Text: George E. Woodberry, “Chapter 03,” The Life of Edgar Allan Poe: Personal and Literary (1909), vol. I, pp. 38-85


[page 38, unnumbered:]

Chapter III


POE had for some time entertained more or less vaguely the plan of becoming a soldier; and soon after leaving Richmond he put this into execution, whether from choice or because he had no means of support. He enlisted at Boston, May 26, 1827, in the army of the United States as a private soldier, under the name of Edgar A. Perry.(1) He stated that he was born at Boston and was by occupation a clerk; and although minors were then accepted into the service, he gave his age as twenty-two years. He was really eighteen. He had, says the record, gray eyes, brown hair, and a fair complexion, and was five feet eight inches in height. He was at once assigned to Battery H, of the First Artillery, then serving in the harbor at Fort Independence. He made the acquaintance, perhaps before enlistment, of Calvin F. S. Thomas, a poor youth five months his senior, a New York boy, who had been bred at Norfolk, Virginia, whence he had [page 39:] moved with his mother and sister to Boston, to obtain an education; it was possibly this Southern past that brought the two into connection. Thomas had just set up a printer’s shop at 70 Washington Street, and Poe persuaded him to undertake the job of publishing his youthful verses. In due course he saw the first and unacknowledged heir of his invention in the shape of a small, thin book, mean in appearance and meagre in contents, entitled “Tamerlane and other Poems.”(1) This volume, the only venture of Thomas in the book-trade, was published about midsummer, its receipt was advertised by the leading magazines,(2) and two years later, although the edition was small and obscure, it was still sufficiently known to find mention [page 40:] in the first comprehensive work on American Poetry.(1)

There is, perhaps, some color of truth in the claim put forth in his boyishly affected preface that this volume was written in 1821-22. As that was the time when his mind would naturally rapidly unfold, and as the statement agrees with the tradition of a manuscript volume shown to Master Clarke by Mr. Allan, it is probable that some of the poems at least were then drafted; but from the passages that reveal the depressing influence of his own home and imply his experience of love, as well as from what is recorded of his habits at the University, it is clear that they were re-written, and really represent his genius at the stage it was in when they were printed. The precocity of the verses is marked, but it is a full-grown youth, not a child of thirteen, who has been bitten by the Byronic malady; and, indeed, striking as they are, their relief is mainly due to the light flashed back on them from Poe’s perfect work.

“Tamerlane” in its first form shows more poetic susceptibility, if less literary power, than in its present one. In the story itself there is [page 41:] little difference between the two versions. In both the great conqueror relates to a conventional friar how, in his boyhood, among the mountains of Taglay, he had loved a maiden, and stirred alike by his ambition for her and for himself had one day determined to go away and seek the empire which the prescience of genius assured him would be his. In pursuit of this plan, he says, without giving any hint of his departure or its purpose, he left her asleep in a matted bower; and, naturally enough, when, after the fulfillment of his hopes, he returned to seat her on “the throne of half the world,” he found his destined bride had died in consequence of his desertion. Hinc illae lachrymae.

Neither in this tale nor in the nine fugitive pieces of a personal character which followed it was there anything to command public attention, especially as the style and spirit were distinctively imitative, the constructions involved, the meaning dark, and the measure as lame as the old Tartar himself is fabled to have been. The interest of the volume now lies partly in its plainly autobiographical passages, such as those which describe how conscious genius takes its own impulse for the unerring divine instinct, or express the poet’s naïve and slightly [page 42:] bitter resentment on finding himself not a prophet in his own household; and partly in the subtler self-revelation afforded by the reflection of passing poetic moods, which it may be remarked are surer signs of promise than poetic ideas, because, although they may as easily become conventional, they cannot be so successfully appropriated from others by patience and art, nor can their language ever ring true except numine praesenti by the very breath of the indwelling Apollo. Slow, confined, and stammering as is their expression in these earliest poems, they show that, however affected by the artificiality and turgidity, the false sentiment, the low motive, and the sensational accessories of pseudo-Byronism, the young poet turned naturally to his own experience, and could write from his heart.

In particular, two characteristics come out as primary in Poe’s nature. He was one of the proudest of men, and from many expressions here it is plain that he cultivated pride, even in boyhood. He thought it the distinctive manly quality. He declares with emphasis that every nobly endowed soul, conscious of its power, will ever

“Find Pride the ruler of its will.” [page 43:]

Byron had sown the evil seed, but it had fallen in very favorable soil. This personal trait, however, needs only to be glanced at in passing. The second characteristic belongs rather to his temperament, and affected his art more directly. The sight of beauty did not affect his æsthetic sense so much as it aroused his dreaming faculty. He looks out on the world as a vague and undefined delight; he notes only the broad and general features of the landscape; he does not see any object in detail: his imagination so predominates over his perceptive powers, he is so much more poet than artist, that he loses the beautiful in the suggestions, the reveries, the feelings it awakens, and this emotion is the value he found in beauty throughout his life. The mood was a part of his ordinary experience. Sometimes he describes it: —

“In spring of life have ye ne’er dwelt

Some object of delight upon,

With steadfast eye, till ye have felt

The earth reel — and the vision gone?”

Sometimes he expresses it (and in the lines is heard the first whisper of “Ligeia”): —

“ ’T was the chilly wind

Came o’er me in the night, and left behind

Its image on my spirit.” [page 44:]

This exaltation is continually the object of his regrets and of his longings; he ascribes to it a symbolic spiritual meaning, and even a moral power, as being something


In beauty by our God, to those alone

Who otherwise would fall from life and Heaven

Drawn by their heart’s passion —”

This value, whether true or false, which he gave to such emotional moods, is the significant thing in his poetic life, and shows that the dreaming faculty was a primary element in his genius. Sometimes, it is true, the real scene remains prominent in his mind; but even then, although it does not fade away into mere emotion, it is not unchanged; it ceases to be natural, and is removed into the preternatural. In two of these early poems — “The Lake” and “Visit of the Dead” — is this the case, and it is noticeable that Poe retained both among his works, as if he perceived that of all in this collection they alone have his peculiar touch. In the latter, especially, the treatment of landscape is wholly his own; crude as its expression is, it affords the first glimpse of that new tract of Acheron, as it were, which he revealed “out of space, out of time”: — [page 45:]

“And the stars shall look not down

From their thrones, in the dark heaven,

With light like Hope to mortals given,

But their red orbs, without beam,

To thy withering heart shall seem

As a burning, and a fever

Which would cling to thee forever.

