Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Marginalia [part XIII],” Southern Literary Messenger, April 1849, pp. 217-222


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[page 217, column 1:]

MARGINALIA.*

In getting my books, I have been always solicitous of an ample margin; this not so much through any love of the thing in itself, however agreeable, as for the facility it affords me of pencilling suggested thoughts, agreements and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general. Where what I have to note is too much to be included within the narrow limits of a margin, I commit it to a slip of paper, and deposit it between the leaves; taking care to secure it by an imperceptible portion of gum tragacanth paste.

All this may be whim; it may be not only a very hackneyed, but a very idle practice; — yet I persist in it still; and it affords me pleasure; which is profit, in despite of Mr. Bentham with Mr. Mill on his back.

This making of notes, however, is by no means the making of mere memoranda — a custom which has its disadvantages, beyond doubt. “Ce que je mets sur papier,” says Bernardin de St. Pierre, “je remets de ma mémoire, et par consequence je l’oublie;” — and, in fact, if you wish to forget anything upon the spot, make a note that this thing is to be remembered.

But the purely marginal jottings, done with no eye to the Memorandum Book, have a distinct complexion, and not only a distinct purpose, but none at all; this it is which imparts to them a value. They have a rank somewhat above the chance and desultory comments of literary chit-chat — for these latter are not unfrequently “talk for talk’s sake,” hurried out of the mouth; while the marginalia are deliberately pencilled, because the mind of the reader wishes to unburthen itself of a thought; — however flippant — however silly — however trivial — still a thought indeed, not merely a thing that might have been a thought in time, and under more favorable circumstances. In the marginalia, too, we talk only to ourselves; we therefore talk freshly — boldly — originally — with abandonnement — without conceit — much after the fashion of Jeremy Taylor, and Sir Thomas Browne, and Sir William Temple, and the anatomical Burton, and that most logical analogist, Butler, and some other people of the old day, who were too full of their matter to have any [column 2:] room for their manner, which, being thus left out of question, was a capital manner, indeed, — a model of manners, with a richly marginalic air.

The circumscription of space, too, in these pencillings, has m it something more of advantage than of inconvenience. It compels us (whatever diffuseness of idea we may clandestinely entertain), into Montesquieu-ism, into Tacitus-ism (here I leave out of view the concluding portion of the “Annals”) — or even into Carlyle-ism — a thing which, I have been told, is not to be confounded with your ordinary affectation and bad grammar. I say “bad grammar,” through sheer obstinacy, because the grammarians (who should know better) insist upon it that I should not. But then grammar is not what these grammarians will have it; and, being merely the analysis of language, with the result of this analysis, must be good or bad just as the analyst is sage or silly — just as he is a Horne Tooke or a Cobbett.

But to our sheep. During a rainy afternoon, not long ago, being in a mood too listless for continuous study, I sought relief from ennui in dipping here and there, at random, among the volumes of my library — no very large one, certainly, but sufficiently miscellaneous; and, I flatter myself, not a little recherché.

Perhaps it was what the Germans call the “brain-scattering” humor of the moment; but, while the picturesqueness of the numerous pencil-scratches arrested my attention, their helter-skelter-iness of commentary amused me. I found myself at length, forming a wish that it had been some other hand than my own which had so bedevilled the books, and fancying that, in such case, I might have derived no inconsiderable pleasure from turning them over. From this the transition-thought (as Mr. Lyell, or Mr. Murchison, or Mr. Featherstonhaugh would have it) was natural enough: — there might be something even in my scribblings which, for the mere sake of scribbling, would have interest for others.

