Text: George E. Woodberry, “Chapter 02,” The Life of Edgar Allan Poe: Personal and Literary (1909), vol. I, pp. 18-37


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[page 18, unnumbered:]

Chapter II

THE SCHOOLBOY

MR. JOHN ALLAN had emigrated from Ayrshire, Scotland, and had been brought up, together with his future partner, Charles Ellis, in the store of his uncle, William Galt, a leading merchant in Richmond. The two clerks founded a new firm, Ellis & Allan, which had already gained position, and commanded some capital in the Virginia tobacco trade. Mr. Allan was now thirty-one years old and had been married for some time; he resided over his own store on Fourteenth Street, near Tobacco Alley. He was childless; and although in admitting the orphan of the poor actors to his family he had at first merely yielded to his wife’s urgent entreaties, the black-eyed, curly-haired boy naturally soon became a pet in the empty home, especially as his precocity and beauty blended with the charm of his young affection to minister to the pride as well as touch the heart of the foster-father. At the age of six he could read, draw, and dance; of more showy accomplishments (a chair, or else [page 19:] the long, narrow Virginia table, cleared for dessert, being his stage), his trick before company was to pledge their healths in sweetened wine and water with roguish grace, and his talent was to declaim, for each of which he had, perhaps by inheritance, an equal aptitude. He is recalled standing between the doors of the drawing-room and reciting from the “Lay of the Last Minstrel” to a large company, in a sweet voice and with clear enunciation. He wore dark curls and had brilliant eyes, and those who remembered him spoke of the pretty figure he made, with his vivacious ways. He received the rudiments of knowledge in a private school at Richmond. His childhood, both at school and at home, was happy, and his only trials arose from the tempering of maternal indulgence by the sterner disciplinary nature of Mr. Allan’s control. His environment was not one of wealth, but of simple and modest living.

About June 17, 1815,(1) the close of the war with England offering an opening for trade, Mr. Allan sailed for England, with his wife, her sister, [page 20:] and Edgar, to establish a branch office: he apparently contemplated a long stay, since he disposed of some of his household goods and effects by auction sale before leaving. He provided an “Olive Branch,” a “Murray’s Reader,” and two “Murray’s Spelling-Books” for Edgar’s entertainment during the voyage, and shortly after his arrival placed the child, then six years old, at the Manor-House School, Stoke Newington, a suburb of London.

His residence there seems to have left deep marks of remembrance upon his mind, nor is it unlikely that the delight in the ancient, which afterwards characterized him, sprang partly from this early familiarity with a memorable past not yet vanished from the eye and hand. The main village, which has since been lost in the overflow of the metropolis, then consisted of a long elm-embowered street of the Tudor time, following the track of a Roman road: near the old Green, by deeply-shaded walks that still bear the names of Henry and Elizabeth, stood the houses of Anne Boleyn’s ill-fated lover, Earl Percy, and of her daughter’s fortunate courtier, the favorite Leicester: to the west ran the green lanes, over hazy inland fields, and to the east the more modern street of Queen Anne and early [page 21:] Georgian architecture, where behind its formal box-bordered parterre rose the white Manor-House School, old and irregular, sloping in the rear to the high brick wall, with its ponderous spiked and iron-studded gates, which enclosed the playground. In the seclusion of these grounds Poe spent his school-days from his seventh to his twelfth year; there in the long, narrow, low school-room, oak-ceiled, gothic-windowed, with its irregular, black, jackknife-hewed desks and the sacred corner-boxes for master and ushers (in one of them once sat the murderer, Eugene Aram), he conned his Latin and mispronounced his French; in the bedroom beyond the many tortuous passages and perplexing little stairways, he first felt the wakening of the conscience, whose self-echoing whispers he afterwards heightened into the voice and ghostly terror of the Spanish Hombre Embozado; in that wide, graveled, treeless, and benchless playground he trained his muscles in the sports, and when on Saturday afternoon the mighty gate swung open, he and his mates filed out to walk beneath the gigantic and gnarled trees, amid which once lived Shakespeare’s friend, Essex, or to gaze with a boy’s eyes of wonder at the thick walls, deep windows and doors, massive with locks [page 22:] and bars, behind which “Robinson Crusoe” was written; and on Sunday, after the holiday ramble, he would obey the summons of the hollow-toned church bell, sounding from its fretted tower, and witness from the scholars, remote gallery pew that miraculous weekly transformation in 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!”(1)

