Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Joel T. Headley” (Text-B), The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe­ (1850), 3:242-249


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­ [page 249, continued:]

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JOEL T. HEADLEY.*

THE Reverend MR. HEADLEY — (why will he not put his full title in his title-pages?) has in his “Sacred Mountains” been reversing the facts of the old fable about the mountains that brought forth the mouse — parturiunt montes nascetur ridiculus mus — for in this instance it appears to be the mouse — the little ridiculus mus — that has been bringing forth the “Mountains,” and a great litter of them, too. The epithet, funny, however, is perhaps the only one which can be considered as thoroughly applicable to the book. We say that a book is a “funny” book, and nothing else, when it spreads over two hundred pages an amount of matter which could be conveniently presented in twenty of a magazine: that a book is a “funny” book — “only this and nothing more” — when it is written in that kind of phraseology, in which John Philpot Curran, when drunk, would have made a speech at a public dinner: and, moreover, we do say, emphatically, that a book is a “funny” book, and nothing but a funny book, whenever it happens to be penned by Mr. Headley.  

We should like to give some account of “The Sacred Mountains,” if the thing were only possible — but we cannot conceive that it is. Mr. Headley belongs to that numerous class of authors, who must be read to be understood, and who, for that reason, very seldom are as thoroughly comprehended as they should be. Let us endeavor, however, to give some general idea of the work. “The design,” says the author, in his preface, “is to render more familiar and life-like, some of the scenes of the Bible.” Here, in the very first sentence of his preface, we suspect the Reverend Mr. ­[page 250:] Headley of fibbing: for his design, as it appears to ordinary apprehension, is merely that of making a little money by selling a little book.

The mountains described are Ararat, Moriah, Sinai, Hor, Pisgah, Horeb, Carmel, Lebanon, Zion, Tabor, Olivet, and Calvary. Taking up these, one by one, the author proceeds in his own very peculiar way to elocutionize about them: we really do not know how else to express what it is that Mr. Headley does with these eminences. Perhaps if we were to say that he stood up before the reader and “made a speech” about them, one after the other, we should come still nearer the truth. By way of carrying out his design, as announced in the preface, that of rendering “more familiar and life-like some of the scenes” and so-forth, he tells not only how each mountain is, and was, but how it might have been and ought to be in his own opinion. To hear him talk, anybody would suppose that he had been at the laying of the corner-stone of Solomon’s Temple — to say nothing of being born and brought up in the ark with Noah, and hail-fellow-well-met with every one of the beasts that went into it. If any person really desires to know how and why it was that the deluge took place — but especially how — if any person wishes to get minute and accurate information on the topic — let him read “The Sacred Mountains” — let him only listen to the Reverend Mr. Headley. He explains to us precisely how it all took place — what Noah said, and thought, while the ark was building, and what the people, who saw him building the ark, said and thought about his undertaking such a work; and how the beasts, birds, and fishes looked, as they came in arm in arm; and what the dove did, and what the raven did not — in short, all the rest of it: nothing could be more beautifully posted up. What can Mr. Headley mean, at page 17, by the remark that “there is no one who does not lament that there is not a fuller antediluvian history?” We are quite sure that nothing that ever happened before the flood, has been omitted in the scrupulous researches of the author of “The Sacred Mountains.”

He might, perhaps, wrap up the fruits of these researches in rather better English than that which he employs:

Yet still the water rose around them till all through the valleys nothing but little black islands of human beings were seen on the surface . . . . . . The ­[page 251:]  more fixed the irrevocable decree, the heavier he leaned on the Omnipotent arm . . . . . . And lo! a solitary cloud comes drifting along the morning sky and catches against the top of the mountain . . . . . . At length emboldened by their own numbers they assembled tumultuously together . . . . . . Aaron never appears so perfect a character as Moses . . . . . . As he advanced from rock to rock the sobbing of the multitude that followed after, tore his heart-strings . . . . . . Friends were following after whose sick Christ had healed . . . . . . The steady mountain threatened to lift from its base and be carried away . . . . . . Sometimes God’s hatred of sin, sometimes his care for his children, sometimes the discipline of his church, were the motives . . . . . . Surely it was his mighty hand that laid on that trembling tottering mountain, &c. &c. &c.

These things are not exactly as we could wish them, perhaps: — but that a gentleman should know so much about Noah’s ark and know anything about anything else, is scarcely to be expected. We have no right to require English grammar and accurate information about Moses and Aaron at the hands of one and the same author. For our parts, now we come to think of it, if we only understood as much about Mount Sinai and other matters as Mr. Headley does, we should make a point of always writing bad English upon principle, whether we knew better or not.

