Against a Powerful Current
Not an orphan, but not quite a son. Not a Brit, but not quite a Virginian. From the age of 11 until he packed up and went—exceptionally young at 17—to Thomas Jefferson's new university in Charlottesville, certain things about Poe were becoming clear. He was athletic, romantic, and literary. He was already trying to reconcile his considerable gifts with the deep insecurity that kept him from ever believing in himself. His feats came to matter keenly to him, maybe because with the insecurity that sapped him everywhere he turned, he had to struggle to achieve what more light-hearted boys did more easily.
Edgar was a swimmer and a broad jumper. Although his achievements—and his likeable nature—gave him some standing among the other boys, he still gained a reputation for aloofness.
His studies introduced him to the romantic ideals of Byron and Keats, and in some ways, he was already trying to emulate them. The summer he was 15, he swam six miles up the James River against a powerful current, an anxious schoolteacher following him in a rowboat in case he got into trouble.
He likened this exercise to Lord Byron's famous feat. Byron was the first person known to swim the Hellespont, the hazardous one-kilometer strait between Europe and Asia. An element of risk heightened the experience and infused it with excitement.
They Said …
“This institution of my native state, the hobby of my old age, will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind, to explore and to expose every subject susceptible of its contemplation.”—Thomas Jefferson on his vision for his new university, which included ten pavilions in an academic village with a 7,000-book library as its centerpiece, 1820
With the Greek and Latin he learned in England—and continued in Richmond—he read stories about the feats of Greek and Roman heroes. With the “new” Romantic poetry of Byron, Shelley, and Keats, he had visions of an extravagant individualism. Classicist? Romantic? Something else? Potent new influences were seeping into the young adolescent Poe, and while he continued to excel at school, he was also beginning to see the possibilities for self-creation. His life was something he could make a breathing work of art—but how?
And then he met Helen, otherwise known as Jane Stith Stanard. She wasn't the girl next door or a student at a nearby girls’ academy. Poe's Helen, the subject of his 14-year-old passion, was Jane Stith Stanard, the mother of one of his school friends. Jane Stanard had certain advantages as material for a young poet. She was a classic beauty; she reminded him of his dead mother, Eliza; as a married woman, she was deliciously unobtainable; and she showed a sincere interest in him and his potential.
But late in April of 1824, Jane Stith Stanard died, and Poe, for a second time, lost a woman extremely dear to him. The death of his mother when he was two was the kind of loss that spread itself throughout his nature as he grew. The loss of Jane Stith Stanard occurred when he was 15, old enough to experience it on many levels—and mourn conspicuously.