A Continuation of the voluminous History of the Little Longfellow War -- Mr. Poe's farther reply to the letter of Outis.
I shall not accuse Mr. Poe of plagiarism," says Outis, "for, as I have observed before, such charges are perfectly absurd" -- and Outis is certainly right in dwelling on the point that he has observed this thing before. It is the one original point of his essay -- for I really believe that no one else was ever silly enough to "observe it before."
Here is a gentleman who writes in certain respects as a gentleman should, and who yet has the effrontery to base a defence of a friend from the charge of plagiarism, on the broad ground that no such thing as plagiarism ever existed. I confess that to an assertion of this nature there is no little difficulty in getting up a reply. What in the world can a man say in a case of this kind? -- he cannot of course give utterance to the first epithets that spring to his lips -- and yet what else shall he utter that shall not have an air of direct insult to the common sense of mankind? What could any judge on any bench in the country do but laugh or swear at the attorney who should begin his defence of a petty-larceny client with an oration demonstrating a priori that no such thing as petty larceny ever had been, or in the nature of things, ever could be committed? And yet the attorney might make as sensible a speech as Outis -- even a more sensible one -- any thing but a less sensible one. Indeed, mutato nomine, he might employ Outis' identical words. He might say -- "In view, gentlemen of the jury, of all the glaring improbabilities of such a case, a prosecuting attorney should be very slow to make such a charge. I say glaring improbabilities, for it seems to me that no circumstantial evidence could be sufficient to secure a verdict of theft in such a case. Look at it. [Here the judge would look at the maker of the speech.] Look at it. A man who aspires to (the) fame (of being a beau) -- who seeks the esteem and praise of all the world (of dandies) and lives upon his reputation (for broadcloth) as his vital element, attempts to win his object -- how? By stealing in open day the finest waist-coats, the most beautiful dress-coats (no others are worth stealing) and the rarest pantaloons of another, and claiming them as his own; and that too when he knows that every competitor for (the) fame (of Brummelism) and every fashion-plate Magazine in the world, as well as the real owner, will be ready to identify the borrowed plumes in a moment, and cry him down as a thief. A madman, an idiot, if he were capable of such an achievement, might do it, gentlemen of the jury, but no other."
Now of course, no judge in the world whose sense of duty was not overruled by a stronger sense of the facetious, would permit the attorney to proceed with any such speech. It would never do to have the time of the court occupied by this gentleman's well-meant endeavour to show a priori, the impossibility of that ever happening which the clerk of this same court could show a posteriori had been happening by wholesale ever since there had been such a thing as a foreign count. And yet the speech of the attorney was really a very excellent speech, when we compare it with that of Outis. For the "glaring improbability" of the plagiarism, is a mere nothing by the side of the "glaring improbability" of the theft of the sky-blue dress-coat, and the yellow plaid pantaloons: -- we may take it for granted, of course, that the thief was one of the upper ten thousand of thieves, and would not have put himself to the trouble of appropriating any garments that were not of indisputable bon ton, and patronised even by Professor Longfellow himself. The improbability of the literary theft, I say, is really a mere trifle in comparison with the broad-cloth larceny. For the plagiarist is either a man of no note or a man of note. In the first case, he is usually an ignoramus, and getting possession of a rather rare book, plunders it without scruple, on the ground that nobody has ever seen a copy of it except himself. In the second case (which is a more general one by far) he pilfers from some poverty-stricken, and therefore neglected man of genius, on the reasonable supposition that this neglected man of genius will very soon cut his throat, or die of starvation, (the sooner the better, no doubt,) and that in the mean time he will be too busy in keeping the wolf from the door to look after the purloiners of his property -- and too poor, and too cowed, and for these reasons too contemptible, under any circumstances, to dare accuse of so base a thing as theft, the wealthy and triumphant gentleman of elegant leisure who has only done the vagabond too much honor in knocking him down and robbing him upon the highway.
