Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Young Poe and Lafayette

Here's another story of Poe's teen years. At the age of 15, a young Edgar Poe served as a lieutenant (in fact, second-in-command) for the Richmond Junior Volunteers, a group of teenaged riflemen-in-training. This role put him in the direct path of the Marquis de La Fayette, one of the most celebrated generals of the American Revolution.

La Fayette, on his tour of the United States nearly a half-decade after the Revolution, included a three-day tour of Richmond. During a parade, Poe's group of Junior Volunteers were chosen to accompany General La Fayette's carriage.

We don't know for sure if Poe and La Fayette had a conversation, shook hands, or anything like that (though, allegedly, La Fayette himself inspected all his young bodyguards to make sure they were in full uniform). However, we know that Poe was particularly proud of his role that day. Years later, Thomas Ellis (son of Charles Ellis, business partner of Poe's foster-father John Allan) wrote: "But never was I more proud of [Poe] than when, dressed in the uniform... he walked up and down in front of the marquee erected on the Capitol Square, under which the old general held a grand reception." Poe's pride in this uniformed group may have inspired his attempts at joining the military. At one point, he even considers soliciting La Fayette himself to earn an appointment to the Polish Army.

Three weeks after the parade, Poe partnered with another boy, "Captain" John Lyle, in writing a letter to the governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia. They asked for permission "to retain the arms which they lately were permitted to draw from the Armory." A couple days later, the two boys met with a member of the Virginia State Council to further discuss the proposition.

During the same trip to the United States, the Marquis de La Fayette visited Baltimore. The young Edgar probably didn't know that the only person La Fayette asked about in Baltimore was his good friend "General" David Poe, Poe's paternal grandfather. Distressed to hear of his death, La Fayette went to visit his grave at Westminster Burying Ground — next to the plot where Poe would be (first) buried only 25 years later. There, he said, Ici repose un coeur noble ("Here rests a noble heart").

*The image above is of La Fayette circa 1825, shortly after his Richmond trip. The artist is believed to be Matthew Harris Jouett. It is now part of the National Portrait Gallery.


Anonymous said...

I found your blog via Boston 1775 and am enjoying it very much. Poe and La Fayette--what a life Edgar led! (Do you mean to say that the Frenchman's portrait is "now" in the National Portrait Gallery?) I look forward to reading more--are you really stopping at the end of the year???

Rob Velella said...

Sorry about the typo - it's not/now fixed! Yes, it's fascinating who Poe bumped into during his short 40-year lifespan!

It's been a long year already and there's only so many dates we can account for in the life of Poe. I think at the end of the year I'll do something else, likely a more general blog about 19th century American literature - including Poe, of course. Keep reading until then!

Anonymous said...

I'd be very interested in reading a blog about 19th century American lit. I've been living in 19th English lit this fall--Anne Bronte, Fanny Trollope, George Eliot--and it would be fun to read closer to home. Many thanks, Kit