But ’t will leave thee, as each star

In the morning light afar

Will fly thee —”

Such imaginings — the vision of the throned stars with averted faces, the identifying of the outer fascination of an ill-omened nature with the mortal fever within, the dissolving of the spell as the red orbs flee far in the streaming eastern light — might well portend in poetry a genius as original as was Blake’s in art.

The abundant alloy in the substance of the work, however, and the rudeness of its execution justly condemned the volume to speedy oblivion. It brought neither fame to the poet nor money to the printer, and shortly after its publication Thomas removed to New York. Neither in his stay in that city nor during his later life in Buffalo, New York, and Springfield, Missouri, did Thomas, who lived until 1876, ever mention, either to his own family or, so far as is known, to his friends or associates, that his first venture in the book-trade was Poe’s [page 46:] verses. In view of this fact,(1) in connection with the general publication of reminiscences by all who were ever well acquainted with Poe, and the special interest of this obscure portion of his life, it may be safely inferred that Thomas never identified the first author he knew with the famous poet who wrote “The Raven.” On October 31 the battery was ordered to Fort Moultrie, Charleston, South Carolina, and exactly one year later was again transferred to Fortress Monroe, Virginia. The character of Poe’s life in the army can now be but imperfectly made out, since the officers under whom he served are dead; but from papers presently to be given it appears that he discharged his duties as company clerk and assistant in the commissariat department so as to win the good will of his superiors, and was in all respects a faithful and efficient soldier. On January 1, 1829, he was appointed Sergeant-Major, a promotion which, by the invariable custom of the army, was made only for merit.

At some time after reaching Fortress Monroe he is said to have made his identity known to the Post Surgeon, Dr. Archer, who told his story [page 47:] to the commanding officer. These friends suggested to the young soldier that he should ask Mr. Allan to provide a substitute for him and obtain a cadetship at West Point, thus opening for him a military career suitable to his breeding and education. Poe acted on this advice. How much the Allans really knew of his whereabouts at the time is left uncertain. It is said that he had sent copies of “Tamerlane” to Richmond from Boston, and that his later letters to his foster-mother were dated St. Petersburg. The gist of the present letter was a request for help in bettering his position in the profession that he had himself chosen. How Mr. Allan received this appeal cannot be determined; but he apparently did not move in the matter until after the mortal illness of his wife, and it was on the occasion of her death, which occurred February 28, 1829, — on which day Poe is reported on the rolls as present for duty, — that the latter returned to Richmond on leave of absence granted by his colonel on Mr. Allan’s application. He is said to have arrived on the day following the funeral, and must have immediately returned to his post. The result of his visit is told in the following letter, which betrays a surprising inaccuracy in some of its details: — [page 48:]

FORTRESS MONROE, March 30, ’29.

GENERAL, — I request your permission to discharge from the service Edgar A. Perry, at present the Sergeant-Major of the 1st Reg’t of Artillery, on his procuring a substitute.

The said Perry is one of a family of orphans whose unfortunate parents were the victims of the conflagration of the Richmond theatre in 1809. The subject of this letter was taken under the protection of a Mr. Allen [[Allan]], a gentleman of wealth and respectability, of that city, who, as I understand, adopted his protégé as his son and heir; with the intention of giving him a liberal education, he had placed him at the University of Virginia from which, after considerable progress in his studies, in a moment of youthful indiscretion he absconded, and was not heard from by his Patron for several years; in the mean time he became reduced to the necessity of enlisting into the service, and accordingly entered as a soldier in my Regiment, at Fort Independence, in 1827. Since the arrival of his company at this place he has made his situation known to his Patron, at whose request the young man has been permitted to visit him;(1) the result is, an entire reconciliation on the part [page 49:] of Mr. Allen [[Allan]], who reinstates him into his family and favor, and who in a letter I have received from him requests that his son may be discharged on procuring a substitute; an experienced soldier and approved sergeant is ready to take the place of Perry so soon as his discharge can be obtained. The good of the service, therefore, cannot be materially injured by the discharge.

I have the honor to be  
With great respect, your obedient servant,
Col. 1st Art’y.

To the General Commanding the
  E. Dept. U. S. A., New York.

The official reply to this application was an order, dated April 4, in accordance with which Poe was discharged, by substitute, April 15. Before leaving his post he obtained the following letters from his officers, which show conclusively that he had already formed the plan of entering West Point: —

FORTRESS MONROE, VA., 20th Apl. 1829.

Edgar Poe, late Serg’t-Major in the 1st Art’y, served under my command in H. company 1st Reg’t of Artillery, from June, 1827, to January, 1829, during which time his conduct was unexceptionable. [page 50:] He at once performed the duties of company clerk and assistant in the Subsistent Department, both of which duties were promptly and faithfully done. His habits are good and intirely free from drinking.

Lieut, 1st Artillery.

In addition to the above, I have to say that Edgar Poe(1) was appointed Sergeant-Major of the 1st Art’y: on the 1st of Jan’y, 1829, and up to this date, has been exemplary in his deportment, prompt and faithful in the discharge of his duties — and is highly worthy of confidence.

Bt. Capt. and Adjt. 1st Art’y.

I have known and had an opportunity of observing the conduct of the above-mentioned Sergt-Majr. Poe some three months, during which his deportment has been highly praiseworthy and deserving of confidence. His education is of a very high order and he appears to be free from bad habits, in fact the testimony of Lt. Howard and Adjt. Griswold is full to that point. Understanding he is, thro’ his friends, an applicant for cadet’s warrant, I unhesitatingly [page 51:] recommend him as promising to aquit himself of the obligations of that station studiously and faithfully.

