Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Marginalia [part III],” Godey's Lady's Book, August 1845, pp. 49-51


[page 49, full page:]



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T HE merely mechanical style of “Athens” is far better than that of any of Bulwer's previous books. In general he is atrociously involute — this is his main defect. He wraps one sentence in another ad infinitum — very much in the fashion of those “nests of boxes” sold in our wooden-ware shops, or like the islands within lakes, within islands within lakes, within islands within lakes, of which we read so much in the “Periplus” of Hanno.



Men of genius are far more abundant than is supposed. In fact, to appreciate thoroughly the work of what we call genius, is to possess all the genius by which the work was produced. But the person appreciating may be utterly incompetent to reproduce the work, or any thing similar, and this solely through lack of what may be termed the constructive ability — a matter quite independent of what we agree to understand in the term “genius” itself. This ability is based, to be sure, in great part, upon the faculty of analysis, enabling the artist to get full view of the machinery of his proposed effect, and thus work it and regulate it at will; but a great deal depends also upon properties strictly moral — for example, upon patience, upon concentrativeness, or the power of holding the attention steadily to the one purpose, upon self-dependence and contempt for all opinion which is opinion and no more — in especial, upon energy or industry. So vitally important is this last, that it may well be doubted if any thing to which we have been accustomed to give the title of a “work of genius” was ever accomplished without it; and it is chiefly because this quality and genius are nearly incompatible, that “works of genius” are few, while mere men of genius are, as I say, abundant. The Romans, who excelled us in acuteness of observation, while falling below us in induction from facts observed, seem to have been so fully aware of the inseparable connection between industry and a “work of genius,” as to have adopted the error that industry, in great measure, was genius itself. The highest compliment is intended by a Roman, when, of an epic, or any thing similar, he says that it is written industriâ mirabili or incredibili industriâ.


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All true men must rejoice to perceive the decline of the miserable rant and cant against originality, which was so much in vogue a few years ago among a class of microscopical critics, and which at one period threatened to degrade all American literature to the level of Flemish art.

Of puns it has been said that those most dislike who are least able to utter them; but with far more of truth may it be asserted that invectives against originality proceed only from persons at once hypocritical and common-place. I say hypocritical — for the love of novelty is an indisputable element of the moral nature of man; and since to be original is merely to be novel, the dolt who professes a distaste for originality, in letters or elsewhere, proves in no degree his aversion for the thing in itself, but merely that uncomfortable hatred which ever arises in the heart of an envious man for an excellence he cannot hope to attain.



When I call to mind the preposterous “asides” and soliloquies of the drama among civilized nations, the shifts employed by the Chinese playwrights appear altogether respectable. If a general, on a Pekin or Canton stage, is ordered on an expedition, “he brandishes a whip,” says Davis, “or takes in his hand the reins of a bridle, and striding three or four times around a platform, in the midst of a tremendous crash of gongs, drums and trumpets, finally stops short and tells the audience where he has arrived.”

It would sometimes puzzle an European stage hero in no little degree to “tell an audience where he has arrived.” Most of them seem to have a very imperfect conception of their whereabouts. In the “Mort de Cæsar,” for example, Voltaire makes his populace rush to and fro, exclaiming, “Courons au Capitole!” Poor fellows — they are in the capitol all the time; — in his scruples about unity of place, the author has never once let them out of it.



It is certainly very remarkable that although destiny is the ruling idea of the Greek drama, the word Τυχη (Fortune) does not appear once in the whole Iliad.



“Here is a man who is a scholar and an artist, who knows precisely how every effect has been produced by every great writer, and who is resolved to reproduce them. But the heart passes by his pitfalls and traps, and carefully-planned [page 50:] springs, to be taken captive by some simple fellow who expected the event as little as did his prisoner.”*

Perhaps I err in quoting these words as the author's own — they are in the mouth of one of his interlocutors — but whoever claims them, they are poetical and no more. The error is exactly that common one of separating practice from the theory which includes it. In all cases, if the practice fail, it is because the theory is imperfect. If Mr. Lowell's heart be not caught in the pitfall or trap, then the pitfall is ill-concealed and the trap is not properly baited or set. One who has some artistical ability may know how to do a thing, and even show how to do it, and yet fail in doing it after all; but the artist and the man of some artistic ability must not be confounded. He only is the former who can carry his most shadowy precepts into successful application. To say that a critic could not have written the work which he criticises, is to put forth a contradiction in terms.



The farce of this big book is equaled only by the farce of the rag-tag-and-bobtail “embassy from the whole earth” introduced by the crazy Prussian into the hall of the French National Assembly. The author is the Anacharsis Clootz of American letters.



Mill says that he has “demonstrated” his propositions. Just in the same way Anaxagoras demonstrated snow to be black, (which, perhaps, it is, if we could see the thing in the proper light,) and just in the same way the French advocate, Linguet, with Hippocrates in his hand, demonstrated bread to be a slow poison. The worst of the matter is that propositions such as these seldom stay demonstrated long enough to be thoroughly understood.



“Contempt,” says an eastern proverb, “pierces even through the shell of the tortoise;” but there are some human skulls which would feel themselves insulted by a comparison, in point of impermeability, with the shell of a Gallipago turtle.



