Monday, February 18, 2013

A Glimpse of Poe's Schooldays

The following appeared in the “(Troy) Kansas Chief” for Feb 19, 1880. It originally ran in the “Baltimore Bulletin” at a date unknown to me. Although Joseph H. Clarke shared a couple of other reminiscences of his most famous pupil that have often been quoted in Poe biographies, this interview, so far as I know, remains obscure. As I like to think of this blog as the place where weird old bits of Poeana go to die, I decided to post it.

Few Poe reminiscences are trustworthy, but those discussing his youth are probably the most uncertain and contradictory of the lot. This is not surprising—they were all given many years after the fact, and deal with a period when few had any reason to take particular note of the boy. Recorded memories of Poe’s childhood fall into one of two categories: Deliberately embellished, if not outright fabricated accounts designed to tell a good story rather than good history, or sincerely vague, poorly-remembered anecdotes.

Clarke falls into the latter category. He appears to have been an honest man, but unfortunately, no one thought to ask him about Poe until his old age, when he was, as this reporter stated with rather excessive frankness, “mentally feeble.” There are a couple of obvious whoppers in this interview—for instance, we know very few people attended Poe's funeral, and as a result the minister kept his remarks very short--but it is still of some interest, and I believe that, at least, Clarke gave his information as accurately as he could. That is certainly more than one can say about a good many people who talked about Poe.

His Venerable Teacher Still Living in Baltimore—Interesting Reminiscences of the Poet

One of The Bulletin’s staff, a day or two ago, had the good fortune to have an interview with the venerable Joseph H. Clarke, now 89 years old, who was the preceptor of the poet, Edgar Allan Poe. In Eugene L. Didier's memoirs of Edgar Allan Poe, the following occurs: "On Mr. and Mrs. Allan's return from their two years' visit to England, Mr. Allan placed Poe in the academy of Prof. Joseph H. Clarke, of Trinity College, Dublin, who kept an English classical school at Richmond, from 1810 to 1825."

He greeted The Bulletin representative cordially, but it was plain to see that the aged man, although physically as many a man of thirty years his junior, had grown mentally feeble under the weight of many years. When the old gentleman was seated, the reporter explained that he wanted any reminiscences of Poe that he could give.

"Edgar, Edgar," said the old man, rising, with a far-away look, as memories of old times flitted through his mind. "Why, he was a born poet. One day Mr. Allan came to me and said: 'Mr. Clarke, I have heard much about your school and as Edgar shows a decided aptness for classics, I have decided to place him under your care.' This was about 1820 or ‘21, and Edgar entered my school. He became one of my most distinguished scholars. He and Nat. Howard were in the same class. Nat. was as good, if not better, than Edgar in the classics, but Nat. couldn't write poetry like Edgar could. Edgar was a poet in every sense of the word. One summer, at the end of the session, Nat. and Edgar both wrote me a complimentary letter. Nat's was written in Latin, after Horace, but Edgar's was written in poetry. I came to Baltimore that summer, and I showed those letters to Rev. Mr. Damphoux. of St. Mary's College, and what do you think he said ? “Mr. Clarke, those compositions would do honor and credit to the best educated professor in my college.' Oh, yes, Edgar was a poet, and he wasn't over twelve or fourteen when he wrote that letter to me."

"Did you keep it? have you it now?" the reporter asked, eagerly.

“No, no," the old gentleman answered sadly; “I returned it to Edgar. One day, after I had come to Baltimore from Richmond, Edgar came to visit me. I told him about the letters, and Edgar rose and said, with such a strange, yearning look in his eyes: 'You couldn't do Nat. Howard and me a greater favor than to return us those letters. I think Nat. would like to have his, and I am sure I would give worlds to have mine.'  I gave them to him.”

"Then you have no memento of Poe?”

The old man sadly answered, "No, sir; that's one thing I always regretted, not having kept some of Edgar's notes or poems. But then, you know, I couldn't tell at that time that Edgar would ever be a great man."

"Wasn't Poe a very handsome boy, Professor?”

"Well, he had very pretty eyes and hair, and rather an effeminate face, but I don't think he was a beautiful boy. He had a very sweet disposition. He was always cheerful, brimful of mirth, and a very great favorite with his schoolmates. I never had occasion to say a harsh word to him while he was in my school, much less to make him do penance."

"Did he study very hard?"

"No; he was not remarkable for his application. He was naturally very smart, and he always knew his lessons. He had a great deal of pride."

"Did you ever see Mary [sic] Poe, Edgar's little sister?”

"Yes; she was adopted by Mr. McKenzie when Mr. Allan took Edgar."

"Was she pretty?"

"Well, really, I can't remember very well, but I think she was a very sweet and interesting child."

"You saw Poe, after you left Richmond, of course?"

"Yes; when he came to Baltimore, and stopped at the tavern, he would never forget to come and see me."

"Do you believe that your pupil was a habitual drunkard?”

"That I can't tell. I think he was fond of wine, and I know that I always opened a bottle for him when he came to see me; but then it was the custom of the age, you know, to drink wine at that time. Then, when Edgar became editor of Graham's Magazine, he sent it to me regularly, gratis."

"Was he affectionate to you, Professor?"

"Yes, indeed; I think the boy and man loved me dearly, and I am sure I loved him."

"When was the last time you saw him?"

"When he was laid away to rest, in 1849. I went to his funeral. A large number of persons were present, and, I remember, the minister who officiated dwelt long on the great man's virtues. Yes," he concluded, "Edgar, as a boy, was a dear, open-hearted, cheerful, and good boy, and as a man, he was a loving and affectionate friend to me."