W. J. WORTH,  
Lt. Col. Comd’g Fortress Monroe.

With these credentials in his pocket, the discharged Sergeant-Major, aged twenty, went to Richmond, in the latter part of April, where no time was lost in attempting to place him at West Point. At Mr. Allan’s request, Andrew Stevenson, the Speaker of the House, and Major John Campbell, under date of May 6, also wrote letters of recommendation, not of any interest now; and a week later James P. Preston, the father of one of Poe’s closer school friends and representative of the district in Congress, lent his influence in these terms: —

RICHMOND, VA., May 13, 1829.

SIR, Some of the friends of young Mr. Edgar Poe have solicited me to address a letter to you in his favor, believing that it may be useful to him in his application to the Government for military service. I know Mr. Poe and am acquainted with the fact of his having been born under circumstances of great adversity. I also know from his own productions and other undoubted [page 52:] doubted proofs that he is a young gentleman of genius and taleants [[sic]]. I believe he is destined to be distinguished, since he has already gained reputation for taleants [[sic]] and attainments at the University of Virginia. I think him possessed of feeling and character peculiarly intitling him to public patronage. I am entirely satisfied that the salutary system of military discipline will soon develope his honorable feelings and elevated spirit, and prove him worthy of confidence. I would not write in his recommendation if I did not believe that he would remunerate the Government at some future day, by his services and taleants [[sic]], for whatever may be done for him.

I have the honor to be  
Very respectfully your obt. serv’t,  

MAJOR JOHN EATON, Sec’y of War, Washington.

Of more interest than all these, however, is Mr. Allan’s own communication:

RICHMOND, May 6, 1829.

DR SIR, — The youth who presents this, is the same alluded to by Lt. Howard, Capt. Griswold, Colo. Worth, our representative and the speaker, the Honble Andrew Stevenson, and my friend Major Jno. Campbell. [page 53:]

He left me in consequence of some gambling at the University at Charlottesville, because (I presume) I refused to sanction a rule that the shopkeepers and others had adopted there, making Debts of Honour of all indiscretions. I have much pleasure in asserting that he stood his examination at the close of the year with great credit to himself. His history is short. He is the grandson of Quartermaster-General Poe, of Maryland, whose widow as I understand still receives a pension for the services or disabilities of her husband. Frankly, Sir, do I declare that he is no relation to me whatever; that I have many [in] whom I have taken an active interest to promote theirs; with no other feeling than that, every man is my care, if he be in distress. For myself I ask nothing, but I do request your kindness to aid this youth in the promotion of his future prospects. And it will afford me great pleasure to reciprocate any kindness you can show him. Pardon my frankness; but I address a soldier.

Your ob’d’t se’v’t,  

  Sec’y of War, Washington City. [page 54:]

The coldness of feeling with which Mr. Allan here classes the boy he had brought up almost from infancy — a fact of which he makes no mention — with the objects of his common charity indicates clearly enough that, so far from intending to make Poe his heir, on the contrary he thought to be honorably rid of the burden of further patronage by having paid a sum of money for a substitute in the army, and helping to open a career for his protégé in his self-chosen profession. Such a letter must have been galling to Poe’s pride. He presented it with the others to the Secretary of War in person.

In following a military career, Poe had never forgotten his literary hopes; and he now, seemingly, gave much more eager attention to letters than to arms. He had already begun that course of appeal to distinguished writers to recognize and advise him, which he continued through life. On the day when Mr. Allan was penning the words which described Poe as an object of his charity, William Wirt, author of the “Letters of a British Spy,” was also writing a letter in which he advised the young poet to seek some less old-fashioned writer than himself to comment on the poem that had been sent for his perusal. This poem must have been “Al Aaraaf.” [page 55:] On his journey to Washington Poe made the closer acquaintance of his blood relations in Baltimore, where, pending his appointment as a cadet, he is said(1) to have lived with his aunt, Mrs. Clemm, afterwards his mother-in-law; it is noticeable that he did not return to Richmond at once, and that he was slenderly supplied with money. During his residence at Baltimore, which lasted six months or more, he published his second volume of poems, the fruit of his leisure in the army. He also had some obscure relations with William Gwynn, — he may have been employed by him, — then editor of the “Federal Gazette and Baltimore Daily Advertiser,” and showed him the manuscript of “Al Aaraaf,” which was declared to be “indicative of a tendency to anything but the business of matter-of-fact life.” For this introduction the poet was probably indebted to Neilson Poe, his cousin at the third remove, who was in Gwynn’s office; and it has been stated that it was at the suggestion of Neilson’s father, George Poe, that he now sought the critical advice of John Neal, who had resided in Baltimore some few [page 56:] years before, and was editing the “Yankee” at Boston. In the correspondence columns of that periodical, in its issue for September, 1829, the following appeared: —

“If E. A. P. of Baltimore — whose lines about ‘Heaven,’ though he professes to regard them as altogether superior to anything in the whole range of American poetry, save two or three trifles referred to, are, though nonsense, rather exquisite nonsense — would but do himself justice might [sic] make a beautiful and perhaps a magnificent poem. There is a good deal here to justify such a hope.

“Dim vales and shadowy floods

And cloudy-looking woods,

Whose forms we can’t discover,

For the tears that — drip all over.

. . . . . . .

The moonlight . . .

. . . falls

Over hamlets, over halls,

Wherever they may be,

O’er the strange woods, o er the sea —

O’er spirits on the wing,

O’er every drowsy thing —

And buries them up quite

In a labyrinth of light,

And then how deep! — Oh deep!

