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The Poet of the Night Edgar Allan Poe

by La Salle Corbell Pickett

"I am a Virginian; at least, I call myself one, for I have resided all my life until within the last few years in Richmond."

Thus Edgar A. Poe wrote to a friend. The fact of his birth in Boston he regarded as merely an unfortunate accident, or perhaps the work of that malevolent "Imp of the Perverse" which apparently dominated his life. That it constituted any tie between him and the "Hub of the Universe," unless it might be the inverted tie of opposition, he never admitted. The love which his charming little actress mother cherished for the city in which she had enjoyed her greatest triumphs seemed to have turned to hatred in the heart of her brilliant and erratic son. In his short and disastrous sojourn in Boston, when his fortunes were at their lowest ebb, it is not likely that his thought once turned to the old house on Haskins, now Carver, Street, where his ill-starred life began.

The reason given by Poe, "I have resided there all my life until within the last few years," suggests but slight cause for his love of Richmond, the home of his childhood, the darkening clouds of which, viewed through the softening lens of years, may have shaded off to brighter tints, as the roughness of a landscape disappears and melts into mystic, dreamy beauty as we journey far from the scene.

The three women who had been the stars in the troubled sky of his youth irradiated his memory of the Queen City of the South. In the churchyard of historic old Saint John's, that once echoed to the words of Patrick Henry, "Give me liberty or give me death!" Poe's mother lay in an unidentified grave. In Hollywood slept his second mother, who had surrounded his boyhood with the maternal affection that, like an unopened rose in her heart, had awaited the coming of the little child who was to be the sunbeam to develop it into perfect flowering. On Shockoe Hill was the tomb of "Helen," his chum's mother, whose beauty of face and heart brought the boyish soul

To the Glory that was Greece

And the grandeur that was Rome.

Through the three-fold sanctification of the twin priestesses, Love and Sorrow, Richmond was his home.

So Virginia claims her poet son, the tragedy of whose life is a gloomy, though brilliant, page in the history of American literature.

There are varying stories told of Poe's Richmond home. The impression that he was the inmate of a stately mansion, where he was trained to extravagance which wrought disaster in later years, is not borne out by the evidence. When the loving heart and persistent will of Mrs. Allan opened her husband's reluctant door to the orphaned son of the unfortunate players, that door led into the second story of the building at the corner of Fourteenth Street and Tobacco Alley, in which Messrs. Ellis & Allan earned a comfortable, but not luxurious, living by the sale of the commodity which gave the alley its name. As it was customary in those days for merchants to live in the same building with their business, the fact that he did so does not argue that Mr. Allan was "down on his luck," but neither does it presuppose that he was the possessor of wealth. But it was a home in the truest sense for little Edgar, for it was radiant with the love of the tender-hearted woman who had brought him within its friendly walls.

From this home Mr. Allan went to London to establish a branch of the Company business. He was accompanied by Mrs. Allan and Edgar, and the boy was placed in the school of Stoke-Newington, shadowy with the dim procession of the ages and gloomed over by the memory of Eugene Aram. The pictured face of the head of the Manor School, Dr. Bransby, indicates that the hapless boys under his care had stronger than historic reasons for depression in that ancient institution.

England was thrilling with the triumph of Waterloo, and even Stoke-Newington must have awakened to the pulsing of the atmosphere. Not far away were Byron, Shelley, and Keats, at the beginning of their brief and brilliant careers, the glory and the tragedy of which may have thrown a prophetic shadow over the American boy who was to travel a yet darker path than any of these.

Under the elms that bordered the old Roman road, what forms of antique romance would lie in wait for the dreamy lad, joining him in his Saturday afternoon walks and telling him stories of their youth in the ancient days to mingle with the age-youth in the heart of the dual-souled boy. The green lanes were haunted by memories of broken-hearted lovers: Earl Percy, mourning for the fair and fickle Anne; Essex, calling vainly for the royal ring that was to have saved him; Leicester, the Lucky, a more contented ghost, returning in pleasing reminiscence to the scenes of his earthly triumphs, comfortably oblivious of his earthly crimes. What boy would not have found inspiration in gazing at the massive walls, locked and barred against him though they were, within which the immortal Robinson Crusoe sprang into being and found that island of enchantment, the favorite resort of the juvenile imagination in all the generations since?

At Stoke-Newington the introspective boy found little to win him from that self-analysis which later enabled him to mystify a world that rarely pauses to take heed of the ancient exhortation, "Know thyself." In the depths of his own being he found the story of "William Wilson," with its atmosphere of weird romance and its heart of solemn truth.