It seems a monotonous existence; but touched by the spirit and the flush of boyhood, it was really a full one, the life of keen sensation, of personal rivalries and party strife, the first battle and the first prize. “Oh, le ban temps,” Poe cries, “que ce siècle de fer!” and, indeed, he must have passed many a lonely hour, too, under that meagre and rigid régime of inferior English school-mastery; and though he learned to run and leap, construe Latin and speak French, and during some portion of the time regularly visited the Allans in London, yet, remembering that [page 23:] these five years are the ones in which home ties are drawn closest about the hearts of most American boys, and the lessons of concession learned by them, a too curious mind might discover in this stretch of the boy’s life the first workings of the sinister influence which afterwards so harshly separated him from the house of his foster-father. Dr. Bransby, however, the parson-teacher, remarked nothing in Edgar Allan, as he was called, except that he was clever, but spoilt by “an extravagant amount of pocket money.”(1) The village, indeed, was said by Beaumont and Fletcher to be a place “where ale and cakes are plenty”; but the boy’s wildest excesses were probably in the same raspberry tarts and ginger beer on which at the Grey Friars a year or two later Clive Newcome dissipated his pocketful of sovereigns. Poe, no doubt, took the fun, the homesickness, and the good things as other boys did; and when, in the June of 1820, he left behind him the old trees and ruinous houses, the mist and fragrance and mould of the drowsy English parish, and returned to Richmond, he was not much different from his mates, except that he made his first trials at verse and kept the manuscripts. [page 24:]

He arrived home with the Allans at New York, July 21, after a passage of thirty-six days, and reached Richmond, August 2. The family settled, their own house being leased, at the home of Mr. Ellis, on the southwest corner of Franklin and Second streets, and resided there for the greater part of a year; they then removed to a long, low frame house with dormer windows, fronting west on Fifth Street, beyond St. James Church; this was Poe’s unpretentious boyhood home. He at once renewed his studies in the English and Classical School of Joseph H. Clarke, who is described as a fiery, pedantic, pompous Irishman from Trinity College, Dublin. There he read the ordinary classical authors of the old preparatory curriculum, continued his French, and capped Latin verses, a pastime of which he is reported to have been fond. He was lacking in diligence and accuracy, but was quick and brilliant; and when it came the turn of his set to be at the top of the school, he had but one rival in scholarship. He had already shown his poetic instinct; his master recalled a manuscript volume of verses, addressed to the little girls of Richmond, which Mr. Allan showed him with a view to publication; and the gallant versifier, known too among his mates [page 25:] for satirical effusions, was also the poet of the school, — no slight distinction in the eyes of the fellows who listened to the English ode in which, on the retirement of Master Clarke to give place to Master William Burk, in the fall of 1823, he addressed the outgoing principal. He was, besides, contrary to Mr. Allan’s wishes, who may well have had forebodings at seeing the actor-blood give sign, a member of the Thespian Society, which gave performances to audiences of forty or fifty persons, in a tent on a vacant lot, for the fee of one cent. In athletic exercises, the other half of youthful life, he was especially active, being aided in this, perhaps, by the training of the Manor-House playground; slight in figure at first, but robust and tough, he was a swift runner and far leaper, and he possessed, together with some skill in boxing, the English schoolboy’s readiness to use it. He began, too, his military career, while still a schoolboy, being lieutenant(1) of the Richmond Junior Volunteers, otherwise known as the Junior Morgan Riflemen, which acted as a body-guard to Lafayette on his visit to the city in October, 1824. [page 26:] Poe evidently cut a considerable figure in the school; he was its champion in the simple tournaments of those days and prominent in its debating society; in short, he shared in every school activity; but he was best remembered as a fine, bold swimmer; and as, since Byron, poets seem to have a prescriptive right to the mention of their aquatic feats, be it once more recorded that, when fifteen years old, Poe swam in the James River from Ludlam’s wharf to Warwick Bar, six miles, against a very strong tide and in a hot June sun, and afterwards walked back to the city with little apparent fatigue.

