Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Marginalia [part VI],” Democratic Review, vol. XVIII, April 1846, pp. 268-272


[page 268, full page:]


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IN general, our first impressions are the true ones — the chief difficulty is in making sure which are the first. In early youth we read a poem, for instance, and are enraptured with it. At manhood we are assured by our reason that we had no reason to be enraptured. But some years elapse, and we return to our primitive admiration, just as a matured judgment enables us precisely to see what and why we admired. Thus, as individuals, we think in cycles, and may, from the frequency or infrequency of our revolutions about the various thought-centres, form an accurate estimate of the advance of our thought toward maturity. It is really wonderful to observe how closely, in all the essentials of truth, the child-opinion coincides with that of the man proper — of the man at his best.

And as with individuals, so, perhaps, with mankind. When the world begins to return, frequently, to its first impressions, we shall then be warranted in looking for the millennium — or whatever it is: — we may safely take it for granted that we are attaining our maximum of wit, and of the happiness which is thence to ensue. The indications of such a return are, at present, like the visits of angels — but we have them now and then — in the case, for example, of credulity. The philosophic, of late days, are distinguished by that very facility in belief which was the characteristic of the illiterate half a century ago. Skepticism, in regard to apparent miracles, is not, as formerly, an evidence either of superior wisdom or knowledge. In a word, the wise now believe — yesterday they would not believe — and day before yesterday (in the time of Strabo for example) they believed, exclusively, anything and everything: — here, then, is one of the indicative cycles completed — indicative of the world's approach to years of discretion. I mention Strabo merely as an exception to the rule of his epoch — (just as one, in a hurry for an illustration, [column 2:] might describe Mr. So and So to be as witty or as amiable as Mr. This and That is not[[)]] — for so rarely did men reject in Strabo's time, and so much more rarely did they err by rejection, that the skepticism of this philosopher must be regarded as one of the most remarkable anomalies on record.



I cannot help believing, with Gosselin, that Hanno proceeded only so far as Cape Nun.



The drugging system, in medical practice, seems to me but a modification of the idea of penance, which has haunted the world since its infancy — the idea that the voluntary endurance of pain is atonement for sin. In this, the primary phase of the folly, there is at least a show of rationality. Man offends the Deity; thus appears to arise a necessity for retribution, or, more strictly, a desire, on the part of Deity, to punish. The self-infliction of punishment, then, seemed to include at once an acknowledgment of error, zeal in anticipating the will of God, and expiation of the wrong. The thought, thus stated, however absurd, is not unnatural; but the principle being gradually left out of sight, mankind at length found itself possessed of the naked idea that, in general, the suffering of mankind is grateful to the Creator: — hence the Dervishes, the Simeons, the monastic hair-cloths and shoe-peas, the present Puritanism and cant about the “mortification of the flesh.” From this point the conceit makes another lapse; the fancy took root, that in the voluntary endurance of ill there existed, in the abstract, a tendency to good; and it was but in pursuance of this fancy, that, in sickness, remedies were selected in the ratio of their repulsiveness. How else shall we account for the fact, that in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred the articles of the Materia Medica are distasteful? [page 269:]



Mr. Henry Cary is introduced to us, in the Appendix to “The Poets and Poetry of America,” as “Mr. Henry Carey, author of ‘Poems by John Waters,’ originally printed in the ‘New-York American’ and the ‘Knickerbocker Magazine.’ ” Mr. Cary”s works have appeared only in the periodicals mentioned — that is, I believe they have not yet been collected in volume form. His poems (not so good as his prose by any means) are easily and pointedly written, neatly versified, and full of life and fancy. Doctor Griswold has made a mistake in attributing to our Mr. Cary the Anacreontic entitled “Old Wine to Drink,” quoted in the Appendix of the “large books, It is as an essayist that Mr. C. is best entitled to distinction. He has written some of the happiest Magazine papers, of the Spectator class in the language. All that he does, evinces a keen relish for old English literature, and a scholastic taste. His style is pure, correct, and vigorous — a judicious mixture of the Swift and Addison manners — although he is by no means either Swift or Addison. In a well-written memoir of him furnished for “The Broadway Journal,” the writer says:

“His essays are all short, as essays should be, of the Addisonian dimensions and density of expression. His sentences are the most perfect in the language; it would be a vain task to hunt through them all for a superfluous conjunction. They are too perfect to be peculiar, for writers are distinguished from each other more by their faults than their excellences . . . . He can endure nothing that wears a slovenly aspect. His lawns must be neatly trimmed and his gardens weeded. . . . . He has not written much about flowers, but we should think that his favorite was a Camelia. He is in some sort a Sam. Rogers, but more particular . . . His descriptions have a delicacy of finish like the carvings of Grinling Gibbons. They remind you as forcibly of Nature as anything short of Nature can; but they never deceive you; you know all the while that it is not a reality that affects you.”

