthusiasm or spirit in his triumphs.

On April 29, 1826, William Matthews, formerly a cadet of West Point, was “allowed the use of the Gymnasium [then where the chairman’s office now is] for the purpose of giving instruction upon military tactics to such of the students as may choose to be drilled. Mr. Matthews is held responsible to the faculty for all riots or other disturbances of the peace happening during his attendance upon the students composing his class.” The first physical director proved worthy of his appointment, and so commended himself to the faculty that later in the session he was assigned one of the elliptical rooms in the Rotunda. Still later in the session, when his name was mentioned in connection with a local scandal, he was not only completely exonerated, but the faculty took occasion, officially, to commend him. As his class was not officially recognised, there is extant no list of his students and no account of their progress, but it is natural to suppose that among those who took [page 520, continued:] particular interest in his course was the ex-lieutenant of the Junior Volunteers of Richmond.

But we have wandered too far from his matriculation and the early experiences of the session. Poe, after the difficulty with George, moved to West Range. There was for some while a tradition here that his room was No. 17, but no evidence of any kind can be found for this number. On the other hand, Mr. Tucker’s confident assertion that it was 13 is in part confirmed by the memory of Mr. Jesse Maury, who still lives, in honoured old age, near the University. Mr. Maury’s memory goes back some years prior to 1826, and still holds securely the important events of that year. During that session young Maury, who was never a student at the University, was put in charge of his father’s teamsters, who were frequently employed in hauling wood to Conway’s boarding-house. The wood-pile was just back of the block on West Range, containing rooms 5 to 15 (odd numbers). This block was then known as Rowdy Row. It was in this row, beyond any doubt in Mr. Maury’s mind, that Poe roomed. Mr. Maury recalls vividly the charcoal decorations on his walls and his marvellous penmanship, of which Poe was then so proud. Poe used to entertain himself and his friends by writing on a bit of paper of fixed size the largest possible number of words. These independent reminiscences of Mr. Maury are themselves confirmed, for John Willis tells of Poe’s talent for drawing and of the crayon sketches on his walls; and Thomas Boiling relates that he once found Poe engaged in copying on the ceiling of his dormitory an interesting plate from an English edition of Byron’s poems.

With Poe now domiciled for the session in 13 West Range, we can turn to his occupations. The round of lectures — lectures — lectures, of which Dr. Emmet complained, had begun, and Poe, on the day he entered, had to elect what courses of lectures he would attend. Poe had shown at Stoke-Newington, in England, as well as under Masters Clarke and Burke in Richmond, not only an [column 2:] aptitude and fondness for literary and linguistic studies, but also an unusual skill in construing Latin and in “capping” Latin verses. In addition, he had exhibited a marked facility in French conversation. It was natural, then, that Latin and French should be among the subjects elected. The matriculation book shows that he took the classes of Professors Long and Blaetterman. The announcement for 1826 thus outlines these courses: “In the school of Antient Languages are to be taught the higher grade of the Latin and Greek languages, the Hebrew, rhetoric, belles-lettres, antient history and antient geography. In the school of Modern Languages are to be taught French, Spanish, Italian, German, and the English language, in its Anglo-Saxon form; also modern history and modern geography.” It seems almost preposterous to suppose that any student would be required to pursue work in all these branches, yet we find that Henry Tutwiler at the end of the session is reported as having excelled in Greek, Latin, French, Italian, German, Spanish and mathematics, while Gessner Harrison, whom Mr. Tucker mentions with Tutwiler among the “hard students,” excelled in Greek, Latin, French, Italian, German and medicine. It may, then be true that Poe was a member of the classes in Greek, Latin, French, Spanish and Italian, though there is no mention of him in connection with Greek.

Of his class-room career we know little except that Mr. Wertenbaker, a fellow-student and librarian, avers that Poe was tolerably regular in his attendance upon the French, Italian and Spanish classes, and was a successful student. He was publicly commended for a verse translation from Tasso. It is easy to believe that, with his previous training, he had little difficulty in keeping up with classes composed of young men, for the most part, with far less preparation than his. And, even if he were not a close student, he possessed, in addition to his training, a quick eye and an alert mind that made the perilous process of “reading [page 521, continued:] ahead” less hazardous for him. According to the schedule of lectures made out by Mr. Jefferson in his own handwriting (see cut), Poe’s classes came between 7.30 and 9.30 each day of the week, including Saturday. After the lectures were over there was the long day and the evening hours at his disposal. How did he pass his time?

