Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Marginalia [part VII],” Democratic Review, vol. XIX, whole no. 97, July 1846, pp. 30-32


[page 30, full page:]


[column 1:]


Gênes dans ce temps achetait tout le ble de l’Europe.”

FOR an hour I have been endeavoring, without success, to make out the meaning of this passage — which I find in a French translation of Lady Morgan's “Letters on Italy.” I could not conceive how or why all the corn of Europe should have been bought, or what corn, in any shape, had to do with the matter at issue. Procuring the original work, after some trouble, I read that “the Genoese, at this period, bought the scorn of all Europe by,” etc., etc. Now, here the translator is by no means so much in fault as Lady Morgan, who is too prone to commit sin with the verbum insolent. I can see no force, here, in the unusuality of “bought,” as applied to scorn — (although there are cases in which the expression would be very appropriate) — and cannot condemn the Frenchman for supposing the s a superfluity and a misprint.



There is a double entendre in the old adage about Truth in a Well; but, taking the profundity of Truth as at least one of the meanings — understanding it to be implied that correct ideas on any topic are to be fished up only from great depths, and that to have common sense it is necessary to be abysmal — this being taken as the moral of the adage, I have my objections on the spot. The profundity of which so much is said, lies more frequently in the places where we seek Truth than in those where we find her. Just as the moderately-sized shop-signs are better adapted to their object than those which are Brobdignagian, so, in at least three cases out of seven, is a fact (but especially a reason) overlooked solely on account of being excessively obvious. It is almost impossible, too, to see a thing that lies immediately beneath one's nose.

I may be wrong — and no doubt I am [column 2:] — still it is a fancy of mine that much of what people call profundity has been fairly thrown away on that ever-recurring topic, the decline of the drama.

Were the question demanded of me — ”Why has the drama declined?” my answer should be — ”It has not; it has only been left out of sight by every thing else.” The dramatic array more than any other, is essentially imitative, and thus engenders and keeps alive in its votaries the imitative propensity, as well as the imitative power. Hence one drama is apt to be fashioned too nearly after another — the dramatist of to-day is prone to step too closely in the foot-prints of the dramatist of yesterday. In a word there is less originality — less independence — less thought — less reference to principles — less effort to keep up with the general movement of the time — more supineness — more bullet-headedness — more rank and arrant conventionality in the drama than in any other single thing in existence which aspires to the dignity of Art. This spirit of imitation, developed in adherence to old, and therefore to uncouth models, has not, indeed, caused the drama to “decline,” but has overthrown it by not permitting it to soar. While every other art* has kept pace with the thinking and improving spirit of the age, it alone has remained stationary, prating about AEschylus and the Chorus, or mouthing Euphuism because “the Old English masters” have thought proper to mouth it before. Let us imagine Bulwer to-day presenting us a novel after the model of the old novelists, or as nearly on their plan as “The Hunchback” is on the plan of” Ferrex and Porrex:” — let him write us a “Grand Cyrus,” and what should we do with it, and what should we think of its inditer? And yet this “Grand Cyrus” was a very admirable work in its day.

The fact is, the drama is not now [page 31:] supported, for the simple reason that it does not deserve support. We must burn or bury the old models. We need Art, as Art is now beginning to be understood: — that is to say, in place of absurd conventionalities we demand principles founded in Nature and in common sense. The common sense even of the mob, can no longer be affronted, night after night, with impunity. If, for example, a play-wright will persist in making a hero deliver on the stage a soliloquy such as was soliloquized by no human being in ordinary life — ranting transcendentalism at the audience as nothing conceivable ever before ranted, short of a Piankitank candidate for Congress — splitting the ears of the house and endangering the lives of the orchestra, the while F that a confidential friend who holds him by the shoulder is supposed not to hear a syllable of all that is said: — if the playwright, I say, will persist in perpetrating these atrocities, and a hundred worse, for no better reason than that there were people simple enough to perpetrate them five hundred years ago — if he will do this, and will not do anything else to the end of time — what right has he, I demand, to look any honest man in the face, and talk to him about what he calls “the decline of the drama?”



The Alphadelphia Tocsin! ”* — (Phœbus, what a name to fill the sounding trump of future fame!) and “devoted to the interest of the laboring classes!” — by which, I presume, are intended the classes who have to pronounce, every mormng, the great appellation of the paper itself. Such a work should not want editors, and accordingly we are informed that it has eight. What on earth is the meaning of Alphadelphia? Is the “Alphadelphia Tocsin” the tocsin of the city of the double A's? — if so, the idea is too easily slipped into that of the A double S.



I fully agree with Simms (W. Gilmore) that the Provencal troubadour had, in his melodious vocabulary, no title more appropriate than the Cuban “Areytos” for a collection of tender or [column 2:] passionate songs — such as we have here.

Passages such as this are worthy of the author of “Martin Faber:” —

Soft, O how softly sleeping,

Shadowed by beauty, she lies

Dreams as of rapture creeping,

Smile by smile, over her eyes.

