Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Fifty Suggestions” (Text-C), The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe­ (1850), 3:597-607


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[page 597:]

FIFTY SUGGESTIONS.

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I.

IT is observable that, while among all nations the omni-color, white, has been received as an emblem of the Pure, the no-color, black, has by no means been generally admitted as sufficiently typical of impurity. There are blue devils as well as black; and when we think very ill of a woman, and wish to blacken her character, we merely call her “a blue-stocking,” and advise her to read, in Rabelais’ “Gargantua,” the chapter “de ce qui est signifié par les couleurs blanc et bleu.” There is far more difference between these “couleurs,” in fact, than that which exists between simple black and white. Your “blue,” when we come to talk of stockings, is black in issimo — “nigrum nigrios nigro” — like the matter from which Raymond Lully first manufactured his alcohol.

II.

Mr. ——, I perceive, has been appointed Librarian to the new ——— Athenæum. To him, the appointment is advantageous in many respects. Especially: — “Mon cousin, voici une belle occasion pour apprendre à lire!

III.

As far as I can understand the “loving our enemies,” it implies the hating our friends.

IV.

In commencing our dinners with gravy soup, no doubt we have taken a hint from Horace —

——— Da, he says, si grave non est,

Quæ prima iratum ventrem placaverit isca. [page 598:]

V.

Of much of our cottage architecture we may safely say, I think, (admitting the good intention,) that it would have been Gothic if it had not felt it its duty to be Dutch.

VI.

James’s multitudinous novels seem to be written upon the plan of “the songs of the Bard of Schiraz,” in which, we are assured by Fadladeen, “the same beautiful thought occurs again and again in every possible variety of phrase.”

VII.

Some of our foreign lions resemble the human brain in one very striking particular. They are without any sense themselves, and yet are the centres of sensation.

VIII.

Mirabeau, I fancy, acquired his wonderful tact at foreseeing and meeting contingencies, during his residence in the stronghold of If.

IX.

Cottle’s “Reminiscences of Coleridge” is just such a book as damns its perpetrator forever in the opinion of every gentleman who reads it. More and more every day do we moderns povoneggiarsi about our Christianity; yet, so far as the spirit of Christianity is concerned, we are immeasurably behind the ancients. Mottoes and proverbs are the indices of national character; and the Anglo-Saxons are disgraced in having no proverbial equivalent to the “De mortuis nil nisi bonum.” Moreover — where, in all statutary Christendom, shall we find a law so Christian as the “Defuncti injuriâ ne afficiantur “of the Twelve Tables? The simple negative injunction of the Latin law and proverb — the injunction not to do ill to the dead — seems, at a first glance, scarcely susceptible of improvement in the delicate respect of its terms. I cannot help thinking, however, that the sentiment, if not the idea intended, is more forcibly conveyed in an apothegm by one of the old English moralists, James Puckle. By an ingenious figure of speech he contrives to imbue the negation of the Roman command with a spirit of active and positive beneficence. “When speaking of the dead,” he says, in his “Gray Cap for a Green Head,” “so fold up your discourse that their virtues may be outwardly shown, while their vices are wrapped up in silence.” [page 599:]

X.

I have no doubt that the Fourierites honestly fancy “a nasty poet fit for nothing” to be the true translation of “poeta nascitur non fit.”

XI.

There surely cannot be “more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of” (oh, Andrew Jackson Davis!) “in your philosophy.”

XII.

“It is only as the Bird of Paradise quits us in taking wing,” observes, or should observe, some poet, “that we obtain a full view of the beauty of its plumage;” and it is only as the politician is about being “turned out” that — like the snake of the Irish Chronicle when touched by St. Patrick — he “awakens to a sense of his situation.”

XIII.

Newspaper editors seem to have constitutions closely similar to those of the Deities in “Walhalla,” who cut each other to pieces every day, and yet get up perfectly sound and fresh every morning.

XIV.

As far as I can comprehend the modern cant in favor of “unadulterated Saxon,” it is fast leading us to the language of that region where, as Addison has it, “they sell the best fish and speak the plainest English.”

XV.

The frightfully long money-pouches — “like the Cucumber called the Gigantic” — which have come in vogue among our belles — are not of Parisian origin, as many suppose, but are strictly indigenous here. The fact is, such a fashion would be quite out of place in Paris, where it is money only that women keep in a purse. The purse of an American lady, however, must be large enough to carry both her money and the soul of its owner.

XVI.

I can see no objection to gentlemen “standing for Congress” — provided they stand on one side — nor to their “running for Congress” — if they are in a very great hurry to get there — but it would be a blessing if some of them could be persuaded into sitting still, for Congress, after they arrive. [page 600:]

XVII.

