Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. John H. Ingram), “Marginalia (Items 46-94),” The Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. III: Poems & Essays (1875), 3:371-395


[page 371, continued:]

XLVI. — DEFOE. [[SM-021]]

While Defoe would have been fairly entitled to immortality had he never written Robinson Crusoe, yet his many other very excellent writings have nearly faded from our attention, in the superior lustre of the Adventures of the Mariner of York. What better possible species of reputation could the author have desired for that book than the species which it has so long enjoyed? It has become a household thing in nearly every family in Christendom. Yet never was admiration of any workuniversal admiration — more indiscriminately or more inappropriately bestowed. Not one person in ten — nay, not one person in five hundred, has, during the perusal of Robinson Crusoe, the most remote conception that any particle of genius, or even of common talent, has been employed in its creation! Men do not look upon it in the light of a literary performance. Defoe has none of their thoughts — Robinson all. The powers which have wrought the wonder have been thrown into obscurity by the very stupendousness of the wonder they have wrought! We read, and become perfect abstractions in the intensity of our interest — we close the [page 372:] book, and are quite satisfied that we could have written as well ourselves. All this is effected by the potent magic of verisimilitude. Indeed the author of Crusoe must have possessed, above all other faculties, what has been termed the faculty of identification — that dominion exercised by volition over imagination which enables the mind to lose its own, in a fictitious, individuality. This includes, in a very great degree, the power of abstraction; and with these keys we may partially unlock the mystery of that spell which has so long invested the volume before us. But a complete analysis of our interest in it cannot be thus afforded. Defoe is largely indebted to his subject. The idea of man in a state of perfect isolation, although often entertained, was never before so comprehensively carried out. Indeed the frequency of its occurrence to the thoughts of mankind argued the extent of its influence on their sympathies, while the fact of no attempt having been made to give an embodied form to the conception, went to prove the difficulty of the undertaking. But the true narrative of Selkirk in 1711, with the powerful impression it then made upon the public mind, sufficed to inspire Defoe with both the necessary courage for his work, and entire confidence in its success. How wonderful has been the result!


It is the curse of a certain order of mind, that it can never rest satisfied with the consciousness of its ability to do a thing. Still less is it content with doing it. It must both know and show how it was done.


We might give two plausible derivations of the epithet “weeping” as applied to the willow. We might say that the word has its origin in the pendulous character of the long branches, which suggest the idea of water dripping; or we might assert that the term comes from a fact in the Natural History of the tree. It has a vast insensible perspiration, which, upon sudden cold, condenses, and sometimes is precipitated in a shower. Now, one might very [page 373:] accurately determine the bias and value of a man's powers of causality, by observing which of these two derivations he would adopt. The former is, beyond question, the true; and, for this reason — that common or vulgar epithets are universally suggested by common or immediately obvious things, without strict regard of any exactitude in application: — but the latter would be greedily seized by nine philologists out of ten, for no better cause than its epigrammatism — than the pointedness with which the singular fact seems to touch the occasion. Here, then, is a subtle source of error which Lord Bacon has neglected. It is an Idol of the Wit.


Surely M—— cannot complain of the manner in which his book has been received; for the Public, in regard to it, has given him just such an assurance as Polyphemus pacified Ulysses with, while his companions were being eaten up before his eyes. “Your book, Mr. M——,” says the Public, “shall be — I pledge you my word — the very last that I devour.”


Diana's Temple at Ephesus having been burnt on the night in which Alexander was born, some person observed that “it was no wonder, since, at the period of the conflagration, she was gossiping at Pella.” Cicero commends this as a witty conceit — Plutarch condems it as senseless — and this is the one point in which I agree with the biographer.


The great feature of the “Curiosity Shop” is its chaste, vigourous, and glorious imagination. This is the one charm, all potent, which alone would suffice to compensate for a world more of error than Mr. Dickens ever committed. It is not only seen in the conception, and general handling of the story, or in the invention of character; but it pervades every sentence of the book. We recognise its prodigious influence in every inspired word. It is this which induces the reader who is at all ideal, to pause frequently, to re-read [page 374:] the occasionally quaint phrases, to muse in uncontrollable delight over thoughts which, while he wonders he has never hit upon them before, he yet admits that he never has encountered. In fact it is the wand of the enchanter.