And this, in reference to a ship becalmed, is natural and forcible:

A world, from all the world apart,

Chained idly on the sea!

How droops the eye — how sinks the

Vain wishing to be free!

How dread the fear that fills the thought,

That winds may never rise

To waft us from this weary spot

Beneath these burning skies!

This again is exceedingly spirited: —

Now are the winds about us in their glee,

Tossing the slender tree;

Whirling the sands about his furious car

March cometh from afar,

Breaks the sealed magic of old Winter's dreams

And rends his glassy streams.

By the way, how happens it, in the melodious stanza which follows, (taken from an “Indian Serenade”) that the sonorous Samana has been set aside for the far less musical and less effective Bonita?

’Tis the wail for life they waken

By Bonita's silver shore —

With the tempest it is shaken: —

The wide ocean is in motion,

And the song is heard no more.

When in the mouth of Vasco Nunez, in “The Damsel of Darien” (its author's least meritorious novel, by the bye) the line originally ran,

By Samana's yielding shore.

Sounding shore would have been still better. Altogether I prefer this “Indian Serenade” to any of Mr. Simms’ poems.

These and other imitations, however, are but the inevitable sins of the youth of genius — which invariably begins its career by imitation — an imitation, nevertheless, interspersed with vivid originality. I think I have before observed [page 32:] that, in letters, a copyist is, as a general rule, by no means necessarily unoriginal, except at the exact points of the copy. Mr. Simms is, beyond doubt, one of our most original writers.



It is really difficult to conceive what must have been the morbidity of the German intellect, or taste, when it not only tolerated but truly admired and enthusiastically applauded such an affair as “The Sorrows of Werter.” The German approbation was, clearly, in good faith: — as for our own, or that of the English, it was the quintessence of affectation. Yet we did our best, as in duty bound, to work ourselves up into the fitting mood. The title, by the way, is mistranslated: — Lieden does not mean Sorrows but Sufferings.



The works of Christopher Pease [[Pearse]] Cranch are slightly tinged with the spirit of mixed Puritanism, utilitarianism, and transcendentalism, which seems to form the poetical atmosphere of Massachusetts — but, dismissing this one sin, are among the truest of American poetry. I know nothing finer of its kind (and that kind is a most comprehensive one) than one of his shorter pieces entitled,


Many are the thoughts that come to me

In my lonely musing;

And they drift so strange and swift

There's no time for choosing

Which to follow — for to leave

Any seems a losing.

When they come, they come in flocks,

As, on glancing feather,

Startled birds rise, one by one,

In autumnal weather,

Waking one another up

From the sheltering heather.

Some so merry that I laugh;

Some are grave and serious;

Some so trite, their last approach

Is enough to weary us:

Others flit like midnight ghosts,

Shrouded and mysterious.

There are thoughts that o’er me steal,

Like the day when dawning;

Great thoughts winged with melody,

Common utterance scorning;

Moving in an inward tune

And an inward morning. [column 2:]

Some have dark and drooping wings,

Children all of sorrow;

Some are as gay, as if to day

Could see no cloudy morrow —

And yet, like light and shade, they each

Must from the other borrow.

One by one they come to me

On their destined mission;

One by one I see fade

With no hopeless vision —

For they’ve led me on a step

To their home Elysian.

There is, here, a great deal of natural fancy — I mean to say that the images are such as would naturally arise in the mind of an imaginative and educated man, seeking to describe I “thoughts.” But the main charm of the poem is the nice, and at the same time, bold art of its rhythm. Here is no men negative merit, but much of originality — or, if not precise that, at least much of freshness and spirit. The opening lit barring an error to be presently mentioned, is very skillful — and, to me, the result is not less novel than happy. The general idea is merely a succession of trochees (for the long syllable, or caesura proper, at the end of each odd line, is trochee's equivalent) but, in lieu of commencement of the opening verse, we have a trochee and pyrrhic (forming the compound foot called, in Latin, Pæon primes, and in Greek, αστρολογος.) Here is a very bold excess of two short syllables — and the result would be highly pleasurable if the reader were prepared for it — if he were prepared, my monotone, to expect variation. As it is, he is at ult in a first attempt at perusal, and it is only on a second, or third trial, that he appreciates the effect. To be sure, he then wonders why he did not at first catch the intention: — but the mischief has been committed. The fact is that the line, which would have been singularly beautiful in the body of the poem, is in its present position, a blemish. Mr. Cranch has violated a vital law of rhythmical art, in not permitting his rhythm to determine itself, instantaneously, by his opening foot. A trochaic rhythm, for example, should invariably commence with a trochee. I speak thus at length on this apparently trivial point, because I have been much interested in the phenomenon of a marked common-place-ness of defect, involving as marked an originality of merit.



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 30:]

*  Sculpture, perhaps, excepted.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 31:]

*  Title of a new journal published at Alphadelphia, Michigan.

  “Areytos, or Songs of the South.”




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 170.



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