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Edgar Allan Poe: A Change in His Life

by Sherwin Cody

At the age of eighteen there came a change in Poe's life. Until then he had been a petted child in a wealthy family. Mr. Allan did not have that affection for him which Mrs. Allan had. He did not understand the boy's peculiar and erratic nature, and was particularly displeased when he found that Edgar had run into debt at college. There was an angry scene between the two, and Edgar was told that he must leave the university and go into the counting-room. It appears that he made some attempt to tie himself down to figures and accounts and business routine; but as he had not been brought up to this kind of life, he soon tired of it, and decided to go into the world to seek his own fortune. He went to Boston, where he published a volume of poetry.

In the preface to this volume, Poe says that the poems were written before he was fourteen. Though this may not be strictly true, there is little doubt that some of them were. While he was still at school he had collected enough of his poems to make a volume, and Mr. Allan had taken them up to the master of the English and Classical School to get his advice about publishing them. This gentleman advised against it on the ground that it would make Edgar conceited,—a fault from which he was already suffering. As soon as he was free to do as he pleased, therefore, it was natural that he should rewrite his poems and publish them.

The volume was entitled "Tamerlane and Other Poems. By a Bostonian." It was published by a young printer named Calvin Thomas, and was a thin little book, not very attractive in appearance. Several of the pieces then published are now included in Poe's collected works, but they have been greatly changed.

Naturally the poems of an obscure young man did not sell, and the volume was soon suppressed—Poe says "for private reasons." The "private reasons" were doubtless merely the fact that the book was a complete failure, and the young, proud poet was much ashamed that he could not sell even a dozen copies—possibly not even one.

The little money Poe had was now spent, and he was obliged to do something to keep from starvation. The only chance he saw was to enlist in the army. He did so under the name of Edgar A. Perry, and the record of his service may be found in the War Department of our government at Washington. He was assigned to Battery H, First Artillery, and conducted himself so well that he was promoted from the ranks to be sergeant-major. From Boston the company was sent to Charleston, South Carolina, and a year later to Fortress Monroe, Virginia.

From Fortress Monroe Poe wrote to Mr. Allan for the first time. He soon afterwards learned of the illness of Mrs. Allan, who died February 28, 1829. He got leave of absence to attend her funeral, and went to Richmond.

Poe was such a bright young man that it seemed a pity for him to remain in the ranks, when he might become an officer; therefore it was suggested that he be sent to West Point. Mr. Allan agreed to help him; but it is said that, after the death of Mrs. Allan, he no longer entertained any affection for Edgar. In a letter to the Secretary of War, he said: "Frankly, sir, I do 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."

Poe did not like the life at West Point in the least, though he amused his mates by writing satirical verses about the professors. After a few months he asked to be discharged; but Mr. Allan would not consent. So Poe made up his mind that he would have himself expelled. He stayed away from parade, roll-call, and guard duty. As a court-martial was then in session, he was summoned before it. He denied the most flagrant charge against him; but this only made his case worse, and he was expelled from the academy.