Had we room to particularize, we would mention as points evincing most distinctly the ideality of the “Curiosity Shop” — the picture of the shop itself — the newly-born desire of the worldly old man for the peace of green fields — his whole character and conduct, in short — the schoolmaster, with his desolate fortunes, seeking affection in little children — the haunts of Quilp among the wharf-rats — the tinkering of the Punchmen among the tombs — the glorious scene where the man of the forge sits poring, at deep midnight, into that dread fire — again the whole conception of this character; and, last and greatest, the stealthy approach of Nell to her death — her gradual sinking away on the journey to the village, so skilfully indicated rather than described — her pensive and prescient meditation — the fit of strange musing which came over her when the house in which she was to die first broke upon her sight — the description of this house, of the old church, and of the church-yard — everything in rigid consonance with the one impression to be conveyed — that deep meaningless well — the comments of the Sexton upon death, and upon his own secure life — this whole world of mournful yet peaceful idea merging, at length, into the decease of the child Nelly, and the uncomprehending despair of the grandfather. These concluding scenes are so drawn that human language, urged by human thought, could go no farther in the excitement of human feelings. And the pathos is of that best order which is relieved, in great measure, by ideality. Here the book has never been equalled, — never approached except in one instance, and that is in the case of the “Undine” of De La Motte Fouqué. The imagination is perhaps as great in this latter work, but the pathos, though truly beautiful and deep, fails of much of its effect through the material from which it is wrought. The chief character, being endowed with purely fanciful attributes, cannot command our full sympathies, as can a simple denizen of earth. In saying [page 375:] that the death of the child left too painful an impression, and should therefore have been avoided, we must, of course, be understood as referring to the work as a whole, and in respect to its general appreciation and popularity. The death, as recorded, is, we repeat, of the highest order of literary excellence — yet while none can deny this fact, there are few who will be willing to read the concluding passages a second time.

Upon the whole we think the “Curiosity Shop” very much the best of the works of Mr. Dickens. It is scarcely possible to speak of it too well. It is in all respects a tale which will secure for its author the enthusiastic admiration of every man of genius.


The Art of Mr. Dickens, although elaborate and great, seems only a happy modification of Nature. In this respect he differs remarkably from the author of “Night and Morning.” The latter, by excessive care and by patient reflection, aided by much rhetorical knowledge, and general information, has arrived at the capability of producing books which might be mistaken by ninety-nine readers out of a hundred, for the genuine inspirations of genius. The former, by the promptings of the truest genius itself, has been brought to compose, and evidently without effort, works which have effected a long-sought consummation — which have rendered him the idol of the people, while defying and enchanting the critics. Mr. Bulwer, through art has almost created a genius. Mr. Dickens, through genius, has perfected a standard from which art itself will derive its essence in rules.


One of the most singular styles in the world — certainly one of the most loose — is that of the elder D’Israeli. For examples he thus begins his Chapter on Bibliomania: “The preceding article [that on Libraries] is honourable to literature.” Here no self-praise is intended. The writer means to say merely that the facts narrated in the preceding [page 376:] article are honourable, etc. Three-fourths of his sentences are constructed in a similar manner. The blunders evidently arise, however, from the author's preoccupation with his subject. His thought, or rather matter, outruns his pen, and drives him upon condensation at the expense of luminousness. The manner of D’Israeli has many of the traits of Gibbon — although little of the latter's precision.

LIV. — DRAMA. [[M-131]]

The drama, as the chief of the imitative arts, has a tendency to beget and keep alive in its votaries the imitative propensity. This might be supposed à priori, and experience confirms the supposition. Of all imitators, dramatists are the most perverse, the most unconscionable, or the most unconscious, and have been so time out of mind. Euripides and Sophocles were merely echoes of Æschylus, and not only was Terence Menander and nothing beyond, but of the sole Roman tragedies extant, (the ten attributed to Seneca), nine are on Greek subjects. Here, then, is cause enough for the “decline of the drama,” if we are to believe that the drama has declined. But it has not: on the contrary, during the last fifty years it has materially advanced. All other arts, however, have, in the same interval, advanced at a far greater rate — each very nearly in the direct ratio of its non-imitativeness — painting, for example, least of all — and the effect on the drama is, of course, that of apparent retrogradation.


L—— is busy in attempting to prove that his Play was not fairly d——d — that it is only “scotched, not killed;” but if the poor Play could speak from the tomb, I fancy it would sing with the Opera heroine:

“The flattering error cease to prove!

Oh, let me be deceased!”