We might contrive a very poetical and very suggestive, although, perhaps, no very tenable philosophy, by supposing that the virtuous live while the wicked suffer annihilation, hereafter; and that the danger of the annihilation (which would be in the ratio of the sin) might be indicated nightly by slumber, and occasionally, with more distinctness, by a swoon. In proportion to the dreamlessness of the sleep, for example, would be the degree of the soul's liability to annihilation. In the same way, to swoon and awake in utter unconsciousness of any lapse of time during the syncope, would demonstrate the soul to be then in such condition that, had death occurred, annihilation would have followed. On the other hand, when the revival is attended with remembrance of [column 2:] visions, (as is now and then the case, in fact,) then the soul to be considered in such condition as would insure its existence after the bodily death — the bliss or wretchedness of the existence to be indicated by the character of the visions.



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



Here is a book of “amusing travels,” which is full enough of statistics to have been the joint composition of Messieurs Busching, Hassel, Cannabitch, Gaspari, Gutsmuth and company.



Spun out like Wollaston's wires, or the world in the Peutingerian Tables.*



The Swedenborgians inform me that they have discovered all that I said in a magazine article, entitled “Mesmeric Revelation,” to be absolutely true, although at first they were very strongly inclined to doubt my veracity — a thing which, in that particular instance, I never dreamed of not doubting myself. The story is a pure fiction from beginning to end.



The drama, as the chief of the imitative arts, has a tendency to beget and keep alive in its votaries the imitative propensity. This might be supposed à priori, and experience confirms the supposition. Of all imitators, dramatists are the most perverse, the most unconscionable, or the most unconscious, and have been so time out of mind. Euripides and Sophocles were merely echoes of Æschylus, and not only was Terence Menander and nothing beyond, but of the sole Roman tragedies extant, (the ten attributed to Seneca,) nine are on Greek subjects. Here, then, is cause enough for the “decline of the drama,” if we are to believe that the drama has declined. But it has not: on the contrary, during the last fifty years it has materially advanced. All other arts, however, have, in the same interval, advanced at a far greater rate — each very nearly in the direct ratio of its non-imitativeness — painting, for example, least of all — and the effect on the drama is, of course, that of apparent retrogradation.



It is James Montgomery who thinks proper to style McPherson's “Ossian” a “collection of halting, dancing, lumbering, grating, nondescript paragraphs.”



I have never yet seen an English heroic verse on the proper model of the Greek — although there have been innumerable attempts, among which those of Coleridge are, perhaps, the most absurd, next to those of Sir Philip Sidney and Longfellow. The author of “The Vision of Rubeta” has done better, and Percival better yet; but no one has [page 51:] seemed to suspect that the natural preponderance of spondaic words in the Latin and Greek must, in the English, be supplied by art — that is to say, by a careful culling of the few spondaic words which the language affords — as, for example, here:

Man is a | complex, | compound, | compost, | yet is he | God-born.

This, to all intents, is a Greek hexameter, but then its spondees are spondees, and not mere trochees. The verses of Coleridge and others are dissonant, for the simple reason that there is no equality in time between a trochee and a dactyl. When Sir Philip Sidney writes,

So to the | woods Love | runnes as | well as — [[|]] rides to the | palace,

he makes an heroic verse only to the eye; for “woods Love” is the only true spondee, “runs as,” “well as,” and “palace,” have each the first syllable long and the second short — that is to say, they are all trochees, and occupy less time than [column 2:] the dactyls or spondee — hence the halting. Now, all this seems to be the simplest thing in the world, and the only wonder is how men professing to be scholars should attempt to engraft a verse, of which the spondee is an element, upon a stock which repels the spondee as antagonistical.



“The day is done, and the darkness

Falls from the wings of night,

As a feather is wafted downward

From an eagle in its flight.”*

The single feather here is imperfectly illustrative of the omni-prevalent darkness; but a more especial objection is the likening of one feather to the falling of another. Night is personified as a bird, and darkness — the feather of this bird — falls from it, how? — as another feather falls from another bird. Why, it does this of course. The illustration is identical — that is to say, null. It has no more force than an identical proposition in logic.



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 50, column 1:]

*  Lowell's “Conversations.”

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 50, column 2:]

*  “The Palais Royal,” by Mancur.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 51, column 2:]

*  Pröem to Longfellow's “Waif.”




In Godey's Lady's Book, this text is set on each page in two parallel columns. On page 49, the first column begins with “The merely mechanical,” and ends with “That it is written industria mirabili or incredibili industria.” The second column begins with “All true men must rejoice” and ends with “by his pitfalls and traps, and carefully-planned.” On page 50, the first column begins with “springs, to be taken captive by some simple fellow” and ends with “when the revival is attended with remembrance of,” followed by the note “* Lowell's Conversations.” The second column begins with “visions, (as is now and then the case, in fact,) then,” and ends with “better, and Percival better yet; but no one has,” followed by the note “* ‘The Palais Royal,’ by Mancur.” On page 51, the text fills only the top half of the page. The first column begins “seemed to suspect that the natural preponderence,” and ends with “they are all trochees, and occupy less time than.” The second column begins with “the dactyls or spondee — hence the halting. Now,” and ends with “more force than an identical proposition in logic,” followed by the note “* Proem to Longfellow's ‘Waif.’” The initial character is extremely ornate “T,” approximately one inch square in size. The same initial is used for other items beginning with this letter. The title and author lines are centered over both columns. The running heading on the subsequent page is “MARGINAL NOTES.”

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 117.

The page numbering in the original issue has been retained here, although it is technically incorrect. The typesetters accidentally started the August issue with page number 37 even though the July issue had run through page 48. Normally, the page numbers for all six issues that comprised a volume would run sequentially through the entire series.

The ornate initial “T” is taken from the original printing of the article in Godey's Lady's Book.


[S:0 - GLB, 1845] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Misc - Marginalia [part III] [Text-02]