Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Marginalia [part X],” Graham's Magazine, vol. XXXII, no. 1, January 1848, pp. 23-24


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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.



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.”



In Colton's “American Review” for October, 1845, a gentleman, well known for his scholarship, has a forcible paper on “The Scotch School of Philosophy and Criticism.” But although the paper is “forcible,” it presents the most singular admixture of error and truth — the one dovetailed into the other, after a fashion which is novel, to say the least of it. Were I to designate in a few words what the whole article demonstrated, I should say “the folly of not beginning at the beginning — of neglecting the giant Moulineau's advice to his friend Ram.” Here is a passage from the essay in question:

“The Doctors [Campbell and Johnson] both charge Pope with error and inconsistency: — error in supposing that in English, of metrical lines unequal in the number of syllables and pronounced in equal times, the longer suggests celerity (this being the principle of the Alexandrine:) — inconsistency, in that Pope himself uses the same contrivance to convey the contrary idea of slowness. But why in English? It is not and cannot be disputed that, in the Hexameter of the Greeks and Latins — which is the model in this matter — what is distinguished as the ‘dactylic line’ was uniformly applied to express velocity. How was it to do so? Simply from the fact of being pronounced in an equal time with, while containing a greater number of syllables or ‘bars’ than the ordinary or average measure; as, on the other hand, the spondaic line, composed of the minimum number, was, upon the same principle, used to indicate slowness. So, too, of the Alexandrine in English versification. No, says Campbell, there is a difference: the Alexandrine is not in fact, like the dactylic line, pronounced in the common time. But does this alter the principle? What is the rationale of Metre, whether the classical hexameter or the English heroic?”

I have written an essay on the “Rationale of Verse,” in which the whole topic is surveyed ab initio, and with reference to general and immutable principles. To this essay (which will soon appear) I refer Mr. Bristed. In the meantime, without troubling [column 2:] myself to ascertain whether Doctors Johnson and Campbell are wrong, or whether Pope is wrong, or whether the reviewer is right or wrong, at this point or at that, let me succinctly state what is the truth on the topics at issue.

And first; the same principles, in all cases, govern all verse. What is true in English is true in Greek.

Secondly; in a series of lines, if one line contains more syllables than the law of the verse demands, and if, nevertheless, this line is pronounced in the same time, upon the whole, as the rest of the lines, then this line suggests celerity — on account of the increased rapidity of enunciation required. Thus in the Greek Hexameter the dactylic lines — those most abounding in dactyls — serve best to convey the idea of rapid motion. The spondaic lines convey that of slowness.

Thirdly; it is a gross mistake to suppose that the Greek dactylic line is “the model in this matter” — the matter of the English Alexandrine. The Greek dactylic line is of the same number of feet — bars — beats — pulsations — as the ordinary dactylic-spondaic lines among which it occurs. But the Alexandrine is longer by one foot — by one pulsation — than the pentameters among which it arises. For its pronunciation it demands more time, and therefore, ceteris paribus, it would well serve to convey the impression of length, or duration, and thus, indirectly, of slowness. I say ceteris paribas. But, by varying conditions, we can effect a total change in the impression conveyed. When the idea of slowness is conveyed by the Alexandrine, it is not conveyed by any slower enunciation of syllables — that is to say, it is not directly conveyed — but indirectly, through the idea of length in the whole line. Now, if we wish to convey, by means of an Alexandrine, the impression of velocity, we readily do so by giving rapidity to our enunciation of the syllables composing the several feet. To effect this, however, we must have more syllables, or we shall get through the whole line too quickly for the intended time. To get more syllables, all we have to do, is to use, in place of iambuses, what our prosodies call anapœsts [[anapæsts.]]* Thus, in the line,

Flies o’er the unbending corn and skims along the main,

the syllables “the unbend” form an anapaest and, demanding unusual rapidity of enunciation, in order that we may get them in the ordinary time of an [page 24:] iambus, serve to suggest celerity. By the elision of e in the, as is customary, the whole of the intended effect is lost; for th’unbend is nothing more than the usual iambus. In a word, wherever an Alexandrine expresses celerity, we shall find it to contain one or more anapaests — the more anapaests, the more decided the impression. But the tendency of the Alexandrine consisting merely of the usual iambuses, is to convey slowness — although it conveys this idea feebly, on account of conveying it indirectly. It follows, from what I have said, that the common pentameter, interspersed with anapœsts [[anapæsts]], would better convey celerity than the Alexandrine interspersed with them in a similar degree; — and it unquestionably does.