But neither his facile scholarship, nor his aptness in quoting Latin hexameters and stringing English rhymes, nor his fame in the sports, made him the favorite of the school. His aristocratic mates, it is said by one of themselves, remembered that he was sprung from the poor actors, and were averse to his leadership. Poe, too, partly it may be because he was aware of the reason for this slight but cutting ostracism, helped it by a defiant and irritable spirit that sometimes broke through the restraint of his well-bred manners. One who was counted nearer to him than the rest describes him as [page 27:] “self-willed, capricious, inclined to be imperious, and though of generous impulses not steadily kind, or even amiable.”(1) He had his chums in his own and his fags in the younger set, and their recollections show the comradeship of youth; he read them his poems just as he quoted Horace, in search of a certain sort of recognition; he was sensible of affection, too, and capable of warm attachment, as in his friendship for young Sully, the artist’s nephew, who was a refined but difficult boy; amid all such associations, however, he lived most to himself.

Mr. Allan’s ventures in extending his trade had not prospered; he made a personal assignment in 1822, but by an arrangement with his creditors he held possession of the property. He was relieved from this situation by the death, March 26, 1823, of his uncle, William Galt, one of the richest men of the state; the share he received under the will was the substance of what was afterwards known as the Allan fortune, but before receiving it, if one may judge by the record of mortgages, the family had been obliged to live with much prudence. Mr. Allan removed in this year to a house at the northwest corner of Fourteenth Street and Tobacco Alley, which [page 28:] was a part of his inheritance. Poe was, therefore, not reared in great wealth; but in a family of limited means and plain manners. The Allans, nevertheless, belonged to the most cultivated and agreeable society that Virginia knew in the days of her old-fashioned and justly famed courtesy and hospitality, and a boyhood spent in association with such gentlemen as Edgar constantly and familiarly met could not fail to be both pleasant and of the highest utility in forming both manner and character. A boy, however, is little sensible of the value of such surroundings, and in the unfolding of his heart Poe must, amid all, have missed in Mr. Allan what to a child of genius was of far more consequence, — responsive sympathy, and the secret understanding that springs from parental love. In his home life he was indulged by the ladies of the family and the servants, as a pet in the house, and he grew up with a certain aloofness from Mr. Allan, a sense of hardness and narrowness in his patron; but this is not an unusual family situation. He was always a favorite with women, and besides the Allans he had also the Mackenzies, at whose house he found a second and almost equal home. His lot as a boy was a favored one; he was happy, hardy, [page 29:] and healthful, and in his foster-mother, her sister known as “Aunt Fanny,” the Mackenzies, and others, he found warm and ready affections. In a boy of his temperament and years there is no unlikelihood in that romantic memory of the day when in the home of a much younger schoolmate, his friend’s mother, lovely, gentle, and gracious, spoke to him with some unusual tenderness, and the tones thrilled him with a new sensation, and kindled within him, in his own phrase, the first purely ideal love of his soul. He saw this lady, Jane Stith Stanard, but once. She died April 28, 1824, at the early age of thirty-one years; but the tale(1) that he haunted her grave by night, with all its later Poesque atmosphere, must be dismissed. His superstitious sense was early developed by darky tales, and it was in his shivering response to these that the germinal terror of his genius first stirred; but the psychology of a poet’s boyhood can be but little known.

