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 Moultrie. A 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