Incidentally, he uplifted the reputation of the American boy, so far as regarded Stoke-Newington's opinion, by assuring his mates when they marvelled over his athletic triumphs and feats of skill that all the boys in America could do those things.

At the end of the year in which the family returned from Stoke-Newington Mr. Allan moved into a plain little cottage a story and a half high, with five rooms on the ground floor, at the corner of Clay and Fifth Streets. Here they lived until, in 1825, Mr. Allan inherited a considerable amount of money and bought a handsome brick residence at the corner of Main and Fifth Streets, since known as the Allan House. With the exception of two very short intervals, from June of this year until the following February was all the time that Poe spent in the Allan mansion.

The Allan House, in its palmy days, might appeal irresistibly to the mind of a poet, attuned to the harmonies of artistic design and responsive to the beauties of romantic environment. It was a two-story building with spacious rooms and appointments that suggested the taste of the cultivated mistress of the stately dwelling. On the second floor was "Eddie's room," as she lovingly called it, wherein her affectionate imagination as well as her skill expended themselves lavishly for the pleasure of the son of her heart.

A few years later, upon his sudden return after a long absence, it was his impetuous inquiry of the second Mrs. Allan as to the dismantling of this room that led to his hasty retreat from the house, an incident upon which his early biographers, led by Dr. Griswold, based the fiction that Mr. Allan cherished Poe affectionately in his home until his conduct toward "the young and beautiful wife" forced the expulsion of the poet from the Allan house. The fact is that Poe saw the second Mrs. Allan only once, for a moment marked by fiery indignation on his part, and on hers by a cold resentment from which the unfortunate visitor fled as from a north wind; the second Mrs. Allan's strong point being a grim and middle-aged determination, rather than "youth and beauty." Not that the thirty calendar years of that lady would necessarily have conducted her across the indefinite boundaries of the uncertain region known as "middle age," but the second Mrs. Allan was born middle-aged, and the almanac had nothing to do with it.

It was in the sunshine of youth and the warmth of love and the fragrance of newly opening flowers of poetry that Edgar Poe lived in the new Allan home and from the balcony of the second story looked out upon the varied scenes of the river studded with green islets, the village beyond the water, and far away the verdant slopes and forested hills into the depths of which he looked with rapt eyes, seeing visions which that forest never held for any other gaze. Mayhap, adown those dim green aisles he previsioned the "ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir" with the tomb of Ulalume at the end of the ghostly path through the forest—the road through life that led to the grave where his heart lay buried. Through the telescope on that balcony he may first have followed the wanderings of Al Araaf, the star that shone for him alone. In the dim paths of the moonlit garden flitted before his eyes the dreamful forms that were afterward prisoned in the golden net of his wondrous poesy.



From the daguerreotype formerly owned by Edmund Clarence Stedman


To these poetic scenes he soon bade farewell, and on St. Valentine's day, 1826, entered the University of Virginia, where Number 13, West Range, is still pointed out as the old-time abiding place of Virginia's greatest poet, whose genius has given rise to more acrimonious discussion than has ever gathered about the name of any other American man of letters. The real home of Poe at this time was the range of hills known as the Ragged Mountains, for it was among their peaks and glens and caverns and wooded paths and rippling streams that he roamed in search of strange tales and mystic poems that would dazzle his readers in after days. His rambles among the hills of the University town soon came to a close. Mr. Allan, being confronted by a gaming debt which he regarded as too large to fit the sporting necessities of a boy of seventeen, took him from college and put him into the counting-room of Ellis & Allan, a position far from agreeable to one accustomed to counting only poetic feet.

The inevitable rupture soon came, and Poe went to Boston, the city of his physical birth and destined to become the place of his birth into the tempestuous world of authorship. Forty copies of "Tamerlane and Other Poems" appeared upon the shelf of the printer—and nowhere else. It is said that seventy-three years later a single copy was sold for $2,250. Had this harvest been reaped by the author in those early days, who can estimate the gain to the field of literature?

Boston proving inhospitable to the firstling of her gifted son's imagination, the Common soon missed the solitary, melancholy figure that had for months haunted the old historic walks. Edgar A. Poe dropped out of the world, or perhaps out of the delusion of fancying himself in the world, and Edgar A. "Perry" appeared, an enlisted soldier in the First Artillery at Fort Independence. For two years "Perry" served his country in the sunlight, and Poe, under night's starry cover, roamed through skyey aisles in the service of the Muse and explored "Al Araaf," the abode of those volcanic souls that rush in fatal haste to an earthly heaven, for which they recklessly exchange the heaven of the spirit that might have achieved immortality.