Of course in all this there is exaggeration. The commentator seems to have had in view the twofold object of writing, himself, a John Waterish essay, and doing full justice to his personal friend. The only trouble is, that the justice is a little too full. It will [column 2:] not quite do to say that Mr. Cary's sentences are the “most perfect” in the language — first, because “perfect” admits of no degrees of comparison, and secondly, because the sentences in question are perfect by no means. For example — ”It would be in vain,” says the critic, “to hunt through them all for a superfluous conjunction” — immediately afterwards quoting from Mr. C. the following words:

“We paid our visit to the incomparable ruins of the castle and then proceeded to retrace our steps, and examining our wheels at every post-house, reached the Hotel D’Angle terre. . . . . . It was well filled, and yet the number,” etc.

Now the conjunctions which I have italicized are pleonastic. These things, however, are trifles; John Waters deserves all the spirit if not the whole letter of his friend's commendation.



“So violent was the state of parties in England, that I was assured by several that the Duke of Marlborough was a coward and Pope a fool.” — Voltaire.

Both propositions have since been very seriously entertained, quite independently of all party-feeling. That Pope was a fool, indeed, seems to be an established point, at present, with the Crazy-ites — what else shall I call them?



Not long ago I pointed out in “The New-York Mirror,” and more fully, since, in “The Broadway Journal,” a very decided case of similarity between “A Death-Bed,” by Mr. Aldrich, and “The Death-Bed,” by Thomas Hood. The fact is, I thought, and still think, that, in this instance, Mr. A. has been guilty of plagiarism in the first degree. A short piece of his headed “Lines,” is not demonstrably a plagiarism — because there seems scarcely any design of concealing the source — but I quote the poem as evidence of Mr. A's aptitude at imitation. Leaving the original out of sight, every one would admit the beauty of the parallel:


Underneath this marble cold,

Lies a fair girl turned to mould;

One whose life was like a star,

Without toil or rest to mar [page 270:]

Its divinest harmony

Its God-given serenity.

One whose form of youthful grace,

One whose eloquence of face

Matched the rarest gem of thought

By the antique sculptors wrought:

Yet her outward charms were less

Than her winning gentleness —

Her maiden purity of heart —

Which, without the aid of art,

Did in coldest hearts inspire

Love that was not all desire.

Spirit forms with starry eyes

That seem to come from Paradise —

Beings of ethereal birth —

Near us glide sometimes on Earth,

Like glimmering moonbeams dimly seen,

Glancing down through alleys green;

Of such was she who lies beneath

This silent effigy of grief.

Wo is me! when I recall

One sweet word by her let fall —

One sweet word but half expressed —

Downcast eyes told all the rest.

To think beneath this marble cold

Lies that fair girl turned to mould.

Imitators are not, necessarily, unoriginal — except at the exact points of the imitation. Mr. Longfellow, decidedly the most audacious imitator in America, is markedly original, or, in other words, imaginative, upon the whole; and many persons have, from the latter branch of the fact, been at a loss to comprehend, and therefore, to believe, the former. Keen sensibility of appreciation — that is to say, the poetic sentiment (in distinction from the poetic power) leads almost inevitably to imitation. Thus all great poets have been gross imitators. It is, however, a mere non distributio medii hence to infer, that all great imitators are poets. Still — what I mean to say is, that Mr. Aldrich's penchant for imitation does not show him to be incapable of poetry — as some have asserted. It is my own belief that, at some future day, he will distinguish himself as a lyrist.



There can be no doubt, that up to this period the Bushites have had the best of the battle. The “Anastasia”* is lucidly, succinctly, vigorously, and logically written, and proves, in my opinion, everything that it attempts — [column 2:] provided that we admit the imaginary axioms from which it starts; and this is as much as can be well said of any theological disquisition under the sun. It might be hinted, too, in reference as well to Professor Bush, as to his opponents, “que la plupart des sectes ont raison dans une bonne partie de ce qu’elles avancent, mais non pas en ce qu’elles nient.”