LVI. — GREEK DRAMA. [[M-186]]

About the “Antigone,” as about all the ancient plays, there seems to me a certain baldness, the result of inexperience [page 377:] 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.


When I call to mind the preposterous “asides” and soliloquies of the drama among civilized nations, the shifts employed by the Chinese playwrights appear altogether respectable. If a general, on a Pekin or Canton stage, is ordered on an expedition, “he brandishes a whip,” says Davis, “or takes in his hand the reins of a bridle, and striding three or four times around a platform, in the midst of a tremendous crash of gongs, drums and trumpets, finally stops short and tells the audience where he has arrived.” It would sometimes puzzle an European stage [page 378:] hero in no little degree to “tell an audience where he has arrived.” Most of them seem to have a very imperfect conception of their whereabouts. In the “Mort de Cæsar,” for example, Voltaire makes his populace rush to and fro, exclaiming, “Courons au Capitole!” Poor fellows — they are in the capitol all the time; — in his scruples about unity of place, the author has never once let them out of it.


We may safely grant that the effects of the oratory of Demosthenes were vaster than those wrought by the eloquence of any modern, and yet not controvert the idea that the modern eloquence, itself, is superior to that of the Greek. The Greeks were an excitable, unread race, for they had no printed books. Vivâ voce exhortations carried with them, to their quick apprehensions, all the gigantic force of the new. They had much of that vivid interest which the first fable has upon the dawning intellect of the child — an interest which is worn away by the frequent perusal of similar things — by the frequent inception of similar fancies. The suggestions, the arguments, the incitements of the ancient rhetorician were, when compared with those of the modern, absolutely novel; possessing thus an immense adventitious force — a force which has been, oddly enough, left out of sight in all estimates of the eloquence of the two eras.

The finest Philippic of the Greek would have been hooted at in the British House of Peers, while an impromptu of Sheridan, or of Brougham, would have carried by storm all the hearts and all the intellects of Athens.

LIX. — EMERSON. [[M-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 [page 379:] “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 favour of the former, who was in some measure excusable, on the ground that he was as great a fool as the latter is not.

LX. — ESPY. [[M-183]]

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

LXI. — EXPRESSION. [[M-150]]

Some Frenchman — possibly Montaigne — says: “People talk about thinking, but for my part I never think, except when I sit down to write.” It is this never thinking, unless when we sit down to write, which is the cause of so much indifferent composition. But perhaps there is something more involved in the Frenchman's observation than meets the eye. It is certain that the mere act of inditing, tends, in a great degree, to the logicalization of thought. Whenever, on account of its vagueness, I am dissatisfied with a conception of the brain, I resort forthwith to the pen, for the purpose of obtaining, through its aid, the necessary form, consequence and precision.

How very commonly we hear it remarked, that such and such thoughts are beyond the compass of words! I do not believe that any thought, properly so called, is out of the reach of language. I fancy, rather, that where difficulty in expression is experienced, there is, in the intellect which [page 380:] experiences it, a want either of deliberateness or of method. For my own part, I have never had a thought which I could not set down in words, with even more distinctness than that with which I conceived it: — as I have before observed, the thought is logicalized by the effort at (written) expression.

There is, however, a class of fancies, of exquisite delicacy, which are not thoughts, and to which, as yet, I have found it absolutely impossible to adapt language. I use the word fancies at random, and merely because I must use some word; but the idea commonly attached to the term is not even remotely applicable to the shadows of shadows in question. They seem to me rather psychal than intellectual. They arise in the soul (alas, how rarely!) only at its epochs of most intense tranquillity — when the bodily and mental health are in perfection — and at those mere points of time where the confines of the waking world blend with those of the world of dreams. I am aware of these “fancies” only when I am upon the very brink of sleep, with the consciousness that I am so. I have satisfied myself that this condition exists but for an inappreciable point of time — yet it is crowded with these “shadows of shadows;” and for absolute thought there is demanded time's endurance.

