A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of sharing Albemarle County with a couple who are 83 years old and making their first visit here from South Africa. I walked them through the Academical Village at the University of Virginia with the intent of showing them the Lawn. We turned a corner and ended up in Poe Alley, behind Pavilion III.
We literally stumbled upon this medallion set in the pavement of the small parking lot at the east end of Poe Alley. The simple design is of a bust of Pallas Athena with a raven (both from Poes’s poem, The Raven). The dates are of Edgar Allan Poe’s life and the year he was a student at UVa. I had never seen the medallion myself, and interestingly, this medallion is not well documented. In an interview, retired UVa historian Sandy Gilliam mentions it in connection with the construction of Peabody and thought it might have been made at the time, about 1914. Architectural historian Brian Hogg, also of UVa, speculates it may have been created in the early 1920s.
The Range rooms in this part of the Academical Village would have looked out into the woods of the surrounding country, and in reference to the group of young men living here this block of rooms was dubbed “Rowdy Row.” (The above image of the Range was taken during a much later time.) The University as a whole was rowdy in those early years. It was filled with young men of privilege, many not even from Virginia. They came with a sense of entitlement, a love of drink and gambling and those first few years were wild affairs with students often expelled and disciplined for their actions. Just six months prior to Poe’s arrival, Thomas Jefferson had gathered the student body in the Rotunda to plead with them to act like gentleman, he called that moment ‘the most painful event of his life’.
Poe would later insist that it wasn’t drink or his lack of study that caused him to leave, but rather the failure of his foster father and benefactor, John Allan, to provide him with enough money to cover his expenses. (Poe was an orphan and only 17 years old when he attended the university.) Student expenses were great. Poe’s two language courses cost him $60, he could not afford to take a third as most students. Room rental was $15 a year with another $12 for a bed and another $12 for other furniture. Each young man was also expected to pay a servant. He turned to gambling to make money to pay his creditors in town, and that failed miserably. At the end of his successful first term at school John Allan refused to allow him to return.
Poe was known to enjoy a hike in the surrounding country and was inspired by the nearby mountains. He wrote a splendid, spooky short story called ‘A Tale of The Ragged Mountains’, his only work that mentions the town of Charlottesville.
“He was fond of quoting poetic authors and reading poetic productions of his own, with which his friends were delighted & entertained, then suddenly a change would come over him & he would with a piece of charcoal evince his versatile genius by sketching upon the walls of his dormitory, whimsical, fanciful, & grotesque figures, with so much artistic skill, as to leave us in doubt whether Poe in future life would be Painter or Poet; He was very excitable & restless, at times wayward, melancholic & morose, but again — in his better moods frolicksome, full of fun & a most attractive & agreeable companion. To calm & quiet the excessive nervous excitability under which he labored, he would too often put himself under the influence of that “Invisible Spirit of Wine” which the great Dramatist has said “If known by no other name should be called Devil”