Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Marginalia [part IV],” Godey's Lady's Book, September 1845, pp. 120-123


[page 120, full page:]



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W ORDS — printed ones especially — are murderous things. Keats did (or did not) die of a criticism, Cromwell of Titus’ pamphlet “Killing no Murder,” and Montfleury perished of the “Andromache.” The author of the “Parnasse Réformé” makes him thus speak in Hades — “L’homme donc qui voudrait saroir ce dont je suis mort, qu’il ne demande pas s’il fût de fievre on de podagre ou d’autre chose, mais qu’il entende que ce fut de L’Andromache.” As for myself, I am fast dying of the “Sartor Resartus.”



Since it has become fashionable to trundle houses about the streets, should there not be some remodeling of the legal definition of reality, as “that which is permanent, fixed and immoveable, that cannot be carried out of its place?” According to this, a house is by no means real estate.



Voltaire, in his preface to “Brutus,” actually boasts of having introduced the Roman senate on the stage in red mantles.



One of the most singular pieces of literary Mosaic is Mr. Longfellow's “Midnight Mass for the Dying Year.” The general idea and manner are from Tennyson's “Death of the Old Year,” several of the most prominent points are from the death scene of Cordelia in “Lear,” and the line about the “hooded friars” is from the “Comus” of Milton.

Some approach to this patchwork may be found in these lines from Tasso —

“Giace l’alta Cartago: à pena i segni

De l’alte sui ruine il lido serba:

Muoino le città, muoino i regni;

Copre i fasti e le pompe arena et herba:

E l’huom d’esser mortal per che si sdegni.”

This is entirely made up from Lucan and Sulspicius. The former says of Troy —

Iam tota teguntur

Pergama dumetis: etiam perire ruinæ.”

Sulspicius, in a letter to Cicero, says of Megara, Egina and Corinth — “Hem! nos homunculi indignamur si quit nostrûm interiit, quorum vita brevior esse debet, cum uno loco tot oppidorum cadavera projecta jaceant.” [column 2:]



A few nuts from memory for Outis. Carey [[Cary]], in his “Dante,” says —

“And pilgrim newly on his road, with love

Thrills if he hear the vesper bell from far

That seems to mourn for the expiring day.”

Gray says —

“The curfew tolls the knell of parting day.”


Milton says —

“—— forget thyself to marble.”

Pope says —

“I have not yet forgot myself to stone.”


Blair says —

“—— its visits,

Like those of angels, short and far between.”

Campbell says —

“Like angel visits, few and far between.”


Butler says —

“Each window a pillory appears,

With heads thrust through nailed by the ears.”

Young says —

“An opera, like a pillory, may be said

To nail our ears down and expose our head.”


Young says —

“Man wants but little, nor that little long.”

Goldsmith says —

“Man wants but little here below,

Nor wants that little long.”


Milton says —

“—— when the scourge

Inexorably and the torturing hour

Call us to penance.”

Gray says —

“Thou tamer of the human breast,

Whose iron scourge and torturing hour

The bad affright.”


Butler says —

“This hairy meteor did announce

The fall of sceptres and of crowns.”

Gray says —

“Loose his beard and hoary hair

Streamed like a meteor to the troubled air.”


Dryden says —

“David for him his tuneful harp had strung,

And heaven had wanted one immortal song.” [page 121:]

Pope says —

“Friend of my life, which did not you prolong,

The world had wanted many an idle song.”


Boileau says —

“En vain contre ‘Le Cid’ un ministre se ligue,

Tout Paris pour Chimene a les yeux de Rodrigue.”

Tickell says —

“While the charmed reader with thy thought complies,

And views thy Rosamond with Henry's eyes.”


Lucretius says —

“—— terras —

Una dies dabit exitio.”

Ovid says —

“Carmine sublimis tunc sunt peritura Lucreti

Exitio terras cum dabit una dies.”


Freneau says —

“The hunter and the deer a shade.”


Campbell says the same identically.



I would have no difficulty in filling two ordinary novel volumes with just such concise parallels as these. Nevertheless, I am clearly of opinion that of one hundred plagiarisms of this character, seventy-five would be, not accidental, but unintentional. The poetic sentiment implies an abnormally keen appreciation of poetic excellence, with an unconscious assimilation of it into the poetic entity, so that an admired passage, being forgotten and afterwards reviving through an exceedingly shadowy train of association, is supposed by the plagiarizing poet to be really the coinage of his own brain. An uncharitable world, however, will never be brought to understand all this, and the poet who commits a plagiarism is, if not criminal, at least unlucky; and equally in either case does critical justice require the right of property to be traced home. Of two persons, one is to suffer — it matters not what — and there can be no question as to who should be the sufferer.