A severe illness resulted in the disclosure of the identity of the young soldier, and a message was sent to Mr. Allan, who effected his discharge and helped secure for him an appointment to West Point. On his way to the Academy he stopped in Baltimore and arranged for the publication of a new volume, to contain "Al Araaf," a revised version of "Tamerlane," and some short poems.

Some months later No. 28 South Barracks, West Point, was the despair of the worthy inspector who spent his days and nights in unsuccessful efforts to keep order among the embryo protectors of his country. Poe, the leader of the quartette that made life interesting in Number 28, was destined never to evolve into patriotic completion. He soon reached the limit of the endurance of the officials, that being, in the absence of a pliant guardian, the only method by which a cadet could be freed from the walls of the Academy.

Soon after leaving the military school Poe made a brief visit to Richmond, the final break with Mr. Allan took place, and the poet went to Baltimore.

Number 9 Front Street, Baltimore, is claimed as the birthplace of Poe. There is a house in Norfolk that is likewise so distinguished. There are other places, misty with passing generations, similarly known to history. Poe, though not Homeric in his literary methods, had much the same post-mortem experience as the Father of the Epicists.

At the time of the Poet-wanderer's return to Baltimore his aunt, Mrs. Clemm, had her humble but neat and comfortable home on Eastern Avenue, then Wilks Street, and here he found the first home he had known since his childhood and, incidentally, his charming child cousin, Virginia, who was to make his home bright with her devotion through the remainder of her brief life.

In these early days no thought of any but a cousinly affection had rippled the smooth surface of Virginia's childish mind, and she was the willing messenger between Poe and his "Mary," who lived but a short distance from the home of the Clemms, and who, when the frosts of years had descended upon her, denied having been engaged to him—apparently because her elders were more discreet than she was—but admitted that she cried when she heard of his death.

In his attic room on Wilks Street he toiled over the poems and tales that some time would bring him fame.

Poe was living in Amity Street when he won the hundred-dollar prize offered by the Saturday Visitor, with his "Manuscript Found in a Bottle," and wrote his poem of "The Coliseum," which failed of a prize merely because the plan did not admit of making two awards to the same person. A better reward for his work was an engagement as assistant editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, which led to his removal to Richmond.

The Messenger was in a building at Fifteenth and Main Streets, in the second story of which Mr. White, the editor, and Poe, had their offices. The young assistant soon became sole editor of the publication, and it was in this capacity that he entered upon the critical work which was destined to bring him effective enemies to assail his reputation, both literary and personal, when the grave had intervened to prevent any response to their slanders. Not but that he praised oftener than he censured, but the thorn of censure pricks deeply, and the rose of praise but gently diffuses its fragrance to be wafted away on the passing breeze. The sharp satire attracted attention to the Messenger, as attested by the rapid growth of the subscription list.

Here Poe was surrounded by memories of his childhood. The building was next door to that in which Ellis & Allan had their tobacco store in Poe's school days in Richmond. The old Broad Street Theatre, on the site of which now stands Monumental Church, was the scene of his beautiful mother's last appearance before the public. Near Nineteenth and Main she died in a damp cellar in the "Bird in Hand" district, through which ran Shockoe Creek. Eighteen days later the old theatre was burned, and all Richmond was in mourning for the dead.

At the northwest corner of Fifth and Main Streets, opposite the Allan mansion, was the MacKenzie school for girls, which Rosalie Poe attended in Edgar's school days. He was the only young man who enjoyed the much-desired privilege of being received in that hall of learning, and some of the bright girls of the institution beguiled him into revealing the authorship of the satiric verses, "Don Pompioso," which caused their victim, a wealthy and popular young gentleman of Richmond, to quit the city with undue haste. The verses were the boy's revenge upon "Don Pompioso" for insulting remarks about the position of Poe as the son of stage people.

On Franklin Street, between First and Second, was the Ellis home, where Poe, with Mr. and Mrs. Allan, lived for a time after their return from England. On North Fifth Street, near Clay, still stood the cottage that was the next home of the Allans. At the southeast corner of Eleventh and Broad Streets was the school which Poe had attended, afterward the site of the Powhatan Hotel. Near it was the home of Mrs. Stanard, whose memory comes radiantly down to us in the lines "To Helen."

Ever since the tragedy of the Hellespont, it has been the ambition of poets to perform a noteworthy swimming feat, and one of Poe's schoolboy memories was of his six-mile swim from Ludlam's Wharf to Warwick Bar.

On May 16, 1836, in Mrs. Yarrington's boarding-house, at the corner of Twelfth and Bank Streets, Poe and Virginia Clemm were married. The house was burned in the fire of 1865.