It may well be made a question moreover, how far a man of genius is justified in discussing topics so serious as those handled by Mr. Headley, in any ordinary kind of style. One should not talk about Scriptural subjects as one would talk about the rise and fall of stocks or the proceedings of Congress. Mr. Headley has seemed to feel this and has therefore elevated his manner — a little. For example:

The fields were smiling in verdure before his eyes; the perfumed breezes floated by . . . . . The sun is sailing over the encampment . . . . .  That cloud was God’s pavilion; the thunder was its sentinels; and the lightning the lances’ points as they moved round the sacred trust . . . . . . And how could he part with his children whom he had borne on his brave heart for more than forty years? . . . . . . Thus everything conspired to render Zion the spell-word of the nation and on its summit the heart of Israel seemed to lie and throb . . . . . . The sun died in the heavens; an earthquake thundered on to complete the dismay, &c. &c.

Here no one can fail to perceive the beauty (in an antediluvian, or at least in a Pickwickian sense) of these expressions in general, about the floating of the breeze, the sailing of the sun, the thundering of the earthquake and the throbbing of the heart as it lay on the top of the mountain.

The true artist, however, always rises as he proceeds, and in his last page or so brings all his elocution to a climax. Only ­[page 252:] hear Mr. Headley’s finale. He has been describing the crucifixion and now soars into the sublime:

How Heaven regarded this disaster, and the Universe felt at the sight, I cannot tell. I know not but tears fell like rain-drops from angelic eyes when they saw Christ spit upon and struck. I know not but there was silence on high for more than “half an hour” when the scene of the crucifixion was transpiring, — [a scene, as well as an event always “transpires” with Mr. Headley] — a silence unbroken save by the solitary sound of some harp-string on which unconsciously fell the agitated, trembling fingers of a seraph. I know not but all the radiant ranks on high, and even Gabriel himself, turned with the deepest solicitude to the Father’s face, to see if he was calm and untroubled amid it all. I know not but his composed brow and serene majesty were all that restrained Heaven from one universal shriek of horror when they heard groans on Calvary — dying groans. I know not but they thought God had given his glory to another, but one thing I do know, [Ah, there is really one thing Mr. Headley knows!] — that when they saw through the vast design, comprehended the stupendous scene, the hills of God shook to a shout that never before rung over their bright tops, and the crystal sea trembled to a song that had never before stirred its bright depths, and the “Glory to God in the Highest,” was a sevenfold chorus of hallelujahs and harping symphonies.

Here we have direct evidence of Mr. Headley’s accuracy not less than of his eloquence. “I know not but that” one is as vast as the other. The one thing that he does know he knows to perfection: — he knows not only what the chorus was (it was one of “hallelujahs and harping symphonies”) but also how much of it there was — it was a “sevenfold chorus.” Mr. Headley is a mathematical man. Moreover he is a modest man; for he confesses (no doubt with tears in his eyes) that really there is one thing he does not know. “How Heaven regarded this disaster, and the Universe felt at the sight, I cannot tell.” Only think of that! I cannot! — I, Headley, really cannot tell how the Universe “felt” once upon a time! This is downright bashfulness on the part of Mr. Headley. He could tell if he would only try. Why did he not inquire? Had he demanded of the Universe how it felt, can any one doubt that the answer would have been — “Pretty well, I thank you, my dear Headley; how do you feel yourself?”

“Quack” is a word that sounds well only in the mouth of a duck; and upon our honor we feel a scruple in using it: — nevertheless the truth should be told; and the simple fact is, that the author of the “Sacred Mountains” is the Autocrat of all the Quacks. In saying this, we beg not to be misunderstood. We mean no disparagement to Mr. Headley. We admire that gentleman ­[page 253:] as much as any individual ever did except that gentleman himself. He looks remarkably well at all points — although perhaps best, EXAS — at a distance — as the lying Pindar says he saw Archilochus, who died ages before the vagabond was born: — the reader will excuse the digression; but talking of one great man is very apt to put us in mind of another. We were saying — were we not? — that Mr. Headley is by no means to be sneered at as a quack. This might be justifiable, indeed, were he only a quack in a small way — a quack doing business by retail. But the wholesale dealer is entitled to respect. Besides, the Reverend author of “Napoleon and his Marshals” was a quack to some purpose. He knows what he is about. We like perfection wherever we see it. We readily forgive a man for being a fool if he only be a perfect fool — and this is a particular in which we cannot put our hands upon our hearts and say that Mr. Headley is deficient. He acts upon the principle that if a thing is worth doing at all it is worth doing well: — and the thing that he “does” especially well is the public.


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 249:]

­ *  The Sacred Mountains: By J. T. Headley, — Author of “Napoleon and his Marshals,” “Washington and his Generals, etc.”


Notes:

None.


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[S:1 - Works, 1850] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Joel T. Headley (Text-B)