To proceed gradually from studies to practices far removed therefrom, it is in place to mention first that he spent much time in the library. Mr. Tucker, who enjoyed his intimate friendship, gives a pleasing account of their reading together Lingard and Hume, their favourite historians. In view of the fact that Poe’s writings have been declared not immoral, but unmoral, it is interesting to note that Lingard had encountered the censure of strict Protestants, and Hume, by his philosophy, fallen under the temporary obloquy of all Christians. But these young readers turned willingly from history to English poetry, from Chaucer to Scott. From their chosen poets each copied for the other his own favourite passages.

During the early part of the session Central college building (Pavilion VII., West Lawn, now occupied by Professor Noah K. Davis) was used as a meeting-place of the Board of Visitors, and for a library and reading-room. The library was in the front room upstairs. But the Rotunda had been begun in the spring of 1823, and on November 5, 1824, was under roof and so far advanced that it was used for the famous entertainment given Lafayette. In October, 1825, Jefferson reports that the circular room, destined for the receipt of books, had been pressed forward, and “we trust will be ready for them.” In October, 1826, Madison, the rector, says: “The library room in the Rotunda has been nearly completed and the books put in it.” Exactly when this transfer of the books was made it is impossible to ascertain, and so we are forced into some uncertainty in picturing Poe in the library. He may have read in the somewhat restricted quarters of the upper room in the [column 2:] “Old Library,” as Pavilion VII. was called as late as the forties, and he was certainly a frequenter of the large and meagrely supplied circular room in the Rotunda as it existed before the fire of 1895.

Poe not only used the books in the library, but, according to Mr. Wertenbaker, the librarian, borrowed during the session the following books: Rollin, Histoire Ancienne; Robertson’s America; Marshall’s Washington; Voltaire, Histoire Particuliere; Dufief, Nature Displayed.

The class-room and the library could not fully meet the requirements of his retiring and reflective nature. Love of moody solitude led him on long and lonesome walks in the Ragged Mountains, where he was surely a “first adventurer” in many a secluded dell. From these long walks, or rather on them, he found material for weird tales, written out and read to some boon companions, and, if favourably received, repeated perhaps to a larger audience, spellbound but somewhat irreverent toward art. His sensitive nature, so exacting of his own work as to destroy these college efforts, recoiled from harsh or jeering criticism. For example, the good-natured taunt that gave Poe the nickname of “Gaffy,” because a character of that name was so prominent in one of his stories, cost the world this tale, for the author petulantly tossed the manuscript into the flames.

In the invention and elaboration of these stories Poe served his apprenticeship as a short-story writer, and enrolled himself as perhaps first in time, as he certainly became one of the first in importance in this art. It could hardly fail to be true, though it is now no longer capable of demonstration, that Poe, who was so frugal of his themes and so disposed to use his material over and over, has embodied the substance of some of these college stories in his famous tales.

Poe began to write verse at an early age, arid kept up the practice during his student days. Boiling recalls that sometimes while Poe was taking part in conversation [page 522, continued:] he would also write verse, training himself to listen and think of something else at the same time. This rhyming, pronounced creditable, was after all but a sign of his skill in versification, which was also shown in his translation from the Italian. There is good reason for believing that during the session he was seriously busied with poetry. His first volume of poetry was published prior to August, 1827; it probably went to press prior to May, 1827, when he enlisted in the United States army as a private under the name of Edgar A. Perry.* Between December 20, 1826, and May 26, 1827, there was not very much time for writing poetry, because he was first in a Richmond counting house, then on a visit to Baltimore, then on his journeying to Boston. But Poe says that the contents of this volume were written in 1821-22, when he was twelve or thirteen years old. Very little credence can be given to this claim, for many of these poems show unexpected maturity of mind for a youth of seventeen, and could hardly have been written by a boy of twelve; and some of them were distinctly influenced by Byron, in whom Poe was especially interested during his University days. As this volume of 1827 was not, in all probability, written in the troublous months succeeding his University career, and could not have been written at a very early age. it is fair to conclude that some of the poems in this volume were written, and perhaps all of them, with a single exception (“The Song”), were revised while he was a student in the University of Virginia. His alma mater may justly claim him as her poet, though with his unique disregard of time and location he nowhere pays her a passing tribute.

Athlete, student, saunterer, story-teller and poet, he aspired also to another honour, and became very much interested in the debating society organised that [column 2:] year and named after the University’s founder. Is it worth while now to prove that a boy of seventeen, so multifariously busy, could not have found time to be a habitual drunkard or an untiring gambler? There is no attempt to gloss over Poe’s failings, but he is entitled to justice.