Poe left Master Burk’s [[Burke’s]] in March, 1825, and spent the remainder of the year in preparing himself, with the aid of private instruction, for the University of Virginia, then in its first [page 30:] session. It would appear that his juvenile military service had already bred thoughts of enlistment in him, and his discontent with Mr. Allan’s ways and plans, together with the restlessness of opening youth, generated other impulsive wishes; the result of it all for the present was that Mr. Allan allowed him to go to the University before entering on the commercial career that was naturally enough thought to be his proper destiny. In his not too scanty leisure hours of this summer he nursed his first flame, in the ordinary way of mortal love, by his devotions to a neighbor’s daughter, younger than himself, Miss Sarah Elmira Royster. The inamorata’s reminiscences of her lover are prettily conventional; he was, she says,(1) beautiful, sad, and silent, but as she adds that he was fond of music and clever at his sketching, particularly of herself, he evidently, like undistinguished youths, found humble means to overcome the difficulties of conversation; she acknowledges a private engagement with him. The most fondly recollected hours of this year, however (the last in which he lived under the same roof with Mr. Allan), must have been spent in the pleasant and spacious home which the latter purchased June 28, [page 31:] 1825, for $14,950, on the southeast corner of Main and Fifth streets, for his settled abode, and which he appears to have occupied late in the summer. Here Poe had his own room, prettily furnished with books and all a boy’s belongings, where he liked to spend his time; it was, as it were, Mrs. Allan’s gift to him, as his part in the new home. Here he entertained his brother, William, who visited him, and it may have been that each brother fired the other in those plans for wandering about the world that both were soon to realize. From the high southward windows during the fall and winter, Poe would look down on the green islands that stud the foaming rapids of the James, and see across the winding river the village of Manchester and the wooded fields beyond, bathed in the warm afternoon, or, stepping out between the shutters upon the adjoining wide-roofed balcony with its sanded floor, where stood the fine London telescope that, perhaps, gave to his inquisitive mind its bent toward astronomy, would look at the stars, or more idly would watch the moonlight falling on the myrtles and jessamines, the box and the fig-trees, the grapevines and raspberry bushes planted by the former Andalusian owner in the quiet garden close. [page 32:]

On February 14, 1826, Poe’s name, with the place and date of his birth, was entered in the matriculation book of the University of Virginia, in the schools of ancient and modern languages. He was now seventeen years old, somewhat short in stature, thick-set, compact, bow-legged, with the rapid and jerky gait of an English boy; his face, clustered about by dark, curly hair, wore usually a grave and reserved expression; but his features would kindle with lively animation when, as frequently happened, he grew warm in his cause. He divided his time, after the custom of undergraduates, between the recitation-room, the punch-bowl, the card-table, athletic sports, and pedestrianism. He was a member of the classes in Latin and Greek, French, Spanish, and Italian, and attended them regularly; but his year at the University was characterized rather by the free enjoyment of youthful life than by studious zeal. He was one with his set. At first he had roomed with a chum, Miles George of Richmond, on the lawn, to adopt the local description, but after a quarrel and pugilistic duel in correct form between them (the combatants shook hands at the end of it) Poe settled in No. 13 West Range, decorated the walls with charcoal sketches out of Byron, and [page 33:] there gathered the fellows to enjoy peach and honey, as the delectable old-time Southern punch was called, and to play at loo or seven-up. Both in drinking and in card-playing Poe acted capriciously, and either was or affected to be, as all his life, the creature of impulse.

“Poe’s passion for strong drink,’ writes one of his intimate college mates, “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.”(1)

If the full glass was one of peach and honey, or merely of the peach brandy unmixed, Poe’s susceptibility to such a draught, it should be remarked, by no means indicates a weak head, particularly in a youth of seventeen; but this fashion of drinking en barbare (as Baudelaire styles it) he kept up through life. As was to be expected from his excitable temperament, he [page 34:] was ill adapted for gaming, or else luck ran strong against him, since he ended the year with heavy debts of honor. By his recklessness in card-playing he is said to have lost caste in the aristocratic clique. Whatever his private history may have been, he did not come under the notice of the Faculty, which is stated to have been at that time unusually watchful and strict; but as the administration of the University was somewhat peculiar, owing to the theories of its founder, Jefferson, an anecdote of the time will make the situation clearer.

It seems that the Faculty desired to check gambling, which had reached a great height, and as in Jefferson’s judgment as much of the discipline as possible should be left to the civil authorities, arrangements were made to observe, indict, and try the principal offenders. One morning the county sheriff and his posse appeared at the doorway of a lecture-room where the students, already warned, were answering roll-call; a glance was enough for suspicion, and a shadow of suspicion for flight, as they made good their escape by windows and doors, and, eluding pursuit by striking into an unfrequented by-path for a wooded knoll on the skirts of the Ragged Mountains, safe among the hills they [page 35:] enjoyed their favorite diversion unmolested, until at the end of a three day’s vacation they were allowed to respond to the roll-call in peace.