If Envy, as Cyprian has it, be “the moth of the soul,” whether shall we regard Content as its Scotch snuff or its camphor?

XVIII.

M———, having been “used up” in the “—— Review,” goes about town lauding his critic — as an epicure lauds the best London mustard — with the tears in his eyes.

XIX.

“Con tal que las costumbres de un autor sean puras y castas,” says the Catholic Don Tomas de las Torres, in the preface to his “Amatory Poems,” “importa muy poco qui no sean igualmente severas sus obras:” meaning, in plain English, that, provided the personal morals of an author are pure, it matters little what those of his books are.

For so unprincipled an idea, Don Tomas, no doubt, is still having a hard time of it in Purgatory; and, by way of most pointedly manifesting their disgust at his philosophy on the topic in question, many modern theologians and divines are now busily squaring their conduct by his proposition exactly conversed.

XX.

Children are never too tender to be whipped: — like tough beefsteaks, the more you beat them the more tender they become.

XXI.

Lucian, in describing the statue “with its surface of Parian marble and its interior filled with rags,” must have been looking with a prophetic eye at some of our great “moneyed institutions.”

XXII.

That poets (using the word comprehensively, as including artists in general) are a genus irritabile, is well understood; but the why, seems not to be commonly seen. An artist is an artist only by dint of his exquisite sense of Beauty — a sense affording him rapturous enjoyment, but at the same time implying, or involving, an equally exquisite sense of Deformity of disproportion. Thus a wrong — an injustice — done a poet who is really a poet, excites him to a degree which, to ordinary apprehension, appears disproportionate with the wrong. Poets see injustice — never where it does not exist — but very often where the unpoetical see no injustice whatever. Thus the poetical irritability has no reference [page 601:] to “temper” in the vulgar sense, but merely to a more than usual clear-sightedness in respect to wrong: — this clear-sightedness being nothing more than a corollary from the vivid perception of right — of justice — of proportion — in a word, of το καλον. But one thing is clear — that the man who is not “irritable,” (to the ordinary apprehension,) is no poet.

XXIII.

Let a man succeed ever so evidently — ever so demonstrably — in many different displays of genius, the envy of criticism will agree with the popular voice in denying him more than talent in any. Thus a poet who has achieved a great (by which I mean an effective) poem, should be cautious not to distinguish himself in any other walk of Letters. In especial — let him make no effort in Science — unless anonymously, or with the view of waiting patiently the judgment of posterity. Because universal or even versatile geniuses have rarely or never been known, therefore, thinks the world, none such can ever be. A “therefore” of this kind is, with the world, conclusive. But what is the fact, as taught us by analysis of mental power? Simply, that the highest genius — that the genius which all men instantaneously acknowledge as such — which acts upon individuals, as well as upon the mass, by a species of magnetism incomprehensible but irresistible and never resisted — that this genius which demonstrates itself in the simplest gesture — or even by the absence of all — this genius which speaks without a voice and flashes from the unopened eye — is but the result of generally large mental power existing in a state of absolute proportion — so that no one faculty has undue predominance. That factitious “genius” — that “genius” in the popular sense — which is but the manifestation of the abnormal predominance of some one faculty over all the others — and, of course, at the expense and to the detriment, of all the others — is a result of mental disease or rather, of organic malformation of mind: — it is this and nothing more. Not only will such “genius” fail, if turned aside from the path indicated by its predominant faculty; but, even when pursuing this path — when producing those works in which, certainly, it is best calculated to succeed — will give unmistakeable indications of unsoundness, [page 602:] in respect to general intellect. Hence, indeed, arises the just idea that

“Great wit to madness nearly is allied.”

I say “just idea;” for by “great wit,” in this case, the poet intends precisely the pseudo-genius to which I refer. The true genius, on the other hand, is necessarily, if not universal in its manifestations, at least capable of universality; and if, attempting all things, it succeeds in one rather better than in another, this is merely on account of a certain bias by which Taste leads it with more earnestness in the one direction than in the other. With equal zeal, it would succeed equally in all.

To sum up our results in respect to this very simple, but much vexata questio:

What the world calls “genius” is the state of mental disease arising from the undue predominance of some one of the faculties. The works of such genius are never sound in themselves, and, in especial, always betray the general mental insanity.

The proportion of the mental faculties, in a case where the general mental power is not inordinate, gives that result which we distinguish as talent: — and the talent is greater or less, first, as the general mental power is greater or less; and, secondly, as the proportion of the faculties is more or less absolute.