These “fancies” have in them a pleasurable ecstasy as far beyond the most pleasurable of the world of wakefulness, or of dreams, as the Heaven of the Northman theology is beyond its Hell. I regard the visions, even as they arise, with an awe which, in some measure, moderates or tranquilizes the ecstasy — I so regard them, through a conviction (which seems a portion of the ecstasy itself) that this ecstasy, in itself, is of a character supernal to the Human Nature — is a glimpse of the spirit's outer world; and I arrive at this conclusion — if this term is at all applicable to instantaneous intuition — by a perception that the delight experienced has, as its element, but the absoluteness of novelty. I say the absoluteness — for in these fancies — let me now term them psychal impressions — there is really nothing even approximate in character to impressions ordinarily received. It is as if the five senses were supplanted by five myriad others alien to mortality. [page 381:]

Now, so entire is my faith in the power of words, that, at times, I have believed it possible to embody even the evanescence of fancies such as I have attempted to describe. In experiments with this end in view, I have proceeded so far as, first, to control (when the bodily and mental health are good) the existence of the condition: — that is to say, I can now (unless when ill) be sure that the condition will supervene, if I so wish it, at the point of time already described: — of its supervention, until lately, I could never be certain, even under the most favourable circumstances. I mean to say, merely, that now I can be sure, when all circumstances are favourable, of the supervention of the condition, and feel even the capacity of inducing or compelling it: — the favourable circumstances, however, are not the less rare — else had I compelled, already, the Heaven into the Earth.

I have proceeded so far, secondly, as to prevent the lapse from the point of which I speak — the point of blending between wakefulness and sleep — as to prevent at will, I say, the lapse from this border-ground into the dominion of sleep. Not that I can continue the condition — not that I can render the point more than a point — but that I can startle myself from the point into wakefulness — and thus transfer the point itself into the realm of Memory — convey its impressions, or more properly their recollections, to a situation where (although still for a very brief period) I can survey them with the eye of analysis. For these reasons — that is to say, because I have been enabled to accomplish thus much — I do not altogether despair of embodying in words at least enough of the fancies in question to convey, to certain classes of intellect, a shadowy conception of their character. In saying this I am not to be understood as supposing that the fancies, or psychal impressions, to which I allude, are confined to my individual self — are not, in a word, common to all mankind — for on this point it is quite impossible that I should form an opinion — but nothing can be more certain than that even a partial record of the impressions would startle the universal intellect of mankind, by the supremeness of the novelty of the material employed, [page 382:] and of its consequent suggestions. In a word — should I ever write a paper on this topic, the world will be compelled to acknowledge that, at last, I have done an original thing.


I have sometimes amused myself by endeavouring to fancy what would be the fate of any individual gifted, or rather accursed, with an intellect very far superior to that of his race. Of course, he would be conscious of his superiority; nor could he (if otherwise constituted as man is) help manifesting his consciousness. Thus he would make himself enemies at all points. And since his opinions and speculations would widely differ from those of all mankind — that he would be considered a madman, is evident. How horribly painful such a condition! Hell could invent no greater torture than that of being charged with abnormal weakness on account of being abnormally strong.

In like manner, nothing can be clearer than that a very generous spirit — truly feeling what all merely profess — must inevitably find itself misconceived in every direction — its motives misinterpreted. Just as extremeness of intelligence would be thought fatuity, so excess of chivalry could not fail of being looked upon as meanness in its last degree: — and so on with other virtues. This subject is a painful one indeed. That individuals have so soared above the plane of their race, is scarcely to be questioned; but, in looking back through history for traces of their existence, we should pass over all biographies of “the good and the great,” while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows.

LXIII. — FOOLS. [[M-246]]

I have great faith in fools: — self-confidence my friends will call it: —

Si demain, oubliant d’ éclore,

Le jour manquait, eh bien! demain

Quelque fou trouverait encore

Un flambeau pour le genre humain.

By the way, what with the new electric light and other matters, De Béranger's idea is not so very extravagant. [page 383:]

LXIV. — FORTUNE. [[M-121]]

It is certainly very remarkable that although destiny is the ruling idea of the Greek drama, the word Τυχη (Fortune) does not appear once in the whole Iliad.

LXV. — FULLER. [[M-125]]

“Contempt,” says an eastern proverb, “pierces even through the shell of the tortoise;” but there are some human skulls which would feel themselves insulted by a comparison, in point of impermeability, with the shell of a Gallipago turtle.