The question of international copyright has been overloaded with words. The right of property in a literary work is disputed merely for the sake of disputation, and no man should be at the trouble of arguing the point. Those who deny it, have made up their minds to deny every thing tending to further the law in contemplation. Nor is the question of expediency in any respect relevant. Expediency is only to be discussed where no rights interfere. It would no doubt be very expedient in any poor man to pick the pocket of his wealthy neighbour, (and as the poor are the majority the case is precisely parallel to the copyright case;) but what would the rich think if expediency were permitted to overrule their right?

But even the expediency is untenable, grossly so. The immediate advantage arising to the pockets of our people, in the existing condition of things, is no doubt sufficiently plain. We get [column 2:] more reading for less money than if the international law existed; but the remoter disadvantages are of infinitely greater weight. In brief, they are these: First, we have injury to our national literature by repressing the efforts of our men of genius; for genius, as a general rule, is poor in worldly goods and cannot write for nothing. Our genius being thus repressed, we are written at only by our “gentlemen of elegant leisure,” and mere gentlemen of elegant leisure have been noted, time out of mind, for the insipidity of their productions. In general, too, they are obstinately conservative, and this feeling leads them into imitation of foreign, more especially of British models. This is one main source of the imitativeness with which, as a people, we have been justly charged, although the first cause is to be found in our position as a colony. Colonies have always naturally aped the mother land.

In the second place, irreparable ill is wrought by the almost exclusive dissemination among us of foreign — that is to say, of monarchical or aristocratical sentiment in foreign books; nor is this sentiment less fatal to democracy because it reaches the people themselves directly in the gilded pill of the poem or the novel.

We have next to consider the impolicy of our committing, in the national character, an open and continuous wrong on the frivolous pretext of its benefiting ourselves.

The last and by far the most important consideration of all, however, is that sense of insult and injury aroused in the whole active intellect of the world, the bitter and fatal resentment excited in the universal heart of literature — a resentment which will not and which cannot make nice distinctions between the temporary perpetrators of the wrong and that democracy in general which permits its perpetration. The autorial body is the most autocratic on the face of the earth. How, then, can those institutions even hope to be safe which systematically persist in trampling it under foot?



The conclusion of the Pröem in Mr. Longfellow's late “Waif” is exceedingly beautiful. The whole poem is remarkable in this, that one of its principal excellences arises from what is, generically, a demerit. No error, for example, is more certainly fatal in poetry than defective rhythm; but here the slipshodiness is so thoroughly in unison with the nonchalant air of the thoughts — which, again, are so capitally applicable to the thing done (a mere introduction of other people's fancies) — that the effect of the looseness of rhythm becomes palpable, and we see at once that here is a case in which to be correct would be inartistic. Here are three of the quatrains —

“I see the lights of the village

Gleam through the rain and the mist,

And a feeling of sadness comes over me

That my soul cannot resist — [page 122:]

“A feeling of sadness and longing

That is not akin to pain,

And resembles sorrow only

As the mists [[mist]] resemble the rain.

* * * * * * * *

“And the night shall be filled with music,

And the cares that infest the day

Shall fold their tents like the Arabs,

And as silently steal away.”

Now these lines are not to be scanned. They are referable to no true principles of rhythm. The general idea is that of a succession of anapæsts; yet not only is this idea confounded with that of dactyls, but this succession is improperly interrupted at all points — improperly, because by unequivalent feet. The partial prosaicism thus brought about, however, (without any interference with the mere melody,) becomes a beauty solely through the nicety of its adaptation to the tone of the poem, and of this tone, again, to the matter in hand. In his keen sense of this adaptation, (which conveys the notion of what is vaguely termed “ease,”) the reader so far loses sight of the rhythmical imperfection that he can be convinced of its existence only by treating in the same rhythm (or, rather, lack of rhythm) a subject of different tone — a subject in which decision shall take the place of nonchalance.

Now, undoubtedly, I intend all this as complimentary to Mr. Longfellow; but it was for the utterance of these very opinions in the “New York Mirror” that I was accused, by some of the poet's friends, of inditing what they think proper to call “strictures” on the author of “Outre-Mer.”