Under such rules of government as this story implies, freedom from censure by the Faculty is not convincing proof of a blameless life; but there is no reason to suppose that Poe’s habits, judged by the standard of morals that obtained where he was, gave occasion for much unfavorable remark, or were widely different from the habits of those members of his own set who became the pious judge and the acceptable Episcopalian clergyman. He fell into debt as did others whose extravagance at the tradesmen’s shops and the hotels led to the enactment of a statute that declared all debts beyond the reasonable wants of a student null and void, but he felt his allowance to be inadequate, as was no doubt the case. He also thought he was badly used in his love-affair, and this may have led him to affect recklessness. Amid such natural dissipations of college life, he found leisure to cultivate his own genius, and would gather his friends about him to listen to some extravaganza of his invention, read in declamatory tones, or to some poem he had made during his long, solitary rambles in the Ragged Mountains. He had no confidential [page 36:] friends. “No one knew him,” is the unanimous testimony of his classmates; but they all described him consistently in terms that show he was a high-strung, romantic youth, who led a self-absorbed life, but was easily diverted into commonplace pleasures. While Poe was still at the University, however, Mr. Allan thought it best to inquire into the state of his affairs personally, and went up to Charlottesville.

He found there this youth of seventeen with a mind and resolution of his own, and with qualities and impulses so blended in him that his right guardianship might have taxed a far wiser hand and a more delicate and tender touch. He paid all of Poe’s debts that he thought just; but, not being a man to take his boy’s luck without wincing, he refused to honor losses at play, which amounted to about twenty-five hundred dollars.(1) At the close of the session, on Christmas Eve, 1826, Poe came home to his old room and pleasant holidays with a record for excellence in Latin and French; he was as welcome as ever in the house, at least to the ladies, and as much beloved. Mr. Allan at the beginning of [page 37:] the new year is said to have placed him in his own counting-room. The course of true love, too, had not run smooth. Mr. Royster, the father of the young lady with whom Poe had a private understanding, had diligently intercepted all his letters from the University; the romance consequently ended, on her part, in an early marriage, and, on Poe’s, in some reproachful stanzas; but what part, if any, this youthful misadventure played in his affairs is only matter of conjecture. Poe soon broke away and put into effect his long-threatened plan of adventuring on a life of his own. He is said to have acted openly, bidding good-by to the family and taking some money from the ladies, and keeping them informed of his movements after he went out to seek his fortune in the world.


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 19:]

1  Colonel Thomas H. Ellis, to the author, May 28, 1884. These statements regarding Mr. Allan’s absence are based on the books of the firm, Ellis & Allan, in Colonel Ellis’s possession.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 22:]

1  Works, ii, 8. [[Woodberry is using, of course, the 10-volume set that he co-edited with E. C. Stedman, first printed in 1894-95 and frequently reprinted thereafter. Here, he is quoting from Poe’s tale “William Wilson,” for which an equivalent reference in the Mabbott edition would be 2:428-429.]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 23:]

1  The Athenæum, No. 2660, p. 497, October 19, 1878.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 25:]

1  Calendar of Virginia State Papers, x, 518 (1892). Other communications from this youthful organization to the Governor and Council are in the Executive Archives.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 27:]

1  Ingram, i, 24.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 29:]

1  Edgar Poe and his Critics, by Sarah Helen Whitman. New York: Rudd & Carleton, 1860: p. 49.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 30:]

1  Appletons’ Journal, N. S., iv, 429 (May, 1878).

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 33:]

1  Thomas Goode Tucker to Douglass Sherley, Esq., April 5, 1880. MS. Cf. The Virginia University Magazine, 1880. The official record of Poe is given (by Schuyler Poitevent) ibid., December, 1897. Cf. “Edgar A. Poe and his College Companions,” New Orleans Times-Democrat, May 18, 1884.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 36:]

1  Edgar Allan Poe. A letter by Colonel Thomas H. Ellis to the editor of the Richmond Standard, April 22, 1881.


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Notes:

None.


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[S:1 - LEAPPL, 1909] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - The Life of EAP (G. E. Woodberry) (Chapter 02)