Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Literary Small Talk,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. XIV: Essays and Miscellanies (1902), pp. 90-94


[page 90:]


[American Museum, January-February, 1839.]

I HAVE had no little to do, in my day, with the trade of Aristarchus, and have even been accused of playing the Zoilus. Yet I cannot bring myself to feel any goadings of conscience for undue severity. Indeed my remorse lies somewhat the other way. How often, in commendatory reviews of books, whose purpose, whose precision, or whose piety, rendered them equivocal objects of animadversion, have I longed to close in the pregnant words of St. Austin, when speaking of the books of the Manichæans. “Tam multi,” says he, “tam grandes, tam pretiosi codices” — adding, as if aside, “incendite omnes illas membranas.”

I have seen lately some rambling and nonsensical verses entitled “Political Squibs,” in which it appeared to me the author had blundered upon a title most appropriate, and been guilty, without knowing it, of a bit of erudition. Versus Politici, political, that is to say, city verses, was an appellation applied by way of ridicule to the effusions of certain bards (such as Constantine, Manasses, John Tzetzes, &c.) who flourished in the latter end of Rome, then so miscalled. Their verses (styled by Leo Allatius from their easiness of composition “common prostitutes”) usually consisted of fifteen feet, but, like those of Peter Pindar, made laws for themselves as they went along.

Even a good Greek scholar might find himself puzzled [page 91:] by the following sentences. Κωνσερβετ Δεονς ημπεριουμ βεστρουμ, βικτορ σισ σεμτερ, βηεβητε Δομηνι Ημπερατορες ηγ μσυλτος αννος. The Greeks of the Eastern empire, in the tenth century, made use of these and similar acclamations upon all occasions of public pomp. As evidence of the unlimited dominion of their emperors, the expressions were repeated in Latin, Gothic, Persian, French, and English. Constantine Porphyrogenitus, who wrote a pompous and silly volume, reducing to form and minutely detailing the ceremonies of the court, gives the above sentences as a specimen of the Latin. If we remember that the want of the v obliged the Greeks to use b as the nearest approach, the words, disregarding quantity, then read Conservet Deus imperium vestrum — victor sis semper — vivite Domini Imperatores in multos annos. Had Constantine preserved also the words of the English acclamation, we should possibly, to-day, think them a droll specimen of our language.

Bulwer, in my opinion, wants the true vigour of intellect which would prompt him to seek, and enable him to seize truth upon the surface of things. He imagines her forever in the well. He is perpetually refining to no purpose upon themes which have nothing to gain, and everything to lose in the process. He even condescends to ape the externals of a deep meaning, and will submit to be low rather than fail in appearing profound. It is this coxcombry which leads him so often into allegory and objectless personification. Does he mention “truth” in the most ordinary phrase? — she is with a great T, Truth, the divinity. All common qualities of the mind, all immaterial or mental existences, are capitalized into persons. That he has not yet discarded this senseless mannerism, must [page 92:] be considered the greater wonder, as the whole herd of his little imitators have already taken it up. His “Last Days of Pompeii” is ridiculously full of it. The same work, in its abundant allusions to Egyptian theology, gives also sufficient evidence of his love of the “far-fetched.” Is it indeed possible that he seriously believes one half of the abominable rigmarole put into the mouth of his philosopher Arbaces? I mean that rigmarole especially, which asserts the brute-worship of Egypt to have been deliberately intended as typical of certain moral and physical truths. If so, how little of the spirit of wisdom is here, with how vast a solicitude to seem wise! I remember, apropos to this subject, that in the year 1096, there thronged to the first Crusade, in the train of Peter the Hermit, and more immediately in that of the fanatic Godescal, a herd of some two hundred thousand of the most stupid, savage, drunken, and utterly worthless of the people, whose genuine leaders in the expedition were a goat and a goose. These were carried in front, and to these, for no reason whatever, save the mad whim of the mob, was ascribed a miraculous participation in the spirit of the Deity. Had this rabble founded an empire, we should, no doubt, have had them instituting a solemn worship of goat and goose, and Mr. Bulwer, with care, might have discovered in the goat a type of one species of deep wisdom, and in the goose a clear symbol of another.


Gibbon’s “splendid and stately but artificial style,” is often discussed; yet its details have never, to my knowledge, been satisfactorily pointed out. The peculiar construction of his sentences, being since adopted [page 93:] by his imitators without that just reason which perhaps influenced the historian, has greatly vitiated our language. For in these imitations the body is copied, without the soul, of his phraseology. It will be easy to show wherein his chief peculiarity lies — yet this, I believe, has never been shown. In his autobiography he says “Many experiments were made before I could hit the middle tone between a dull chronicle, and a rhetorical declamation.” The immense theme of the decline and fall required precisely the kind of sentence which he habitually employed.

A world of essential, or at least of valuable, information or remark, had either to be omitted altogether or collaterally introduced. In his endeavours thus to crowd in his vast stores of research, much of the artificial will, of course, be apparent; yet I cannot see that any other method would have answered as well. For example, take a passage at random:

“The proximity of its situation to that of Gaul, seemed to invite their arms; the pleasing, although doubtful, intelligence of a pearl-fishery, attracted their avarice; and as Britain was viewed in the light of a distant and insulated world, the conquest scarcely formed any exception to the general system of continental measures; after a war of about fifty [[forty]] years, undertaken by the most stupid, maintained by the most dissolute, and terminated by the most timid of all the emperors, the far greater part of the island submitted to the Roman yoke.”

The facts and allusions here indirectly given might have been easily dilated into a page. It is this indirectness of observation, then, which forms the soul of the style of Gibbon, of which the apparently pompous phraseology is the body. [page 94:]

Another peculiarity [[, somewhat akin to this, has less reason to recommend it, and grows out of an ill-concealed admiration and imitation]] of Johnson, whom he styles “a bigoted, yet vigorous mind:” I mean the coupling in one sentence matters that have but a very shadow of connexion. For instance —

“The Life of Julian, by the Abbé de la Breterie, first introduced me to the man and to the times, and I should be glad to recover my first essay on the truth of the miracle which stopped the rebuilding of the temple at Jerusalem.” This laughable Gibbonism is still a great favorite with the stellæ minores of our literature. In the historian’s statements regarding the composition of his work, there occurs a contradiction worthy of notice. “I will add a fact” — he in one place says — “which has seldom occurred in the composition of six quartos; my rough MS. without any intermediate copy, has been sent to press.” In other passages he speaks of “frequent experiments,” and states distinctly, that “three times did he compose the first chapter, twice the second and third” — and that “the fifteenth and sixteenth chapters have been reduced, by successive revisals, from a large volume to their present size;” upon every page of the work, indeed, there is most ample evidence of the limæ labor.


Voltaire betrays, on many occasions, an almost incredible ignorance of antiquity and its affairs. One of his saddest blunders is that of assigning the Canary Islands to the Roman empire.


There is something of naiveté, if not much of logic, in these words of the Germans to the Ubii of Cologne, commanding them to cast off the Roman yoke. “Postulamus a vobis” — say they — “muros coloniæ, munimenta servitii detrahatis; etiam fera animalia, si clausa teneas, virtutis obliviscuntur.”





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