Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Review of Incidents of Travel in Central America” [Text-02], Graham’s Magazine, August 1841, pp. 90-96


[page 90:]

Incidents of Travel in Central America, etc. By JOHN L. STEPHENS. Two Volumes. New York: Harper and Brothers.

Mr. Stephen’s former book, “Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea, and Palestine,” was everywhere well received, and gained him high reputation — reputation not altogether well deserved. No one can deny his personal merits as a traveller, his enthusiasm, boldness, acuteness, courage in danger, and perseverance under difficulty. His manner of narration is also exceedingly pleasing — frank, unembarrassed, and direct, without pretension or attempt at effect. But neither were his reflections characterized by profundity, nor had he that degree of education which would have enabled him to travel, with benefit to himself or to others, through regions involving so much of historical importance as Egypt, and especially Arabia Petraea. Through a deficiency of previous information in regard to the moot points of this classical ground, he suffered many things to pass unexamined, whose examination would have thrown light upon history and lustre upon his own name. Our remarks here apply more particularly to the southern regions of Arabia. In regard to Arabia Petraea, he committed some errors of magnitude. Before entering upon his travels, he had been much interested in Keith’s book upon the literal fulfilment of the Biblical prophecies. In this work the predictions of Isaiah, respecting the ancient Idumaea, are especially insisted upon, and the sentence, “None shall pass through thee forever and ever,” quoted as a remarkable instance of literal fulfilment. Dr. Keith states roundly that all attempts at passing through Idumzea have actually failed, and expressed his belief that such will always be the case. Mr. Stephens resolved to test this point, and congratulates himself and his readers upon the success of his attempt at traversing the disputed region from one end to the other. The truth is, however, that Arabia Petrza, through which he unquestionably did pass, is not at al the ldunua alluded to in the prophecies, this latter lying much farther to the eastward. The traveller had contented himself with the usual understanding upon this subject. In the matter of the prophecy both he and Dr. Keith might have spared themselves much trouble by an examination of the Biblical text in the original before founding a question upon it. In an article on this head, which appeared in the New York Review, we pointed out an obvious mistranslation in the Hebrew words of the prediction — a mistranslation which proves Mr. Stephens to have thrown away his courage and labor. The passage in Isaiah 34, 10, which is rendered in our Bibles by the sentence, “And none shall pass through thee forever and ever,” runs in the original Hebrew thus: —

Lenetsach metsachim ein over bah.

Literally — Lenetsach, for an eternity; metsachim, of eternities; ein, not; over, moving about; bah, in it. For an eternity of eternities (there shall) not (be any one) moving about in it. The literal meaning of bah is “in it,” and not “through it.” The participle over refers to one moving to and fro, or up and down, and is the same phrase which is rendered “current,” as an epithet applied to money, in Genesis, 23, 16. The prophet only intends to say that there shall be no marks of life in the land, no living being there, no one moving up and down in it. A similar mistranslation exists in regard to the prophecy in Ezekiel, 35, 7, where death is threatened (according to the usual construction) to any traveller who shall pass through. The words are: —

Wenathati eth-har Seir leshimmamah ushemamah, vehichrati mimmennu over vasal —

Literally, “And I will give the mountain Seir for a desolation and a desolation, and I will cut off from it him that goeth and him that returneth.” By “him that goeth and him that returneth “ reference is had to the passers to and fro, to the inhabitants. The prophet speaks only of the general abandonment and desolation of the land.

We are not prepared to say that misunderstandings of this character will be found in the present “Incidents of Travel,” Of Central America and her antiquities Mr. Stephens may know, and no doubt does know, as much as the most learned antiquarian. Here all is darkness. We have not yet received from the Messieurs Harper a copy of the book, and can only speak of its merits from general report and from the cursory perusal which has been afforded us by the politeness of a friend. The work is certainly a magnificent one — perhaps the most interesting book of travel ever published. An idea has gone abroad that the narrative is confined to descriptions and drawings of Palenque; but this is very far from the case. Mr. S. explored no less than six ruined cities. The “incidents,” moreover, are numerous and highly amusing. The traveller visited these regions at a momentous time, during the civil war, in which Carrera and Morazan were participants. He encountered many dangers, and his hair-breadth escapes are particularly exciting.







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