Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. John H. Ingram), “Marginalia (Items 195-292),” The Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. III: Poems & Essays (1875), 3:456-466


[page 456, continued:]

CXCV. — TALES. [[M-273]]

In the tale proper — where there is no space for development of character or for great profusion and variety of incident — mere construction is, of course, far more imperatively demanded than in the novel. Defective plot, in this latter, may escape observation, but in the tale, never. Most of our tale-writers, however, neglect the distinction. They seem to begin their stories without knowing how they are to end; and their ends, generally, — like so many governments of Trinculo — appear to have forgotten their beginnings.

CXCVI. — TENNYSON. [[M-044]]

I am not sure that Tennyson is not the greatest of poets. The uncertainty attending the public conception of the term “poet” alone prevents me from demonstrating that he is. Other bards produce effects which are, now and then, otherwise produced than by what we call poems, but Tennyson an effect which only a poem does. His alone are idiosyncratic poems. By the enjoyment or non-enjoyment of the “Morte D’Arthur,” or of the “Ænone,” I would test any [page 457:] one's idea sense. There are passages in his works which rivet a conviction I had long entertained, that the indefinite is an element in the true ποιησις. Why do some persons fatigue themselves in attempts to unravel such phantasy-pieces as the “Lady of Shalott?” As well unweave the “ventum textilem.” If the author did not deliberately propose to himself a suggestive indefinitiveness of meaning, with the view of bringing about a definitiveness of vague and therefore of spiritual effects — this, at least, arose from the silent analytical promptings of that poetic genius which, in its supreme development, embodies all orders of intellectual capacity. I know that indefinitiveness is an element of the true music — I mean of the true musical expression. Give to it any undue decision — imbue it with any very determinate tone — and you deprive it, at once, of its ethereal, its ideal, its intrinsic and essential character. You dispel its luxury of dream. You dissolve the atmosphere of the mystic upon which it floats. You exhaust it of its breath of fäery. It now becomes a tangible and easily appreciable idea — a thing of the earth, earthy. It has not, indeed, lost its power to please, but all which I consider the distinctiveness of that power. And to the uncultivated talent, or to the unimaginative apprehension, this deprivation of its most delicate grace will be, not unfrequently, a recommendation. A determinateness of expression is sought — and often 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 music. Who can forget the sillinesses of the “Battle of Prague?” What man of taste but must laugh at the interminable drums, trumpets, blunderbusses, and thunder? “Vocal music,” says L’Abbate Gravina, who would have said the same thing of instrumental, “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” is concerned. If any music must imitate anything, it were assuredly better to limit the imitation as Gravina suggests. Tennyson's shorter pieces [page 458:] abound in minute rhythmical lapses sufficient to assure me that — in common with all poets living or dead — he has neglected to make precise investigation of the principles of metre; but, on the other hand, so perfect is his rhythmical instinct in general, that, like the present Viscount Canterbury, he seems to see with his ear.


As to this last term (“high-binder”) which is so confidently quoted as modern (“not in use, certainly, before 1819”), I can refute all that is said by referring to a journal in my own possession — “The Weekly Inspector,” for December 17, 1806 — published in New York:

“On Christmas Eve, a party of banditti, amounting, it is stated, to forty or fifty members of an association, calling themselves ‘High-Binders,’ assembled in front of St. Peter's Church, in Barclay-street, expecting that the Catholic ritual would be performed with a degree of pomp and splendor which has usually been omitted in this city. These ceremonies, however, not taking place, the High-Binders manifested great displeasure.”

In a subsequent number the association are called “High-Binders.” They were Irish.


I believe it is Montaigne who says — ”People talk about thinking, but, for my part. I never begin to think until I sit down to write.” A better plan for him would have been, never to sit down to write until he had made an end of thinking.

CXCIX. — TICKELL. [[M-092]]

Macaulay, in his just admiration of Addison, over-rates Tickell, and does not seem to be aware how much the author of the “Elegy” is indebted to French models. Boileau, especially, he robbed without mercy, and without measure. A flagrant example is here. Boileau has the lines:

En vain contre “Le Cid” un ministre se ligue;

Tout Paris pour Chiméne a les yeux de Rodrigue. [page 459:]

Tickell thus appropriates them:

While the charm ‘d reader with thy thought complies,

And views thy Rosamond with Henry's eyes.