Taylor, who wrote so ingeniously the “Natural History of Enthusiasm,” might have derived many a valuable hint from the study of Professor Bush.



A good title to a very respectable book. The endeavor to convey Rome only by those impressions which would naturally be made upon an American, gives the work a certain air of originality — the rarest of all qualities in descriptions of the Eternal City. The style is pure and sparkling, although occasionally flippant and dillettantesque. The tone of remark is much in the usual way — selon les regles — never very exceptionable, and certainly never very profound.



I never read a personally abusive paragraph in the newspapers, without calling to mind the pertinent query propounded by Johnson to Goldsmith: — “My dear Doctor, what harm does it do a man to call him Holofernes?”



“The artist belongs to his work, not the work to the artist.” — Novalis.

In nine cases out of ten it is pure waste of time to attempt extorting sense from a German apophthegm; — or, rather, any sense and every sense may be extorted from all of them. If, in the sentence above quoted, the intention is to assert that the artist is the slave of his theme, and must conform to it his thoughts, I have no faith in the idea, which appears to me that of an essentially prosaic intellect. In the hands of the true artist the theme, or “work,” is but a mass of clay, of which anything (within the compass of the mass and quality of the clay) may be fashioned at will, or according to the skill of the workman. The clay is, in [page 271:] fact, the slave of the artist. It belongs to him. His genius, to be sure, is manifested, very distinctively, in the choice of the clay. It should be neither fine nor coarse, abstractly — but just so fine or so coarse — just so plastic or so rigid — as may best serve the purposes of the thing to be wrought — of the idea to be made out, or, more exactly, of the impression to be conveyed. There are artists, however, who fancy only the finest material, and who, consequently, produce only the finest ware. It is generally very transparent and excessively brittle.



I have not the slightest faith in Carlyle. In ten years — possibly in five — he will be remembered only as a butt for sarcasm. His linguistic Euphuisms might very well have been taken as prima facie evidence of his philosophic ones; they were the froth which indicated, first, the shallowness, and secondly, the confusion of the waters. I would blame no man of sense for leaving the works of Carlyle unread, merely on account of these Euphuisms; for it might be shown à priori, that no man capable of producing a definite impression upon his age or race, could or would commit himself to such inanities and insanities. The book about “Hero-Worship” — is it possible that it ever excited a feeling beyond contempt? No hero-worshipper can possess anything within himself. That man is no man who stands in awe of his fellow-man. Genius regards genius with respect — with even enthusiastic admiration — but there is nothing of worship in the admiration, for it springs from a thorough cognizance of the one admired — from a perfect sympathy, the result of this cognizance; and it is needless to say, that sympathy and worship are antagonistic. Your hero-worshippers — your Shakspeare worshippers, for example — what do they know about Shakspeare? They worship him — rant about him — lecture about him — about him, him, and nothing else [column 2:] — for no other reason than that he is utterly beyond their comprehension. They have arrived at an idea of his greatness from the pertinacity with which men have called him great. As for their own opinion about him — they really have none at all. In general, the very smallest of mankind are the class of men-worshippers. Not one out of this class has ever accomplished anything beyond a very contemptible mediocrity.

Carlyle, however, has rendered an important service (to posterity, at least) in pushing rant and cant to that degree of excess which inevitably induces reaction. Had he not appeared, we might have gone on for yet another century, Emerson-izing in prose, Wordsworth-izing in poetry, and Fourier-izing in philosophy, Wilson-izing in criticism — Hudson-izing and Tom O’Bedlam-izing in everything. The author of the “Sartor Resartus,” however, has overthrown the various arguments of his own order, by a personal reductio ad absurdum. Yet an Olympiad, perhaps, and the whole horde will be swept bodily from the memory of man — or be remembered only when we have occasion to talk of such fantastic tricks as, erewhile, were performed by the Abderites.



I cannot help thinking Doctor Cheever's* “Common-Place-Book of American Poetry” a most injudicious selection — its taste tending entirely toward the didactic. It has the merit, however, of not belying its title, and is excessively common-place. Poets are by no means, necessarily, judges of poetry, but nothing is more certain than that, to be a judge of poetry, it is necessary to have at least the poetic sentiment, if not the poetic power — the “vision,” if not “the faculty divine.” Dr. Cheever, very evidently, has neither. I have now before me one of the most commendable pieces of verse which I have seen from his pen, and quote from it its best quatrain, which is undeniably forcible and pointed in expression: [page 272:]

A life all ease is all abused: —

O, precious grace that made thee wise

To know; — affliction, rightly used,

Is mercy in disguise.

