Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Review of New Books” [Text-02], Graham’s Magazine, July 1841, pp. 45-48.


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[page 45, full page:]

REVIEW OF NEW BOOKS.

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A Grammar of the English Language, in a series of Letters, addressed to every American Youth. By HUGH A. PUE. Philadelphia: Published by the Author.

This is the title of a queer little book, which its author regards as “not only necessary, but urgently called for,” because not only “the mass of the people are ignorant of English Grammar, but because those who profess great knowledge of it, and even those who make the teaching of it their business, will be found, upon examination, to be very far from understanding its principles.”

Whether Mr. P. proceeds upon the safe old plan of Probo meliora, deteriora sequor — whether he is one of “the mass,” and means to include himself among the ignoramuses — or whether he is only a desperate quiz — we shall not take it upon ourselves to say; but the fact is clear that, in a Preface of less than two small duodecimo pages (the leading object of which seems to be an eulogy upon one William Cobbett,) he has given us some half dozen distinct instances of bad grammar.

“For these purposes,” says he — that is to say — the purposes of instructing mankind and enlightening “every American youth” without exception — “for these purposes, I have written my lessons in a series of letters. A mode that affords more opportunity for plainness, familiarity, instruction, and entertainment, than any other. A mode that was adopted by Chesterfield, in his celebrated instructions on politeness. A mode that was adopted by Smollett, in many of his novels, which, even at this day, hold a distinguished place in the world of fiction. A mode that was adopted by William Cobbett, not only in his admirable treatise on English Grammar, but in nearly every work that he wrote.” “To Mr. Cobbett,” adds the instructer of every American youth — “to Mr. Cobbett I acknowledge myself indebted for the greater part of the grammatical knowledge which I possess.” Of the fact stated there can be no question. Nobody but Cobbett could have been the grammatical Mentor of Mr. Pue, whose book (which is all Cobbett) speaks plainly upon the point — nothing but the ghost of William Cobbett, looking over the shoulder of Hugh A. Pue, could have inspired the latter gentleman with the bright idea of stringing together four consecutive sentences, in each of which the leading nominative noun is destitute of a verb.

Mr. Pue may attempt to justify his phraseology here, by saying that the several sentences, quoted above, commencing with the words, “A mode,” are merely continuations of the one beginning “For these purposes;” but this is no justification at all. By the use of the period, he has rendered each sentence distinct, and each must be examined as such, in respect to its grammar. We are only taking the liberty of condemning Mr. P. by the words of his own mouth. Turning to page 72, where he treats of punctuation, we read as follows: — “The full point is used at the end of every complete sentence; and a complete sentence is a collection of words making a complete sense, without being dependent upon another collection of words to convey the full meaning intended.” Now, what kind of a meaning can we give to such a sentence as “A mode that was adopted by Chesterfield in his celebrated instructions on politeness,” if we are to have “no dependence upon” the sentences that precede it? But, even in the supposition that these five sentences had been run into one, as they should have been, they would still be ungrammatical. For example — “For these [column 2:] purposes I have written my lessons in a series of letters — a mode that affords more opportunity for plainness, familiarity, instruction, and entertainment than any other — a mode, etc.” This would have been the proper method of punctuation. “A mode” is placed in apposition with “a series of letters.” But it is evident that it is not the “series of letters” which is the “mode.” It is the writing the lessons in a series which is so. Yet, in order that the noun “mode” can be properly placed in apposition with what precedes it, this latter must be either a noun, or a sentence, which, taken collectively, can serve as one. Thus, in any shape, all that we have quoted is bad grammar.

We say “bad grammar,” and say it through sheer obstinacy, because Mr. Pue says we should not. “Why, what is grammar?” asks he indignantly. “Nearly all grammarians tell us that grammar is the writing and speaking of the English language correctly. What then is bad grammar? Why bad grammar must be the bad writing and speaking of the English language correctly!!” We give the two admiration notes and all.

In the first place, if grammar be only the writing and speaking the English language correctly, then the French, or the Dutch, or the Kickapoos are miserable, ungrammatical races of people, and have no hopes of being anything else, unless Mr. Pue proceeds to their assistance: — but let us say nothing of this for the present. What we wish to assert is, that the usual definition of grammar as “the writing and speaking correctly,” is an error which should have been long ago exploded. Grammar is the analysis of language, and this analysis will be good or had, just as the capacity employed upon it be weak or strong — just as the grammarian be a Horne Tooke or a Hugh A. Pue.

