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Edgar Allan Poe and the University of Virginia


ISSUE:  Spring 1925

Crippled wrists and fingers make writing slow and laborious, but while writing to you I lose the sense of these in the recollections of ancient times, when youth made health and happiness out of everything. I forget for a while this hoary winter of age, when we can think of nothing but how to keep ourselves warm by the fire and how to get rid of our heavy penalties until the friendly hand of death shall rid us of it all at once. Against this tedium vitce, however, my dear friend, I am now fortunately mounted on a hobby, which, indeed, I mounted some thirty or forty years ago, but whose amble is still sufficient to give exercise and amusement to an octagenarian writer. This is the establishment of a university for the education of all succeeding generations of youth in this Republic.” Thus wrote Thomas Jefferson to his old friend, John Adams, on October 12, 1823.

On Monday, March 7, 1825, this dream hobby, which Jefferson had ridden for some forty years, became a reality, and the University of Virginia, without ceremony or celebration, opened its doors for the instruction of youth. There were fifty students present on that opening day, and one hundred and sixteen enrolled during that first session, which ended on December 15th, having lasted nine months and eight days.

The second session began February 1, 1826. Thirty-four students matriculated on that day. By February 14, one hundred and thirty-one students had matriculated. On that day—St. Valentine’s Day—a century ago, a group of five students enrolled their names, and among them was a slender lad of seventeen, named Edgar Allan Poe, who thus became No. 136 out of a total enrollment of one hundred and seventy-seven for the entire session, which ended at Christmas, 1826.

Poe at first roomed on the Lawn, in a room the location of which is not known, but later he moved to No. 13 West Range, now set apart as a Poe Shrine.

It is interesting to have knowledge that Poe was not without athletic prowess. He swam across the James River, at a point where the distance was six miles. He was an excellent boxer, and once jumped twenty-one feet and six inches on a level with a running start of twenty yards.

Poe elected to take the “tickets” or classes in Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, and Italian, and there is no evidence that he failed to do his work well. He ranked fourth in Senior Latin in a class of ten, and sixth in the final report in Senior French. He was publicly commended for a verse translation from Tasso. Poe’s classes came between 7:30 and 9:30 each day, including Saturday. In the long hours at his disposal, he probably spent much time in the Library, situated for the first part of his life at the University in the upper front room of what is now the Colonnade Club, and the latter months of his stay, in the circular room, then just completed, of the old Rotunda. It is recorded that he borrowed from the Library, during the session, the following books:

Rollin’s Histoire Ancienne
Robertson’s America
Marshall’s Washington
Voltaire’s Historie Particuliere
Dulief’s Nature Displayed.

But I think it may be taken for granted that he read in the Library room itself many other and very different books from this rather dull and stuffy list. It is not difficult to fancy him poring over Byron, and especially over Coleridge. One can almost recapture the gleam in his eye and the illumination of his face as he scans that flesh-creeping, menacing stanza in the “Ancient Mariner:”

“Like one that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.”

Neither is it difficult to imagine Jefferson himself, who was much about the Library and the University, taking note of the sad-faced youngster who probably wrote, or conceived, “Tamerlane and Other Poems” during his residence there, as he published them the midsummer following.

It is certain that Poe gambled and drank at the University. It was a gaming and bibulous age, and a similar charge might be truthfully laid against some contemporaries of his, later distinguished as scholars, ecclesiastics, and statesmen; but it should be understood that he was not expelled, dismissed, or disciplined in any fashion whatever. During his academic life, six students withdrew, three were suspended, and three expelled. Poe was not included in any of these categories. He was a lonely figure among the high-spirited groups then in attendance at the University, rambling much about the hills and valleys encircling Charlottesville, and giving much time to the activities of the Jefferson Literary Society.

There is something mystical and unrevealed about the brief stay at this University of this imaginative, emotional, creative boy. Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, in the midst of the second session of the University. This must have made a great stir about the institution to which he was so intimately attached, as it did throughout the young republic. Yet, though Poe must have had knowledge of the world fame of the Father of the University, only once, so far as I can find, in all his writings, and that casually, the name of Jefferson appears. His failure to be impressed in any way by the great philosopher and statesman is a testimony to his carelessness of political honors and his complete absorption in the purely artistic aspects of man and nature. Napoleon once said “My estate is comprised of glory.” Poe’s estate was comprised of imagination, and on that glamorous ground he lived and died. On this centennial anniversary of his matriculation, I have the desire to speak of him in no critical or technical fashion. That task belongs to those who make of his supreme artistry the study of their lives. I would care to utter, in this first issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review, dedicated to literature and the humanities, some intimate words expressing for him the tenderness and affection which his University has always borne for him, as well in the days of his waywardness and eclipse as in this time when the star of his fame has climbed to the zenith and is shining there with intense and settled glory. There is nothing finer in the world than the love that men bear for institutions, unless it be the solemn pride which institutions display in men who have partaken of their benefits. Seven cities claimed the birth of Homer dead through which the living Homer begged his bread. That experience of the elder world is repeated today, save the number of cities is four instead of seven through which the living Poe suffered and struggled. It is the same old story, too, of outward defeat and apparent oblivion, and yet of inward victory and a sure grasping of enduring fame.

