Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Marginalia [part XIV],” Southern Literary Messenger, Vol. XV, no. 5, May 1849, pp. 292-296


[page 292, column 2, continued:]



If ever mortal “wreaked his thoughts upon expression,” it was Shelley. If ever poet sang — as a bird sings — earnestly — impulsively — with utter abandonment — to himself solely — and for the mere joy of his own song — that poet was the author of “The Sensitive Plant.” Of Art — beyond that which is instinctive with Genius — he either had little or disdained all. He really disdained that Rule which is an emanation from Law, because his own soul was Law in itself. His rhapsodies are but the rough notes — the stenographic memoranda of poems — memoranda which, because they were all-sufficient for his own intelligence, he cared not to be at the trouble of writing out in full for mankind. In all his works we find no conception thoroughly wrought. For this reason he is the most fatiguing of poets. Yet he wearies in saying too little rather than too [page 293:] much. What, in him, seems the diffuseness of one idea, is the conglomerate concision of many: and this species of concision it is, which renders him obscure. With such a man, to imitate was out of the question. It would have served no purpose; for he spoke to his own spirit alone, which would have comprehended no alien tongue. Thus he was profoundly original. His quaintness arose from intuitive perception of that truth to which Bacon alone has given distinct utterance: — “There is no exquisite Beauty which has not some strangeness in its proportions.” But whether obscure, original, or quaint, Shelley had no affectations. He was at all times sincere.

From his ruins, there sprang into existence, affronting the Heavens, a tottering and fantastic pagoda, in which the salient angles, tipped with mad jangling bells, were the idiosyncratic faults of the original — faults which cannot be considered such in view of his purposes, but which are monstrous when we regard his works as addressed to mankind. A “school” arose — if that absurd term must still be employed — a school — a system of rules — upon the basis of the Shelley who had none. Young men innumerable, dazzled with the glare and bewildered by the bizarrerie of the lightning that flickered through the clouds of “Alastor,” had no trouble whatever in heaping up imitative vapors, but, for the lightning, were forced to be content with its spectrum, in which the bizarrerie appeared without the fire. Nor were mature minds unimpressed by the contemplation of a greater and more mature; and thus, gradually, into this school of all Lawlessness, — of obscurity, quaintness and exaggeration — were interwoven the out-of-place didacticism of Wordsworth, and the more anomalous metaphysicianism of Coleridge. Matters were now fast verging to their worst; and at length, in Tennyson poetic inconsistency attained its extreme. But it was precisely this extreme (for the greatest truth and the greatest error are scarcely two points in a circle) which, following the law of all extremes, wrought in him (Tennyson) a natural and inevitable revulsion; leading him first to contemn, and secondly to investigate, his early manner, and finally to winnow, from its magnificent elements, the truest and purest of all poetical styles. But not even yet is the process complete; and for this reason in part, but chiefly on account of the mere fortuitousness of that mental and moral combination which shall unite in one person (if ever it shall) the Shelleyan abandon and the Tennysonian poetic sense, with the most profound Art (based both in Instinct and Analysis) and the sternest Will properly to blend and rigorously to control all — chiefly, I say, because such combination of seeming antagonisms will be only a “happy chance” — the world has never yet seen the noblest poem which, possibly, can be composed.



In my ballad called “Lenore” I have these lines:

Avaunt! to night my heart is light. No dirge will I upraise —

But waft the angel on her flight with a Pæan of old days.

Mr. William W. Lord, author of “Niagara,” &c., has it thus:

— They, albeit with inward pain,

Who thought to sing thy dirge, must sing thy Pæan.

The commencement of my “Haunted Palace” is as follows:

In the greenest of our valleys

By good angels tenanted,

Once a fair and stately palace

(Radiant palace!) reared its head.

In the monarch Thought's dominion —

It stood there.

Never seraph spread a pinion

Over fabric half so fair.

Banners, yellow, glorious, golden,

On its roof did float and flow —

This — all this — was in the olden

Time long ago.

Mr. Lord writes —

On the old and haunted mountain —

(There in dreams I dared to climb,)

Where the clear Castalian fountain

(Silver fountain!) ever tinkling,

All the green around it sprinkling,

Makes perpetual rhyme —

To my dream, enchanted, golden,

Came a vision of the olden

Long-forgotten time.