The greater part of the poem, however, (which consists of thirty-eight quatrains) jogs along thus:

Those duties were love's natural sphere:

Our drooping flower I cherished so

That still the more it asked my care

The dearer still it grew.



As a descriptive poet, Mr. Street is to be highly commended. He not only describes with force and fidelity — giving us a clear conception of the thing described — but never describes what, to the poet, should be nondescript. He appears, however, not at any time to have been aware that mere description is not poetry at all. We demand creation — ποιησις. About Mr. Street there seems to be no spirit. He is all matter — substance — what the chemists would call “simple substance” — and exceedingly simple it is.



As a commentator, Professor Anthon has evinced powers very unusual in men who devote their lives to the hortus siccus of classical lore. He has ventured to dismiss the pedant and look en homme du monde upon some of the most valued of the literary monuments of antiquity. The abundant Notes to his Classics will do him lasting honor among all who are qualified to give an opinion of his labors, or whose good word and will he would be likely to consider as worth having. His accuracy is extreme. I would stand by his decision, in any mere matter of classical fact, in preference to that of any man in Europe, or elsewhere. Some time ago, an attempt was made to injure his reputation by a charge of plagiarism, instituted in reference to his most important work, the Classical Dictionary; and urged against such a book, the accusation, from its mere silliness, was not easily rebutted. The Classical Dictionary is little more than a summary of facts, and these facts are [column 2:] the common property of mankind. Professor Anthon's accusers would have acted with equal wisdom in charging Legendre with robbing Euclid. The multitudinous quotations of the Classical Dictionary are made verbatim (unless where difference of opinion has induced alteration) without that attempt at giving the extracted matter an air of originality by merely re-writing it, which is but too common among compilers. And for this virtue he has been reviled. No doubt he would have given more satisfaction, in certain quarters, had he thought more of his own merely literary reputation, and kept his eye less steadily fixed on the true purpose of compilations such as he has undertaken — for the purpose of making a useful book. His talents, nevertheless, have long ago placed him in a position at which he is left free to pursue this good purpose in his own manner, without fear of injuring his character as an original writer, in the opinion of any one having sense enough to understand that there is a point at which originality ceases to be a matter for commendation.

The only noticeable demerit of Professor Anthon is diffuseness, sometimes running into Johnsonism, of style. The best specimen of his manner is to be found in an analysis of the Life and Writings of Cicero, prefacing an edition of the orator's Select Orations. This analysis occupies about forty pages of the book, and is so peculiarly Ciceronian, in point of fullness, and in other points, that I have sometimes thought it an intended imitation of the Brutus, sive de Claris Oratoribus.



With the aid of a lantern, I have been looking again at “Niagara and other Poems” (Lord only knows if that be the true title) — but “there's nothing in it:” — at least nothing of Mr. Lord's own — nothing which is not stolen — or, (more delicately,) transfused — transmitted. By the way, Newton says a great deal about “fits of easy transmission and reflection,”* and I have no doubt that “Niagara” was put together in one of these identical fits.



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 270:]

*  “Anastasia, or The Doctrine of the Resurrection; in which it is shown that the Doctrine of the Resurrection of the Body is not sanctioned by Reason or Revelation.”

  ”Rome, as seen by a New-Yorker” — by William M. Gillespie.

  The nom de plume of Von Hardenburgh.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 271:]

*  The Reverend George B. Cheever, of New-York; author of “Deacon Giles’ Distillery,” (a brochure which, at the epoch of its publication, produced much excitement,) “God's Hand in America,” “Travels in the East,” and a “Defence of Capital Punishment.” The last named has not been long published. In some respects, it is well reasoned. Its chief data, however, (in common with all which I have yet seen on this vexata questio) are the merest assumptions. Authority is obstinately insisted upon, which nine-tenths of the thinking portion of the civilized world deny, either openly or at heart, to be any authority at all.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 272:]

*  Of the solar rays — in the “Optics.”




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 155.



[S:0 - USDR, 1846] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Misc - Marginalia [part VI] [Text-02]