Text: William F. Gill, “Chapter 02”, The Life of Edgar Allan Poe, New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1877, pp. 21-39


[page 21:]




Birth of the Poet — Early Beauty and Fascination — Poe’s Foster Father — Precocious Predilection for the Muses — At School in England — Stoke Newington and Rev. Dr. Bransby — At School in Richmond — First Ideal Love — Death of Helen Stannard — First Volume of Juvenile Poems — At the University of Virginia — Testimony of the Faculty of the University — Morbid and Sensitive Temperament — Athletic Achievements.

EDGAR ALLAN POE was born in Boston, on the 19th of January, 1809.

Born to privation, marked before his birth with the brand of his father’s vice, the orphan of two years seemed called upon to face an abject future. But a glamour of sunshine, at least, was destined to illume his path. It was but a glamour, a glamour that proved in the end but as a winding-sheet to the hopes of our poet. The extraordinary beauty and captivating manners of Edgar unfortunately won the attention of a gentleman residing in Richmond, Mr. John Allan, a man of wealth and position. We use [page 22:] the word “unfortunately,” advisedly, since the imaginative child must have received, among the first impressions of his new home, the idea of the great inheritance to which he was to look forward, and have become at the outset surcharged with the spirit of self-willed independence, which such anticipations were calculated to create and strengthen. Mr. Allan’s income was princely, and as he had no children, there was no reserve in the admission that he designed his adopted son to be the inheritor of his fortune.

These were the poet’s halcyon days; and even at this early time he evinced his predilection for the muses. Mr. Stoddard tells us that he was remarkable for a tenacious memory and a musical ear, and that he was accustomed to declaim the finest passages of English poetry to the evening visitors at Mr. Allan’s house, with great effect. The most insensible of his audience could not fail to be struck with the justness of his emphasis, and his evident appreciation of the poems he recited, while every heart was won by the ingenuous simplicity and agreeable manners of the precocious elocutionist.

In 1817, Mr. and Mrs. Allan paid a lengthened [page 23:] visit to England, being concerned in the disposal of some property there. Edgar, now Edgar Allan, after his adopted father, accompanied them, and was placed in charge of the Rev. John Bransby, at Stoke Newington.

Poe’s partly autobiographical description of this school at Stoke Newington is found in one of his matchless short stories, “William Wilson:” —