Is the passion of their sleep! ” [page 57:]

He should have signed it Bah! We have no room for others.”(1)

The tone of this indicates that Poe was not backed by any strong personal friend of the critic. He received the doubtful satire with good grace, however, and replied in a letter printed in the December issue, and prefaced by these editorial remarks: —

“The following passages are from the manuscript works of a young author, about to be published in Baltimore. He is entirely a stranger to us, but with all their faults, if the remainder of ‘Al Aaraaf’ and ‘Tamerlane’ are as good as the body of the extracts here given, to say nothing of the more extraordinary parts, he will deserve to stand high — very high — in the estimation of the shining brotherhood. Whether he will do so, however, must depend, not so much upon his worth now in mere poetry, as upon his worth hereafter in something yet loftier and more generous — we allude to the stronger properties of the mind, to the magnanimous determination that enables a youth to endure the present, whatever the present may be, in the hope, or rather in the belief, the fixed, unwavering belief, that in the future he will find his reward.” [page 58:]

The poet’s letter follows: —

“I am young — not yet twenty — am a poet if deep worship of all beauty can make me one — and wish to be so in the more common meaning of the word. I would give the world to embody one half the ideas afloat in my imagination. (By the way, do you remember — or did you ever read the exclamation of Shelley about Shakespeare? — ‘What a number of ideas must have been afloat before such an author could arise!’) I appeal to you as a man that loves the same beauty which I adore — the beauty of the natural blue sky and the sunshiny earth — there can be no tie more strong than that of brother for brother — it is not so much that they love one another, as that they both love the same parent — their affections are always running in the same direction — the same channel — and cannot help mingling. I am, and have been from my childhood, an idler. It cannot therefore be said that

“ ‘I left a calling for this idle trade,

A duty broke — a father disobeyed’ —

for I have no father — nor mother.

“I am about to publish a volume of ‘Poems,’ the greater part written before I was fifteen. Speaking about ‘Heaven’ the editor of the ‘Yankee’ [page 59:] says, ‘He might write a beautiful, if not a magnificent poem’ — (the very first words of encouragement I ever remember to have heard). I am very certain that as yet I have not written either — but that I can, I will take oath — if they will give me time.

“The poems to be published are ‘Al Aaraaf’ — ‘Tamerlane’ — one about four, and the other about three hundred lines, with smaller pieces. ‘Al Aaraaf’ has some good poetry, and much extravagance, which I have not had time to throw away.

“ ‘Al Aaraaf’ is a tale of another world — the star discovered by Tycho Brahe, which appeared and disappeared so suddenly — or rather, it is no tale at all. I will insert an extract about the palace of its presiding Deity, in which you will see that I have supposed many of the lost sculptures of our world to have flown (in spirit) to the star ‘Al Aaraaf’ — a delicate place more suited to their divinity: —

“ ‘Uprear’d upon such height arose a pile,’ etc.”

After Poe’s quotations from this poem and “Tamerlane,” and from the verses now known in a revised form as “A Dream within a Dream,” the editor concludes: —

“Having allowed our youthful writer to be [page 60:] heard in his own behalf, — what more can we do for the lovers of genuine poetry? Nothing. They who are judges will not need more; and they who are not — why waste words upon them? We shall not.”(1)

The volume(2) which gave rise to this correspondence was published at the close of the year. It was a thin book, but respectably printed, with a profusion of extra leaves bearing mottoes from English and Spanish poets, and with liberal margins. “Al Aaraaf,” the leading poem, is generally regarded as incomprehensible. Its [page 61:] obscurity is largely due to Poe’s attempting, not only to tell a story, but also to express in an allegoric form some truth which he had arrived at amid the uneventful leisure of the barracks. In the rapid growth of his intelligence, beauty, which had been merely a source of emotion, became an object of thought, — an idea as well as an inspiration. It was the first of the great moulding ideas of life that he apprehended. Naturally his juvenile fancy at once personified it as a maiden, Nesace, and, seeking a realm for her to preside over, found it in Al Aaraaf, — not the narrow wall between heaven and hell which in Moslem mythology is the place of the dead who are neither good nor bad, but the burning star observed by Tycho Brahe, which the poet imagines to be the abode of those spirits, angelic or human, who choose, instead of that tranquillity which makes the highest bliss, the sharper delights of love, wine, and pleasing melancholy, at the price of annihilation in the moment of their extremest joy. At this point the allegory becomes cumbrous, and the handling of it more awkward, because Poe tries to imitate Milton and Moore at the same time. By the use of incongruous poetic machinery, however, he contrives to say that beauty is the direct [page 62:] revelation of the divine to mankind, and the protection of the soul against sin. The action of the maiden in whom beauty is personified begins with a prayer descriptive of the Deity, who in answer directs her, through the music of the spheres, to leave the confines of our earth and guide her wandering star to other worlds, which she should guard against the contagion of evil, —

“Lest the stars totter in the guilt of man.”

In obedience to this mandate she chants an incantation in which she calls upon her subjects, and especially her handmaid Ligeia, the personified harmony of nature, to attend her. At this point the allegory terminates, and the story begins. It now appears that among the inhabitants of Al Aaraaf are two, Angelo and Ianthe, who cannot hear the summons because of their mutual passion, and so in reminiscences of the past and dreams of the future, unmindful, the lovers

“whiled away

The night, that waned and waned and brought no day.”

Here, with singular abruptness, the poem concludes.

Of course, as serious work it was a failure. After “Queen Mab,” “Heaven and Earth,” or [page 63:] even “The Loves of the Angels,” it was pardonable only in a boy. The obscure allegory, the absence of any structural relation between it and the brief romance, the discordant influence of other poets who had broken Byron’s ascendency over Poe’s mind, and finally the style itself, with its long and ill-timed parentheses, its inconsequential pursuit of image into image and thought into thought, until all consistency in the meaning is lost, and other analogous defects of youthful composition, combine their separate elements of confusion to make the poem seemingly unintelligible. In fact, it seems as if Poe had stopped without completing his original conception; as if he found his constructive power too weak, and broke off without trying to unify or clarify his work. Nevertheless,, it shows a gain of both mental and literary power; it has, too, a lively fancy, a flowing metre, and occasionally a fine line, that place it above “Tamerlane” as a product of crude genius. In particular, the characteristics of Poe, the attempt to seize the impalpable, to fix the evanescent, to perceive the supersensual, are strongly marked; and although the management is in general as much Moore’s as that of “Tamerlane” is Byron’s, and there is nothing original in its substance except [page 64:] the symbolization of the pervasive music of nature in Ligeia, it proved that the author had a poetic faculty, and, if he could break from his masters and learn the clear use of words, was well starred.