The proportion of the faculties, in a case where the mental power is inordinately great, gives that result which is the true genius (but which, on account of the proportion and seeming simplicity of its works, is seldom acknowledged to be so;) and the genius is greater or less, first, as the general mental power is more or less inordinately great; and, secondly, as the proportion of the faculties is more or less absolute.

An objection will be made: — that the greatest excess of mental power, however proportionate, does not seem to satisfy our idea of genius, unless we have, in addition, sensibility, passion, energy. The reply is, that the “absolute proportion” spoken of, when applied to inordinate mental power, gives, as a result, the appreciation of Beauty and horror of Deformity which we call sensibility, together with that intense vitality, which is implied when we speak of “Energy” or “Passion.” [page 603:]

XXIV.

“And Beauty draws us by a single hair.” — Capillary attraction, of course.

XXV.

It is by no means clear, as regards the present revolutionary spirit of Europe, that it is a spirit which “moveth altogether if it move at all.” In Great Britain it may be kept quiet for half a century yet, by placing at the head of affairs an experienced medical man. He should keep his forefinger constantly on the pulse of the patient, and exhibit panem in gentle doses, with as much circenses as the stomach can be made to retain.

XXVI.

The taste manifested by our Transcendental poets, is to be treated “reverentially,” beyond doubt, as one of Mr. Emerson’s friends suggests — for the fact is, it is Taste on her death-bed — Taste kicking in articulo mortis.

XXVII.

I should not say, of Taglioni, exactly that she dances, but that she laughs with her arms and legs, and that if she takes vengeance on her present oppressors, she will be amply justified by the lex Talionis.

XXVIII.

The world is infested, just now, by a new sect of philosophers, who have not yet suspected themselves of forming a sect, and who, consequently, have adopted no name. They are the Believers in everything Old [[Odd ]].Their High Priest in the East, is Charles Fourier — in the West, Horace Greely [[Greeley]]; and high priests they are to some purpose. The only common bond among the sect, is Credulity: — let us call it Insanity at once, and be done with it. Ask any one of them why he believes this or that, and, if he be conscientious, (ignorant people usually are,) he will make you very much such a reply as Talleyrand made when asked why he believed in the Bible. “I believe in it first,” said he, “because I am Bishop of Autun; and, secondly, because I know nothing about it at all.” What these philosophers call “argument,” is a way they have “de nier ce qui est et d’expliquer ce qui n’est pas.” * [page 604:]

XXIX.

K——, the publisher, trying to be critical, talks about books pretty much as a washerwoman would about Niagara falls or a poulterer about a phœnix.

XXX.

The ingenuity of critical malice would often be laughable but for the disgust which, even in the most perverted spirits, injustice never fails to excite. A common trick is that of decrying, impliedly, the higher, by insisting upon the lower, merits of an author. Macaulay, for example, deeply feeling how much critical acumen is enforced by cautious attention to the mere “rhetoric” which is its vehicle, has at length become the best of modern rhetoricians. His brother reviewers — anonymous, of course, and likely to remain so forever — extol “the acumen of Carlyle, the analysis of Schlegel, and the style of Macaulay.” Bancroft is a philosophical historian; but no amount of philosophy has yet taught him to despise a minute accuracy in point of fact. His brother historians talk of “the grace of Prescott, the erudition of Gibbon, and the painstaking precision of Bancroft.” Tennyson, perceiving how vividly an imaginative effect is aided, now and then, by a certain quaintness judiciously introduced, brings this latter, at times, in support of his most glorious and most delicate imagination: — whereupon his brother poets hasten to laud the imagination of Mr. Somebody, whom nobody imagined to have any, “and the somewhat affected quaintness of Tennyson.” — Let the noblest poet add to his other excellences — if he dares — that of faultless versification and scrupulous attention to grammar. He is damned at once. His rivals have it in their power to discourse of “A. the true poet, and B. the versifier and disciple of Lindley Murray.”

XXXI.

The goddess Laverna, who is a head without a body, could not do better, perhaps, than make advances to “La Jeune France,” which, for some years to come at least, must otherwise remain a body without a head.

XXXII.

H—— calls his verse a “poem,” very much as Francis the First bestowed the title, mes déserts, upon his snug little deer-park at Fontainebleau. [page 605:]

XXXIII.

Mr. A—— is frequently spoken of as “one of our most industrious writers;” and, in fact, when we consider how much he has written, we perceive, at once, that he must have been industrious, or he could never (like an honest woman as he is) have so thoroughly succeeded in keeping himself from being “talked about.”