The students divided themselves into two classes; those like Gessner Harrison, Henry Tutwiler, and others who were noted for their quiet, studious habits, and those like the Brunswick County group, Dunn, Creighton, Gholson, and Tucker, who gave their studies a small share of their time. But in this large number who were not altogether studious there were all varieties of delinquents. There were the confirmed gamblers, who met over Jones’s book-store, or in one of the rooms clearly designated in the faculty minutes, to play loo or all-fours, at from one to ten dollars a game. There were those who played occasionally for large stakes, but more frequently played whist or sevenup for small amounts, or indulged in the forbidden game of backgammon. In the faculty minutes, filled in that year with trials of students,, we read of visits to Mosby’s and Daffan’s confectioneries, where all manner of drinks, such as mintsling, mixed and unmixed wine, toddy, Madeira, eggnog, peach and honey, and ardent and vinous liquors, might be had; and we learn further of dormitory entertainments, where such beverages were known. But in all these records we nowhere find any mention of the name of Edgar Poe; and when a long list of students summoned to appear before the Albemarle grand jury was made out Poe was not included, though many of his boon companions were. Poe was not, then, among the offenders known to University or civil law, but from the private testimony of his college mates it is evident that he did sometimes play seven-up and loo, his favourite games, for money. That he was not so expert as Tucker considered him and his companions, would seem to be established by his considerable losses. [page 523, continued:] His partner, afterward a devout clergyman, and his adversaries, including frequently two friends, who became respectively a well-known divine and a pious judge, were far better known to the University sporting circle than was Poe.

That there was much gambling at the University in the first sessions is, unfortunately, true. At one of the numerous trials conducted by the Faculty a certain witness deposed that there were not fifty students at the University who did not play cards. With as much readiness and no less accuracy he might have affirmed that not fifty of the fathers of these students were free from the same vice. The sentiments against it in the Faculty could not have been unyielding, for in 1825 three out of seven of the members wished gambling removed from the infractions punished seriously and transferred to the list of minor offences punishable by insignificant fines. It is no excuse for gaming that it was common, and but little extenuation that sentiment against it was not strong, but when gaming was both common and but mildly condemned, it is uncharitable to select one out of many and pronounce him the arch-criminal. It is unreasonable and unjust to select as this arch-criminal Edgar Poe, who, when others were tried and expelled for this offence, never at any time fell under any kind of official censure.

In the scurrilous and irresponsible indictment drawn up by Griswold in his notorious Memoir of Poe is the count that at the University of Virginia Poe “led a very dissipated life,” and ’’was known as the wildest and most reckless student of his class.” Mr. Wertenbaker, on the contrary, who as librarian and class-mate saw him perhaps every day, says: “He certainly was not habitually intemperate, but he may occasionally have entered into a frolic. I often saw him in the lecture-room and in the library, but never in the slightest degree under the influence of intoxicating liquors.” Mr. Wertenbaker evidently did not know of his own knowledge that Poe even occasionally entered into a [column 2:] frolic, but presumed this to be true because there was later a rumour to that effect. The rumour was true, but it does not seem to have been substantiated until Mr. Tucker wrote to Mr. Shirley in 1880, and his account probably states the whole case against Poe. “Poe’s passion for strong drink was as marked and as peculiar as that for cards. It was not the taste of the beverage that influenced him; without a sip or smack of the mouth he would seize a full glass, without water or sugar, and send it home at a single gulp. This frequently used him up; but, if not, he rarely returned to the charge.”* “He was very mercurial in his disposition and exceedingly fond of peach and honey,” adds Mr. Tucker. There is nothing astonishing in this account of Poe’s drinking. As a tiny tot he had been trained to stand on a chair at dinner parties, and with a glass of wine pledge the brilliant company in Richmond or at the Old White Sulphur Springs. He lived in a land veritably flowing with peach and honey, where every sideboard held its full weight of inviting decanters. Drinking habits then prevailing in the homes were naturally transferred in part to the University, and Poe did not entirely escape the temptation. Nor need we be surprised that Poe was so easily affected. He was a nervous, sensitive boy, and a full glass might, according to his physical condition, readily excite him to “wild and fascinating conversation,” or render him unfit for any companionship.

Filled for Poe with the duties, diversions, and occasional dissipations, the session passed with but one event of public moment and few of local interest. The faculty in June passed this resolution: “That the students be permitted to celebrate the Fourth of July next by an oration and by a dinner within the Gymnasium.” But before this day came Mr. Jefferson was seriously ill, and it took all the skill of Dr. Dunglison (then chairman of the faculty) to prolong his illustrious [page 524, continued:] patient’s life until July 4, a date for which he anxiously inquired. There is nothing more said of the celebration, which presumably was given up. On July 5 the faculty passed most appropriate resolutions drafted by Professor Tucker, and determined to wear mourning on the left arm for the space of two months and to attend individually the interment at the family burying place. This decision on the part of the faculty was no doubt operative among the students, who were probably present on the same sorrowful occasion.

