Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Marginalia - Part X,” The Complete Works of E. A. Poe, Vol. XVI: Marginalia and Eureka (1902), pp. 130-135


[page 130, continued:]



[Graham’s Magazine, February, 1848.]

[[Item 197]]

THAT punctuation is important all agree; but how few comprehend the extent of its importance! The writer who neglects punctuation, or mix-punctuates, is liable to be misunderstood — this, according to the popular idea, is the sum of the evils arising from heedlessness or ignorance. It does not seem to be known that, even where the sense is perfectly clear, a sentence may be deprived of half its force — its spirit — its point — by improper punctuation. For the want of merely a comma, it often occurs that an axiom appears a paradox, or that a sarcasm is converted into a sermonoid.

There is no treatise on the topic — and there is no topic on which a treatise is more needed. There seems to exist a vulgar notion that the subject is one of pure conventionality, and cannot be brought within the limits of intelligible and consistent rule. And yet, if fairly looked in the face, the whole matter is so plain that its rationale may be read as we run. If not anticipated, I shall, hereafter, make an attempt at a magazine paper on “The Philosophy of Point.”

In the meantime let me say a word or two of the dash. Every writer for the press, who has any sense of the accurate, must have been frequently mortified and vexed at the distortion of his sentences by the printer’s [page 131:] now general substitution of a semi-colon, or comma, for the dash of the MS. The total or nearly total disuse of the latter point, has been brought about by the revulsion consequent upon its excessive employment about twenty years ago. The Byronic poets were all dash. John Neal, in his earlier novels, exaggerated its use into the grossest abuse — although his very error arose from the philosophical and self-dependent spirit which has always distinguished him, and which will even yet lead him, if I am not greatly mistaken in the man, to do something for the literature of the country which the country “will not willingly,” and cannot possibly, “let die.”

Without entering now into the why, let me observe that the printer may always ascertain when the dash of the MS. is properly and when improperly employed, by bearing in mind that this point represents a second thought — an emendation. In using it just above I have exemplified its use. The words “an emendation” are, speaking with reference to grammatical construction, put in apposition with the words “a second thought.” Having written these latter words, I reflected whether it would not be possible to render their meaning more distinct by certain other words. Now, instead of erasing the phrase “a second thought,” which is of some use — which partially conveys the idea intended — which advances me a step toward my full purpose — I suffer it to remain, and merely put a dash between it and the phrase “an emendation.” The dash gives the reader a choice between two, or among three or more expressions, one of which may be more forcible than another, but all of which help out the idea. It stands, in general, for these words — “or, to make my meaning more distinct.” This force it has — and this [page 132:] force no other point can have; since all other points have well-understood uses quite different from this. Therefore, the dash cannot be dispensed with.

It has its phases — its variation of the force described; but the one principle — that of second thought or emendation — will be found at the bottom of all.


[[Item 198]]

In a reply to a letter signed “Outis,” and defending Mr. Longfellow from certain charges supposed to have been made against him by myself, I took occasion to assert that “of the class of willful plagiarists nine out of ten are authors of established reputation who plunder recondite, neglected, or forgotten books.” I came to this conclusion à priori; but experience has confirmed me in it. Here is a plagiarism from Channing; and as it is perpetrated by an anonymous writer in a Monthly Magazine, the theft seems at war with my assertion — until it is seen that the Magazine in question is Campbell’s New Monthly for August, 1828. Channing, at that time, was comparatively unknown; and, besides, the plagiarism appeared in a foreign country, where there was little probability of detection.

Channing, in his essay on Bonaparte, says:

“We would observe that military talent, even of the highest order, is far from holding the first place among intellectual endowments. It is one of the lower forms of genius, for it is not conversant with the highest and richest objects of thought. . . . Still the chief work of a general is to apply physical force — to remove physical obstructions — to avail himself of physical aids and advantages — to act on matter — to overcome rivers, ramparts, mountains, and human muscles; and these are not the highest objects of mind, [page 133:] nor do they demand intelligence of the highest order: — and accordingly nothing is more common than to find men, eminent in this department, who are almost wholly wanting in the noblest energies of the soul — in imagination and taste — in the capacity of enjoying works of genius — in large views of human nature — in the moral sciences — in the application of analysis and generalization to the human mind and to society, and in original conceptions on the great subjects which have absorbed the most glorious understandings.”

The thief in “The New Monthly,” says:

“Military talent, even of the highest grade, is very far from holding the first place among intellectual endowments. It is one of the lower forms of genius, for it is never made conversant with the more delicate and abstruse of mental operations. It is used to apply physical force; to remove physical force; to remove physical obstructions; to avail itself of physical aids and advantages; and all these are not the highest objects of mind, nor do they demand intelligence of the highest and rarest order. Nothing is more common than to find men, eminent in the science and practice of war, wholly wanting in the nobler energies of the soul; in imagination, in taste, in enlarged views of human nature, in the moral sciences, in the application of analysis and generalization to the human mind and to society; or in original conceptions on the great subjects which have occupied and absorbed the most glorious of human understandings.”

The article in “The New Monthly” is on “The State of Parties.” The italics are mine.

Apparent plagiarisms frequently arise from an author’s self-repetition. He finds that something he has already published has fallen dead — been overlooked — [page 134:] or that it is peculiarly à-propos to another subject now under discussion. He therefore introduces the passage; often without allusion to his having printed it before; and sometimes he introduces it into an anonymous article. An anonymous writer is thus, now and then, unjustly accused of plagiarism — when the sin is merely that of self-repetition.

In the present case, however, there has been a deliberate plagiarism of the silliest as well as meanest species. Trusting to the obscurity of his original, the plagiarist has fallen upon the idea of killing two birds with one stone — of dispensing with all disguise but that of decoration.

Channing says “order” — the writer in the New Monthly says “grade.” The former says that this order is “far from holding,” etc. — the latter says it is “very far from holding.” The one says that military talent is “not conversant,” and so on — the other says “it is never made conversant.” The one speaks of “the highest and richest objects” — the other of “the more delicate and abstruse.” Channing speaks of “thought” — the thief of “mental operations.” Channing mentions “intelligence of the highest order” — the thief will have it of “the highest and rarest.” Channing observes that military talent is often “almost wholly wanting,” etc. — the thief maintains it to be “wholly wanting.” Channing alludes to “large views of human nature” — the thief can be content with nothing less than “enlarged” ones. Finally, the American having been satisfied with a reference to “subjects which have absorbed the most glorious understandings,” the Cockney puts him to shame at once by discoursing about “subjects which have occupied and absorbed the most glorious of human understandings” — and if one could be absorbed, without being occupied, [page 135:] by a subject — as if “of” were here any thing more than two superfluous letters — and [[as]] if there were any chance of the reader’s supposing that the understandings in question were the understandings of frogs, or jackasses, or Johnny Bulls.

By the way, in a case of this kind, whenever there is a question as to who is the original and who the plagiarist, the point may be determined, almost invariably, by observing which passage is amplified, or exaggerated, in tone. To disguise his stolen horse, the uneducated thief cuts off the tail; but the educated thief prefers tying on a new tail at the end of the old one, and painting them both sky blue.


[[Item 199]]

After reading all that has been written, and after thinking all that can be thought, on the topics of God and the soul, the man who has a right to say that he thinks at all, will find himself face to face with the conclusion that, on these topics, the most profound thought is that which can be the least easily distinguished from the most superficial sentiment.







[S:1 - JAHCW, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Marginalia - Part X)