A remarkable work, and one which I find much difficulty in admitting to be the composition of a woman. Not that many good and glorious things have not been the composition of women — but, because, here, the severe precision of style, the thoroughness, and the luminousness, are points never observable, in even the most admirable of their writings. Who is Lady Georgiana Fullerton?* Who is that Countess of Dacre, who edited “Ellen Wareham,” — the most passionate of fictions — approached, only in some particulars of passion, by this? The great defect of “Ellen Middleton,” lies in the disgusting sternness, captiousness, and bullet-headedness of her husband. We cannot sympathize with her love for him. And the intense selfishness of the rejected lover precludes that compassion which is designed. Alice is a creation of true genius. The imagination, throughout, is of a lofty order, and the snatches of original verse would do honour to any poet living. But the chief merit, after all, is that of the style — about which it is difficult to say too much in the way of praise, although it has, now and then, an odd Gallicism — such as “she lost her head,” meaning she grew crazy. There is much, in the whole manner of this book, which puts me in mind of “Caleb Williams.” [page 384:]


Nearly, if not quite the best “Essay on a Future State.”* The arguments called “Deductions from our Reason,” are, rightly enough, addressed more to the feelings (a vulgar term not to be done without), than to our reason. The arguments deduced from Revelation are (also rightly enough) brief. The pamphlet proves nothing, of course; its theorem is not to be proved.

LXVIII. — GENIUS. [[M-189]]

We mere men of the world, with no principle — a very old-fashioned and cumbersome thing — should be on our guard lest, fancying him on his last legs, we insult, or otherwise maltreat some poor devil of a genius at the very instant of his putting his foot on the top round of his ladder of triumph. It is a common trick with these fellows, when on the point of attaining some long-cherished end, to sink themselves into the deepest possible abyss of seeming despair, for no other purpose than that of increasing the space of success through which they have made up their minds immediately to soar.

LXIX. — GENIUS. [[M-190]]

All that the man of genius demands for his exaltation is moral matter in motion. It makes no difference whither tends the motion — whether for him or against him — and it is absolutely of no consequence “what is the matter.”

LXX. — GENIUS. [[M-187]]

The more there are great excellencies 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 merely the indolence of genius [page 385:] 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 labours — 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 labours. 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 ordinarily the work of that 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.


Men of genius are far more abundant than is supposed. In fact, to appreciate thoroughly the work of what we call genius, is to possess all the genius by which the work was produced. But the person appreciating may be utterly incompetent to reproduce the work, or anything similar, [page 386:] and this solely through lack of what may be termed the constructive ability — a matter quite independent of what we agree to understand in the term “genius” itself. This ability is based, to be sure, in great part, upon the faculty of analysis, enabling the artist to get full view of the machinery of his proposed effect, and thus work it and regulate it at will; but a great deal depends also upon properties strictly moral — for example, upon patience, upon concentrativeness, or the power of holding the attention steadily to the one purpose, upon self-dependence and contempt for all opinion which is opinion and no more — in especial, upon energy or industry. So vitally important is this last, that it may well be doubted if any thing to which we have been accustomed to give the title of a “work of genius” was ever accomplished without it; and it is chiefly because this quality and genius are nearly incompatible, that “works of genius” are few, while mere men of genius are, as I say, abundant. The Romans, who excelled us in acuteness of observation, while falling below us in induction from facts observed, seem to have been so fully aware of the inseparable connection between industry and a “work of genius,” as to have adopted the error that industry, in great measure, was genius itself. The highest compliment is intended by a Roman, when, of an epic, or any thing similar, he says that it is written industriâ mirabili or incredibili industriâ.


A man of genius, if not permitted to choose his own subject, will do worse, in letters, than if he had talents none at all. And here how imperatively is he controlled! To be sure, he can write to suit himself — but in the same manner his publishers print. From the nature of our Copy-Right laws, he has no individual powers. As for his free agency, it is about equal to that of the dean and chapter of the see-cathedral, in a British election of Bishops — an election held by virtue of the king's writ of congé d’élire, and specifying the person to be elected. [page 387:]


Perhaps Mr. Barrow* is right after all, and the dearth of genius in America is owing to the continual teasing of the musquitoes. See “Voyage to Cochin-China.”


Not so: — The first number of the “Gentleman's Magazine” has published on the first of January, 1731; but long before this — in 1681 — there appeared the “Monthly Recorder” with all the Magazine features. I have a number of the “London Magazine,” dated 1760; — commenced 1732, at least, but I have reason to think much earlier.


Talking of conundrums — Why will a geologist put no faith in the Fable of the Fox that lost his tail? Because he knows that no animal remains have ever been found in trap.


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 [page 388:] 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 throe 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 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 vigour, 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 Foqué 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 [page 389:] us. It would have done Foqué more ready and fuller justice than ours. Has any one remarked the striking similarity in tone between “Undine” and the “Libussa” of Musœus?”


