Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Marginalia [part I],” United States Magazine and Democratic Review, November 1844, 15:484-494


[page 484, full page:]


[column 1:]


IN getting my books, I have been always solicitous of an ample margin; this not so much through any love of the thing in itself, however agreeable, as for the facility it affords me of pencilling suggested thoughts, agreements and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general. Where what I have to note is too much to be included within the narrow limits of a margin, I commit it to a slip of paper, and deposit it between the leaves; taking care to secure it by an imperceptible portion of gum tragacanth paste.

All this may be whim; it may be not only a very hackneyed, but a very idle practice; — yet I persist in it still; and it affords me pleasure; which is profit, in despite of Mr. Bentham with Mr. Mill on his back.

This making of notes, however, is by no means the making of mere memoranda — a custom which has its disadvantages, beyond doubt. “Ce que je mets sur papier,” says Bernardin de St. Pierre, “je remets de ma mémoire, et par consequence je l’oublie;” — and, in fact, if you wish to forget anything upon the spot, make a note that this thing is to be remembered.

But the purely marginal jottings, done with no eye to the Memorandum Book, have a distinct complexion, and not only a distinct purpose, but none at all; this it is which imparts to them a value. They have a rank somewhat above the chance and desultory comments of literary chit-chat — for these latter are not unfrequently “talk for talk's sake,” hurried out of the mouth; while the marginalia are deliberately pencilled, because the mind of the reader wishes to unburthen itself of a thought; — however flippant — however silly — however trivial — still a thought indeed, not merely a thing that might have been a thought in time, and under more favorable circumstances. In the marginalia, too, we talk only to ourselves; we therefore talk freshly — boldly — originally — with abandonnement — without conceit — much after the fashion of Jeremy Taylor, and Sir Thomas Browne, and Sir William [column 2:] Temple, and the anatomical Burton, and that most logical analogist, Butler, and some other people of the old day, who were too full of their matter to have any room for their manner, which, being thus left out of question, was a capital manner, indeed, — a model of manners, with a richly marginalic air.

The circumscription of space, too, in these pencillings, has in it something more of advantage than of inconvenience. It compels us (whatever diffuseness of idea we may clandestinely entertain), into Montesquieu-ism, into Tacitus-ism (here I leave out of view the concluding portion of the “Annals”) — or even into Carlyle-ism — a thing which, I have been told, is not to be confounded with your ordinary affectation and bad grammar. I say “bad grammar,” through sheer obstinacy, because the grammarians (who should know better) insist upon it that I should not. But then grammar is not what these grammarians will have it; and, being merely the analysis of language, with the result of this analysis, must be good or bad just as the analyst is sage or silly — just as he is a Horne Tooke or a Cobbett.

But to our sheep. During a rainy afternoon, not long ago, being in a mood too listless for continuous study, I sought relief from ennui in dipping here and there, at random, among the volumes of my library — no very large one, certainly, but sufficiently miscellaneous; and, I flatter myself, not a little recherché.

Perhaps it was what the Germans call the “brain-scattering” humor of the moment; but, while the picturesqueness of the numerous pencil-scratches arrested my attention, their helter-skelter-iness of commentary amused me. I found myself at length, forming a wish that it had been some other hand than my own which had so bedevilled the books, and fancying that, in such case, I might have derived no inconsiderable pleasure from turning them over. From this the transition-thought (as Mr. Lyell, or Mr. Murchison, or Mr. Featherstonhaugh would have it) was natural enough: — there [page 485:] might be something even in my scribblings which, for the mere sake of scribbling, would have interest for others.

The main difficulty respected the mode of transferring the notes from the volumes — the context from the text — without detriment to that exceedingly frail fabric of intelligibility in which the context was imbedded. With all appliances to boot, with the printed pages at their back, the commentaries were too often like Dodona's oracles — or those of Lycophron Tenebrosus — or the essays of the pedant's pupils, in Quintilian, which were “necessarily excellent, since even he (the pedant) found it impossible to comprehend them”: — what, then, would become of it — this context — if transferred? — if translated? Would it not rather be traduit (traduced) which is the French synonym, or overzezet (turned topsv-turvy) which is the Dutch one?