The main difficulty respected the mode of transferring the notes from the volumes — the context from the text — without detriment to that exceedingly frail fabric of intelligibility in which the context was imbedded. With all appliances to boot, with the printed pages at their back, the commentaries were too often like Dodona’s oracles — or those of Lvcophron Tenebrosus — or the essays of the pedant’s pupils, in Quintillian, which were “necessarily excellent, since even he (the pedant) found it impossible to comprehend them:” — what, then, would become of it — this context — if transferred? — if translated? Would it not rather be traduit (traduced) which is the French synonym, or overzezet (turned topsv-turvy) which is the Dutch one? [page 218:]

I concluded, at length, to put extensive faith in the acumen and imagination of the reader: — this as a general rule. But, in some instances, where even faith would not remove mountains, there seemed no safer plan than so to re-model the note as to convey at least the ghost of a conception as to what it was all about. Where, for such conception, the text itself was absolutely necessary, I could quote it; where the title of the book commented upon was indispensable, I could name it. In short, like a novel-hero dilemma’d, I made up my mind “to be guided by circumstances,” in default of more satisfactory rules of conduct.

As for the multitudinous opinion expressed in the subjoined farrago — as for my present assent to all, or dissent from any portion of it — as to the possibility of my having, in some instances, altered my mind — or as to the impossibility of my not having altered it often — these are points upon which I say nothing, because upon these there can be nothing cleverly said. It may be as well to observe, however, that just as the goodness of your true pun is in the direct ratio of its intolerability, so is nonsense the essential sense of the Marginal Note.

——

[[Item 201]]

I do not believe that the whole world of Poetry can produce a more intensely energetic passage, of equal length, than the following, from Mrs. Browning’s “Drama of Exile.” The picturesque vigor of the lines italicized is much more than Homeric:

——— On a mountain peak

Half sheathed in primal woods and glittering

In spasms of awful sunshine, at that hour

A Lion couched, part raised upon his paws

With his calm massive face turned full on mine

And his mane listening. When the ended curse

Left silence in the world, right suddenly

He sprang up rampant, and stood straight and stiff,

As if the new reality of Death

Were dashed against his eyes, and roared so fierce —

(Such thick carnivorous passion in his throat

Tearing a passage through the wrath and fear)

And roared so wild, and smote from all the hills

Such fast keen echoes crumbling down the vales

To distant silence — that the forest beasts,

One after one, did mutter a response

In savage and in sorrowful complaint

Which trailed along the gorges.

——

[[Item 202]]

There are few cases in which mere popularity should be considered a proper test of merit; but the case of song-writing is, I think, one of the few. In speaking of song-writing, I mean, of course, the composition of brief poems with an eye to their adaptation for music in the vulgar sense. In this ultimate destination of the song proper, lies its essence — its genius. It is the strict [column 2:] reference to music — it is the dependence upon modulated expression — which gives to this branch of letters a character altogether unique, and separates it, in great measure and in a manner not sufficiently considered, from ordinary literature; rendering it independent of merely ordinary proprieties; allowing it, and in fact demanding for it, a wide latitude of Law; absolutely insisting upon a certain wild license and indefinitiveness — an indefinitiveness recognized by every musician who is not a mere fiddler, as an important point in the philosophy of his science — as the soul, indeed, of the sensations derivable from its practice — sensations which bewilder while they enthral — and which would not so enthral if they did not so bewilder.

The sentiments deducible from the conception of sweet sound simply, are out of the reach of analysis — although referable, possibly, in their last result, to that merely mathematical recognition of equality which seems to be the root of all Beauty. Our impressions of harmony and melody in conjunction, are more readily analyzed; but one thing is certain — that the sentimental pleasure derivable from music, is nearly in the ratio of its indefinitiveness. Give to music any undue decision — imbue it with any very determinate tone — and you deprive it, at once, of its ethereal, its ideal, and, I sincerely believe, of its intrinsic and essential character. You dispel its dream-like luxury: — you dissolve the atmosphere of the mystic in which its whole nature is bound up: — you exhaust it of its breath of faery. It then becomes a tangible and easily appreciable thing — a conception of the earth, earthy. It will not, to be sure, lose all its power to please, but all that I consider the distinctiveness of that power. And to the over-cultivated talent, or to the unimaginative apprehension, this deprivation of its most delicate nare will be, not unfrequently, a recommendation. A determinateness of expression is sought — and sometimes by composers who should know better — is sought as a beauty, rather than rejected as a blemish. Thus we have, even from high authorities, attempts at absolute imitation in musical sounds. Who can forget, or cease to regret, the many errors of this kind into which some great minds have fallen, simply through over-estimating the triumphs of skill. Who can help lamenting the Battles of Pragues? What man of taste is not ready to laugh, or to weep, over their “guns, drums, trumpets, blunderbusses and thunder?” “Vocal music,” says L’Abbate Gravina, “ought to imitate the natural language of the human feelings and passions, rather than the warblings of Canary birds, which our singers, now-a-days, affect so vastly to mimic with their quaverings and boasted cadences.” This is true only so far as the “rather” [page 219:] is concerned. If any music must imitate any thing, it were, undoubtedly, better that the imitation should be limited as Gravina suggests.