After reading all that has been written, and after thinking all that can be thought, on the topics of God and the soul, the man who has a right to say that he thinks at all, will find himself face to face with the conclusion that, on these topics, the most profound thought is that which can be the least easily distinguished from the most superficial sentiment.

LXXVIII. — GODWIN. [[M-096]]

“With all his faults, however, this author is a man of respectable powers.”

Thus discourses, of William Godwin, the “London Monthly Magazine:” May, 1818.

LXXIX. — Miss GOULD AND Mrs. HOWITT. [[M-066]]

Miss Gould* has much in common with Mary Howitt; — the characteristic trait of each being a sportive, quaint, epigrammatic grace, that keeps clear of the absurd by never employing itself upon very exalted topics. The verbal style of the two ladies is identical. Miss Gould has the more talent of the two, but is somewhat the less original. She has occasional flashes of a far higher order of merit than appertains to her ordinary manner. Her “Dying Storm” might have been written by Campbell.

LXXX. — GRAMMAR. [[M-080]]

Here are both Dickens and Bulwer perpetually using the adverb “directly” in the sense of “as soon as.” “Directly he came I did so and so” — “Directly I knew it I said this and that.” But observe! — “Grammar is hardly taught” [in the United States], “being thought an unnecessary [page 390:] basis for other learning.” I quote “America and her Resources,” by the British Counsellor at law, John Bristed.


Strange — that I should here* find the only non-execrable barbarian attempts at imitation of the Greek and Roman measures!


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 . . . . . 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.

LXXXIII. — HAGUE. [[M-154]]

Brown in his “Amusements,” speaks of having transfused [page 391:] the blood of an ass into the veins of an astrological quack — and there can be no doubt that one of Hague's progenitors was the man.


Captain Hall is one of the most agreeable of writers. We like him for the same reason that we like a good drawing-room conversationist — there is such a pleasure in listening to his elegant nothings. Not that the captain is unable to be profound. He has, on the contrary, some reputation for science. But in his hands even the most trifling personal adventures become interesting from the very piquancy with which they are told.

LXXXV. — HEBER. [[SM-023]]

The qualities of Heber are well understood. His poetry is of a high order. He is imaginative, glowing, and vigourous, with a skill in the management of his means unsurpassed by that of any writer of his time, but without any high degree of originality. Can there be anything in the nature of a “classical” life at war with novelty per se? At all events, few fine scholars, such as Heber truly was, are original.


“Philosophy,” says Hegel, “is utterly useless and fruitless, and, for this very reason, is the sublimest of all pursuits, the most deserving attention, and the most worthy of our zeal.” This jargon was suggested, no doubt, by Tertullian's “Mortuus est Dei filius; credibile est quia ineptum — et sepultus resurrexit; certum est quia impossibile.”


I cannot help thinking that romance-writers, in general, might, now and then, find their account in taking a hint from the Chinese, who, in spite of building their houses downwards, have still sense enough to begin their books at the end. [page 392:]


Amare et sapere vix Deo conceditur, as the acute Seneca well observes.

However acute might be Seneca, still he was not sufficiently acute to say this. The sentence is often attributed to him, but it is not to be found in his works. “Semel insanavimus omnes,” a phrase often quoted, is invariably placed to the account of Horace, and with equal error. It is from the “De Honesto Amore” of the Italian Mantuanus, who has

Id commune malum; semel insanavimus omnes.

In the title, “De Honesto Amore,” by the way, Mantuanus misconceives the force of honestus — just as Dryden does in his translation of Virgil's

Et quocunque Deus circum caput egit honestum;

which he renders

On whate’er side he turns his honest face.


Mr. Hudson, among innumerable blunders, attributes to Sir Thomas Browne, the paradox of Tertullian in his De Carne Christi — ”Mortuus est Dei filius, credibile est quia ineptum est; et sepultus resurrexit, certum est quia impossibile est.”


Here is a good idea for a Magazine paper: — let 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, [page 393:] 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.

XCI. — THE ILLIAD. [[M-062]]

For my part I agree with Joshua Barnes: nobody but Solomon could have written the Iliad. The catalogue of ships was the work of Robins.