If any ambitious man have a fancy to revolutionize, at one effort, the universal world of human thought, human opinion, and human sentiment, the opportunity is his own — the road to immortal renown lies straight, open, and unencumbered before him. All that he has to do is to write and publish a very little book. Its title should be simple — a few plain words — “My Heart Laid Bare.” But — this little book must be true to its title.

Now, is it not very singular that, with the rabid thirst for notoriety which distinguishes so many of mankind — so many, too, who care not a fig what is thought of them after death, there should not be found one man having sufficient hardihood to write this little book? To write, I say. There are ten thousand men who, if the book were once written, would laugh at the notion of being disturbed by its publication during their life, and who could not even conceive why they should object to its being published after their death. But to write it — there is the rub. No man dare write it. No man ever will dare write it. No man could write it, even if he dared. The paper would shrivel and blaze at every touch of the fiery pen.

CCI. — TRAVELS. [[M-265]]

When ———— and ———— pavoneggiarsi about the celebrated personages whom they have “seen” in their travels, we shall not be far wrong in inferring that these celebrated personages were seen έχάσ [[έκάσ]] — as Pindar says he “saw” Archilochus, who died ages before the former was born.


“What does a man learn by travelling?” demanded Doctor Johnson, one day, in a great rage — ”What did Lord Charlemont learn in his travels, except that there was a [page 460:] snake in one of the pyramids of Egypt?” — but had Doctor Johnson lived in the days of the Silk Buckinghams, he would have seen that, so far from thinking anything of finding a snake in a pyramid, your traveller would take his oath, at a moment's notice, of having found a pyramid in a snake.


The ancients had at least half an idea that we travelled on horseback to heaven. See a passage of Passeri, “de animæ transvectione” — quoted by Caylus. See, also, old tombs.


In examining trivial details, we are apt to overlook essential generalities. Thus M——, in making a to-do about the “typographical mistakes” in his book, has permitted the printer to escape a scolding which he did richly deserve — a scolding for a “typographical mistake” of really vital importance — the mistake of having printed the book at all.

CCV. — TUCKER. [[SM-025]]

“George Balcombe” we are induced to regard, upon the whole, as the best American novel. There have been few books of its peculiar kind, we think, written in any country, much its superior. Its interest is intense from beginning to end. Talent of a lofty order is evinced in every page of it. Its most distinguishing features are invention, vigour, almost audacity, of thought — great variety of what the German critics term intrigue, and exceeding ingenuity and finish in the adaptation of its component parts. Nothing is wanting to a complete whole, and nothing is out of place, or out of time. Without being chargeable in the least degree with imitation, the novel bears a strong family resemblance to the Caleb Williams of Godwin. Thinking thus highly of George Balcombe, we still do not wish to be understood as ranking it with the more brilliant fictions of some of the living novelists of Great Britain. In regard to the authorship of the book, some little conversation has occurred, and the [page 461:] matter is still considered a secret. But why so? — or rather, how so? The mind of the chief personage of the story, is the transcript of a mind familiar to us — an unintentional transcript, let us grant — but still one not to be mistaken. George Balcombe thinks, speaks, and acts, as no person we are convinced, but Judge Beverley Tucker* ever precisely thought, spoke, or acted before.


“[[sic]]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.

CCVII. — “UNDINE.” [[M-098]]

How [[thoroughly — how]] radically — how wonderfully has “Undine” been misunderstood! Beneath its obvious meaning there runs an under-current, simple, quite intelligible, artistically managed, and richly philosophical.

From internal evidence afforded by the book itself, I gather that the author suffered from the ills of a mar-arranged marriage — the bitter reflections thus engendered inducing the fable.

In the contrast between the artless, thoughtless, and careless character of Undine before possessing a soul, and her serious, enwrapt, and anxious yet happy condition after possessing it, — a condition which, with all its multiform disquietudes, she still feels to be preferable to her original state, — Fouqué has beautifully painted the difference between the heart unused to love, and the heart which has received its inspiration.