“My earliest recollections of a school life are connected with a large, rambling Elizabethan house, in a misty-looking village of England, where were a vast number of gigantic and gnarled trees, and where all the houses were excessively ancient. In truth, it was a dream-like and spirit-soothing place, that venerable old town. At this moment, in fancy, I feel the refreshing chilliness of its deeply-shadowed avenues, inhale the fragrance of its thousand shrubberies, and thrill anew with undefinable delight, at the deep hollow note of the church bell, breaking, each hour, with sullen and sudden roar, upon the stillness of the dusky atmosphere in which the fretted Gothic steeple lay embedded and asleep. It gives me, perhaps, as much of pleasure as I can now in any manner experience, to dwell upon minute [page 24:] recollections of the school and its concerns. Steeped in misery as I am — misery, alas! only too real — I shall be pardoned for seeking relief, however slight and temporary, in the weakness of a few rambling details. These, moreover, utterly trivial and even ridiculous in themselves, assume, to my fancy, adventitious importance, as connected with a period and locality when and where I recognize the first ambiguous monitions of the destiny which afterward so fully overshadowed me. Let me then remember. The house, I have said, was old and irregular. The grounds were extensive, and a high and solid brick wall, topped with a bed of mortar and broken glass, encompassed the whole. The prison-like rampart formed the limit of our domain; beyond it we saw but thrice a week — once every Saturday afternoon, when, attended by two ushers, we were permitted to take brief walks in a body through some of the neighboring fields — and twice during Sunday, when we were paraded in the same formal manner to the morning and evening service in the one church of the village. Of this church the principal of our school was pastor. With how deep a spirit of wonder and [page 25:] perplexity was I wont to regard him from our remote pew in the gallery, as, with step solemn and slow, he ascended 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, too utterly monstrous for solution! At an angle of the ponderous wall frowned a more ponderous gate. It was riveted and studded with iron bolts, and surmounted with jagged iron spikes. What impressions of deep awe did it inspire! It was never opened save for the three periodical egressions and ingressions already mentioned; then, in every creak of its mighty hinges, we found a plenitude of mystery — a world of matter for solemn remark, or for more solemn meditation. The extensive inclosure was irregular in form, having many capacious recesses. Of these, three or four of the largest constituted the playground. It was level, and covered with fine hard gravel. I well remember it had no trees, nor benches, [page 26:] nor anything similar, within it. Of course it was in the rear of the house. In front lay a small parterre, planted with box and other shrubs; but through this sacred division we passed only upon rare occasions indeed — such as a first advent to school or final departure thence, or, perhaps, when a parent or friend having called for us, we joyfully took our way home for the Christmas or Midsummer holidays. But the house! — how quaint an old building was this! — to me how veritably a palace of enchantment! There was really no end to its windings — to its incomprehensible subdivisions. It was difficult, at any given time, to say with certainty upon which of its two stories one happened to be. From each room to every other there were sure to be found three or four steps either in ascent or descent. Then the lateral branches were innumerable — inconceivable — and so returning in upon themselves, that our most exact ideas in regard to the whole mansion were not very far different from those with which we pondered upon infinity. During the five years of my residence here, I was never able to ascertain with precision, in what remote locality lay the little [page 27:] sleeping apartment assigned to myself and some eighteen or twenty other scholars. The schoolroom was the largest in the house — I could not help thinking, in the world. It was very long, narrow, and dismally low, with pointed Gothic windows and a ceiling of oak. In a remote and terror-inspiring angle was a square inclosure of eight or ten feet, comprising the sanctum ‘during hours,’ of our principal, the Reverend Dr. Bransby. It was a solid structure, with massy door, sooner than open which in the absence of the ‘Dominie,’ we would all have willingly perished by the peine forte et dure. In other angles were two other similar boxes, far less reverenced, indeed, but still greatly matters of awe. One of these was the pulpit of the ‘classical’ usher, one of the ‘English and mathematical.’ Interspersed about the room, crossing and recrossing in endless irregularity, were innumerable benches and desks, black, ancient and time-worn, piled desperately with much-bethumbed books, and so beseamed with initial letters, names at full length, grotesque figures, and other multiplied efforts of the knife, as to have entirely lost what little of original form might have been their portion in [page 28:] days long departed. A huge bucket with water stood at one extremity of the room, and a clock of stupendous dimensions at the other.

“Encompassed by the massy walls of this venerable academy, I passed, yet not in tedium or disgust, the years of the third lustrum of my life. The. teeming brain of childhood requires no external world of incident to occupy or amuse it; and the apparently dismal monotony of a school was replete with more intense excitement than my riper youth has derived from luxury, or my full manhood from crime. Yet I must believe that my first mental development had in it much of the uncommon — even much of the outre. Upon mankind at large the events of very early existence rarely leave in mature age any definite impression. All is gray shadow — a weak and irregular remembrance — an indistinct regathering of feeble pleasures and phantasmagoric pains. With me this is not so. In childhood I must have felt with the energy of a man what I now find stamped upon memory in lines as vivid, as deep, and as durable as the exergues of the Carthaginian medals. Yet the fact — in the fact of the world’s view — how little was there to remember. [page 29:] The morning’s awakening, the nightly summons to bed; the connings, the recitations; the periodical half-holidays and perambulations; the playground, with its broils, its pastimes, its intrigues; these, by a mental sorcery long forgotten, were made to involve a wilderness of sensation, a world of rich incident, an universe of varied emotion, of excitement the most passionate and spirit-stirring. ‘O, le bon temps que ce siècle de fer! ‘”

[[images: Rev. Dr. Bransby’s Establishment at Stoke-Newington. // The School Play-Ground at Stoke-Newington.]]

Poe, in his description of the school-house at Stoke Newington, as in most of his pictures from life, drew upon his imagination somewhat.

The actual house was identified a few years ago by the late Mr. John Camden Hotten, the London publisher. By a fortunate circumstance, Mr. Hotten stumbled upon an abstract of the leases granted by the Lord of the Manor, sixty years since, and amongst the entries was found the following: —

Yearly rent.

The Rev, John Bransby, of the school in Church street, and ground in Edwards lane, 21 years lease, with 10 additional, expires March, 1837 . £55.00

As Bransby was the name mentioned in the story, this gave a clue, and the house was [page 30:] soon identified, but not as having Elizabethan gables.”