The summer, as hot then as now, if we may judge from the complaints of the students of 1825, soon yielded to the golden autumn days, when rambles in the Ragged Mountains must have been a genuine delight. As December approached there was doubtless then as now the somewhat feverish preparations for the final examinations. In the previous session the Board of Visitors had decreed that there should be public examinations, which they themselves would attend, but at which by faculty resolution no strangers should be present unless specially invited. In issuing invitations, preference was to be given parents and guardians (of the male sex). These public examinations began on Monday, December 4, in the elliptical room of the Rotunda, and were attended during that week by Madison (rector), and Monroe, Joseph Cabell, and General John H. Cocke. The examination in modern languages was held on Tuesday, December 5; presumably ancient languages came on the previous day. If so, then Poe stood all of his examinations in the presence of these four distinguished men. There is no record of the length of the examinations, which were oral, but in July, 1827, they were either two or three hours long and began at the very unseasonable, if not unreasonable, hour of 5 A.M. They could hardly in midwinter have begun earlier than the usual lecture hour, 7.30.

The examinations were over on December 13 or 14, and on the next day, December 15, the Faculty met. [column 2:] The very first resolution offered indicates that the method of examination had not proved satisfactory, and provides for material changes next session. It was further resolved “that, for publishing the result of the examinations, a brief statement from each professor be subjected to the Faculty.” The reports of the several professors were then submitted. “Mr. Long made a report of the examination of the classes belonging to the school of ancient languages and the names of the students who excelled at the examination of these classes.” For the first time in the Faculty minutes for 1826 the name of Edgar Allan Poe appears, as fourth in a list of nineteen who excelled in Senior Latin. These distinguished students are divided into groups, and Poe is third in the second group, Gessner Harrison standing alone in the first group. At the same meeting “the names of the students who excelled in the Senior French class” were reported by Professor Blaetterman. The eight names are arranged alphabetically, so Poe’s stands sixth in the list. Mr. Wertenbaker says that under regulations existing in 1869 Poe would have been entitled to diplomas as a graduate in these two languages. This is not to be reconciled with the fact that Gessner Harrison, who heads the list in 1826, is again reported as excelling in Senior Latin in July, 1827. In other words, Poe was not necessarily a graduate in these languages, but he had excelled in the examinations, and this was a high honour.

At the Faculty meeting on December 20, 1826, “the Chairman presented to the Faculty a letter from the proctor giving information that certain hotel-keepers during the last session had been in the habit of playing at games of chance with the students in their dormitories; he also gave the names of the following persons, who, he had been informed, had some knowledge of the facts.” Then follows a list of nine, including Edgar Poe. Except in the official lists of those who excelled in examinations, this is the very first time Poe’s name had ever been before the Faculty, and this time it was [page 525, continued:] merely as a witness. The proctor, however, seems to have been misinformed as to the knowledge possessed by some of the witnesses summoned, for several have no information in point. Among these is Poe, for “Edgar Poe never heard until now of any hotel-keepers playing cards or drinking with students.” It is not at all necessary to suspect this clear and explicit statement, for Poe’s circle of gaming friends was perhaps select and was almost certainly small.

In his reminiscences 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 [could this possibly have been the evening when Professor Long led to the altar the beautiful Widow Seldon?] 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 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 he had contracted during the session. If my memory is not at fault, he estimated his indebtedness at $2000, and, though they [column 2:] were gaming debts, he was earnest and emphatic in the declaration that he was bound by honour to pay at the earliest opportunity every cent of them. . . . I think it probable that the night I visited him was the last he spent here. I draw this inference not from memory, but from the fact that, having no further use for his candles and table, he made fuel of them.”

Whether Mr. Wertenbaker’s inference is sound or not, Poe’s confession to him contains the real reason why he never returned to the University. Edgar Allan Poe was not expelled, nor dismissed, nor suspended, nor required to withdraw, nor forbidden to return, nor disciplined in any wise whatsoever at the University of Virginia; but Mr. Allan was shocked and incensed at the extent of his dishonourable “debts of honour” — which he at first refused to consider, but finally settled — and determined to put his extravagant foster son in his counting-room.

Like Hawthorne, Poe may have been guilty of “doing a hundred things the Faculty never heard of, or else it had been worse for him,” but it is too late now to expel him for vices then undetected, or disgrace him for faults long ago outlived by his former college-mates and companions — the respected planter, the upright judge, the saintly clergyman.


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 522, column 1:]

*  Just a few names above Poe’s in the matriculation book (see Appendix 2) is that of Sidney A. Perry. Does this not suggest the source of his borrowed name?

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 523, column 2:]

*  Thomas Goode Tucker to Douglas Shirley, April 5. 1880. Printed in Woodberry’s Poe (American Men of Letters Series).


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Notes:

None.

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[S:0 - TB, 1917] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Poe's Student Days at the University of Virginia (C. W. Kent, 1917)