The plagiarist, then, in either case, has very reasonable ground for expecting impunity, and at all events it is because he thinks so, that he perpetrates the plagiarism -- but how is it with the count who steps into the shop of the tailor, and slips under his cloak the sky-blue dress coat, and the yellow plaid pantaloons? He, the count, would be a greater fool in these matters than a count ever was, if he did not perceive at once, that the chances were about nine hundred and ninety-nine to one, that he would be caught the next morning before twelve o'clock, in the very first bloom and blush of his promenade down Broadway, by some one of those officious individuals who are continually on the qui vive to catch the counts and take away from them their sky-blue coats and yellow plaid pantaloons. Yes, undoubtedly; the count is very well aware of all this; but he takes into consideration, that although the nine-hundred and ninety-nine chances are certainly against him, the one is just as certainly in his favor -- that luck is every thing -- that life is short -- that the weather is fine -- and that if he can only manage to get safely through his promenade down Broadway in the sky-blue dress coat and the yellow plaid pantaloons, he will enjoy the high honor, for once in his life at least, of being mistaken by fifteen ladies out of twenty, either for Professor Longfellow, or Ph;oebus Apollo. And this consideration is enough -- the half of it would have been more than enough to satisfy the count that, in putting the garments under his cloak, he is doing a very sagacious and very commendable thing. He steals them, then, at once, and without scruple, and, when he is caught arrayed in them the next morning, he is, of course, highly amused to hear his counsel make an oration in court about the "glaring improbability" of his having stolen them when he stole them -- by way of showing the abstract impossibility of their ever having been stolen at all.
"What is plagiarism?" demands Outis at the outset, avec l'air d'un Romain qui sauve sa patrie -- "what is plagiarism and what constitutes a good ground for the charge?"
Of course all men anticipate something unusually happy in the way of reply to queries so cavernously propounded; but if so, then all men have forgotten, or no man has ever known that Outis is a Yankee. He answers the two questions by two others -- and perhaps this is quite as much as any one should expect him to do. "Did no two men," he says, "ever think alike without stealing one from the other? -- or thinking alike, did no two men ever use the same or similar words to convey the thoughts, and that without any communication with each other? -- To deny it is absurd."
Of course it is -- very absurd; and the only thing more absurd that I can call to mind at present, is the supposition that any person ever entertained an idea of denying it. But are we to understand the denying it, or the absurdity of denying it, or the absurdity of supposing that any person intended to deny it, as the true answer to the original queries?
But let me aid Outis to a distinct conception of his own irrelevance. I accuse his friend, specifically, of a plagiarism. This accusation Outis rebuts by asking me with a grave face -- not whether the friend might not, in this individual case, and in the compass of eight short lines, have happened upon ten or twelve peculiar identities of thought and identities of expression with the author from whom I charge him with plagiarising -- but simply whether I do not admit the possibility that once in the course of eternity some two individuals might not happen upon a single identity of thought, and give it voice in a single identity of expression.
Now, frankly, I admit the possibility in question, and would request my friends to get ready for me a strait-jacket if I did not. There can be no doubt in the world, for example, that Outis considers me a fool: -- the thing is sufficiently plain: and this opinion on the part of Outis is what mankind have agreed to denominate an idea; and this idea is also entertained by Mr. Aldrich, and by Mr. Longfellow -- and by Mrs. Outis and her seven children -- and by Mrs. Aldrich and hers -- and by Mrs. Longfellow and hers -- including the grand-children and great grand-children, if any, who will be instructed to transmit the idea in unadulterated purity down an infinite vista of generations yet to come. And of this idea thus extensively entertained, it would really be a very difficult thing to vary the expression in any material degree. A remarkable similarity would be brought about, indeed, by the desire of the parties in question to put the thought into as compendious a form as possible, by way of bringing it to a focus at once and having done with it upon the spot.
Outis will perceive, therefore, that I have every desire in the world to afford him that "fair play" which he considers "a jewel," since I admit not only the possibility of the class of coincidences for which he contends, but even the impossibility of there not existing just as many of these coincidences as he may consider necessary to make out his case.