The pure Imagination chooses, from either Beauty or Deformity, only the most combinable things hitherto uncombined; the compound, as a general rule, partaking, in character, of beauty, or sublimity, in the ratio of the respective beauty or sublimity of the things combined — which are themselves still to be considered as atomic — that is to say, as previous combinations. But, as often analogously happens in physical chemistry, so not unfrequently does it occur in this chemistry of the intellect, that the admixture of two elements results in a something that has nothing of the qualities of one of them, or even nothing of the qualities of either. . . Thus, the range of Imagination is unlimited. Its materials extend throughout the universe. Even out of deformities it fabricates that Beauty which is at once its sole object and its inevitable test. But, in general, the richness or force of the matters combined; the facility of discovering combinable novelties worth combining; and, especially the absolute “chemical combination” of the completed mass — are the particulars to be regarded in our estimate of Imagination. It is this thorough harmony of an imaginative work which so often causes it to be undervalued by the thoughtless, through the character of obviousness which is superinduced. We are apt to find ourselves asking why it is that these combinations have never been imagined before.


The author of “Richelieu” and “Darnley” is lauded, by a great majority of those who laud him, from mere [page 394:] motives of duty, not of inclination — duty erroneously conceived. He is looked upon as the head and representative of those novelists who, in historical romance, attempt to blend interest with instruction. His sentiments are found to be pure — his morals unquestionable, and pointedly shown forth — his language indisputably correct. And for all this, praise, assuredly, but then only a certain degree of praise, should be awarded him. To be pure in his expressed opinions is a duty; and were his language as correct as any spoken, he would speak only as every gentleman should speak. In regard to his historical information, were it much more accurate, and twice as extensive as, from any visible indications, we have reason to believe it, it should still be remembered that similar attainments are possessed by many thousands of well-educated men of all countries, who look upon their knowledge with no more than ordinary complacency; and that a far, very far higher reach of erudition is within the grasp of any general reader having access to the great libraries of Paris or the Vatican. Something more than we have mentioned is necessary to place our author upon a level with the best of the English novelists — for here his admirers would desire us to place him. Had Sir Walter Scott never existed, and Waverley never been written, we would not, of course, award Mr. J. the merit of being the first to blend history, even successfully, with fiction. But as an indifferent imitator of the Scotch novelist in this respect, it is unnecessary to speak of the author of “Richelieu” any farther. To genius of any kind, it seems to us, that he has little pretension. In the solemn tranquility of his pages we seldom stumble across a novel emotion, and if any matter of deep interest arises in the path, we are pretty sure to find it an interest appertaining to some historical fact equally vivid or more so in the original chronicles.


Scott, in his “Presbyterian Eloquence,” speaks of “that ancient fable, not much known,” in which a trial of skill in singing being agreed upon between the cuckoo and the nightingale, the ass was chosen umpire. When each bird had done his best, the umpire declared that the [page 395:] nightingale sang extremely well, but that “for a good plain song give him the cuckoo.” The judge with the long ears, in this case, is a fine type of the tribe of critics who insist upon what they call “quietude” as the supreme literary excellence — gentlemen who rail at Tennyson and elevate Addison into apotheosis.



[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 379:]

*  Of Storms, Boston, 1841. [[— Ed.]]

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 383:]

*  The popular English novelist, autor of “Grantley Manor,” “Lady Birdm” etc. [[— Ed.]]

  Lady Dacre wrote “Recollections of a Chaperson,” and is the accredited author of “Trevelyan.” — Ed.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 384:]

*  A sermon [[Sermon]] on a Future State, combating the opinion that “Death is an Eternal Sleep.” By Gilbert Austin. London. 1794.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 387:]

*  “Voyage to Cochin-China.”

  “Thiodolf, the Icelander and Aslauga's Knight.” Wiley and Putnam's “Library of Choice Reading,” Foreign Series, No. 60.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 389:]

*  Miss Hannah Flagg Gould, an American poetess, authoress of several volumes of poems (1832-1850), and prose papers, which have been collected under title of “Gathered Leaves.”. [[— Ed.]]

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 390:]

*  Forelaesninger over det Danske Sprog, eller resonneret Danske Grammatik, ved Jacob Buden [[Baden]].

  Thomas Colley Grattan, an Irish Novelist, born in Dublin 1796. Mr. G. was (1839-1853), British Consul at Boston, and there wrote some of his most popular works. [[— Ed.]]





[S:0 - JHI, 1875] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Marginalia (Items 46-94) (J. H. Ingram, 1875)