In January, 1837, Poe left the Messenger and went north, after which most of his work was done in New York and Philadelphia. "The Fall of the House of Usher" was written when he lived on Sixth Avenue, near Waverley Place, and "The Raven" perched above his chamber door in a house on the Bloomingdale Road, now Eighty-Fourth Street.

When living in Philadelphia Poe went to Washington for the double purpose of securing subscribers for his projected magazine, and of gaining a government appointment. The house in which he stayed during his short and ill-starred sojourn in the Capital is on New York Avenue, on a terrace with steps to a landing whence a longer flight leads to a side entrance lost in a greenery of dark and heavy bushes. On the opposite side is a small, square veranda. The building, which is two stories and a half high, was apparently a cheerful yellow color in the beginning, but it has become dingy with time and weather. The scars of its long battle with fate give it the appearance of being about to crumble and crash, after the fashion of the "House of Usher." It has windows with gloomy casements, opening even with the ground in the first story, and in the second upon a narrow balcony. A sign on the front of the building invites attention to a popular make of glue.[1]

In 1849, about two years after the passing of the gentle soul of Virginia, Poe returned to Richmond. He went first to the United States Hotel, at the southwest corner of Nineteenth and Main Streets, in the "Bird in Hand" neighborhood where he had looked for the last time on the face of his young mother. He soon removed to the "Swan," because it was near Duncan Lodge, the home of his friends, the MacKenzies, where his sister Rose had found protection. The Swan was a long, two-storied structure with combed roof, tall chimneys at the ends, and a front piazza with a long flight of steps leading down to the street. It was famous away back in the beginning of the century, having been built about 1795. When it sheltered Poe it wore a look of having stood there from the beginning of time and been forgotten by the passing generations.

Duncan Lodge, now an industrial home, was then a stately mansion, shaded by magnificent trees. Here Poe spent much of his time, and one evening in this friendly home he recited "The Raven" with such artistic effect that his auditors induced him to give it as a public reading at the Exchange Hotel. Unfortunately, it was in midsummer, and both literary Richmond and gay Richmond were at seashore and mountain, and there were few to listen to the poem read as only its author could read it. Later in the same hall he gave, with gratifying success, his lecture on "The Poetic Principle."

In early September, with some friends, he spent a Sunday in the Hygeia Hotel at Old Point. At the request of one of the party he recited "The Raven," "Annabel Lee," and "Ulalume," saying that the last stanza of "Ulalume" might not be intelligible to them, as it was not to him and for that reason had not been published. Even if he had known what it meant, he objected to furnishing it with a note of explanation, quoting Dr. Johnson's remark about a book, that it was "as obscure as an explanatory note."

Miss Susan Ingram, an old friend of Poe, and one of the party at Old Point, tells of a visit he made at her home in Norfolk following the day at Point Comfort. Noting the odor of orris root, he said that he liked it because it recalled to him his boyhood, when his adopted mother kept orris root in her bureau drawers, and whenever they were opened the fragrance would fill the room.

Near old St. John's in Richmond was the home of Mrs. Shelton, who, as Elmira Royster, was the youthful sweetheart from whom Poe took a tender and despairing farewell when he entered the University of Virginia. Here he spent many pleasant evenings, writing to Mrs. Clemm with enthusiasm of his renewed acquaintance with his former lady-love.

Next to the last evening that Poe spent in Richmond he called on Susan Talley, afterward Mrs. Weiss, with whom he discussed "The Raven," pointing out various defects which he might have remedied had he supposed that the world would capture that midnight bird and hang it up in the golden cage of a "Collection of Best Poems." He was haunted by the "ghost" which "each separate dying ember wrought" upon the floor, and had never been able to explain satisfactorily to himself how and why, his head should have been "reclining on the cushion's velvet lining" when the topside would have been more convenient for any purpose except that of rhyme. But it cannot be demanded of a poet that he should explain himself to anybody, least of all to himself. To his view, the shadow of the raven upon the floor was the most glaring of its impossibilities. "Not if you suppose a transom with the light shining through from an outer hall," replied the ingenious Susan.

When Poe left the Talley home he went to Duncan Lodge, a short distance away, and spent the night. The next night he was at Sadler's Old Market Hotel, leaving early in the morning for Philadelphia, but stopping in Baltimore, where came to him the tragic, mysterious end of all things.

Poe knew men as little as he knew any of the other every-day facts of life. In the depths of that ignorance he left his reputation in the hands of the only being he ever met who would tear it to shreds and throw it into the mire.

Book: Reflection on the Important Things