The jealousies which follow the marriage, arising from [page 462:] the conduct of Bertalda, are but the natural troubles of love; but the persecutions of Kuhleborn and the other water-spirits who take umbrage at Huldbrand's treatment of his wife, are meant to picture certain difficulties from the interference of relations in conjugal matters — difficulties which the author has himself experienced. The warning of Undine to Huldbrand — “Reproach me not upon the waters, or we part for ever” — is intended to embody the truth that quarrels between man and wife are seldom or never irremediable unless when taking place in the presence of third parties. The second wedding of the knight with his gradual forgetfulness of Undine, and Undine's intense grief beneath the waters — are dwelt upon so pathetically — so passionately — that there can be no doubt of the author's personal opinions on the subject of second marriages — no doubt of his deep personal interest in the question. How thrillingly are these few and simple words made to convey his belief that the mere death of a beloved wife does not imply a separation so final or so complete as to justify an union with another! — “The fisherman had loved Undine with exceeding tenderness, and it was a doubtful conclusion to his mind that the mere disappearance of his beloved child could be properly viewed as her death.” — This is where the old man is endeavouring to dissuade the knight from wedding Bertalda.

I cannot say whether the novelty of the conception of “Undine,” or the loftiness and purity of its ideality, or the intensity of its pathos, or the rigor of its simplicity, or the high artistical ability with which all are combined into a well-kept, well-motivirt whole of absolute unity of effect — is the particular chiefly to be admired.

How delicate and graceful are the transitions from subject to subject! — a point severely testing the autorial power — as, when, for the purposes of the story, it becomes necessary that the knight, with Undine and Bertalda, shall proceed down the Danube. An ordinary novelist would have here tormented both himself and his readers, in his search for a sufficient motive for the voyage. But in [page 463:] a fable such as “Undine,” how all-sufficient — how well in keeping — appears the simple motive assigned!

In this grateful union of friendship and affection winter came and passed away; and spring, with its foliage of tender green, and its heaven of softest blue, succeeded to gladden the hearts of the three inmates of the castle. What wonder, then, that its storks and swallows inspired them also with a disposition to travel?”

CCVIII. — U. S. MOTTO. [[M-127]]

The United States’ motto, E pluribus unum, may possibly have a sly allusion to Pythagoras’ definition of beauty — the reduction of many into one.

CCIX. — VENGEANCE. [[M-252]]

What can be more soothing, at once to a man's Pride and to his Conscience, than the conviction that, in taking vengeance on his enemies for injustice done him, he has simply to do them justice in return?


Were I to consign these volumes altogether, to the hands of any very young friend of mine, I could not, in conscience, describe them otherwise than as “tam multi, tam grandes, tam pretiosi codices;” and it would grieve me much to add the “incendite omnes illas membranas.”*

CCXI. — VOLAIRE. [[M-137]]

Voltaire, in his preface to “Brutus,” actually boasts of having introduced the Roman senate on the stage in red mantles.

CCXII. — VOX POPULI. [[M-275]]

The vox populi, so much talked about to so little purpose, is, possibly, that very vox et preterea nihil which the countryman, in Catullus, mistook for a nightingale. [page 464:]


Cornelius Webbe* is one of the best of that numerous school of extravaganzists who sprang from the ruins of Lamb. We must be in perfectly good humour, however, with ourselves and all the world, to be much pleased with such works as “The Man about Town,” in which the harum-scarum, hyper-excursive mannerism is carried to an excess which is frequently fatiguing.


These twelve Letters are occupied, in part, with minute details of such atrocities on the part of the British, during their sojourn in Charleston, as the quizzing of Mrs. Wilkinson and the pilfering of her shoe-buckles — the remainder being made up of the indignant comments of Mrs. Wilkinson herself.