I concluded, at length, to put extensive faith in the acumen and imagination of the reader: — this as a general rule. But, in some instances, where even faith would not remove mountains, there seemed no safer plan than so to re-model the note as to convey at least the ghost of a conception as to what it was all about. Where, for such conception, the text itself was absolutely necessary, I could quote it; where the title of the book commented upon was indispensable, I could name it. In short, like a novel-hero dilemma’d, I made up my mind “to be guided by circumstances,” in default of more satisfactory rules of conduct.

As for the multitudinous opinion expressed in the subjoined farrago — as for my present assent to all, or dissent from any portion of it — as to the possibility of my having, in some instances, altered my mind — or as to the impossibility of my not having altered it often — these are points upon which I say nothing, because upon these there can be nothing cleverly said. It may be as well to observe, however, that just as the goodness of your true pun is in the direct ratio of its intolerability, so is nonsense the essential sense of the Marginal Note.



Who has seen the “Velschii Ruzname Naurus,” of the Oriental Literature?


[column 2:]


There is about the same difference between the epicyclic lines of Shelley, et id genus, and the epics of Hell-Fire Montgomery, as between the notes of a flute and those of the gong at Astor's. In the one class the vibrations are unequal but melodious; the other have regularity enougn, but no great deal of music, and a trifle too much of the tintamarre.



The Bishop of Durham (Dr. Butler) once asked Dean Tucker whether he did not think that communities went mad en masse, now and then, just as individuals, individually. The thing need not have been questioned. Were not the Abderians seized, all at once, with the Euripides lunacy, during which they ran about the streets declaiming the plays of the poet? And now here is the great tweedle-dee tweedle-dum paroxysm — the uproar about Pusey. If England and America are not lunatic now — at this very moment — then I have never seen such a thing as a March hare.



I believe that Hannibal passed into Italy over the Pennine Alps; and if Livy were living now, I could demonstrate this fact even to him.



In a rail-road car, I once sat face to face with him — or, rather, προσωπον κατα προσωπον, as the Septuagint have it; for he had a tooth-ache, and three-fourths of his visage were buried in a red handkerchief. Of what remained visible, an eighth, I thought, represented his “Gaieties,” and an eighth his “Gravities.” The only author I ever met who looked even the fourth of his own book.



But for the shame of the thing, there are few of the so-called apophthegms which would not avow themselves epigrams outright. They have it in common with the fencing school-foils, that we can make no real use of any part of them but the point, while this we can never get fairly at, on account of a little flat profundity-button.



I make no exception, even in Dante's favor: — the only thing well said of Purgatory, is that a man may go farther and fare worse.



When music affects us to tears, [page 486:] seemingly causeless, we weep not, as Gravina supposes, from “excess of pleasure”; but through excess of an impatient, petulant sorrow that, as mere mortals, we are as yet in no condition to banquet upon those supernal ecstasies of which the music affords us merely a suggestive and indefinite glimpse.



One of the most deliberate tricks of Voltaire, is where he renders, by

Soyez justes, mortels, et ne craignez qu’un Dieu,

the words of Phlegyas, who cries out, in Hell,

Dicite justitiam, moniti, et non temnere Divos.

He gives the line this twist, by way of showing that the ancients worshipped one God. He is endeavoring to deny that the idea of the Unity of God originated with the Jews.



The theorizers on Government, who pretend always to “begin with the beginning,” commence with Man in what they call his natural state — the savage. What right have they to suppose this his natural state? Man's chief idiosyncrasy being reason, it follows that his savage condition — his condition of action without reason — is his unnatural state. The more he reasons, the nearer he approaches the position to which this chief idiosyncrasy irresistibly impels him; and not until he attains this position with exactitude — not until his reason has exhausted itself for his improvement — not until he has stepped upon the highest pinnacle of civilisation — will his natural state be ultimately reached, or thoroughly determined.