But perhaps, after all, we are treating this gentleman discourteously. His book may be merely intended as a good joke. By the by, he says in his preface, that “while he informs the student, he shall take particular care to entertain him.” Now, the truth is, we have been exceedingly entertained. In such passages as the following, however, which we find upon the second page of the Introduction, we are really at a loss to determine whether it is the utile or the dulce which prevails. We give the italics of Mr. Pue; without which, indeed, the singular force and beauty of the paragraph cannot be duly appreciated.

“The proper study of English grammar, so far from being dry, is one of the most rational enjoyments known to us; one that is highly calculated to rouse the dormant energies of the student; it requiring continual mental effort; unceasing exercise of mind. It is, in fact, the spreading of a thought-producing plaster of parts upon the extensive grounds of intellect! It is the parent of idea, and great causation of reflection; the mighty instigator of insurrection in the interior; and, above all, the unflinching champion of internal improvement!” We know nothing about plaster of Paris; but the analogy which subsists between ipecac and grammar — at least between ipecac and the grammar of Mr. Pue — never, certainly, struck us in so clear a point of view, as it does now.

But, after all, whether Mr. P.’s queer little book shall or shall not meet the views of “Every American Youth,” will depend pretty much upon another question of high moment — whether “Every American Youth” be or be not as great a nincompoop as Mr. Pue.

[page 46:]

[[Review of Seba Smith’s Powhatan]]

[page 47, column 1, continued:]

Miscellanies of Literature. By the Author of Curiosities of Literature. 3 vols. J. & H. Langley, New York: 1841.

These volumes remind us of Coke upon Lyttleton, with which whilom we were wont to be delighted; for these are full of the same odd conceits, and present the same crude mass of undigested learning. Facts which no one else would ever have hunted up from the shelves of dusty libraries; theories which hitherto no man thought of substantiating by a reference to biography or history; ideas, which are oddities in themselves, and which are presented in the quaintest style; and illustrations of notions that no one else would ever have thought of, or which, if thought of, would not have dressed up in so outlandish a manner, are all marshalled together here in disorderly array, pushing, jostling, and crowding each other until they remind one of Falstaff’s valorous regiment, or a militia training in a midland county.

Seriously, however, these miscellanies embody a vast amount of out-of-the-way intelligence, interesting to the general, but absolutely necessary to the literary reader. No man but D’Israeli would ever have had the patience to compile such a work. His ideas on the literary character; his observations on men of genius; and his sketch of King James the first, embody a vast body of undigested facts that must have consumed years merely in their collection. Industry, however, is the only merit of these volumes: in arranging this vast mass of truths, D’Israeli has shown anything but a comprehensive mind.

The work is got up in fine style, as what work is not, when issued by the Langleys?

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Carleton, A Tale of Seventeen Hundred and Seventy-Six. Two volumes. Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard.

We have heard this novel attributed to a gentleman of Philadelphia, and also to a citizen of New York. The question appears to be a moot one still, but, like many other moot points, is one of amazingly little importance. The [column 2:] book seems to be the composition of a young man, well educated in consonance with some of those Pharisacial literary creed which are all-potent in deadening the higher powers in favor of the common-place. He has been taught propriety as the chief of the cardinal virtues, and instructed to regard originality as the sum total of the cardinal sins. His peculiar intellect, at the same time, has been a soil precisely adapted for the seed sown. In regard to “Carleton,” we may say in its behalf that its style is strikingly correct, and that its incidents and its reflections never, even by accident, startle us into unpleasant excitement. With this peace-offering upon the shrine of the decorous, we now take the liberty of throwing the book out of the window.

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Lives of the Queens of England, from the Norman Conquest; With Anecdotes of their Courts; Now first Published from Official Records and Other Authentic Documents, Private as well as Public. From the Second London Edition, with Corrections and Additions. By AGNES STRICKLAND. Vols. 1and 2. Lea & Blanchard. Philadelphia.

This book has been well received in England, and justly so. Its design is obviously good, and its execution does honor to the fair author — for in this instance it is scarcely right to call her a compiler. The work is quite as original as any similar work can be. The task of composing it has been an arduous one indeed; and there are few women who could have accomplished it, as we see it accomplished. The ground upon which Mrs. Strickland has so boldly yet judiciously ventured is one hitherto unbroken, and, although she has trodden among flower, she has not escaped the delving drudgery of the pioneer. In short, a deep research has been demanded for this labor, in quarters far out of the reach of the ordinary investigator.