It is very true, as the Preface assures us, that “few records exist of American women either before or during the war of the Revolution, and that those perpetuated by History want the charm of personal narration,” — but then we are well delivered from such charms of personal narration as we find here. The only supposable merit in the compilation is that dogged air of truth with which the fair authoress relates the lamentable story of her misadventures. I look in vain for that “useful information” about which I have heard — unless, indeed, it is in the passage where we are told that the letter-writer “was a young and beautiful widow; that her hand-writing is clear and feminine; and that the letters were copied by herself into a blank quarto book, on which the extravagant sale-price marks one of the features of the times:” — there are other extravagant sale-prices, however, besides that; — it was seventy-five cents that I paid for these “Letters.” Besides, they are silly, [page 465:] and I cannot conceive why Miss Gilman thought the public wished to read them. It is really too bad for her to talk at a body, in this style, about “gathering relics of past history,” and “floating down streams of time.”

As for Mrs. Wilkinson, I am really rejoiced that she lost her shoe-buckles.


That Professor Wilson is one of the most gifted and altogether one of the most remarkable men of his day, few persons will be weak enough to deny. His ideality — his enthusiastic appreciation of the beautiful, conjoined with a temperament compelling him into action and expression, has been the root of his prëeminent success. Much of it, undoubtedly, must be referred to that so-called moral courage which is but the consequence of the temperament in its physical elements. In a word, Professor Wilson is what he is, because he possesses ideality, energy and audacity, each in a very unusual degree. The first, almost unaided by the two latter, has enabled him to produce much impression, as a poet, upon the secondary or tertiary grades of the poetic comprehension. His “Isle of Palms” appeals effectively to all those poetic intellects in which the poetic predominates greatly over the intellectual element. It is a composition which delights through the glow of its imagination, but which repels (comparatively, of course) through the niaiseries of its general conduct and construction. As a critic, Professor Wilson has derived, as might easily be supposed, the greatest aid from the qualities for which we have given him credit — and it is in criticism especially, that it becomes very difficult to say which of these qualities has assisted him the most. It is sheer audacity, however, to which, perhaps, after all, he is the most particularly indebted. How little he owes to intellectual preeminence, and how much to the mere overbearing impetuosity of his opinions, would be a singular subject for speculation. Nevertheless it is true, that this rash spirit of domination would have served, without his rich ideality, but to hurry him into contempt. Be this as it may, in the first requisite [page 466:] of a critic the Scotch Aristarchus is grossly deficient. Of one who instructs we demand, in the first instance, a certain knowledge of the principles which regulate the instruction. Professor Wilson's capability is limited to a keen appreciation of the beautiful, and fastidious sense of the deformed. Why or how either is either, he never dreams of pretending to inquire, because he sees clearly his own inability to comprehend. He is no analyst. He is ignorant of the machinery of his own thoughts and the thoughts of other men. His criticism is emphatically on the surface — superficial. His opinions are mere dicta — unsupported verba magistri — and are just or unjust at the variable taste of the individual who reads them. He persuades — he bewilders — he overwhelms — at times he even argues — but there has been no period at which he ever demonstrated anything beyond his own utter incapacity for demonstration.


The “British Spy” of Wirt* seems an imitation of the “Turkish Spy,” upon which Montesquieu's “Persian Letters” are also based. Marana's work was in Italian — Doctor Johnson errs.


Jack Birkenhead, apud Bishop Sprat, says that “a great wit's great work is to refuse.” The apothegm must be swallowed cum grano salis. His greatest work is to originate no matter that shall require refusal.



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 461:]

*  Son of Saint George Tucker, born at Matoax, Virginia, 1784 — raised to the bench 1815-30, died 1851. [[— Ed.]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 463:]

*  Mercier's “L’an deux mille quatre cents quarante.”

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 464:]

*  Author also of “Lyric Leaves,” “Glances at Life in City and Suburb,” 1836, and the “Absent Man,” 1838. [[— Ed.]]

  “Letters of Eliza Wilkinson during the invasion and possession of Charleston, S. C., by the Briticsh, in the Revolutionary War.” Arranged by Caroline Gilman. [[— Ed.]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 466:]

*  The “Letters of the British Spy” were first published in the “Virginia Argus,” 1803, and have been several times reprinted. They were written by Dr. WIlliam Wirt, author of some well-knwon essays, etc. [[— Ed.]]






[S:0 - JHI, 1875] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Marginalia (Items 195-292) (J. H. Ingram, 1875)