Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Marginalia [part IX],” Graham’s Magazine, December 1846, pp. 311-313


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[page 311, unnumbered, full page:]

MARGINALIA.

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[[Item 181]]

THIS book* could never have been popular out of Germany. It is too simple — too direct — too obvious — too bald — not sufficiently complex — to be relished by any people who have thoroughly passed the first (or impulsive) epoch of literary civilization. The Germans have not yet passed this first epoch. It must be remembered that during the whole of the middle ages they lived in utter ignorance of the art of writing. From so total a darkness, of so late a date, they could not, as a nation, have as yet fully emerged into the second or critical epoch. Individual Germans have been critical in the best sense — but the masses are unleavened. Literary Germany thus presents the singular spectacle of the impulsive spirit surrounded by the critical, and, of course, in some measure influenced thereby. England, for example, has advanced far, and France much farther, into the critical epoch; and their effect on the German mind is seen in the wildly anomalous condition of the German literature at large. That this latter will be improved by age, however, should never be maintained. As the impulsive spirit subsides, and the critical uprises, there will appear the polished insipidity of the later England, or that ultimate three of taste which has found its best exemplification in Suc. At present the German literature resembles no other on the face of the earth — for it is the result of certain conditions which, before this individual instance of their fulfillment, have never been fulfilled. And this anomalous state to which I [column 2:] refer is the source of our anomalous criticism upon what that state produces — is the source of the grossly conflicting opinions about German letters. For my own part, I admit the German vigor, the German directness, boldness, imagination, and some other qualities of impulse, just as I am willing to admit and admire these qualities in the first (or impulsive) epochs of British and French letters. At the German criticism, however, I cannot refrain from laughing all the more heartily, all the more seriously I hear it praised. Not that, in detail, it affects me as an absurdity — but in the adaptation of its details. It abounds in brilliant bubbles of so gestion, but these rise and sink and jostle each other, until the whole vortex of thought in which they originate is one indistinguishable chaos of froth. The German criticism is unsettled, and can only be settled by time. At present it suggests without demonstrating, or convincing, or effecting any definite purpose under the sun. We read it, rub our foreheads, and ask “What then?” I am not ashamed to say that I prefer even Voltaire to Goethe, and hold Macaulay to possess more of the true critical spirit than Augustus William and Frederick Schlegel combined.

“Thiodolf” is called by Foque his “most successful work.” He would not have spoken thus had he considered it his best. It is admirable of its kind — but its kind can never be appreciated by Americans. It will affect them much as would a grasp of the hand from a man of ice. Even the exquisite “Undine” is too chilly for our people, and, generally, for our epoch. We have less imagination and warmer sympathies than the age which preceded us. [page 312:] It would have done Foque more ready and fuller justice than ours.

Has any one remarked the striking similarity in tone between “Undine” and the “Libussa” of Musaeus?”

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[[Item 182]]

Whatever may be the merits or demerits, generally, of the Magazine Literature of America, there can be no question as to its extent or influence. The topic — Magazine Literature — is therefore an important one. In a few years its importance will be found to have increased in geometrical ratio. The whole tendency of the age is Magazine-ward. The Quarterly Reviews have never been popular. Not only are they too stilted, (by way of keeping up a due dignity,) but they make a point, with the same end in view, of discussing only topics which are carfare to the many, and which, for the most part, have only a conventional interest even with the few. Their issues, also, are at too long intervals; their subjects get cold before being served up. In a word, their ponderosity is quite out of keeping with the rust’ of the age. We now demand the light artillery of the intellect; we need the curt, the condensed, the pointed, the readily diffused — in place of the verbose, the detailed, the voluminous, the inaccessible. On the other hand, the lightness of the artillery should not degenerate into popgunnery — by which term we may designate the character of the greater portion of the newspaper press — their sole legitimate object being the discussion of ephemeral matters in an ephemeral manner. Whatever talent may be brought to bear upon our daily journals, (and in many cases this talent is very great,) still the imperative necessity of catching, currente calamo, each topic as it flits before the eye of the public, must of course materially narrow the limits of their power. The bulk and the period of issue of the monthly magazines, seem to be precisely adapted, if not to all the literary wants of the day, at least to the largest and most imperative, as well as the most consequential portion of them.

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[[Item 183]]

The chief portion of Professor Espy’s theory has been anticipated by Roger Bacon.

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[[Item 184]]

It is a thousand pities that the puny witticisms of a few professional objectors should have power to prevent, even for a year, the adoption of a name for our country. At present we have, clearly, none. There should be no hesitation about “Appalachia.” In the first place, it is distinctive. “America”* is not, and can never be made so. We may legislate as much as we please, and assume for our country whatever name we think right — but to us it will be no name, to any purpose for which a name is needed, unless we can take it away from the regions which employ it at present. South America is “America,” and will insist upon remaining so. In the second place, “Appalachia” is indigenous, [column 2:] springing from one of the most magnificent and distinctive features of the country itself. Thirdly, in employing this word we do honor to the Aborigines, whom, hitherto, we have at all points unmercifully despoiled, assassinated and dishonored. Fourthly, the name is the suggestion of, perhaps, the most deservedly eminent among all the pioneers of American literature. It is but just that Mr. Irving should name the land for which, in letters, he first established a name. The last, and by far the most truly important consideration of all, however, is the music of”Appalachia” itself; nothing could be more sonorous, more liquid, or of fuller volume, while its length is just sufficient for dignity. How the guttural “Alleghania” could ever have been preferred for a moment is difficult to conceive. I yet hope to find “Appalachia” assumed.