The remainder of this pamphlet-like volume is, biographically, of little consequence. “Tamerlane,” wholly rewritten, has gained in rhetorical effectiveness, though it has lost in spontaneity, and in its present form is as clever and uninteresting an imitation of Byron as was ever printed. In some of the personal pieces, too, in which Poe takes the traditional attitude of the Pilgrim toward his past bliss and present desolation, Byron’s influence continues strong. The ruling genius of the hour, however, was plainly Moore, who in his poems supplied a model to be imitated, and in his prefaces and notes information to be either worked up into verse, or transferred bodily to the foot of the new pages. In the annotations to “Al Aaraaf,” Poe began the practice, which he continued through life, of making a show of learning by mentioning obscure names and quoting learned authorities at second hand. Among the sources used by him, besides Moore’s notes, Chateaubriand’s “Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem” is of most interest, [page 65:] since that author afforded suggestions for later work. On a line of the last page he himself comments with a sort of bravado: “Plagiarism — see the works of Thomas Moore — passim”; but, curiously enough, this occurs in the only one of the new poems which bears the mark of his originality. It is “Fairyland,” the sketch of the mist lighted by the moon, — the broad, pallid glamour descending at midnight on the vaporing earth, drowsing all things into deep slumber beneath its elfish light, and at noon soaring like a yellow albatross in far-off skies. There is a unique character in this imagery that makes it linger in the memory when the crudities of its expression are forgotten.

After the issue of this volume toward the holidays Poe returned to Richmond, where, on the second evening after his arrival, he met a companion of his school-days, to whom he told a story of romantic adventures to account for his years of absence, and gave carte blanche for copies of his poems at the booksellers, to be distributed among his former friends. While “Al Aaraaf” was puzzling those to whom it came as a kind of Christmas gift, and was struggling against the private merriment of the young wits of Baltimore and the public gibes of the literary [page 66:] oracle of that city, “The Minerva and Emerald,” edited by John H. Hewitt, Poe, who had his old room in the Allan house called “Edgar’s room,”(1) waited for his commission perhaps with some anxiety, as he reached and passed the age of twenty-one, the legal limit within which he could be appointed. Poe’s attainment of his majority was not regarded as an insuperable obstacle. It was as easy to grow two years younger now as it had been to grow four years older when he enlisted, and he had already made up his mind to this rejuvenation some months before, when he wrote to John Neal that he was “not yet twenty.” Relying on this fiction, he solicited the influence of Powhatan Ellis, a younger brother of Mr. Allan’s partner, and then United States Senator from Mississippi, who wrote to Secretary Eaton, March 13, recommending him, not from any personal acquaintance, but on information(2) from others. This letter received [page 67:] immediate attention. Poe was forthwith appointed a cadet, and on March 31 Mr. Allan gave his formal consent as guardian to his ward’s binding himself to serve the United States for five years. The die being cast, Mr. Allan furnished Poe with whatever was necessary, and he probably thought that his duty by the child he had adopted was finally done. Poe started North; he stopped at Baltimore, where he called upon Mr. Nathan C. Brooks,(1) a young littérateur, and read, and engaged to send to him, a poem for a forthcoming annual; and, either on this visit or during his previous stay in Baltimore, which seems more likely, he met an old school-mate, from whom he received some financial assistance, and to whom he gave the same romantic account of his years of absence as he had given on a similar occasion in Richmond. “I remember,” writes this gentleman, “he told me he had left Richmond in a coal vessel, and made his way to Europe, to Russia.”(2) Poe went on [page 68:] to West Point, but he sent no contribution to Mr. Brooks.

The natural construction to be placed on the foregoing story would seem to be that Poe’s officers, becoming acquainted with his ability and education and being interested in his character and history, advised him to go to West Point, the only way in which he could rise in the service; and that Mr. Allan, in compliance with the dying request of his wife, recalled him, provided a substitute, and agreed to befriend him further on the distinct understanding that he should go to West Point, but with no intention of making him his heir. The fact that during the fifteen months intervening between Poe’s discharge at Fortress Monroe and his entrance at West Point, he lived mainly apart from Mr. Allan, though he had his old room in the house, indicates the incompleteness of the reconciliation, as does also Mr. Allan’s tone in writing of him. It is also to be remarked that Mr. Allan, soon after the death of his first wife, desired to make a second marriage, and offered his hand to her sister, Miss Valentine, known to Poe as “Aunt Fanny,” and was rejected; in this refusal she is said to have been supported by Poe, to whom she was warmly attached. Mr. Allan, [page 69:] some months later, met the lady whom he afterwards married, who was of excellent family and thirty years old; it is plain enough that, being without an heir to his fortune, he hoped to found a family of his own.

Poe entered the Military Academy on July 1, 1830, and settled at No. 28, South Barracks. His age is recorded as being then nineteen years and five months, but to the cadets he seemed older, and it was jokingly reported among them, much to Poe’s annoyance, that “he had procured a cadet’s appointment for his son, and the boy having died the father had substituted himself in his place.”(1) His room-mate, who tells this anecdote, recalls his expression as weary, worn, and discontented, and his conversation on literary topics as without exception carping and censorious. The three occupants of the room, it is added, gave it a bad reputation; and Poe, in particular, besides joining his two fellows in the consumption of brandy, totally neglected his studies. The features of this sketch, notwithstanding its being drawn by one of the actors, seem too grim. On others of his classmates he left a more agreeable impression. One of them, [page 70:] General Allan B. Magruder, writes of him as a fellow “of kindly spirit and simple style,” and continues his brief reminiscences as follows: —

“He was very shy and reserved in his intercourse with his fellow-cadets — his associates being confined almost exclusively to Virginians. He was by several years my senior, and had led a wild, adventurous life, traveling in Europe and the East, and was a seaman, I think, on board a whaler. He was an accomplished French scholar, and had a wonderful aptitude for mathematics, so that he had no difficulty in preparing his recitations in his class and in obtaining the highest marks in these departments. He was a devourer of books, but his great fault was his neglect of and apparent contempt for military duties. His wayward and capricious temper made him at times utterly oblivious or indifferent to the ordinary routine of roll-call, drills, and guard duties. These habits subjected him often to arrest and punishment, and effectually prevented his learning or discharging the duties of a soldier.”(1)

This account is supported by the official records, which show that at the examination at the end of the half-year Poe stood third in French [page 71:] and seventeenth in mathematics, in a class of eighty-seven members; he was not in arrest, however, before January, and whether he incurred minor academic censure for neglect of his military duties cannot be determined, as the books were destroyed by fire in 1838. His life at West Point did not differ from his course at the University, except that his predominant literary taste, which found expression in talk about the poets and pasquinades on the academy officials, isolated him among his associates, while the custom of the place and his own lack of means forbade gambling. He was older, and consequently more discontented and unsettled; moreover, he had drunk deeper of the Pierian spring, and was still endeavoring to publish verses in the magazines. It is to be remembered, especially with regard to his neglect of study, that he had already received an excellent education and did not need to study in order to maintain his standing. As before, he bore his share in the follies of his mates, and his greater neglect of routine duty may be ascribed in part to its increased irksomeness to him after his year of freedom from military restraints; but, in any case, what was to be expected of a cadet who was more interested in his bud of poetry than in either drill or escapade? [page 72:] In October, 1830, his sonnet, “To Science,” was reprinted in the Philadelphia “Casket.”