Our literature is infested with a swarm of just such little people as this — creatures who succeed in creating for themselves an absolutely positive reputation, by mere dint of the continuity and perpetuality of their appeals to the public — which is permitted, not for a single instant, to rid itself of these Epizœ, or to get their pretensions out of sight.

We cannot, then, regard the microscopical works of the animalculæ in [column 2:] question, as simple nothings; for they produce, as I say, a positive effect, and no multiplication of zeros will result in unity — but as negative quantities — as less than nothings; since − into − will give +.



I cannot imagine why it is that Harrison Ainsworth so be-peppers his books with his own dog Latin and pig Greek — unless, indeed, he agrees with Encyclopædia Chambers, that nonsense sounds worse in English than in any other language.



These gentlemen, in attempting the dash of Carlyle, get only as far as the luminousness of Plutarch, who begins the life of Demetrius Poliorcetes with an account of his death, and informs us that the hero could not have been as tall as his father, for the simple reason that his father, after all, was only his uncle.



To persist in calling these places “Magdalen Asylums” is absurd, and worse. We have no reason to believe that Mary Magdalen ever sinned as supposed, or that she is the person alluded to in the seventh chapter of Luke. See Macknight'sHarmony” — p. 201 — part 2.



Nothing, to the true taste, is so offensive as mere hyperism. In Germany wohlgeborn is a loftier title than edelgeborn; and, in Greece, the thrice-victorious at the Olympic games could claim a statue of the size of life, while he who had conquered but once was entitled only to a colossal.



The author* speaks of music like a man, and not like a fiddler. This is something — and that he has imagination is more. But the philosophy of music is beyond his depth, and of its physics he, unquestionably, has no conception. By the way — of all the so-called scientific musicians, how many may we suppose cognizant of the acoustic facts and mathematical deductions? To be sure, my acquaintance with eminent composers is quite limited — but I have never met one who did not stare and say “yes,” “no,” “hum!” “ha!” “eh?” when I mentioned the [page 487:] mechanism of the Siréne [[Sirène]], or made allusion to the oval vibrations at right angles.



His mind* — granting him any — is essentially at home in little statistics, twaddling gossip, and maudlin commentaries, fashioned to look profound; but the idea of his attempting original composition, is fantastic.



All the Bridgewater treatises have failed in noticing the great idiosyncrasy in the Divine system of adaptation: — that idiosyncrasy which stamps the adaptation as Divine, in distinction from that which is the work of merely human constructiveness. I speak of the complete mutuality of adaptation. For example: — in human constructions, a particular cause has a particular effect — a particular purpose brings about a particular object; but we see no reciprocity. The effect does not re-act upon the cause — the object does not change relations with the purpose. In Divine constructions, the object is either object or purpose, as we choose to regard it, while the purpose is either purpose or object; so that we can never (abstractedly, without concretion — without reference to facts of the moment) decide which is which. For secondary example: — In polar climates, the human frame, to maintain its due caloric, requires, for combustion in the stomach, the most highly ammoniac food, such as train oil. Again: — In polar climates, the sole food afforded man is the oil of abundant seals and whales. Now, whether is oil at hand because imperatively demanded? — or whether is it the only thing demanded because the only thing to be obtained? It is impossible to say. There is an absolute reciprocity of adaptation, for which we seek in vain among the works of man.

The Bridgewater tractists may have avoided this point, on account of its apparent tendency to overthrow the idea of cause in general — consequently of a First Cause — of God. But it is more probable that they have failed to perceive what no one preceding them, has, to my knowledge, perceived.

The pleasure which we derive from any exertion of human ingenuity, is in [column 2:] the direct ratio of the approach to this species of reciprocity between cause and effect. In the construction of plot, for example, in fictitious literature, we should aim at so arranging the points, or incidents, that we cannot distinctly see, in respect to any one of them, whether that one depends from any one other, or upholds it. In this sense, of course, perfection of plot is unattainable in fact, — because Man is the constructor. The plots of God are perfect. The Universe is a Plot of God.



