by Joan Porr
Poepouri by Joan Porr
More than 200 years after Edgar Allan Poe’s life there remains mystery about the man in his lifetime. It is known that Edgar himself embellished on his biography and intentionally blurred the lines of reality at times. Poe, the artist, who often dwelled in “a dream within a dream” and searching “over the mountains of the moon” for Eldorado the city of gold, probably understood that even history, is in the eye of the beholder. But a trail of evidence exists that his biographers have searched through, letters, records from his adoptive families successful merchant business, army records, school records, magazine publishings and of course his own stories and poems.
While most people think of him as a writer of macabre tales in truth his talents and pursuits where much more varied than that. He was an accomplished poet, magazine editor, literary critic, cryptographer and twice a U.S. soldier.
Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to a successful Shakespearean stage actress Elizabeth (Eliza) Arnold and a less successful actor David Poe. Eliza was an English immigrant who had been orphaned at 9 years old and traveled the eastern seaboard American stage circuit with various acting troupes who cared for her after her actress mother died. Her ancestors were all noted English actors and writers. Eliza died of the dreaded disease of that time, tuberculosis, when Edgar was just 3 years old.
David Poe was of Irish immigrant stock and was intended by his family to study law but against his families wisdom he joined an actors’ troupe instead. David’s father and namesake, David Poe, was a Patriot and had served in the Revolutionary War as a Major. The people of Baltimore lauded his services and dubbed him “General” Poe, as he became respectfully known. By the time Eliza died Edgar Poe’s father David had recently left the family and either died or disappeared. His final demise and resting place is unknown to this day.
Poe had a brother a year older than he and a sister who was an infant when his mother died after performing in Richmond, Virginia. Some well to do Scottish merchant class ladies took pity on her circumstances and one Mrs. John Allan took in Edgar while her friend Mrs. Mackenzie’s took in the baby Rosalie. The older boy William Henry Leonard Poe had already been left to live with their grandparents in Baltimore.
When Edgar was 5 years old his stepfather John Allan took the family to Europe. They spent 5 years altogether in Allan’s homeland Scotland and in London where Allan’s trading business was prominent. Edgar was enrolled in boarding schools where he was strictly disciplined in a classic education and introduced to the likes of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Homer and Lord Byron. Later when a young teen Edgar seemed particularly enamored with the English poet Byron who Poe emulates by such feats as swimming across the James River in Richmond. Byron in 1810 swam from Europe to Asia. As a young romantic Byron became a hero in Greece while pursuing the “glories” of war fighting for Greek Independence.
When Edgar was a young teen he joined the Junior Morgan riflemen militia marking the beginning of his martial career. The boys marched to honor the arrival to Richmond of the Marquis de Lafayette in 1824. Lafayette had been invited to tour America by President Monroe in an attempt to instill patriotism and remembrance in that post-revolutionary time. Lafayette when visiting Baltimore searched out the widow of his friend Major Poe who had supplied him “$500 out of his own pocket and had his household oversee the making of 500 pairs of pants” for his men during the Revolutionary War.
In school Edgar Poe was unusually bright and he excelled in literature, math and languages. He was accepted into only the second ever class of the new University of Virginia that was designed by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, James Monroe, James Marshall and other elite Virginians were interested in producing American intelligencia to rival the European cultures. These men as elder board members could be seen on campus during the time of Poe’s sojourn there.
John Allan never formally adopted Edgar Poe and had a complicated family life. His wife Frances who never had children of her own was the force behind them taking Edgar in. John Allan had bastard children by other women who he also provided education for. When Frances died Edgar and John’s relationship fell apart. Although the Allans were wealthy and Poe was raised as a gentleman in “Moldavia” a mansion with slave servants, afterwards John Allan cut him off. Poe had to quit the University for lack of funds and joined the Army while visiting Boston after using all the money he had to get his first chapbook of poems published there “Tamerlane and Other Poems, 1827”. He joined the Army under a fake name Edgar A. Perry and also misrepresented his age to be 21. He was only 18.
Poe quickly excelled in the Army though. In 2 years he was promoted to the highest enlisted rank of sergeant major, which could normally take decades to do. He was stationed first at Fort Moultrie, SC where it’s known that he wrote his first successful short story, “The Gold Bug”, then at Fort Monroe, VA. Within a year he was appointed an artillery artificer. His job was to construct bombs. It required intense knowledge of the usage of the correct quantities of chemicals and complicated mathematical trajectories in order to produce the correct effects without causing harm to oneself and others. He would have to have had his officers’ complete confidence. He also had clerk duties, keeping logs and payroll records such duties would only be given to few enlists who would have had the education and capability.
After two years Poe left the Army but after some unsuccessful attempts to live off his writings in Baltimore with his paternal relations he again wishes to join the Army. With letters of support from superiors and his grandfather’s reputation he gains entrance to West Point in 1830 as a cadet, this time with his real name. Here he could continue his education that was abruptly cut short after the fallout with John Allan. Some of his superiors at Forts Moultrie and Monroe were West Point graduates and likely encouraged Poe to go there where Colonel Sylvanus Thayer had a reputation for promoting academic reforms.