He passed, in the Academy, as has been seen, for the hero of the romantic tale of travel which he had told at once, on leaving the army, to two old schoolmates at least, and which, if, as is said, his letters to Mrs. Allan were dated from St. Petersburg, had an earlier root. General Magruder writes further: “I am unable to remember whether I derived the information I gave you in a former letter as to Poe’s rambles in the East, and his whaling voyage before the mast, from Poe himself while a classmate at West Point, or from some mutual friend who derived the account from him. I certainly learned it while he was at the Military Academy.” The writer goes on to give the story then current, as follows: “He made a voyage to sea on some merchant vessel, before the mast. Finding himself in the Mediterranean, he debarked at some Eastern port and penetrated into Egypt and Arabia. Returning to the United States, he enlisted as a private in the United States Army at Fortress Monroe. After some months, service his whereabouts and position became known to Mr. Allan, who, through the mediation of General Scott, obtained his release from the [page 73:] army, and sent him a cadet’s warrant to West Point.”(1)

It was, perhaps, on the voyages of his elder brother, in Baltimore, who had visited Greece and St. Petersburg, that Poe drew for this narrative. If he ever went on a voyage before the mast, as, in view of his nautical knowledge, is not altogether unlikely, it must have been between January and May, 1827, possibly on his way from Richmond to Boston. The experience he certainly had, as the basis of the knowledge he displays, was his ocean voyages in boyhood, and those of his regiment in its changes from post to post, besides the information he would naturally have acquired during a two years’ residence by the sea.

During the first six months at West Point, Poe made up his mind to leave the service. Another incident is said to have occurred in his dealings with Mr. Allan, of which the precise date is not stated. It is related in a letter of the second Mrs. Allan: —

“As regards Edgar Poe, of my own knowledge I know nothing; I only saw him twice; but all I heard of him, from those who had lived with him, was a tissue of ingratitude, fraud, and deceit. [page 74:] Mr. Poe had not lived under Mr. Allan’s roof for two years before my marriage; and no one knew his whereabouts; his letters, which were very scarce, were dated from St. Petersburg, Russia, although he had enlisted in the army at Boston. After he became tired of army life he wrote to his benefactor, expressing a desire to have a substitute if the money could be sent to him. Mr. Allan sent it, Poe spent it; and after the substitute was tired out, waiting, and getting letters and excuses, he (the substitute) enclosed one of Poe’s letters to Mr. Allan, which was too black to be credited if it had not contained the author’s signature. Mr. Allan sent the money to the man and banished Poe from his affections; and he never lived there again. I must say, in justice, I never influenced Mr. Allan against him in the slightest degree; indeed, I would not have presumed to have interfered or advised concerning him. Poe was never spoken of between us.”(1) [page 75:]

It may well be that this incident, if correctly told, whether earlier or later than his entrance into the Academy, affected Poe’s decision to end his service; but, in any event, literature had become his ruling passion, and this fact settled his career for him. On January 5, 1831, a court-martial was convened at West Point, to try offenders against discipline, and after a short sitting adjourned until January 28. For the two weeks preceding this adjourned meeting Poe neglected practically all his duties as a cadet, and was consequently cited to appear before the court and answer to two charges of two specifications each, to the effect that he had absented himself from certain parades, roll-calls, guard duty, and academical duties, and in the course of this remissness had twice directly disobeyed the orders of the officer of the day. He pleaded guilty to all, except one specification, and as it was the one alleging the most patent of his offenses — his absence from parade, roll-call, and guard duty — he thus shut the gates of mercy on himself. The court found him guilty, and passed a sentence of dismissal, which, however, in order that his pay might suffice to meet his debts to the Academy, they, as was usual in such cases, recommended should not take effect until March [page 76:] 6; on February 8, 1831, the Secretary of War approved the proceedings of the court, and ordered the sentence to be executed in accordance with the recommendation.

Poe’s version of the dismissal, given in later years, was that the birth of an heir to Mr. Allan by his second wife had destroyed his own expectations of inheriting the estate, and Mr. Allan having refused to allow him to resign his commission, he intentionally so acted as to be dismissed in order to be free to follow some other profession better suited to a poor man than that of arms. Mr. Allan was married October 5, 1830, and there was no heir born when Poe’s offenses against discipline were committed in January; the marriage alone, therefore, existed as a determining cause at that time. There was nothing new in the situation, except the fact of the marriage. The marriage may have been a surprise to him by its speed, and if he did actually resign in December, as one tradition asserts, he would seem to have acted in resentment at the marriage and in a spirit of hopelessness; but Mr. Allan’s refusal to honor his resignation forced him to take heroic measures. From Mr. Allan’s letter to the Secretary of War it must be believed that he never looked on Poe as an heir, [page 77:] and Poe must have known it, however much he indulged hopes, while his own conduct since he left the army, if the Allan tradition be accepted, had been such as to confirm Mr. Allan in his attitude; all that he could expect reasonably was that Mr. Allan would make some provision for him, if he continued in the army; and this was what he risked by his dismissal, brought about by himself, if indeed, under all the circumstances, he believed he risked anything. Poe left West Point, one can be quite sure, from mingled motives and under the pressure of many circumstances; he was in one of those moments of youthful life when character and conduct combine to culminate in a passing crisis, and which are often fateful; it is thus that many another literary genius has followed his own star. Poe had preferred the military to the commercial career, and now he preferred the literary to the military career; at the moment, as will be seen, he plainly looked on himself as wholly alone in the world.