“Who does not turn with absolute contempt from the rings, and gems, and filters, and caves, and genii of Eastern Tales, as from the trinkets of a toy-shop, and the trumpery of a raree-show?” — Lectures on Literature, by James Montgomery.

This is mere “pride and arrogance, and the evil way, and the froward mouth.” Or, perhaps, so monstrous a proposition (querily put) springs rather from the thickness of the Montgomery skull, which is the Montgomery predominant source of error — the Eidolon of the Den wherein grovel the Montgomery curs.



The serious (minor) compositions of Dickens have been lost in the blaze of his comic reputation. One of the most forcible things ever written, is a short story of his, called “The Black Veil;” a strangely pathetic and richly imaginative production, replete with the loftiest tragic power.

P. S. Mr. Dickens’ head must puzzle the phrenologists. The organs of locality are small; and the conclusion of the “Curiosity-Shop” is more truly ideal (in both phrenological senses) than any composition of equal length in the English language.



A good book; but, for a modern book, too abundant in faded philosophy. Here is an argument spoken of as not proving the permanency of the solar system, “because we know, from the more sure word of prophecy, that it is not destined to last for ever.” Who believes — whether layman or priest — that the prophecies in question have any farther allusion than to the orb of [page 488:] the Earth — or, more strictly, to the crust of the orb!



It ranks* with “Armstrong on Health” — the “Botanic Garden” — the “Connubia Florum.” Such works should conciliate the Utilitarians. I think I will set about a lyric on the Quadrature of Curves — or the Arithmetic of Infinites. Cotes, however, supplies me a ready-made title, in his “Harmonia Mensurarum,” and there is no reason why I should not be fluent, at least, upon the fluents of fractional expressions.



In general, we should not be over-scrupulous about niceties of phrase, when the matter in hand is a dunce to be gibbeted. Speak out! — or the person may not understand you. He is to be hung? Then hang him by all means; but make no bow when you mean no obeisance, and eschew the droll delicacy of the Clown in the Play — “Be so good, sir, as to rise and be put to death.”

This is the only true principle among men. Where the gentler sex is concerned, there seems but one course for the critic — speak if you can commend — be silent, if not; for a woman will never be brought to admit a non-identity between herself and her book, and “a well-bred man” says, justly, that excellent old English moralist, James Puckle, in his ‘Gray Cap for a Green Head,’ “a well-bred man will never give himself the liberty to speak ill of women.”



It is the half-profound, half-silly, and wholly irrational composition of a very clever, very ignorant, and laughably impudent fellow — “ingeniosus puer, sed insignis nebulo,” as the Jesuits have well described Crébillon.



The Germans, just now, are afflicted with the epidemic of history-writing — the same cacöethes which Lucian tells us beset his countrymen upon the discomfiture of Severianus in Armenia, followed by the triumphs in Parthia.



The sense of high birth is a moral force whose value the democrats, albeit compact of mathematics, are never in [column 2:] condition to calculate. “Pour savoir ce qu’est Dieu,” says the Baron de Bielfeld, “il faut être Dieu mêmê.”



I have seen many computations respecting the greatest amount of erudition attainable by an individual in his life-time; but these computations are falsely based, and fall infinitely beneath the truth. It is true that, in general, we retain, we remember to available purpose, scarcely one-hundredth part of what we read; yet there are minds which not only retain all receipts, but keep them at compound interest forever. Again: — were every man supposed to read out, he could read, of course, very little, even in half a century; for, in such case, each individual word must be dwelt upon in some degree. But, in reading to ourselves, at the ordinary rate of what is called “light reading,” we scarcely touch one word in ten. And, even physically considered, knowledge breeds knowledge, as gold gold; for he who reads really much, finds his capacity to read increase in geometrical ratio. The helluo librorum will but glance at the page which detains the ordinary reader some minutes; and the difference in the absolute reading (its uses considered), will be in favor of the helluo, who will have winnowed the matter of which the tyro mumbled both the seeds and the chaff. A deep-rooted and strictly continuous habit of reading will, with certain classes of intellect, result in an instinctive and seemingly magnetic appreciation of a thing written; and now the student reads by pages just as other men by words. Long years to come, with a careful analysis of the mental process, may even render this species of appreciation a common thing. It may be taught in the schools of our descendants of the tenth or twentieth generation. It may become the method of the mob of the eleventh or twenty-first. And should these matters come to pass — as they will — there will be in them no more legitimate cause for wonder than there is, to-day, in the marvel that, syllable by syllable, men comprehend what, letter by letter, I now trace upon this page.