XXXIV.

That a cause leads to an effect, is scarcely more certain than that, so far as Morals are concerned, a repetition of effect tends to the generation of cause. Herein lies the principle of what we so vaguely term “Habit.”

XXXV.

With the exception of Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall,” I have never read a poem combining so much of the fiercest passion with so much of the most delicate imagination, as the “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship” of Miss Barrett. I am forced to admit, however, that the latter work is a palpable imitation of the former, which it surpasses in thesis, as much as it falls below it in a certain calm energy, lustrous and indomitable — such as we might imagine in a broad river of molten gold.

XXXVI.

What has become of the inferior planet which Decuppis, about nine years ago, declared he saw traversing the disc of the sun?

XXXVII.

“Ignorance is bliss” — but, that the bliss be real, the ignorance must be so profound as not to suspect itself ignorant. With this understanding, Boileau’s line may be read thus:

[[“]]Le plus fou toujours est le plus satisfait,”

— “toujours” in place of “souvent.”

XXXVIII.

Bryant and Street are both, essentially, descriptive poets; and descriptive poetry, even in its happiest manifestation, is not of the highest order. But the distinction between Bryant and Street is very broad. While the former, in reproducing the sensible images of Nature, reproduces the sentiments with which he regards them, the latter gives us the images and nothing beyond. He never forces us to feel what we feel he must have felt. [page 606:]

XXXIX.

In lauding Beauty, Genius merely evinces a filial affection. To Genius Beauty gives life — reaping often a reward in Immortality.

XL.

And this is the “American Drama” of ——! Well! — that “Conscience which makes cowards of us all” will permit me to say, in praise of the performance, only that it is not quite so bad as I expected it to be. But then I always expect too much.

XLI.

What we feel to be Fancy will be found fanciful still, whatever be the theme which engages it. No subject exalts it into Imagination. When Moore is termed “a fanciful poet,” the epithet is applied with precision. He is. He is fanciful in “Lalla Rookh,” and had he written the “Inferno,” in the “Inferno” he would have contrived to be still fanciful and nothing beyond.

XLII.

When we speak of “a suspicious man,” we may mean either one who suspects, or one to be suspected. Our language needs either the adjective “suspectful,” or the adjective “suspectable.”

XLIII.

“To love,” says Spenser, “is

To fawn, to crouch, to wait, to ride, to run,

To speed, to give, to want, to be undone.

The philosophy, here, might be rendered more profound, by the mere omission of a comma. We all know the willing blindness — the voluntary madness of Love. We express this in thus punctuating the last line:

To speed, to give — to want to be undone.

It is a case, in short, where we gain a point by omitting it.

XLIV.

Miss Edgeworth seems to have had only an approximate comprehension of “Fashion,” for she says: “If it was the fashion to burn me, and I at the stake, I hardly know ten persons of my acquaintance who would refuse to throw on a fagot.” There are many who, in such a case, would “refuse to throw on a fagot” — for fear of smothering out the fire.

XLV.

I am beginning to think with Horsely — that “the People have nothing to do with the laws but to obey them.” [page 607:]

XLVI.

“It is not fair to review my book without reading it,” says Mr. Mathews, talking at the critics, and, as usual, expecting impossibilities. The man who is clever enough to write such a work, is clever enough to read it, no doubt; but we should not look for so much talent in the world at large. Mr. Mathews will not imagine that I mean to blame him. The book alone is in fault, after all. The fact is that, “er lasst sich nicht lesen” — it will not permit itself to be read. Being a hobby of Mr. Mathew’s, and brimful of spirit, it will let nobody mount it but Mr. Mathews.

XLVII.

It is only to teach his children Geography, that G—— wears a boot the picture of Italy upon the map.

XLVIII.

In his great Dictionary, Webster seems to have had an idea of being more English than the English — “plus Arabe qu’en Arabie.” *

XLIX.

That there were once “seven wise men”is by no means, strictly speaking, an historical fact; and I am rather inclined to rank the idea among the Kabbala.

L.

Painting their faces to look like Macaulay, some of our critics manage to resemble him, at length, as a Massaccian does a Raffäellian Virgin; and, except that the former is feebler and thinner than the other — suggesting the idea of its being the ghost of the other — not one connoisseur in ten can perceive any difference. But then, unhappily, even the street lazzaroni can feel the distinction.


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 603:]

*  Nouvelle Héloise.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 607:]

*  Count Anthony Hamilton.


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Notes:

None.


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[S:1 - Works, 1850] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Misc - Fifty Suggestions (Text-C)