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[[Item 185]]

That man is not truly brave who is afraid either to seem or to be, when it suits him, a coward.

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[[Item 186]]

About the “Antigone,” as about all the ancient plays, there seems to me a certain baldness, the result of inexperience in art, but which pedantry would force us to believe the result of a studied and supremely artistic simplicity. Simplicity, indeed, is a very important feature in all true art — but not the simplicity which we see in the Greek drama. That of the Greek sculpture is every thing that can be desired, because here the art in itself is simplicity in itself and in its elements. The Greek sculptor chiseled his forms from what he saw before him every day, in a beauty nearer to perfection than any work of any Cleomenes in the world. But in the drama, the direct, straight-forward, un-German Greek had no Nature so immediately presented from which to make copy. He did what he could — but I do not hesitate to say that that was exceedingly little worth. The profound sense of one or two tragic, or rather, melo-dramatic elements (such as the idea of inexorable Destiny) — this sense gleaming at intervals from out the darkness of the ancient stage, serves, in the very imperfection of its development, to show, not the dramatic ability, but the dramatic inability of the ancients. In a word, the simple arts spring into perfection at their origin; the complex as inevitably demand the long and painfully progressive experience of ages. To the Greeks, beyond doubt, their drama seemed perfection — it fully answered, to them, the dramatic end, excitement — and this fact is urged as proof of their drama’s perfection in itself. It need only be said, in reply, that their art and their sense of art were, necessarily, on a level.

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[[Item 187]]

The more there are great excellences in a work, the less am I surprised at finding great demerits. When a book is said to have many faults, nothing is decided, and I cannot tell, by this, whether it is excellent or execrable. It is said of another that it is without fault; if the account be just, the work cannot be excellent. — Trublet.

The “cannot” here is much too positive. The opinions of Trublet are wonderfully prevalent, but they are none the less demonstrably false. It is [page 313:] merely the indolence of genius which has given them currency. The truth seems to be that genius of the highest order lives in a state of perpetual vacillation between ambition and the scorn of it. The ambition of a great intellect is at best negative. It struggles — it labors — it creates — not because excellence is desirable, but because to be excelled where there exists a sense of the power to excel, is unendurable. Indeed I cannot help thinking that the greatest intellects (since these most clearly perceive the laughable absurdity of human ambition) remain contentedly “mute and inglorious.” At all events, the vacillation of which I speak is the prominent feature of genius. Alternately inspired and depressed, its inequalities of mood are stamped upon its labors. This is the truth, generally — but it is a truth very different from the assertion involved in the “cannot” of Trublet. Give to genius a sufficiently enduring motive, and the result will be harmony, proportion, beauty, perfection — all, in this case, synonymous terms. Its supposed “inevitable” irregularities shall not be found: — for it is clear that the susceptibility to impressions of beauty — that susceptibility which is the most important element of genius — implies an equally exquisite sensitiveness and aversion to deformity. The motive — the enduring motive — has indeed, hitherto, fallen rarely to the lot of genius; but I could point to several compositions which, “without any fault,” are yet “excellent” — supremely so. The world, too, is on the threshold of an epoch, wherein, with the aid of a calm philosophy, such compositions shall be ordinary fly the work of that [column 2:] genius which is true. One of the first and most essential steps, in overpassing this threshold, will serve to kick out of the world’s way this very idea of Trublet — this untenable and paradoxical idea of the incompatibility of genius with art.

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[[Item 188]]

When I consider the true talent — the real force of Mr. Emerson, I am lost in amazement at finding in him little more than a respectful imitation of Carlyle. Is it possible that Mr. E. has ever seen a copy of Seneca? Scarcely — or he would long ago have abandoned his model in utter confusion at the parallel between his own worship of the author of “Sartor Resartus” and the aping of Sallust by Aruntius, as described in the 114th Epistle. In the writer of the “History of the Punic Wars” Emerson is portrayed to the life. The parallel is close; for not only is the imitation of the same character, but the things imitated are identical.

Undoubtedly it is to be said of Sallust, far more plausibly than of Carlyle, that his obscurity, his unusuality of expression, and his Laconism (which had the effect of diffuseness, since the time gained in the mere perusal of his pithiness is trebly lost in the necessity of cogitating them out) — it may be said of Sallust, more truly than of Carlyle, that these qualities bore the impress of his genius, and were but a portion of his unaffected thought.

If there is any difference between Aruntius and Emerson, this difference is clearly in favor of the former, who was in some measure excusable, on the ground that he was as great a fool as the latter is not.


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 311:]

*  “Thiodolf, the Icelander and Aslauga’s Knight.” No. 60 of Wiley & Putnarn’s Foreign Series of “The Library of Choice Reading.”

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 312:]

*  Mr. Field, in a meeting of “The New York Historical Society,” proposed that we take the name of “America,” and bestow “Columbia” upon the continent.


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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 176.


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[S:0 - GM, 1846] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Misc - Marginalia [part IX] [Text-02]