This* is a thin pamphlet of thirty-two pages; each containing about a hundred and forty words. The hero, Alla-Ad-Deen, is the son of Alladdin of wonderful lamp memory; and the story is in the “Vision of Mirza” or “Rasselas” way. The design is to reconcile us with evil on the ground that, comparatively, we are of little importance in the scale of creation. This scale, however, the author himself assumes as infinite; and thus his argument proves too much: for if evil is to be regarded by man as unimportant because, comparatively, he is so, it must be as unimportant by the angels for similar reason — and so on in a never-ending ascent. In other words, nothing is proved beyond the bullish proposition that evil is no evil at all. [page 294:]



I hardly know how to account for the repeated failures of John Neal as regards the construction of his works. His art is great and of a high character — but it is massive and undetailed. He seems to be either deficient in a sense of completeness, or unstable in temperament; so that he becomes wearied with his work before getting it done. He always begins well — vigorously — startlingly — proceeds by fits — much at random — now prosing, now gossiping, now running away with his subject, now exciting vivid interest; but his conclusions are sure to be hurried and indistinct; so that the reader, perceiving a falling-off where he expects a climax, is pained, and, closing the book with dissatisfaction, is in no mood to give the author credit for the vivid sensations which have been aroused during the progress of perusal. Of all literary foibles the most fatal, perhaps, is that of defective climax. Nevertheless, I should be inclined to rank John Neal first, or at all events second, among our men of indisputable genius. Is it, or is it not a fact, that the air of a Democracy agrees better with mere Talent than with Genius?



It is not proper, (to use a gentle word,) nor does it seem courageous, to attack our foe by name in spirit and in effect, so that all the world shall know whom we mean, while we say to ourselves, “I have not attacked this man by name in the eye, and according to the letter, of the law” — yet how often are men who call themselves gentlemen, guilty of this meanness! We need reform at this point of our Literary Morality: — very sorely, too, at another — the system of anonymous reviewing. Not one respectable word can be said in defence of this most unfair — this most despicable and cowardly practice.



There lies a deep and sealéd well

Within yon leafy forest hid,

Whose pent and lonely waters swell

Its confines chill and drear amid.

This putting the adjective after the noun is, merely, an inexcusable Gallicism; but the putting the preposition after the noun is alien to all language and in opposition to all its principles. Such things, in general, serve only to betray the versifier's poverty of resource; and, when an inversion of this kind occurs, we say to ourselves, “Here the poet lacked the skill to make out his line without distorting the natural or colloquial order of the words.” Now and then, however, we must refer the error not to deficiency of skill, but to something far less defensible — to an idea that such things belong to the essence of poetry — that it needs them to distinguish it from prose — that we are poetical, in a word, very much in the ratio of our unprosaicalness at these points. Even while employing the phrase “poetic license,” — a phrase which has to answer for an infinity of sins — people who think in this way seem to have an indistinct conviction that the license in question involves a necessity of being adopted. The true artist will avail himself of no “license” whatever. The very word will disgust him; for it says — “Since you seem unable to manage without these peccadillo advantages, you must have them, I suppose; and the world, half-shutting its eyes, will do its best not to see the awkwardness which they stamp upon your poem.”

Few things have greater tendency than inversion, to render verse feeble and ineffective. In most cases where a line is spoken of as “forcible,” the force may be referred to directness of expression. A vast majority of the passages which have become household through frequent quotation, owe their popularity either to this directness, or, in general, to the scorn of “poetic license.” In short as regards verbal construction, the more prosaic a poetical style is, the better. Through this species of prosaicism, Cowper, with scarcely one of the higher poetical elements, came very near making his age fancy him the equal of Pope; and to the same cause are attributable three-fourths of that unusual point and force for which Thomas Moore is distinguished. It is the prosaicism of these two writers to which is owing their especial quotability.



“The Reverend Arthur Coxe's ‘Saul, a Mystery,’ having been condemned in no measured terms by Poe, of ‘The Broadway Journal,’ and Green of ‘The Emporium,’ a writer in the ‘Hartford Columbian’ retorts as follows:

An entertaining history,

Entitled ‘Saul, A Mystery,’

Has recently been published by the Reverend Arthur Coxe.

The poem is dramatic,

And the wit of it is attic,

And its teachings are emphatic of the doctrines orthodox.

But Mr. Poe, the poet,

Declares he cannot go it —

That the book is very stupid, or something of that sort:

And Green, of the Empori-

Um, tells a kindred story,

And swears like any tory that it is'nt worth a groat.

But maugre all the croaking

Of the Raven and the joking

Of the verdant little fellow of the used to be review,

The People, in derision

Of their impudent decision,

Have declared, without division, that the Mystery will do.”

The truth, of course, rather injures an epigram than otherwise; and nobody will think the worse of the one above, when I say that, at the date of its first appearance, I had expressed no [page 295:] opinion whatever of the poem to which it refers. “Give a dog a bad name,” &c. Whenever a book is abused, people take it for granted that it is I who have been abusing it.

Latterly I have read “Saul,” and agree with the epigrammatist, that it “will do” — whoever attempts to wade through it. It will do, also, for trunk-paper. The author is right in calling it “A Mystery:” — for a most unfathomable mystery it is. When I got to the end of it I found it more mysterious than ever — and it was really a mystery how I ever did get to the end — which I half fancied that somebody had cut off, in a fit of ill-will to the critics. I have heard not a syllable about the “Mystery,” of late days. “The People,” seem to have forgotten it; and Mr. Coxe's friends should advertise it under the head of “Mysterious Disappearance” — that is to say, the disappearance of a Mystery.



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.