When we attend less to “authority” and more to principles, when we look less at merit and more at demerit, (instead of the converse, as some persons suggest,) we shall then be better critics than we are. We must neglect our models and study our capabilities. The mad eulogies on what occasionally has, in letters, been well done, spring from our imperfect comprehension of what it is possible for us to do better. “A man who has never seen the sun,” says Calderon, “cannot be blamed for thinking that no glory can exceed that of the moon; a man who has seen neither moon nor sun, cannot be blamed for expatiating on the incomparable effulgence of the morning star.” Now, it is the business of the critic so to soar that he shall see the sun, even although its orb be far below the ordinary horizon.



In the sweet “Lily of Nithsdale,” we read —

“She's gane to dwell in heaven, my lassie —

She's gane to dwell in heaven; —

Ye’re ow’re pure, quo’ the voice of God,

For dwelling out o’ heaven.”

The owre and the o’ of the two last verses should be Anglicized. The Deity, at least, should be supposed to speak so as to be understood — although I am aware that a folio has been written to demonstrate [column 2:] broad Scotch as the language of Adam and Eve in Paradise.



The increase, within a few years, of the magazine literature, is by no means to be regarded as indicating what some critics would suppose it to indicate — a downward tendency in American taste or in American letters. It is but a sign of the times, an indication of an era in which men are forced upon the curt, the condensed, the well-digested in place of the voluminous — in a word, upon journalism in lieu of dissertation. We need now the light artillery rather than the peace-makers of the intellect. I will not be sure that men at present think more profoundly than half a century ago, but beyond question they think with more rapidity, with more skill, with more tact, with more of method and less of excrescence in the thought. Besides all this, they have a vast increase in the thinking material; they have more facts, more to think about. For this reason, they are disposed to put the greatest amount of thought in the smallest compass and disperse it with the utmost attainable rapidity. Hence the journalism of the age; hence, in especial, magazines. Too many we cannot have, as a general proposition; but we demand that they have sufficient merit to render them noticeable in the beginning, and that they continue in existence sufficiently long to permit us a fair estimation of their value.



Jack Birkenhead, apud Bishop Sprat, says that “a great wit's great work is to refuse.” The apothegm must be swallowed cum grano salis. His greatest work is to originate no matter that shall require refusal.



Scott, in his “Presbyterian Eloquence,” speaks of “that ancient fable, not much known,” in which a trial of skill in singing being agreed upon between the cuckoo and the nightingale, the ass was chosen umpire. When each bird had done his best, the umpire declared that the nightingale sang extremely well, but that “for a good plain song give him the cuckoo.”

The judge with the long ears, in this case, is a fine type of the tribe of critics who insist upon what they call “quietude” as the supreme literary excellence — gentlemen who rail at Tennyson and elevate Addison into apotheosis. By the way, the following passage from Sterne's “Letter from France,” should be adopted at once as a motto by the “Down-East Review:” “As we rode along the valley, we saw a herd of asses on the top of one of the mountains. How they viewed and reviewed us!”



Of Berryer, somebody says “he is the man in whose description is the greatest possible consumption of antithesis.” For “description” read “lectures,” and the sentence would apply well to Hudson, the lecturer on Shakspeare. Antithesis is his end — he has no other. He does not employ [page 123:] it to enforce thought, but he gathers thought from all quarters with the sole view to its capacity for antithetical expression. His essays have thus only paragraphical effect; as wholes, they produce not the slightest impression. No man living could say what it is Mr. Hudson proposes to demonstrate; and if the question were propounded to Mr. H. himself, we can fancy how particularly embarrassed he would be for a reply. In the end, were he to answer honestly, he would say — “Antithesis.”

As for his reading, Julius Cæsar would have said of him that he sang ill, and undoubtedly he must have “gone to the dogs” for his experience in pronouncing the r as if his throat were bored like a rifle-barrel.*



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of the text on page 123, column 2:]

*  “Nec illi (Demostheni) turpe videbatur vel, optimis relictis magistris, ad canes se conferre, et ab illis e [[et]] literæ vim et naturam petere, illorumque in sonando, quod satis est, morem imitari.” — Ad Meker. de vet. Pron. Ling. Græcæ.




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 135.

The ornate initial “W” 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 IV] [Text-02]