But Poe is only at West Point for 2 years where again he lacks funds for commissary necessities. His two roommates are court martialed and drummed out, one for drunkenness, the other for drunkenness and unruliness and their discharge records state those reasons. Poe becomes perhaps disillusioned or at least restless to leave. But while nearly 200 years later rumors still abound about a drinking problem, Poe’s West Point records reveal that he is court martialed for lack of attendance at required drills and duties. The Army is precise and would have listed drunkenness if that were the case therefore it is presumed that he voluntarily desired to get out.
Poe had been busy writing poetry, and quatrains that he shared with the other cadets. The short versus skewered various staff and faculty and entertained the core. Before leaving West Point Poe asked Colonel Thayer and received permission to take up a collection of a dollar per cadet in order to publish his 3rd book of poetry simply titled “Poems” by Edgar A. Poe, 1831. He dedicated it to the cadets but it wasn’t what they thought it would be, a collection of funny verses instead it was serious poetry.
Although Poe had already written two previous short books of poetry and some of those pre-published works appeared again with some modifications such as Tamerlane and Al Aaraaf, this is the first time one of his most enduringly laudable poems appeared, “To Helen” in which you can see is influenced in part by his early experiences of traveling by ship to and from Europe:
Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicean barks of yore,
That gently, o’er a perfum’d sea,
The wary way-worn wanderer bore
To his own Native shore….
It is fair to say that an artist draws from the sum of all his or her experiences and influences. William F. Hecker a cadet himself 1987-1981 and assistant West Point Professor 2000-2003 published a small book in 2005 entitled “Private Perry and Mister Poe” in which he explores beyond any of the major biographers Poe’s martial career and draws very thought provoking analysis between Poe’s two careers. Hecker appropriately sites stanza’s in Tamerlane with lines such as, “the red flashing of the light” and “the deep trumpet thunders roar”. The very mesmerizing and drill like cadences of “The Bells” and “The Raven” lend credence to his theory. Poe enthusiast shouldn’t overlook the influence of his military career on his writing and his life.
So Poe leaves West Point and goes on to write groundbreaking poetry and prose. He popularized the Detective Novel influencing Arthur Conan Doyle and the Science Fiction Novel influencing H.G. Wells. Within his works he invented a dictionary worth of words with complicated preface and suffixes according to Burton R. Pollin’s “Creator of Words” and influenced countless great writers including the French Poet Baudelaire.
Although The Raven made Poe a household name in his time he remained poor and never able to make ends meet so he supplemented his income as an editor of popular magazines and journals. He supported a wife and mother-in-law, incidentally, relations of his paternal family in Baltimore. Mrs. Clemm is his father’s sister and Virginia who he marries when she is only 13 is his cousin and was 13 years younger than Edgar. Much speculation surrounds this marriage. Another Poe cousin Neilson Poe had offered to take in Virginia as Mrs. Clemm was a widow and very poor at this time.
My own take is that these two people gave Edgar the unconditional love and stability (housekeeping, cooking, gardening, singing) he needed to write and he held onto them as long as he could. They moved from city to city, Baltimore, Richmond, Philadelphia, and New York, Poe taking various editorial jobs. His lifelong ambition was to start a magazine of his own which after many attempts never took root. His beloved wife dies of consumption 1847 and Poe devastated dies or dissipates in 1849 at the age of 40.
Poe’s death 1849 is still a mystery. He had just become engaged to his first love Elmira Shelton nee Royster of Richmond. Her father forbade their teenage relationship. While Poe was at the University of Virginia he hid Poe’s letters from Elmira essentially because Poe had no inheritance being an unadopted orphan. Now in October 1849 Poe was traveling by boat then train to Philadelphia to meet his beloved mother-in-law Mrs. Clemm and bring her back for the wedding to Elmira. He never made it. He was found on a street in Baltimore in a deranged state, taken to a hospital, delirious he never recovered.
More than one biography including “The Homelife of Poe”, 1907, by Susan Archer Weiss, and, “Israfel, the Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe” by Hervey Allen, 1926, put a somewhat far-out theory forth. It was the eve of an election in Baltimore and the theory goes that Poe was a victim of the bawdy practice of that time “cooping” the kidnapping of layabouts and forcing them drugs or drink and driving them from poling place to poling place to vote over and over for one’s candidate. Other accounts list his death as the result of a heart problem, cholera, congestion of the brain, injuries suffered in an attack, rabies. Was he kidnapped? Was he an alcoholic? A drug addict? Was he allergic to the effects of one drink? Was he bi-polar? Manic depressive?
Other than my theory on his marriage I have one original conjecture to pass on to Poe enthusiasts, take a look at the body of work that Poe produced, the intricate language, the involved plots, the innovative techniques used in his writings, the volumes that he produced in his short 40 years, then ask yourself, is an alcoholic capable of that accomplishment?