[page 489:]

Is it not a law that need has a tendency to engender the thing needed?



“The nature of the soil may indicate the countries most exposed to these formidable concussions, since they are caused by subterraneous fires, and such fires are kindled by the union and fermentation of iron and sulphur. But their times and effects appear to lie beyond the reach of human curiosity, and the philosopher will discreetly abstain from the prediction of earthquakes, till he has counted the drops of water that silently filtrate on the inflammable mineral, and measured the caverns which increase by resistance the explosion of the imprisoned air. Without assigning the cause, history will distinguish the period in which these calamitous events have been rare or frequent, and will observe, that this fever of the earth raged with uncommon violence during the reign of Justinian. Each year is marked by the repetition of earthquakes, of such duration, that Constantinople has been shaken above forty days; of such extent, that the shock has been communicated to the whole surface of the globe, or at least of the Roman Empire.”

These sentences may be regarded as a full synopsis of the style of Gibbon — a style which has been more frequently commended than almost any other in the world.

He had three hobbies which he rode to the death (stuffed puppets as they were), and which he kept in condition by the continual sacrifice of all that is valuable in language. These hobbies were DignityModulationLaconism.

Dignity is all very well; and history demands it for its general tone; but the being everlastingly on stilts is not only troublesome and awkward, but dangerous. He who falls en homme ordinaire — from the mere slipping of his feet — is usually an object of sympathy; but all men tumble now and then, and this tumbling from high sticks is sure to provoke laughter.

His modulation, however, is always ridiculous; for it is so uniform, so continuous, and so jauntily kept up, that we almost fancy the writer waltzing to his words.

With him, to speak lucidly was a far less merit than to speak smoothly and curtly. There is a wall in which, [column 2:] through the nature of language itself, we may often save a few words by talking backwards; and this is, therefore, a favorite practice with Gibbon. Observe the sentence commencing — “The nature of the soil.” The thought expressed could scarcely be more condensed in expression; but, for the sake of this condensation, he renders the idea difficult of comprehension, by subverting the natural order of a simple proposition, and placing a deduction before that from which it is deduced. An ordinance man would have thus written: “As these formidable concussions arise from subterranean fires kindled by the union and fermentation of iron and sulphur, we may judge of the degree in which any region is exposed to earthquake by the presence or absence of these minerals.” My sentence has forty words —   that of Gibbon thirty-six; but the first cannot fail of being instantly comprehended, while the latter it may be necessary to re-read.

The mere terseness of this historian is, however, grossly over-rated. In general, he conveys an idea (although darkly) in fewer words than others of his time; but a habit of straight thinking that rejects non-essentials, will enable any one to say, for example, what was intended above, both more briefly and more distinctly. He must abandon, of course, “formidable concussions” and things of that kind.

E. g. — “The sulphur and iron of any region express its liability to earthquake; their fermentation being its cause.”

Here are seventeen words in place of the thirty-six; and these seventeen convey the full force of all that it was necessary to say. Such concision is, nevertheless, an error, and, so far as respects the true object of concision, is a bull. The most truly concise style is that which most rapid transmits the sense. What, then, should be said of the concision of Carlyle? — that those are mad who admire a brevity which squanders our time for the purpose of economizing our printing-ink and paper.