To converse well, we need the cool tact of talent — to talk well, the glowing abandon of genius. Men of very high genius, however, talk at one time very well, at another very ill: — well, when they have full time, full scope, and a sympathetic listener: — ill, when they fear interruption and are annoyed by the impossibility of exhausting the topic during that particular talk. The partial genius is flashy — scrappy. The true genius shudders at incompleteness — imperfection — and usually prefers silence to saying the something which is not every thing that should be said. He is so filled with his theme that he is dumb, first from not knowing how to begin, where there seems eternally beginning behind beginning, and secondly from perceiving his true end at so infinite a distance. Sometimes, dashing into a subject, he blunders, hesitates, stops short, sticks fast, and, because he has been overwhelmed by the rush and multiplicity of his thoughts, his hearers sneer at his inability to think. Such a man finds his proper element in those “great occasions” which confound and prostrate the general intellect.

Nevertheless, by his conversation, the influence of the conversationist upon mankind in general, is more decided than that of the talker by his talk: — the latter invariably talks to best purpose with his pen. And good conversationists are more rare than respectable talkers. I know many of the latter; and of the former only five or six: — among whom I can call to mind, just now, Mr. Willis, Mr. J. T. S. S. — of Philadelphia, Mr. W. M. R. — of Petersburg, Va., and Mrs. S d, formerly of New York. Most people, in conversing, force us to curse our stars that our lot was not cast among the African nation mentioned by Eudoxus — the savages who, having no mouths, never opened them, as a matter of course. And yet, if denied mouth, some persons whom I have in my eye would contrive to chatter on still — as they do now — through the nose.



All in a hot and copper sky

The bloody sun at noon

Just up above the mast did stand,

No bigger than the moon. — COLERIDGE.

Is it possible that the poet did not know the apparent diameter of the moon to be greater than that of the sun?


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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.



For all the rhetorician's rules

Teach nothing but to name the tools. — HUDIBRAS.

What these oft-quoted lines go to show is, that a falsity in verse will travel faster and endure longer than a falsity in prose. The man who would sneer or stare at a silly proposition nakedly put, will admit that “there is a good deal in that” when “that” is the point of an epigram shot into the ear. The rhetorician's rules — if they are rules — teach him not only to name his tools, but to use his tools, the capacity of his tools — their extent — their limit; and from an examination of the nature of the tools — (an examination forced on him by their constant presence) — force him, also, into scrutiny and comprehension of the material on which the tools are employed, and thus, finally, suggest and give birth to new material for new tools.



Among his eidola of the den, the tribe, the forum, the theatre, etc., Bacon might well have placed the great eidolon of the parlor (or of the wit, as I have termed it in one of the previous Marginalia) — the idol whose worship blinds man to truth by dazzling him with the apposite. But what title could have been invented for that idol which has propagated, perhaps, more of gross error than all combined? — the one, I mean, which demands from its votaries that they reciprocate cause and effect — reason in a circle — lift themselves from the ground by pulling up their pantaloons — and carry themselves on their own heads, in hand-baskets, from Beersheba to Dan.

All — absolutely all the argumentation which I have seen on the nature of the soul, or of the Diety, seems to me nothing but worship of this unnameable idol. Pour savoir ce qu’est Dien, says Bielfeld, although nobody listens to the solemn truth, il faut être Dieu même — and to reason about the reason is of all things the most unreasonable. At least, he alone is fit to discuss the topic who perceives at a glance the insanity of its discussion.



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 23:]

*  I use the prosodial word “anapœst [[anapæst]],” merely because here I have no space to show what the reviewer will admit I have distinctly shown in the essay referred to — viz: that the additional syllable introduced, does not make the foot an anapœst [[anapæst]], or the equivalent of an anapœst [[anapæst]], and that, if it did, it would spoil the line. On this topic, and on all topics connected with verse, there is not a prosody in existence which is not a mere jumble of the grossest error.




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 189.

In the original, the word “anapæst” is consistently, bur erroneously, printed with an oe-ligature rather than an ae-ligature.



[S:0 - GM, 1848] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Misc - Marginalia [part X] [Text-02]