One of the species he details as follows, at some length:
Some years ago, a letter was written from some part of New England, describing one of those scenes, not very common during what is called "the January thaw," when the snow, mingled with rain, and freezing as it falls, forms a perfect covering of ice upon every object. The storm clears away suddenly, and the moon comes up. The letter proceeds "every tree and shrub, as far as the eye can reach, of pure transparent glass -- a perfect garden of moving, waving, breathing chrystals. * * * Every tree is a diamond chandelier, with a whole constellation of stars clustering to every socket," &c. This letter was laid away where such things usually are, in a private drawer, and did not see the light for many years. But the very next autumn brought out, among the splendid annuals got up in the country, a beautiful poem from Whittier, de-scribing the same, or rather a similar scene, in which the line
"The trees, like chrystal chandeliers,"
was put in italics by every reviewer in the land, for the exceeding beauty of the imagery. Now the letter was written, probably, about the same time with the poem, though the poem was not published till nearly a year after. -- The writers were not, and never have been, acquainted with each other, and neither could possibly have seen the work of the other before writing. Now, was there any plagiarism here?"
After the fashion of Outis himself I shall answer his query by another. What has the question whether the chandelier friend committed a plagiarism, to do with the question whether the Death-Bed friend committed a plagiarism, or whether it is possible or impossible that plagiarism, generally, can be committed?
But, merely for courtesy's sake, I step aside from the exact matter in hand. In the case mentioned I should consider material differences in the terms of description as more remarkable than coincidences. Since the tree really looked like a chandelier, the true wonder would have been in likening it to anything else. Of course, nine common-place men out of ten would have maintained it to be a chandelier-looking tree. No poet of any pretension, however, would have committed himself so far as to put such a similitude in print. The chandelier might have been poetically likened to the chrystallized tree -- but the converse is a platitude. The gorgeous unaltered handiwork of Nature is always degraded by comparison with the tawdry gew-gaws of Art -- and perhaps the very ugliest thing in the world is a chandelier. If "every reviewer in the land put the passage into Italics on account of the exceeding beauty of the imagery," then every printer's devil in the land should have been flogged for not taking it out of Italics upon the spot, and putting it in the plainest Roman -- which is too good for it by one half.
I put no faith in the nil admirari, and am apt to be amazed at every second thing which I see. One of the most amazing things I have yet seen, is the complacency with which Outis throws to the right and left his anonymous assertions, taking it for granted that because he (Nobody) asserts them, I must believe them as a matter of course. However -- he is quite in the right. I am perfectly ready to admit anything that he pleases, and am prepared to put as implicit faith in his ipse dixit as the Bishop of Autun did in the Bible -- on the ground that he knew nothing about it at all.
We will understand it, then, not merely as an anonymous assertion but as an absolute fact, that the two chandelier authors "were not and never have been acquainted with each other, and that neither could have seen the work of the other before writing." We will agree to understand all this as indisputable truth, I say, through motives of the purest charity, for the purpose of assisting a friend out of trouble, and without reference to the consideration that no third person short of Signor Blitz or Professor Rogers could in any conceivable manner have satisfied himself of the truth of the twentieth part of it. Admitting this and every thing else, to be as true as the Pentateuch, it follows that plagiarism in the case in question was a thing that could not by any possibility be -- and do I rightly comprehend Outis as demonstrating the impossibility of plagiarism where it is possible, by adducing instances of inevitable similarity under circumstances where it is not?
The fact is, that through want of space and time to follow Outis through the labyrinth of impertinences in which he is scrambling about, I am constrained, much against my sense of decorum, to place him in the high-road of his argument, so that he may see where he is, and what he is doing, and what it is that he is endeavouring to demonstrate.He wishes to show, then, that Mr. Longfellow is innocent of the imitation with which I have charged him, and that Mr. Aldrich is innocent of the plagiarism with which I have not charged him; and this duplicate innocence is expected to be proved by showing the possibility that a certain, or that any uncertain series of coincidences may be the result of pure accident.
Now of course I cannot be sure that Outis will regard my admission as a service or a disservice, but I admit the possibility at once; and not only this, but I would admit it as a possibility were the coincidences a billion, and each of the most definitive peculiarity that human ingenuity could conceive. But, in admitting this, I admit just nothing at all, so far as the advancement of Outis' proper argument is concerned. The affair is one of probabilities altogether, and can be satisfactorily settled only by reference to their Calculus.I shall continue, if not conclude the subject in the next "Journal", and our readers may take it for granted that there will be some very "interesting developments" before I have done.
[S:0 - BJ, 1845]