Observe, now, the passage above quoted, commencing — “Each year is marked.” What is it the historian wishes to say? Not, certainly, that every year was marked by earthquakes that shook Constantinople forty days, and extended to all regions of the earth! — yet this only is the legitimate [page 490:] interpretation. The earthquakes are said to be of such duration that Constantinople, &c., and these earthquakes (of such duration) were experienced every year. But this is a pure Gibbonism — an original one; no man ever so rhodomontaded before. He means to say merely that the earthquakes were of unusual duration and extent — the duration of one being so long that Constantinople shook for forty days, and the extent of another being so wide as to include the whole empire of Rome — “by which,” he adds sotto voce — “by which insulated facts the reader may estimate that average duration and extent of which I speak” — a thing the reader will find it difficult to do.

A few years hence — and should any one compose a mock heroic in the manner of the “Decline and Fall,” the poem will be torn to pieces by the critics, instanter, as an unwarrantable exaggeration of the principles of the burlesque.



I never knew a man, of so really decent understanding, so full of bigotry as B——d. Had he supreme power, and were he not, now and then, to meet an odd volume sufficiently silly to confirm his prejudices, there can be no doubt that he would burn every book in the world as an auto da fe.



It is a deeply consequential error this: — the assumption that we, being men, will, in general, be deliberately true. The greater amount of truth is impulsively uttered; thus the greater amount is spoken, not written. But, in examining the historic material, we leave these considerations out of sight. We dote upon records, which, in the main, lie; while we discard the Kabbala, which, properly interpreted, do not.



“The right angle of light's incidence produces a sound upon one of the Egyptian pyramids.” This assertion, thus expressed, I have encountered somewhere — probably in one of the Notes to Apollonius. It is nonsense, I suppose, — but it will not do to speak hastily.

The orange ray of the spectrum and the buzz of the gnat (which never rises above the second A), affect me with nearly similar sensations. In hearing the gnat, I perceive the color. In perceiving the color, I seem to hear the gnat. [column 2:]

Here the vibrations of the tympanum caused by wings of the fly, may, from within, induce abnormal vibrations of the retina, similar to those which the orange ray induces, normally, from without. By similar, I do not mean of equal rapidity — this would be folly; — but each millionth undulation, for example, of the retina, might accord with one of the tympanum; and I doubt whether this would not be sufficient for the effect.



How many good books suffer neglect through the inefficiency of their beginnings! It is far better that we commence irregularly — immethodically — than that we fail to arrest attention; but the two points, method and pungency, may always be combined. At all risks, let there be a few vivid sentences imprimis, by way of the electric bell to the telegraph.



I am far more than half serious in all that I have ever said about manuscript, as affording indication of character.

The general proposition is unquestionable — that the mental qualities will have a tendency to impress the MS. The difficulty lies in the comparison of this tendency, as a mathematical force, with the forces of the various disturbing influences of mere circumstance. But — given a man's purely physical biography, with his MS., and the moral biography may be deduced.

The actual practical extent to which these ideas are applicable, is not sufficiently understood. For my own part, I by no means shrink from acknowledging that I act, hourly, upon estimates of character derived from chirography. The estimates, however, upon which I depend, are chiefly negative. For example: a man may not always be a man of genius, or a man of taste, or a man of firmness, or a man of any other quality, because he writes this hand or that; but then there are MSS. which no man of firmness, or of taste, or of genius, ever did, will, or can write.

There is a certain species of hand-writing, — and a quite “elegant” one it is, too; although I hesitate to describe it, because it is written by some two or three thousand of my personal friends, — a species of hand-writing, I say, which seems to appertain, as if by prescriptive right, to the blockhead, and which has been employed by every donkey since the days of Cadmus, — has [page 491:] been penned by every gander since first a grey goose yielded a pen.

Now, were any one to write me a letter in this MS., requiring me to involve myself with its inditer in any enterprise of moment and of risk, it would be only on the score of the commonest civility that I would condescend to send him a reply.