The actual house is a roomy old structure, of Queen Anne’s time, and remains internally in very nearly the same state as when Poe went to school there. It is a school at present, under the care of a Mr. Dod, and although the thirteen acres of playground, which existed in Poe’s time, have long since been parcelled out to other tenements, or have been built upon, we were fortunate in being able to secure a good sketch of the house, together with a drawing, made whilst Poe was at the school, of the ancient manor gateway, formerly a conspicuous object in the ground.

The portrait of Poe’s schoolmaster is interesting, when taken in connection with the poet’s graphic description of the venerable clergyman in “William Wilson.”

Returning from England, Poe was placed at school in Richmond for a short time, under Mr. Joseph Clarke, who is still living, at Baltimore.

According to Mrs. Whitman, one of the most accurate as well as one of the most accomplished of Poe’s biographers, Poe was at this time twelve years of age. [page 31:]

[[image: THE REV. DR. BRANSBY. (Poe’s English Schoolmaster.) ]]

Here the embryo poet experienced what he wrote of, in the last year of his life, as “the one idolatrous and purely ideal love of his passionate boyhood.” As instancing a peculiar phase of Poe’s character, his sad, remorseful pity for the departed, which, as Mrs. Whitman writes, is everywhere a distinguishing feature in his prose and poetry, this characteristic incident, which the lady describes in her monograph on Poe, affords a striking illustration.

One day, while at the academy at Richmond, he accompanied a schoolmate to his home, where he saw for the first time Mrs. Helen Stannard, the mother of his young friend.

This lady, on entering the room, took his hand and spoke some gentle, gracious words of welcome, which so penetrated the sensitive heart of the orphan boy as to deprive him of the power of speech, and, for a time, almost of consciousness itself.

He returned home in a dream, with but one thought, one hope in life: to hear again the sweet, gracious words of welcome that had made the desolate world so beautiful to him, and filled his lonely heart with the oppression of a new joy. [page 32:]

Mrs. Stannard afterwards became the confidant of all his boyish sorrows; and hers was the one redeeming influence that saved and guided him m the earlier days of his turbulent and passionate youth.

When she died, his grief was so boundless, that for months after her decease, he made nightly visits to the cemetery where the object of his boyish idolatry lay entombed.

His predisposition to loneliness and melancholy, found a welcome outlet here; and it was on the coldest and dreariest nights, when the autumnal rains fell, and winds wailed mournfully over the graves, that he lingered longest and came away most regretfully.

His boy-love for this lady was the inspiration of many of his exquisite creations. Her image, long and tenderly cherished, suggested the three exquisite stanzas to Helen* which first appeared in one of the earlier editions of his poetry, — stanzas [page 33:] written in his youth, which James Russell Lowell says have in them a grace and symmetry of outline such as few poets ever attain, and which are valuable as displaying “what can only be expressed by the contradictory phrase of innate experience.”

“In 1822,” says Dr. Griswold, “he entered the university at Charlottesville, Virginia, where he led a very dissipated life. The manners which then prevailed there were extremely dissolute, and he was known as the wildest and most reckless student of his class; but his unusual opportunities, and the remarkable ease with which he mastered the most difficult studies, kept him all the while in the first rank for scholarship, and he would have graduated with the highest honors, had not his gambling, intemperance and other vices induced his expulsion from the university.”

This is all false from beginning to end, and is absurd, likewise, on the biographer’s own showing. If Poe was born in 1811, as Griswold states, he would at this time (1822) have been eleven years of age. Rather a precocious age, is it not, for one to whom is ascribed the rô1e of a rake and a gambler? As a matter of fact, Poe [page 34:] did not enter the university until 1826, being then just seventeen years of age.

The testimony of Dr. S. Maupin, president of the University of Virginia, and of Mr. William Werten baker, the secretary, effectually refutes the mendacities of Poe’s original biographer upon this point. Mr. Wertenbaker writes, —

“Edgar A. Poe was a student of the University of Virginia during the second session, which commenced February 1, 1826, and terminated December 15 of the same year. He signed the matriculation book on the 16th of February, and remained in good standing as a student till the session closed.

“He was born on the 19th of January, 1809, being a little under seventeen when he entered the institution. He belonged to the school of ancient and modern languages, and, as I was myself a member of the latter, I can testify that he was tolerably regular in attendance, and a very successful student, having obtained distinction in it in the final examination, — the highest a student could then obtain, the present regulation in regard to degrees not having been at the time adopted. [page 35:]

“On one occasion Prof. Batterman requested his Italian class to render into English verse a portion of the lesson in Tasso, assigned for the next lecture. Mr. Poe was the only one who complied with the request. He was highly complimented by the professor for his performance. Although I had a passing acquaintance with Mr. Poe from an early period of the session, it was not till near its close that I had any social intercourse with him.

