The Volatile Mr Poe


Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe, known as the “Annie” Daguerreotype.Via Wikipedia

I could stare at it for hours, this daguerreotype of Edgar Allen Poe.

There is something….volatile about him. That look in his eyes, the perverse irregularity of his features, that direct challenge in his stare. Did he always know that he was a master, despite his flaws and frailties? Was arrogance his flagship, as his ship zig-zagged erratically through life?

So we know the story of the life of Edgar Allen Poe. It draws the storyteller like a bee to a honey pot, so that whole book-long fantasies have been written to fill in the craters, those dearths of biographical information the writer left in his strange life story. How he was born to two actors in Boston, and his father split whilst his mother faded away from consumption, and somehow John Allan of Richmond, Virginia, a successful merchant, took him in and brought him up as his own, despite Poe stubbornly remaining the flaky eccentric under Allan’s straight-laced eye.

And Poe managed to take the respectable route for a while, enrolling to study ancient and modern languages at the University of Virginia before the  institution’s Jeffersonian rules and mores drove him nuts and he ran out of money, and made like his father and left.

So he pretended to be Perry, not Poe, and enrolled as a Private in the U.S.Army.

He what? Come again? Mr Chaos Theory enrols in the ultimate obsessive compulsive organisation? In truth, surely chaos must have ensued for the young recruit.

But no: by the time Poe arrived on a ship at Fort Moultrie, he was proving himself an adept.

This does not compute: Poe and the army. Until you look at the very small print.

We know that Poe was made an artificer once at MoultrieA specialist, one with skills useful to the army. Still, one heaves a puzzled sigh. For how could the shifting motivations of the master of the macabre marry with the iron john requirements of the US military?

I’ll tell you how.


The American Artillerist’s Companion of 1809* defines an artificer as someone who ‘makes fireworks’.

I’ll say. “A bomb,” it reads, “is a hollow globe of iron”. An artificer would need first to calculate the time the globe would need to spend hurtling through the air; then he would mix and measure powders which are inherently and necessarily unstable, filling the globe. Finally, the fuse would have to be tamped down on top without the whole thing going up like a firework display.

Ah, Mr Poe did always so love playing with fire. And in this case, he was very, very good at it.

Our Charleston travels included a visit to the place Mr Poe made fireworks. To the brick line which marks the modest barracks where he slept, and to the arsenal where the gunpowder which stoked his little iron globes lived; to this low-lying, stubborn little fort which proved itself superior to all the posturing of Fort Sumter opposite, because, you know, sometimes it pays to be smaller, and lower, and less of a target.

At Moultrie it is possible the writer fit in: that he was a round peg in a round hole.

But, as was invariably the case with our beloved, odd, disjointed, brilliant Mr Poe, behind the correctly shaped peg was a heady concoction of gunpowder.


With heartfelt thanks to  author Andra Watkins, and her husband Michael Maher, for a magical trip to Moultrie. I hope Poe got to walk the beach and feel the warm winds on his skin just as we did.

*Source: Introduction to ‘Private Perry and Mr Poe: The West Point Poems’Ed. William Hecker


29 thoughts on “The Volatile Mr Poe

    1. It is. “The people of Charleston,” Charleston County Public Library records a visitor saying at the time, “live rapidly, not willingly letting go untasted any of the pleasures of life.”

  1. I don’t know about David Niven my first thoughts were Charlie Chaplin, but on looking closer there is a slight resemblance. As an aside I do think that David Niven was one actor who the Queen should have knighted. a fine man as well as a fine actor.

  2. Strange, how in the very same image in which you find a volatility, I have always seen a sadness or wistfulness (and yes, like another of your readers, I have seen a somber David Niven, too). Regardless of what we think we see, I have always suspected a slight degree of madness must have driven a portion of his life. How else to explain those dark, shiver-inducing tales?

    1. It’s back to that age old question, Karen: what is ‘sane’? To me he had the eccentric erraticism of genius, and probably a fairly potty side which he could choose to cloak or flaunt depending on his purposes. But being not all that conventional myself, I find such people incredibly comforting.

  3. I know you’ve mentioned before your affinity for Poe, and this opportunity to visit Fort Moultrie must surely have pleased you very much. I wouldn’t have made the Charleston connection. He was a fascinating man. Thank you for so much new-to-me information. Wonderful tour guides, too! 🙂

    1. They were, Debra. After we went to Moultrie we all repaired to the beach for surfing and sitting. Warm wind, a kind cloud cover and skydiving pelicans completed what was – as Lou Reed would put it – A Perfect Day.

  4. I’ve always felt I found a kindred spirit in Poe. He probably did the most to inspire my love of writing dark stories. I love his tortured, if-you-dare glare.

    1. Me too, Elizabeth: if I had to put my finger on what is so very magnetic about him for me, it would be the quicksilver changeability of the man, the power to continue to surprise right up until that strange death.

  5. Thank you. I didn’t know Poe made gunpowder. Maybe the need for precision with explosives paved the way for precision in writing. I think he looks like David Niven, too, and yes, he should have been knighted.

    1. I never thought of Poe as being precise, but of yours that is absolutely true, Kathy. As a highly volatile should myself, I have a feeling the excitement of gunpowder may have had something to do with its pull. But who knows?

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