That indefinitiveness which is, at least, one of the essentials of true music, must, of course, be kept in view by the song. writer; while, by the critic, it should always be considered in his estimate of the song. It is, in the author, a conscious ness — sometimes merely an instinctive appreciation, of this necessity for the indefinite, which imparts to all songs, rightly conceived, that free, affluent, and hearty manner, little scrupulous about niceties of phrase, which cannot be better expressed than by the hackneyed French word abandonnement, and which is so strikingly exemplified in both the serious and joyous ballads and carols of our old English progenitors. Wherever verse has been found most strictly married to music, this feature prevails. It is thus the essence of all antique song. It is the soul of Homer. It is the spirit of Anacreon. It is even the genius of Aeschylus. Coming down to our own times, it is the vital principle in De Beranger. Wanting this quality, no song-writer was ever truly popular, and, for the reasons assigned, no song-writer need ever expect to be so.

These views properly understood, it will be seen how baseless are the ordinary objections to songs proper, on the score of “conceit,” (to use Johnson’s word,) or of hyperbole, or on various other grounds tenable enough in respect to poetry not designed for music. The “conceit,” for example, which some envious rivals of Morris have so much objected to —

Her heart and morning broke together

In the storm —

this “conceit” is merely in keeping with the essential spirit of the song proper. To all reasonable persons it will be sufficient to say that the fervid, hearty, free-spoken songs of Cowley and of Donne — more especially of Cunningham, of Harrington and of Carew — abound in precisely similar things; and that they are to be met with, plentifully, in the polished pages of Moore and of Beranger, who introduce them with thought and retain them after mature deliberation.

Morris is, very decidedly, our best writer of songs — and, in saying this, I mean to assign him a high rank as poet. For my own part, I would much rather have written the best song of a nation than its noblest epic. One or two of Hoffman’s songs have merit — but they are sad echoes of Moore, and even if this were not so (every body knows that it is so) they are totally deficient in the real songessence. “Woodmar, Spare that Tree” and “By the Lake where droops the Willow” are compositions of which any poet, living or dead, might justly be proud. By these, if by [column 2:] nothing else, Morris is immortal. It is quite impossible to put down such things by slicers. The affectation of contemning them is of no avail — unless to render manifest the envy of those who affect the contempt. As mere poems, there are several of Morris’s compositions equal, if not superior, to either of those just mentioned, but as songs I much doubt whether these latter have ever been surpassed. In quiet grace and unaffected tenderness, I know no American poem which excels the following:

Where Hudson’s wave o’er silvery sands

Winds through the hills afar,

Old Crow-nest like a monarch stands,

   Crowned with a single star.

And there, amid the billowy swells

Of rock-ribbed, cloud-capped earth,

My fair and gentle Ida dwells,

A nymph of mountain birth.

 

The snow-flake that the cliff receives —

The diamonds of the showers —

Spring’s tender blossoms, buds and leaves —

The sisterhood of flowers —

Morn’s early beam — eve’s balmy breeze —

Her purity define: —

But Ida’s dearer far than these

To this fond breast of mine.

