Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “A Chapter of Suggestions,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. XIV: Essays and Miscellanies (1902), pp. 186-192


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[page 186:]

A CHAPTER OF SUGGESTIONS.

[The Opal, 1845.]

IN the life of every man there occurs at least one epoch when the spirit seems to abandon, for a brief period, the body, and, elevating itself above mortal affairs just so far as to get a comprehensive and general view, makes thus an estimate of its humanity, as accurate as is possible, under any circumstances, to that particular spirit. The soul here separates itself from its own idiosyncrasy, or individuality, and considers its own being, not as appertaining solely to itself, but as a portion of the universal Ens. All the important good resolutions which we keep — all startling, marked regenerations of character — are brought about at these crises of life. And thus it is our sense of self which debases, and which keeps us debased.

The theory of chance, or as the mathematicians term it, the Calculus of Probabilities, has this remarkable peculiarity, that its truth in general is in direct proportion with its fallacy in particular.

We may judge of the degree of abstraction in one who meditates, by the manner in which he receives an interruption. If he is much startled, his revery was not profound; and the converse. Thus the affectation of the tribe of pretended mental-absentees, becomes transparent. These people awake from their musings [page 187:] with a start, and an air of bewilderment, as men naturally awake from dreams that have a close semblance of reality. But they are, clearly, ignorant that the phenomena of dreaming differ, radically, from those of reverie — of which latter the mesmeric condition is the extreme.

There are few thinkers who will not be surprised to find, upon retrospect of the world of thought, how very frequently the first, or intuitive, impressions have been the true ones. A poem, for example, enraptures us in our childhood. In adolescence, we perceive it to be full of fault. In the first years of manhood, we utterly despise and condemn it; and it is not until mature age has given tone to our feelings, enlarged our knowledge, and perfected our understanding, that we recur to our original sentiment and primitive admiration, with the additional pleasure which is always deduced from knowing how it was that we once were pleased and why it is that we still admire.

That the imagination has not been unjustly ranked as supreme among the mental faculties, appears from the intense consciousness, on the part of the imaginative man, that the faculty in question brings his soul often to a glimpse of things supernal and eternal — to the very verge of the great secrets. There are moments, indeed, in which he perceives the faint perfumes, and hears the melodies of a happier world. Some of the most profound knowledge — perhaps all very profound knowledge — has originated from a highly stimulated imagination. Great intellects guess well. The laws of Kepler were, professedly, guesses. [page 188:]

An excellent magazine paper might be written upon the subject of the progressive steps by which any great work of art — especially of literary art — attained completion. How vast a dissimilarity always exists between the germ and the fruit — between the work and its original conception! Sometimes the original conception is abandoned, or left out of sight altogether. Most authors sit down to write with no fixed design, trusting to the inspiration of the moment; it is not, therefore, to be wondered at, that most books are valueless. Pen should never touch paper, until at least a well-digested general purpose be established. In fiction, the denouement — in all other composition the intended effect, should be definitely considered and arranged, before writing the first word; and no word should be then written which does not tend, or form a part of a sentence which tends to the development of the denouement, or to the strengthening of the effect. Where plot forms a portion of the contemplated interest, too much preconsideration cannot be had. Plot is very imperfectly understood, and has never been rightly defined. Many persons regard it as mere complexity of incident. In its most rigorous acceptation, it is that from which no component atom can be removed, and in which none of the component atoms ran be displaced, without rain to the whole; and although a sufficiently good plot may be constructed, without attention to the whole rigor of this definition, still it is the definition which the true artist should always keep in view, and always endeavor to consummate in his works. Some authors appear, however, to be totally deficient in constructiveness, and thus, even with plentiful invention, fad] signally in plot. Dickens belongs to this class. His “Barnaby Rudge “ shows [page 189:] not the least ability to adapt. Godwin and Bulwer are the best constructors of plot in English literature. The former has left a preface to his “Caleb Williams,” in which he says that the novel was written backwards; the author first completing the second volume, in which the hero is involved in a maze of difficulties, and then casting about him for sufficiently probable cause of these difficulties, out of which to concoct volume the first. This mode cannot surely be recommended, but evinces the idiosyncrasy of Godwin’s mind. Bulwer’s “Pompeii” is an instance of admirably managed plot. His “Night and Morning,” sacrifices to mere plot interests of far higher value.