I may be frank and say that there was a time when Poe did not greatly appeal to me. I felt the sheer, clear beauty of his song, indeed, as one might feel the beauty of the lark’s song, but his detachment from the world of men, where my interests most centred, left me unresponsive and simply curious. The great name of poet had held place in my thinking as signifying a prophet, or as a maker of divine music for men to march by towards serener heights. My notion of the poet came down to me out of the Hebraic training that all of our consciences receive; and Poe did not fit into this conception. I have come, however, to see the limitations of that view, and to behold something admirable and strange and wonderful in this proud, gifted man, who loved beauty and mystery, who had such genius for feeling the pain of life and the wonder of it, who grasped so vainly at its peace and calm, and who suffered, one feels, a thousand deaths under its disciplines and conventions. To me the glory of Poe as a man is that though whipped and scourged by human frailties he was able to keep his heart and vision unstained and to hold true to the finest thing in him, so that out of this fidelity to his very best there issued immortal work.

World poets like world conquerors are very rare. Not many universities have had the fortune to shelter a tvorld poet, and to offer him any nourishment. Christ College, at Cambridge, has warmed itself at the fire of Milton’s genius for three hundred years. In our own young land, with its short intellectual annals, Williams College sheltered Bryant for .a while and Virginia, Poe, and Harvard, Emerson, Lowell and Holmes; Bowdoin, Longfellow, and Oglethorpe, a little college in Georgia, that other child of genius and misfortune, Sidney Lanier. We might say, therefore, that only four out of the four hundred American colleges, have sheltered great poets, and perhaps only two, poets of world wide fame, and perhaps only one, a world artist. No such an one as Sophocles or Virgil or Dante or Shakespeare, to be sure, but a world poet in a legitimate and classic sense. In many of these colleges minor poets have appeared, who have sung truly and clearly, like our own Thompson, and Lucas, and Page, and Lindsay Gordon and Armistead Gordon. So long is the list of the great singers who knew no college training, and so short the list of those who did, that we may well cherish our high privileges in the fame of Poe.

I have often wondered just what the University of Virginia did for Poe in that short year of his fife there. He makes no mention of the University in his writings, but that is like him and his detachment from time and place. He saw the University when it was young. He must have heard much talk about him, of the dreams and hopes for the new institution founded on the western borders by the statesman whose renown then filled the world. The great philosopher of democracy and the great classic artist must have often passed each other on the Lawn and doubtless often held speech with each other, as I have indicated, little dreaming that each would share with the other the widest fame to be accorded to the thousands who would thereafter throng those halls. It is probably true that “Annabel Lee” and the poem to Helen would have sung themselves out of Poe’s heart and throat if he had never seen the University of Virginia; but there was inspiration in the place in that time of its dim beginnings. There were noble books there, few in number but great in quality. Byron, Shelley, Coleridge, and Keats and the great Greeks were all there; sincere scholars had set up their homes there. There were unbeaten young with young hearts and passions; there, hopes gleamed and ambitions burned. And then, as now, beauty dwelt upon the venerable hills encircling the horizon, and the University itself lay new and chaste in its simple lines upon the young Lawn. I venture to think sometimes that when he wrote those stateliest lines of his—

To the glory that was Greece
And the grandeur that was Rome—

perhaps there flashed into his mind’s eye a vision of the Rotunda, with its soaring columns whitened by the starlight and vying with the beauty and witchery of the white winter about it.

It is perhaps easier to answer the question, What has Poe done for his University? We hear much of endowments in connection with universities. The words donor and endowment are the technical phrases of college administration, baffling and aDuring the builders of universities. Poe has endowed his alma mater with immortal distinction, and left it a legacy which will increase with the years. It is not the endowment of money, for there was no scrip left in his purse, but simply the endowment of a few songs and a fund of unconquerable idealism. I am not of those who believe that Poe has been to our young men a kind of star that has lighted them to their destruction, as some good Presbyterians believe Burns to have been to the youth of Scotland. The vast tragedy of his life, its essential purity, its hard work, the unspeakable pity of it, have kept his name a name of dignity and the suggestions of his career are suggestions of beauty and of labor. True he is no exemplar to whom we can point our youth, but the fact that there is a little room on West Range in which dwelt a world poet, who never wrote an unclean word and who sought after beauty in form as passionately as a coarse man might seek after gain, has contributed an irreducible total of good to the spirit which men breathe as well as a wide fame to his alma mater that will outlive all disaster, or change, or ill-fortune. May I call it a clear tradition of beauty and poetic understanding, a feeling for the gold and not the dross in fife, a genius for reverence, an instinct for honor, and an eye to see burning brightly the great realities that are wont to pale and disappear before the light of common day?

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