 

My heart is on the hills; the shades

Of night are on my brow.

Ye pleasant haunts and silent glades

My soul is with you now.

I bless the star-crowned Highlands where

My Ida’s footsteps roam: —

Oh, for a falcon’s wing to bear —

To bear me to my home.

——

[[Item 203]]

A capital book, generally speaking;* but Mr. Grattan has a bad habit — that of loitering in the road — of dallying and toying with his subjects, as a kitten with a mouse — instead of grasping it firmly at once and eating it up without more ado He takes up too much time in the ante-room. He has never done with his introductions. Occasionally, one introduction is but the vestibule to another; so that by the time he arrives at his main incidents there is nothing more to tell. He seems afflicted with that curious yet common perversity observed in garrulous old women — the desire of tantalizing by circumlocution. Mr. G’s circumlocution, however, is by no means like that which Albany Fonblanque describes as “a style of about and about and all the way round to nothing and nonsense.”

. . . . . If the greasy-looking lithograph here given as a frontispiece, be meant for Mr. Grattan, then is Mr. Grattan like nobody else: — for the fact is, I never yet knew an individual with a wire wig, or the countenance of an under-done apple dumpling . . . . . [page 220:] As a general rule, no man should put his own face in his own book. In looking at the author’s countenance the reader is seldom in condition to keep his own.

——

[[Item 204]]

In a “Hymn for Christmas,” by Mrs. Hemans, we find the following stanza:

Oh, lovely voices of the sky

Which hymned the Saviour’s birth,

Are ye not singing still on high,

Ye that sang “Peace on Earth”?

To us yet speak the strains

Wherewith, in times gone by,

Ye blessed the Syrian swains,

Oh, voices of the sky!

And at page 305 of “The Christian Keepsake and Missionary Annual for 1840” — a Philadelphian Annual — we find “A Christmas Carol,” by Richard W. Dodson: — the first stanza running thus:

Angel voices of the sky!

Ye that hymned Messiah’s birth,

Sweetly singing from on high

“Peace, Goodwill to all on earth!”

Oh, to us impart those strains!

Bid our doubts and fears to cease!

Ye that cheered the Syrian swains,

Cheer us with that song of peace!

——

[[Item 205]]

A book* remarkable for its artistic unity. It is to be commended, also, on higher grounds. I do not think, indeed, that a better novel of its kind has been composed by an American. To be sure, it is not precisely the work to place in the hands of a lady; but its incidents are striking and original, its scenes of passion nervously wrought, and its philosophy, if not at all times tenable, at least admirable on the important scores of suggestiveness and audacity. In a word, it is that rare thing a fiction of power without rudeness. Its spirit, in general, resembles that of Reynolds’ “Miserrimus.”

——

[[Item 206]]

Had the “George Balcombe” of Professor Beverley Tucker been the work of any one born North of Mason and Dixon’s line, it would have been long ago recognized as one of the very noblest fictions ever written by an American. It is almost as good as “Caleb Williams.” The manner in which the cabal of the “North American Review” first write all our books and then review them, puts me in mind of the fable about the Lion and the Painter. It is high time that the literary South took its own interests into its own charge.

——

[[Item 207]]

Here is a good idea for a Magazine paper: — let [column 2:] somebody “work it up:” — A flippant pretender to universal acquirement — a would-be Crichton — engrosses, for an hour or two perhaps, the attention of a large company — most of whom are profoundly impressed by his knowledge. He is very witty, in especial, at the expense of a modest young gentleman, who ventures to make no reply, and who, finally, leaves the room as if overwhelmed with confusion; — the Crichton greeting his exit with a laugh. Presently he returns, followed by a footman carrying an armfull of books. These are deposited on the table. The young gentleman, now, referring to some pencilled notes which he had been secretly taking during the Crichton’s display of erudition, pins the latter to his statements, each by each, and refutes them all in turn, by reference to the very authorities cited by the egotist himself — whose ignorance at all points is thus made apparent.

