Text: Edgar Allan Poe, Critical Notices, Southern Literary Messenger, Vol. II, no. 7, July 1836, 2:???-???


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Letters to Young Ladies. By Mrs. L. H. Sigourney. Second Edition. Hartford: Published by Wm. Watson.

We have to apologize for not sooner calling the attention of our readers to these excellent Letters of Mrs. Sigourney — which only to-day we have had an opportunity of reading with sufficient care to form an opinion of their merits. Our delay, however, is a matter of the less importance, when we consider the universal notice and approbation of the public at large. In this approbation we cordially agree. The book is, in every respect, worthy of Mrs. Sigourney — and it would be difficult to say more.

The Letters (embraced in a duodecimo of two hundred and twelve pages,) are twelve in number. Their subjects are, Improvement of TimeDomestic EmploymentsHealth and DressManners and AccomplishmentsBooksFriendshipCheerfulnessConversationBenevolenceSelf-GovernmentUtility — and Motives to Perseverance. Little has been said on any one of these subjects more forcibly or more beautifully than now by Mrs. Sigourney — and, collectively, as a code of morals and manner for the gentler sex, we have seen nothing whatever which we would more confidently place in the hands of any young female friend, than this unassuming little volume, so redolent of the pious, the graceful, the lofty, and the poetical mind from which it issues.

The prose of Mrs. Sigourney should not be compared, in its higher qualities, with her poetry — but appears to us essentially superior in its minutiæ. It would be difficult to find fault with the construction of more than a very few passages in the Letters — and the general correctness and vigor of the whole would render any such fault-finding a matter of hyper-criticism. We are not prepared to say whether this correctness be the result of labor or not — there are certainly no traces of labor. The most remarkable feature of the volume is its unusually extensive circle of illustration, in the way of brief anecdote, and multiplied reference to authorities — illustration which, while apparently no more than sufficient for the present purpose of the writer, gives evidence, to any critical eye, of a far wider general erudition than that possessed by any of our female writers, and which we were not at all prepared to meet with in one, only known hitherto as the inspired poetess of Natural and Moral Beauty.

Would our limits permit us we would gladly copy entire some one of the Letters. As it is, we must be contented with a brief extract, (on the subject of Memory,) evincing powers of rigid thought in the writer. Few subjects are more entirely misapprehended than that of the faculty of Memory. For a multiplicity of error on this head Leibnitz and Locke are responsible. That the faculty is neither primitive nor independent is susceptible of direct proof. That it exists in conjunction with each primitive faculty, and inseparable from it, is a fact which might be readily ascertained even without the direct assistance of Phrenology. The remarks of Mrs. Sigourney apply, only collaterally, to what we say, but will be appreciated by the metaphysical student.

I am inclined to think Memory capable of indefinite improvement by a judicious and persevering regimen. Were you required to analyze it to its simplest element, you would probably discover it to be a habit of fixed attention. Read, therefore, what you desire to remember, with concentrated and undivided attention. Close the book and reflect. Undigested food throws the whole frame into a ferment. Were we as well acquainted with our intellectual, as with our physical structure, we should see undigested knowledge producing equal disorder in the mind.

To strengthen the Memory, the best course is not to commit page after page verbatim, but to give the substance of the author, correctly and clearly in your own language. Thus the understanding and memory are exercised at the same time, and the prosperity of the mind is not so much advanced by the undue prominence of any one faculty as by the true balance and vigorous action of all. Memory and understanding are also fast friends, and the light which one gains will be reflected upon the other.

Use judgment in selecting from the mass of what you read the parts which it will be useful or desirable to remember. Separate and arrange them, and give them in charge to memory. Tell her it is her duty to keep them, and to bring them forth when you require. She has the capacities of a faithful servant, and possibly the dispositions of an idle one. But you have the power of enforcing obedience and of overcoming her infirmities. At the close of each day let her come before you, as Ruth came to Naomi, and ’beat out that which she hath gleaned.’ Let her winnow repeatedly what she has brought from the field, and ’ gather the wheat into the garner’ ere she goes to repose.

This process, so far from being laborious, is one of the most delightful that can be imagined. To condense, is perhaps the only difficult part of it; for the casket of Memory, though elastic, has bounds, and if surcharged with trifles, the weightier matters will find no fitting place.

While Memory is in this course of training, it would be desirable to read no books whose contents are not worth her care: for if she finds herself called only occasionally, she may take airs like a froward child, and not come when she is called. Make her feel it as a duty to stand with her tablet ready whenever you open a book, and then show her sufficient respect, not to summon her to any book unworthy of her.

To facilitate the management of Memory, it is well to keep in view that her office is threefold. Her first effort is to receive knowledge; her second to retain it; her last to bring it forth when it is needed. The first act is solitary, the silence of fixed attention. The next is also sacred to herself, and her ruling power, and consists in frequent, thorough examination of the state and order of the things committed to her. The third act is social, rendering her treasures available to the good of others. Daily intercourse with a cultivated mind is the best method to rivet, refine, and polish the hoarded gems of knowledge. Conversation with intelligent men is eminently serviceable. For, after all our exultation on the advancing state of female education, with the other sex, will be found the wealth of classical knowledge, and profound wisdom. If you have a parent, or older friend, who will, at the close of each day, listen kindly to what you have read, and help to fix in your memory the portions most worthy of regard, count it a privilege of no common value, and embrace it with sincere gratitude.

We heartily recommend these Letters (which the name of their author will more especially recommend,) to the attention of our female acquaintances. They may be procured, in Richmond, at the bookstore of Messrs. Yale and Wyatt.





[S:0 - SLM, 1836] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Criticial Notices (July 1836)