On the morning of March 7, 1831, Poe found himself as free as he had been in Boston four years before, when he first entered the service, and penniless, since only twenty-four cents remained to his credit. Possibly additional [page 78:] funds were provided from the subscription of the cadets to a new edition of his poems, which he proposed to publish in New York through Mr. Elam Bliss, a reputable publisher. General Magruder gives this account of the affair: —

“The cadets, especially from the South, generally subscribed at seventy-five cents a copy, which the superintendent allowed to be deducted from our pay. I think the publisher came up from New York and bargained with Poe for its publication. The sum thus raised enabled him, I suppose, to save a small margin for his traveling expenses and necessities beyond the cost of publication. The book was not supplied to the subscribers until some time after he left the Point. It was a miserable production mechanically, bound in green boards and printed on inferior paper, evidently gotten up on the cheapest scale. The subscription was not fully paid until the book was delivered, and I remember a general expression of indignation at the inferior quality and condition of the book. . . . He went to New York, and there obtained, as I heard afterward, some literary employment which afforded him scant support.”(1)

Poe went at once to New York and soon [page 79:] wrote to the Superintendent of the Academy, disclosing his plans, in forming which he may have remembered Lafayette’s friendship for his grandfather and the personal introduction he had probably received at Richmond as the boy-lieutenant of the “Junior Morgan Riflemen”: —

NEW YORK, March 10, 1831.

SIR, Having no longer any ties which can bind me to my native country — no prospects — nor any friends — I intend by the first opportunity to proceed to Paris with the view of obtaining thro’ the interest of the Marquis de La Fayette an appointment (if possible) in the Polish Army.

In the event of the interference of France in behalf of Poland this may easily be effected — at all events it will be my only feasible plan of procedure.

The object of this letter is respectfully to request that you will give me such assistance as may lie in your power in furtherance of my views.

A certificate of “standing” in my class is all that I have any right to expect.

Anything farther — a letter to a friend in Paris — or to the Marquis — would be a kindness [page 80:] which I should never forget. Most respect fully,

Yr. obt.’s’t.,  

COL. S. THAYER, Supt. U. S. M. A.

He at once abandoned this plan, and his mates at West Point seem to have heard little of him when he was recalled to their minds some weeks later by the arrival of the volume of verse which General Magruder has described.

The book, which was entitled simply “Poems,”(2) purported to be a second edition [page 81:] of the Baltimore volume, from which it differed in many of its readings, and materially by the omission of six short poems and the addition of the first forms of “To Helen,” “The Sleeper,” “Lenore,” “The Valley of Unrest,” “The City in the Sea,” and “Israfel.” In the expansion of the earlier poems and of “Fairyland” in particular, Poe approached very near to the inane, but in the half-dozen new ones, inferior as they are to the revised versions now known, his genius first became manifest both in the character of his poetic motives and in the fascination of some perfect lines. The first three are based on his own experience, and are essentially personal, — an imaginative amplification of the lines of the “Introduction”: —

“I could not love except where Death

Was mingling his with Beauty’s breath, —

Or Hymen, Time, and Destiny

Were stalking between her and me.”

Of these, however, “To Helen,” which has been overpraised, owes much of its finish to the slight changes since made in it. “Irene,” although impressive in conception and original in handling, is far too rude to be regarded as more than a [page 82:] poem of some promise, and the “Pæan” is happily forgotten. The remaining three, which are developed from slight Oriental suggestions, are of a different kind. In these for the first time the strangeness and distance and mystical power of Poe’s imagination are so given as to be henceforth identified with his genius. Two are landscape effects. In one, far down in the east, the Valley of Unrest discloses its tremulous trees beneath the ceaseless flow of swift-motioned clouds, — a glow of deep color; and in the other, as far in the west, gleams the weird diablerie of that strange city lying all alone in its glare and gloom, shadowed in those black waves: —

“Around by lifting winds forgot

Resignedly beneath the sky

The melancholy waters lie.”

The melodious monotone, the justness of touch in lines like these, are as artistic as the idea is poetic. But fine as is the substance of these two poems and excellent as is the execution at its best, neither rises to the rank of “Israfel,” in which rings out the lyric burst, the first pure song of the poet, the notes most clear and liquid and soaring of all he ever sang, that waken and tremble in the first inspiration not less magnetically because narrower in compass and lower [page 83:] in flight than in the cadences of the perfected song.

As his genius had developed, Poe had formed a theory of poelry, which he expressed, so far as he had made it out to himself, in the prefatory “Letter to Mr. ——.” In this, after some thin logic to the effect that pleasure instead of utility is the end of all rational human activity, and consequently of poetry, he subjects Wordsworth’s theories and practice to a very supercilious criticism, and asserts that poetry should be pursued as “a passion,” not as “a study,” since “learning has little to do with the imagination — intellect with the passions — or age with poetry”; at the end he sums up his creed in an article which shows the strong influence of Coleridge’s criticism, as follows: —

“A poem in my opinion, is opposed to a work of science by having, for its immediate object, pleasure, not truth: to romance, by having for its object an indefinite instead of a definite pleasure, being a poem only so far as this object is attained; romance presenting perceptible images with definite, poetry with indefinite, sensations, to which end music is an essential, since the comprehension of sweet sound is our most indefinite conception. Music, when combined with a pleasurable [page 84:] idea, is poetry; music without the idea is simply music; the idea without the music is prose from its very definiteness.”

These crude generalizations, together with the incidental remarks that no one enjoys long poems, and that delicacy is the poet’s peculiar kingdom, are the fundamental ideas out of which he afterward slowly developed and finally perfected his poetic theory; to the canons thus laid down he submitted his own practice the more easily because they were consonant with his own genius.

For the present neither his statement of the poetic ideal nor his attempted illustration of it interested the world. A contemporary notice(1) says: “The poetry of this little volume has a plausible air of imagination, inconsistent with the general indefiniteness of the ideas. Everything in the language betokens poetic inspiration, but it rather resembles the leaves of the sybil when scattered by the winds.” The critic finds in the book only occasional sparkles of “a true poetic expression”; but he was evidently interested and attracted, since he read it twice.