——

[[Item 208]]

A long time ago — twenty-three or four years at least — Edward C. Pinckney, of Baltimore, published an exquisite poem entitled “A Health.” It was profoundly admired by the critical few, but had little circulation: — this for no better reason than that the author was born too far South. I quote a few lines:

Affections are as thoughts to her,

The measures of her hours —

Her feelings have the fragrancy,

The freshness of young flowers.

To her the better elements

And kindlier stars have given

A forth so fair, that, like the air,

Tis less of Earth than Heaven.

Now, in 1842, Mr. George Hill published “The Ruins of Athens and Other Poems” — and from one of the “Other Poems” I quote what follows:

And thoughts go sporting through her mind

Like children among flowers;

And deeds of gentle goodness are

The measures of her hours.

In soul or face she bears no trace

Of one from Eden driven,

But like the rainbow seems, though loom

Of Earth, a part of Heaven.

Is this plagiarism or is it not? — I merely ask for information.

——

[[Item 209]]

Grace,” says Horace Walpole, “will save any book, and without it none can live long.” I can never read Mrs. Osgood’s poetry without a strong propensity to ring the changes upon this indefinite word “grace” and its derivatives. About every thing she writes we perceive this indescribable charm; of which, perhaps, the elements are a vivid fancy and a quick sense of the proportionate. [page 221:] “Grace,” however, may be most satisfactorily defined, at least for the present, as “a term applied, in despair, to that class of the impressions of Beauty which admit of no analysis.” Mrs. O. has lately evinced a true imagination, with a “movement” (as Schlegel has it) or energy, of which I have been considering her incapable. Beyond all question the f tat of American poetesses: — and yet we must judge her less by what she has done than by what she shows ability to do. A happy refinement — an instinctive sense of the pure and delicate — is one of her most noticeable merits. She could accomplish much — very much.

——

[[Item 210]]

One of our truest poets is Thomas Buchanan Read. His most distinctive features are, first, “tenderness,” or subdued passion, and secondly, fancy. His sin is imitativeness. At present, although evincing high capacity, he is but a copyist of Longfellow — that is to say, but the echo of an echo. Here is a beautiful thought which is not the property of Mr. Read:

And, where the spring-time sun had longest shone,

A violet looked up and found itself alone.

Here again: a Spirit

Slowly through the lake descended,

Till from her hidden form below

The waters took a golden glow,

As if the star which made her forehead bright

Had burst and filled the lake with light.

Lowell has some lines very similar, ending with

As if a star had burst within his brain.

——

[[Item 211]]

I cannot say that I ever fairly comprehended the force of the term “insult,” until I was given to understand, one day, by a member of the “North American Review” clique, that this journal was “not only willing but anxious to render me that justice which had been already rendered me by the ‘Revue Francaise’ and the ‘Revue des Deux Mondes”’ — but was “restrained from so doing” by my “invincible spirit of antagonism.” I wish the “North American Review” to express no opinion of me whatever — for I have none of it. In the meantime, as I see no motto on its title-page, let me recommend it one from Sterne’s “Letter from France.” Here it is: — ”As we rode along the valley we saw a herd of asses on the top of one of the mountains — how they viewed and reviewed us!

——

[[Item 212]]

I blush to see, in the —— [[Literary World]], an invidious notice of Bayard Taylor’s “Rhymes of Travel.” What makes the matter worse, the critique is from the pen of one who, although undeservedly, holds, [column 2:] himself, some position as a poet: — and what makes the matter worst, the attack is anonymous, and (while ostensibly commending) most zealously endeavors to damn the young writer “ with faint praise.” In his whole life, the author of the criticism never published a poem, long or short, which could compare, either in the higher merits, or in the minor morals of the Muse, with the worst of Mr. Taylor’s compositions.