“He (Bulwer) is the most accomplished writer of the most accomplished era of English Letters; practicing all styles and classes of composition, and eminent in all — novelist, dramatist, poet, historian, moral philosopher, essayist, critic, political pamphleteer; — in each superior to all others, and only rivalled in each by himself.”

Ward — author of “Tremaine.”

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The “only rivalled in each by himself,” here, puts me in mind of

None but himself can be his parallel.

But surely Mr. Ward (who, although he did write “De Vere,” is by no means a fool) could never have put to paper, in his sober senses, anything so absurd as the paragraph quoted above, without stopping at every third word to hold his sides, or thrust his pocket-handkerchief into his mouth. If the serious intention be insisted upon, however, I have to remark that the opinion is the mere opinion of a writer remarkable for no other good trait than his facility at putting his readers to sleep according to rules Addisonian and with the least possible loss of labor and time. But as the mere opinion of even a Jeffrey or a Macaulay, I have an inalienable right to meet it with another.

As a novelist, then, Bulwer is far more than respectable; although generally inferior to Scott, Godwin, D’Israeli, Miss Burney, Sue, Dumas, Dickens, the author of “Ellen Wareham,” the author of “Jane Eyre,” and several others. From the list of foreign novels I could select a hundred which he could neither have written nor conceived. As a dramatist, he deserves more credit, although he receives less. His “Richelieu,” “Money” and “Lady of Lyons”, have done much in the way of opening the public eyes to the true value of what is superciliously termed “stage-effect” in the hands of one able to manage it. But if commendable at this point, his dramas fail egregiously in points more important; so that, upon the whole, he can be said to have written a good play, only when we think of him in connexion with the still more contemptible “old-dramatist” imitators who are his contemporaries and friends. As historian, he is sufficiently dignified, sufficiently ornate, and more than sufficiently self-sufficient. His “Athens” would have received an Etonian prize, and has all the happy air of an Etonian prize-essay re-vamped. His political pamphlets are very good as political pamphlets and very disreputable as anything else. His essays leave no doubt upon any body's mind that, with the writer, they have been essays indeed. His criticism is really beneath contempt. His moral philosophy is the most ridiculous of all the moral philosophies that ever have been imagined upon earth.

“The men of sense,” says Helvetius, “those idols of the unthinking, are very far inferior to the men of passions. It is the strong passions which, rescuing us from sloth, can alone impart to us that continuous and earnest attention necessary to great intellectual efforts.”

When the Swiss philosopher here speaks of [page 296:] “inferiority,” he refers to inferiority in worldly success: — by “men of sense” he intends indolent men of genius. And Bulwer is, emphatically, one of the “men of passions” contemplated in the apopthegm. His passions, with opportunities, have made him what he is. Urged by a rabid ambition to do much, in doing nothing he would merely have proved himself an idiot. Something he has done. In aiming at Crichton, he has hit the target an inch or two above Harrison Ainsworth. Not to such intellects belong the honors of universality. His works bear about them the unmistakeable indications of mere talent — talent, I grant, of an unusual order and nurtured to its extreme of development with a very tender and elaborate care. Nevertheless, it is talent still. Genius it is not. And the proof is, that while we often fancy ourselves about to be enkindled beneath its influence, fairly enkindled we never are. That Bulwer is no poet, follows as a corollary from what has been already said: — for to speak of a poet without genius, is merely to put forth a flat contradiction in terms.



Quaintness, within reasonable limits, is not only not to be regarded as affectation, but has its proper uses, in aiding a fantastic effect. Miss Barret will afford me two examples. In some lines to a Dog, she says:

Leap! thy broad tail waves a light.

Leap thy slender feet are bright,

Canopied in fringes.

Leap! those tasselled ears of thine

Flicker strangely fair and fine

Down their golden inches.

And again — in the “Song of a Tree-Spirit.”

The Divine impulsion cleaves

In dim movements to the leaves

Dropt and lifted — dropt and lifted —

In the sun-light greenly sifted —

In the sun-light and the moon-light

Greenly sifted through the trees.

Ever wave the Eden trees

In the night-light and the moon-light,

With a ruffling of green branches

Shaded off to resonances

Never stirred by rain or breeze.

The thoughts here belong to a high order of poetry, but could not have been wrought into effective expression, without the aid of those repetitions — those unusual phrases — those quaintnesses, in a word, which it has been too long the fashion to censure, indiscriminately, under the one general head of “affectation.” No poet will fail to be pleased with the two extracts I have here given; but no doubt there are some who will find it hard to reconcile the psychal impossibility of refraining from admiration, with the too-hastily attained mental conviction that, critically, there is nothing to admire.



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 293, column 1:]

*  “The Dream of Alla-Ad-Deen, from the Romance of ‘Anastasia.’ By Charles Erskine White, D. D.” “Charles Erskine White” is Laughton Osborn, author of “The Vision of Rubeta,” “Confessions of a Poet,” “Adventures of Jeremy Levis,” and several other works — among which I must not forget “Arthur Carryl.”




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 213.



[S:0 - SLM, 1849] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Misc - Marginalia [part XIV] [Text-02]