The title, although comprehensive, does not fully indicate the book. We have not only the Lives of the Queens from the Norman Conquest, but, in the Introduction, notices of the ancient British and Saxon ones. The Empress Matilda is included among the former; although she has never been so ranked by any previous historian. In this our author is fully justified, however; for Matilda, who herself claimed no title beyond that of “Domina of England,” was queen dejure, and, in a historical view, a monarch of high importance, as the mother of the Plantagenets, and the uniting link of the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman dynasties. The materials of which her memoir is composed are derived chiefly from Norman and Latin chronicles, never before translated.

These volumes are sufficiently well done in a mechanical point of view. The lithograph portrait of Matilda, however, is greasy and ineffective, and typographical blunders obscure the meaning of many important passages. In the very first paragraph of the Introduction, for instance, we have Solent faeminrum ducut bellare; a sentence which we are quite sure was never put together by Tacitus, from whose Life of Agricola it is taken.

The book, upon the whole, is one of rich interest and value, and must find a place in every historical library.

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The History of a Flirt. 2vols. Lea & Blanchard, Philadelphia: 1841

This novel displays considerable ability, wasted on very common-place incidents. If the author will undertake a subject worthy of her talents — are we wrong in fancying the writer a lady? — we may yet hail her as a novelist of no slight pretensions. [page 48:]

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Outlines of Geography and History, presenting a Concise View of the World. By FREDERICK EMERSON, author of the North American Arithmetic. Hogan & Thompson: Philadelphia.

The Preface of this little work greatly interested us in its favor, and a careful examination of its contents did not lessen the interest. In its arrangement, Geography and History are combined — the former being the leading topic, and the latter the concomitant. The author’s observations, in respect to this junction, are just. The two subjects are so intimately connected in their own nature, that, however they may be separated in books, they can never be disconnected in the mind. The simultaneous study of both, properly connected, secures the learner from imbibing false motions of either.

The book is concise, but accurate, and well adapted either for a prefatory text-book, or for those whose limited school-time will not allow them to go through with a more diffuse system. It si very neatly and substantially gotten up.

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[[The review of The Works of Lord Bolingbroke is not by Poe.]]

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A Memoir of the Very Reverend Theobald Mathew. With an Account of the Rise and Progress of Temperance in Ireland. By the Reverend James Bermingham, of Borisokane. Edited by P. H. MORRIS, M. D., and by whom is added the Evil Effects of Drunkenness Physiologically Explained. Alexander V. Blake: New York.

It is scarcely too much to say that the Temperance Reformation is the most important which the world ever knew. Yet its great feature has never yet been made a subject of comment. We mean that of adding to man’s happiness (the ultimate object of all reform), not by the difficult and equivocal process of multiplying his pleasures, in their external regard, but by the simple and most effectual one of exalting his capacity for enjoyment. The temperate man carries within his own bosom, under all circumstances, the true, the only elements of bliss.

The book before us will essentially aid the good cause. The memoir of Mathew is deeply interesting; but, excellent as it is, we prefer the essay of Dr. Morris on “the Effects of Drunkenness Physiologically considered.” through the influence of the physical, rather than of the moral suggestions against alcohol, the permanency of the temperance reform will be made good. Convince the world that spirituous liquors are poison to the body, and it will be scarcely necessary to add that they are ruin to the soul.

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The Life and Land of Burns: 1vol. J. & H. Langley: New York. 1841.

This is an excellent work, got up in a style of exceeding beauty. The Langleys, indeed, are becoming celebrated for the beauty of their publications.

An essay by Carlyle, written in his usual barbarous style, but sparkling with brilliant thoughts, like diamonds in a mine, forms one of the chief features of the contents.

 


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Notes:

We can be usually certain about the attribution of the reviews for July. In a letter to William Landor, July 17, 1841, Poe writes, “You have seen, I believe, the July no: of Mag. Among the critical notices is one on Bolingbroke, the only notice not written by myself.” All of the other reviews, then, are clearly by Poe. (In addition to this evidence, a sizable portion of the review of Pue’s Grammar is included by Griswold in the 1850 edition of “Marginalia,” item CCXVII.) All of these reviews are listed as the work of Poe by Heartman and Canny (1943), by William D. Hull and by T. O. Mabbott. Mabbott’s notes at the University of Iowa list the reviews as “sure.”

 

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[S:0 - GM, 1841] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Review of New Books [Text-02]