Poe may have remained in the city, pending [page 85:] the publication, to read proofs. He soon went South, but it is not likely that he returned to Richmond. Mrs. Allan did not recognize him when she saw him soon after; he plainly looked on himself as homeless. Mr. Allan, though he did not abandon him, regarded him as ungrateful, reckless, and untrustworthy; and Poe’s long-continued conduct toward him, to say the least, had been that of a son who, since he wished his own will, ought to make his own way.


[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 38:]

1  War Department Records.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 39:]

1  Tamerlane and other Poems. By a Bostonian. Boston: Calvin F. S. Thomas . . . Printer. 1827, pp. 40. The volume contained, besides preface and notes, Tamerlane and nine fugitive pieces: 1. To — — (“I saw thee on the bridal day”); 2. Dreams; 3. Visit of the Dead; 4. Evening Star; 5. Imitation; 6. No title (“In youth have I known one with whom the earth”); 7. No title (“A wilder’d being from my birth”); 8. No title (“The happiest day the happiest hour”); 9. The Lake. Of these Tamerlane and the first, third, and ninth of the short poems are included, in revised versions, in Poe’s works.

2  The United States Review and Literary Gazette, ii, 399, (August, 1827); The North American Review, xxv, 471 (October, 1827).

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 40:]

1  Specimens of American Poetry, by Samuel Kettell. Boston: S. G. Goodrich & Co., 1829: iii, p. 405.

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

1  Mrs. Martha (Thomas) Booth to the author, June 14, 1884.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 48:]

1  There is no record of this furlough.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 50:]

1  Originally written Perry, but changed to read Poe.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 55:]

1  Mrs. Clemm stated in writing that Poe was living at her house at the time that his friends were endeavoring to procure for him a commission in the army; but all unsupported statements by her are open to doubt.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 57:]

1  The Yankee and Boston Literary Gazette, iii, 168 (new series).

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 60:]

1  The Yankee and Boston Literary Gazette, vi, 295-298 (new series).

2  Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems, by Edgar A. Poe. Baltimore: Hatch & Dunning, 1829: pp. 71. This volume begins with an unentitled sonnet, the first draft of To Science, continues with Al Aaraaf and Tamerlane, both nearly as now printed, and concludes with a Preface, now known, revised, as Romance, and nine miscellaneous poems: 1. To —— (“Should my early life seem”), forty lines, now printed, revised, as A Dream within a Dream; 2. To —— (“I saw thee on thy bridal day”); 3. To —— (“The bowers whereat, in dreams, I see”); 4. To the River ——; 5. The Lake. To ——; 6. Spirits of the Dead; 7. A Dream; 8. To M —— (“I heed not that my earthly lot”), twenty lines, now printed, revised, as To ——; 9. Fairyland, the lines entitled Heaven in The Yankee. Of these Tamerlane, of which the former edition is said to have been “suppressed,” is wholly rewritten, and the second, fifth, sixth, and seventh of the miscellaneous poems are from the 1827 edition, but revised.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 66:]

1  The Richmond Despatch (by X.), March 18, 1894.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 66, running to the bottom of page 67:]

2  This may have been furnished by Judge Marshall and General Scott, whose wife was a cousin of the second Mrs. Allan, but of their interference, first alleged by Hirst (“Edgar A. Poe,” Philadelphia Saturday Museum, March 4, 1843) but noted as current at West Point, in 1830, by General Magruder, and repeated by later biographers (Mr. Stoddard adds the name of John Randolph), there is no record. ­[page 67:] A slight corroborating circumstance, however, is found in the fact that a copy of an early edition of Poe’s poems was found in General Scott’s library.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 67:]

1  Dr. Nathan C. Brooks to the author, June 3, 1884. All subsequent statements regarding the relations of Poe and Brooks are made on the same authority.

1  —— to the author, June 2, 1884.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 69:]

1  Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, xxxv, 754 (November, 1867).

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 70:]

1  Allan B. Magruder to the author, April 23, 1884.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 73:]

1  See Appendix, Poe at West Point.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 74:]

1  Mrs. Allan to Thomas H. Ellis, The Richmond Standard, April 22, 1880 [[1881]]. Mrs Allan was an interested witness, but this narrative must be held to represent her memory of the circumstances after a lapse of years. It is the only published statement by her, and was lately reprinted in “Historic Homes of Richmond,” by Louise Allan Mayo, The Richmond News, Illustrated Saturday Magazine, July 28, 1900.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 78:]

1  Allan B. Magruder to the author, July 1, 1884.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 80:]

1  From the Library of the Association of Graduates of West Point. This letter was, doubtless, the source of Powell’s statement that Poe went to help the Poles against Russia.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 80, running to the bottom of page 81:]

2  Poems. By Edgar A. Poe. Second edition. New York. Published by Elam Bliss, 1831: pp. 124. This volume is dedicated to the United States Corps of Cadets, and opens with a preparatory letter to Mr. ——, dated West Point, 1831, and addressed “Dear B——”; it contains: 1. Introduction, 66 lines, an expansion of Preface in the 1829 edition; 2. To Helen; 3. Israfel, 44 lines; 4. The Doomed City, 58 lines, the first version of The City in the Sea; 5. Fairyland, 64 lines, an expansion of the poem of the same name in the 1829 edition; 6. Irene, 74 lines, the first version of The Sleeper; 7. A P├Žan, 44 lines, the first version of Lenore; 8. The Valley Nis, 46 lines, the first version of The Valley of Unrest; 9. Al Aaraaf, slightly revised, and introduced as in the 1829 edition by “To Science; 10. Tamerlane, again considerably revised, particularly by the insertion of The Lake in a new form, and of lines from To —— (“Should my early life seem”), from the 1829 edition. Each poem has a bastard title, and the volume ­[page 81:] is further pieced out by mottoes, to each of which a page is given.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 84:]

1  From a newspaper cutting, without name or date, under the head “Literary Notices.”



For footnote 1 on p. 84, the clipping is from the NY Mirror, May 7, 1831, p. 349-350.


[S:1 - LEAPPL, 1909] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - The Life of EAP (G. E. Woodberry) (Chapter 03)