“After spending an evening together at a private house, he invited me to his room. It was a cold night in December, and his fire having gone nearly out, by the aid of some candle ends and the wreck of a table 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 amount of money he had wasted, and the debts he had contracted.

“In a biographical sketch of Mr. Poe, I have seen it stated that he was at one time expelled from the university, but that he afterwards returned and graduated with the highest honors. This is entirely a mistake. He spent but one session at the university, and at no time did he fall under [page 36:] the censure of the faculty. He was not at tliat time addicted to drinking, but had an ungovernable passion for card-playing. Mr. Poe was older than his biographer represents him. His age, I have no doubt,’ was correctly entered on the matriculation book.”

In a brief note accompanying the statement of the secretary, Mr. Wertenbaker, the president of the university, Mr. S. Maupin, writes, —

“Mr. Wertenbaker’s statement is full upon all the points specified, and is worthy of entire confidence. I may add that there is nothing in the faculty records to the prejudice of Mr. Poe.

“He appears to have been a successful student, having obtained distinctions in Latin and French at the closing examination of 1826. He never formally graduated here, no provision for conferring degrees of any kind having been made at the time he was a student here.”

In further confirmation of the correctness of Mr. Wertenbaker’s estimate of Poe at this time, the following extracts from a manuscript letter, written by a schoolmate, Mr. John Willis, of Orange County, Virginia, may be cited:

“Poe had many noble qualities, and nature had endowed him with more of genius, and a far greater diversity of talent, [page 37:] than any other whom it had been my lot to have known. He had a fine talent for drawing, and the walls of his room at college were completely covered with his crayon sketches. His disposition was rather retiring and he had few intimate associates.

. . .” I trust you will be able to collect enough to vindicate the character of Edgar Poe from every aspersion; for, whatever may have been the errors, the misfortunes or the frailties of his after-life, in the days of his youth, when first entering upon manhood, his bosom was warmed by sentiments of the most generous and noble character.

“Very respectfully yours,  

That Poe’s morbid, sensitive temperament did not predispose him to conviviality is, indeed, evidenced in some of his partly autobiographical stories. His affectionate disposition, indeed, found little response, either from his proud yet indulgent foster father, or from his youthful playmates; and it is evident, from reading his own description of his isolation at this time, as given in “The Black Cat,” that he grew up self-ostracized from most of the usual associations with others that are common in childhood.

“From my infancy I was noted for the docility and humanity of my disposition. My tenderness of heart was even so conspicuous as to make me [page 38:] the jest of my companions. I was especially fond of animals, and was indulged by my parents with a great variety of pets. With these I spent most of my time, and never was so happy as when feeding and caressing them.

“This peculiarity grew with my growth, and in my manhood I derived from it one of my principal sources of pleasure.

“To those who have cherished an affection for a faithful and sagacious dog, I need hardly be at the trouble of explaining the nature or the intensity of the gratification thus derivable.

“There is something in the unselfish and self-sacrificing love of a brute, which goes directly to the heart of him who has had frequent occasion to test the paltry friendship and gossamer fidelity of mere man.”

Poe, however, was not a morbid recluse. In these youthful days we find him emulating the daring deeds of his Norman ancestors, in gymnastic feats, that, but for attested documentary evidence, would scarcely be credited.

He was very proud of his athletic achievements as, indeed, he had good reason to be.

“At one period he was known to leap the distance [page 39:] of twenty-one feet six inches, on a dead level, with a run of twenty yards. A most remarkable swim of his is also on record in the columns of the ‘Richmond Enquirer,’ and other Richmond papers. It took place in his fifteenth year. He swam, on a hot July day, against a three-knot tide, from Ludlam’s wharf on James River, to Warwick — a distance of seven miles and a half, — fully equal to thirty miles in still water. The impossibility of resting, even for a moment, by floating, in a task such as this, renders it Herculean, and the feat has never been equalled by any one, properly authenticated.



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 32:]

*  Helen, of the poem entitled “The Pæan,” which he subsequently re-wrote and greatly improved under the now familiar name “Lenore,” was unquestionably Helen Stannard.






[S:0 - WFG, 1877] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - The Life of Edgar Allan Poe [Chapter 02] (W. F. Gill, 1877)