These gentlemen may be permitted to exist vet a very little while, since it is “the darling public” who are amused, without knowing at what —

Mais moi, qui, dans le fond, sais bien ce que jen crois,

Qui compte, tous les jours, leurs larcins par mes points,

Je ris — etc.

Fellows who really have no right — some individuals have — to purloin the property of their predecessors. Mere buzzards; or, in default of that, mere pechingzies — the species of creatures that they tell us of in the Persian Compendiums of Natural History — animals very soft and very sly, with ears of such length that, while one answers for a bed, the other is all that is necessary for a counterpane. A race of dolts — literary Cacuses, whose clumsily stolen bulls never fail of leaving behind them ample evidence of having been dragged into the thief-den by the tail.



In the Hebrew MS. (172 Prov. 18-22) after the word אשה, is an erasure, by which we lose some three or four letters. Could these letters have been anything but טובה? The version reads, “whoso findeth a wife, findeth a good thing;” a proposition which cannot be mathematically demonstrated. By the insertion suggested, it would be converted into “whoso findeth a good wife, findeth,” &c. — an axiom which the most rigorous caviller for precision would make no scruple of admitting into Euclid.



“His imagery* is by no means destitute of merit, but is directed by an exceedingly coarse and vulgar taste.”

Quite true; but the remark would have come with a better grace from almost any other lips than those of Lord Brougham and Vaux.


[column 2:]


Dr. Lardner thus explains the apparent difference in size between the setting and the noon-day sun: —

“Various solutions have been proposed, and the one generally adopted by scientific minds I will now endeavor to make plain, though I fear its nature is so remarkable that I am not sure I shall make it intelligible. But here it is. If the sun, or another celestial object, be near the horizon, and I direct my attention to it, I see between me and that object a vast number of objects upon the face of the earth, as trees, houses, mountains, the magnitudes and positions of which are familiar to me. These supply the mind with a means of estimating the size of the object at which I am looking. I know that it is much farther off than these; and yet the sun appears, perhaps, much larger than the top of the intervening mountain. I thus compare the sun, by a process of the mind so subtle and instinctive that I am unconscious of it, with the objects which I see between it and myself, and I conclude that it is much larger than those. Well, the same sun rises to the meridian; then there are no intervening objects whereby to space off the distance, as it were, and thus form a comparative estimate of its size. . . . . I am prepared to be met by the objection, that this is an extremely learned and metaphysical reason. So it is.”

How funny are the ideas which some persons entertain about learning, and especially about metaphysics!

Whatever may be the foible of Dr. Lardner's intellect, its forte is certainly not originality; and however ill put are his explanations of the phenomenon in question, he is to be blamed for them only inasmuch as he adopted them, without examination, from others. The same thing is said, very nearly in the same way, by all who have previously touched the subject. And the reasoning is not only of very partial force, but wretchedly urged. If the sun appears larger than usual merely because we compare its size with mountains and other large objects upon the earth (objects, the Doctor might have said, beyond all which we see the sun), how happens it that the illusion does not cease when we see the orb setting where no such objects are visible? For example, on the horizon of a smooth sea. [page 492:]

We appreciate time by events alone. For this reason we define time (somewhat improperly) as the succession of events; but the fact itself — that events are our sole means of appreciating time — tends to the engendering of the erroneous idea that events are time — that the more numerous the events, the longer the time; and the converse. This erroneous idea there can be no doubt that we should absolutely entertain in all cases, but for our practical means of correcting the impression — such as clocks, and the movements of the heavenly bodies — whose revolutions, after all, we only assume to be regular.

Space is precisely analogous with time. By objects alone we estimate space; and we might as rationally define it “the succession of objects,” as time “the succession of events.” But, as before. — The fact, that we have no other means of estimating space than objects afford us — tends to the false idea that objects are space — that the more numerous the objects the greater the space; and the converse; and this erroneous impression we should receive in all cases, but for our practical means of correcting it — such as yard measures, and other conventional measures, which resolve themselves, ultimately, into certain natural standards, such as barley-corns, which, after all, we only assume to be regular.