All men of genius have their detractors; but it is merely a non distributio medii to argue, thence, that all men who have their detractors are men of genius. Yet, undoubtedly, of all despicable things, your habitual sneerer at real greatness, is the most despicable. What names excite, in mankind, the most unspeakable — the most insufferable disgust? The Dennises — the Frérons — the Desfontaines. Their littleness is measured by the greatness of those whom they have reviled. And yet, in the face of this well-known and natural principle, there will always exist a set of homunculi, eager to grow notorious by the pertinacity of their yelpings at the heels of the distinguished. And this eagerness arises, less frequently from inability to appreciate genius, than from a species of cat-and-dog antipathy to it, which no suggestions of worldly prudence are adequate to quell.

That intuitive and seemingly casual perception by which we often attain knowledge, when reason herself [page 190:] falters and abandons the effort, appears to resemble the sudden glancing at a star, by which we see it more clearly than by a direct gaze; or the half-closing the eyes in looking at a plot of grass the more fully to appreciate the intensity of its green.

There are few men of that peculiar sensibility which is at the root of genius, who, in early youth, have not expended much of their mental energy in living too fast; and, in later years, comes the unconquerable desire to goad the imagination up to that point which it would have attained in an ordinary, normal, or well-regulated life. The earnest longing for artificial excitement, which, unhappily, has characterized too many eminent men, may thus be regarded as a psychal want, or necessity, — an effort to regain the lost, — a struggle of the soul to assume the position which, under other circumstances, would have been its due.

The great variety of melodious expression which is given out from the keys of a piano, might be made, in proper hands, the basis of an excellent fairy-tale. Let the poet press his finger steadily upon each key, keeping it down, and Imagine each prolonged series of undulations the history, of joy or of sorrow, related by a good or evil spirit imprisoned within. There are some of the notes which almost tell, of their own accord, true and intelligible histories.

A precise or clear man, in conversation or in composition, has a very important consequential advantage — more especially in matters of logic. As he proceeds with his argument, the person addressed, exactly comprehending, for that reason, and often for that reason [page 191:] only, agrees. Few minds, in fact, can immediately perceive the distinction between the comprehension of a proposition and an agreement of the reason with the thing proposed. Pleased at comprehending, we often are so excited as to take it for granted that we assent. Luminous writers may thus indulge, for a long time, in pure sophistry, without being detected. Macaulay is a remarkable instance of this species of mystification. We coincide with what he says, too frequently, because we so very distinctly understand what it is that he intends to say. His essay on Bacon has been long and deservedly admired; but its concluding portions (wherein he endeavors to depreciate the Novam Orga num,) although logical to a fault, are irrational in the extreme. But not to confine myself to mere assertion. Let us refer to this great essayist’s review of Ranke’s “History of the Popes.” His strength is here put forth to account for the progress of Romanism, by maintaining that divinity is not a progressive science. “The enigmas,” says he, in substance, “which perplex the natural theologian, are the same in all ages, while the Bible, where alone we are to seek revealed truth, has been always what it is. “Here Mr. Macaulay confounds the nature of that proof from which we reason of the concerns of earth, considered as man’s habitation, with the nature of that evidence from which we reason of the same earth, regarded as a unit of the universe. In the former case, the data being palpable, the proof is direct; in the latter it is purely analogical. Were the indications we derive from science, of the nature and designs of Deity, and thence, by inference, of man’s destiny, — were these indications proof direct, it is then very true that no advance in science could strengthen them; for, as the [page 192:] essayist justly observes, “ nothing can be added to the force of the argument which the mind finds in every beast, bird, and flower; “ but, since these indications are rigidly analogical, every step in human knowledge, every astronomical discovery, in especial, throws additional light upon the august subject, by extending the range of analogy. That we know no more, to-day, of the nature of Deity, of its purposes, and thus of man himself, than we did even a dozen years ago, is a proposition disgracefully absurd. “If Natural Philosophy,” says a greater than Macaulay, “ should continue to be improved in its various branches, the bounds of moral philosophy would be enlarged also.” These words of the prophetic Newton are felt to be true, and will be fulfilled.

 


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - JAHCW, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (A Chapter of Suggestions)