Observe the generalizing, disingenuous, patronizing tone: —

“It is the empty charlatan, to whom all things are alike impossible, who attempts every thing. He can do one thing as well as another; for he can really do nothing. . . . . Mr. Taylor’s volume, as we have intimated, is an advance upon his previous publication. We could have wished, indeed, something more of restraint in the rhetoric, but,” &c., &c., &c.

The concluding sentence, here, is an excellent example of one of the most ingeniously malignant of critical ruses — that of condemning an author, in especial, for what the world, in general, feel to be his principal merit. In fact, the “rhetoric” of Mr. Taylor, in the sense intended by the critic, is Mr. Taylor’s distinguishing excellence. He is, unquestionably, the most terse, glowing, and vigorous of all our poets, young or old — in point, I mean, of expression. His sonorous, well-balanced rhythm puts me often in mind of Campbell (in spite of our anonymous friend’s implied sneer at “mere jingling of rhymes, brilliant and successful for the moment,”) and his rhetoric in general is of the highest order: — By “rhetoric” I intend the mode, generally in which Thought is presented. Where shall we find more magnificent passages than these?

First queenly Asia, from the fallen thrones

Of twice three thousand years,

Came with the woe a grieving Goddess owns

Who longs for mortal tears.

The dust of ruin to her mantle clung

And dimmed her crown of gold,

While the majestic sorrows of her tongue

From Tyre to Indus rolled.

 

Mourn with me, sisters, in my realm of woe

Whose only, glory streams

From its lost childhood like the Arctic, glow

Which sunless winter dreams.

In the red desert Boulders Babylon

And the wild serpent’s hiss

Echoes in Petra’s palaces of stone

And waste Persepolis.

 

Then from her seat, amid the palms embowered

That shade the Lion-land,

Swart Africa in dusky aspect towered,

The fetters on her hand.

Backward she saw, from out the drear eclipse,

The mighty Theban years,

And the deep anguish of her mournful lips

Interpreted her tears.

I copy these passages first, because the critic [page 222:] in question has copied them, without the slightest appreciation of their grandeur — for they are grand; and secondly, to put the question of”rhetoric” at rest. No artist who reads them will deny that they are the perfection of skill in their way. But thirdly, I wish to call attention to the glowing imagination evinced in the lines italicized. My very soul revolts at such efforts, (as the one I refer to,) to depreciate such poems as Mr. Taylor’s. Is there no honor — no chivalry left in the land? Are our most deserving writers to be forever sneered down, or hooted down, or damned down with faint praise, by a set of men who possess little other ability than that which assures temporary success to them, in common with Swaim’s Panacea or Morrison’s pills? The fact is, some person should write, at once, a Magazine paper exposing — ruthlessly exposing, the dessous de cartes of our literary affairs. He should show how and why it is that the ubiquitous quack in letters can always “succeed,” while genius, (which implies self-respect, with a scorn of creeping and crawling,) must inevitably succumb. He should point out the “easy arts” by which any one, base enough to do it, can get himself placed at the very head of American Letters by an article in that magnanimous journal, “The Review.” He should explain, too, how readily the same work can be induced (as in the case of Simms,) to villify, and villify personally, any one not a Northerner, for a trifling “consideration.” In fact, our criticism needs a thorough regeneration, and must have it.


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 217, column 1:]

*  Some years since Mr. Poe wrote for several of the Northern magazines a series of critical brevities under the title of “Marginalia.” They attracted great attention at that time and since, as characteristic of the author, and we are sure that our readers will be gratified at his resuming them in the Messenger. By way of introduction, we republish the original preface from the Democratic Review. [Ed. Mess.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 219, column 2:]

*  “Highways and By-ways.”

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 220, column 1:]

*  “Confessions of a Poet.”


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Notes:

For convenient reference, an item number has been added to each individual entry. The numbers are assigned across the full run of “Marginalia,” matching those used in the authoritative scholarly edition prepared and annotated by Burton Pollin (1985). The present installment, therefore, begins with item 201.


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[S:0 - SLM, 1849] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Misc - Marginalia [part XIII] [Text-02]