The mind can form some conception of the distance (however vast) between the sun and Uranus, because there are ten objects which (mentally) intervene — the planets Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, Vesta, Juno, Pallas, Jupiter, and Saturn. These objects serve as stepping-stones to the mind; which, nevertheless, is utterly lost in the attempt at establishing a notion of the interval between Uranus and Sirius; lost — yet, clearly, not on account of the mere distance (for why should we not conceive the abstract idea of the distance, two miles, as readily as that of the distance, one?) but, simply, because between Uranus and Sirius we happen to know that all is void. And, from what I have already said, it follows that this vacuity — this want of intervening points — will cause to fall short of the truth any notion we shall endeavor to form. In fact, having once passed the limits of absolutely practical adrneasurement, by means of [column 2:] intervening objects, our ideas of distances are one; they have no variation. Thus, in truth, we think of the interval between Uranus and Sirius precisely as of that between Saturn and Uranus, or of that between any one planet and its immediate neighbor. We fancy, indeed, that we form different conceptions of the different intervals; but we mistake the mathematical knowledge of the fact of the interval, for an idea of the interval itself.

It is the principle for which I contend that instinctively leads the artist, in painting what he technically calls distances, to introduce a succession of objects between the “distance” and the foreground. Here it will be said that the intention is the perspective comparison of the size of the objects. Several men, for example, are painted, one beyond the other, and it is the diminution of apparent size by which the idea of distance is conveyed; — this, I say, will be asserted. But here is mere confusion of the two notions of abstract and comparative distance. By this process of diminishing figures, we are, it is true, made to feel that one is at a greater distance than the other, but the idea we thence glean of abstract distance, is gleaned altogether from the mere succession of the figures, independently of magnitude. To prove this, let the men be painted out, and rocks put in their stead. A rock may be of any size. The farthest may be, for all we know, really, and not merely optically, the least. The effect of absolute distance will remain untouched, and the sole result will be confusion of idea respecting the comparative distances from rock to rock. But the thing is clear: if the artist's intention is really, as supposed, to convey the notion of great distance by perspective comparison of the size of men at different intervals, we must, at least, grant that he puts himself to unnecessary trouble in the multiplication of his men. Two would answer all the purposes of two thousand; — one in the foreground as a standard, and one in the background, of a size corresponding with the artist's conception of the distance.

In looking at the setting sun in a mountainous region, or with a city between the eye and the orb, we see it of a certain seeming magnitude, and we do not perceive that this seeming [page 493:] magnitude varies when we look at the same sun setting on the horizon of the ocean. In either case we have a chain of objects by which to appreciate a certain distance; — in the former case this chain is formed of mountains and towers — in the latter, of ripples, or specks of foam; but the result does not present any difference. In each case we get the same idea of the distance, and consequently of the size. This size we have in our mind when we look at the sun in his meridian place; but this distance we have not — for no objects intervene. That is to say, the distance falls short, while the size remains. The consequence is, that, to accord with the diminished distance, the mind instantaneously diminishes the size. The conversed experiment gives, of course, a conversed result.

Dr. Lardner's “so it is” is amusing to say no more. In general, the mere natural philosophers have the same exaggerated notions of the perplexity of metaphysics. And, perhaps, it is this looming of the latter science which has brought about the vulgar derivation of its name from the supposed superiority to physics — as if μετα φυσικα had the force of super physicam. The fact is, that Aristotle's Treatise on Morals is next in succession to his Book on Physics, and this he supposes the rational order of study. His Ethics, therefore, commence with the words Μετα τα φυσικα — whence we take the word, Metaphysics.

That Leibnitz, who was fond of interweaving even his mathematical, with ethical speculations, making a medley rather to be wondered at than understood — that he made no attempt at amending the common explanation of the difference in the sun's apparent size — this, perhaps, is more really a matter for marvel than that Dr. Lardner should look upon the common explanation as only too “learned” and too “metaphysical” for an audience in Yankee-Land.



That “truth is stranger than fiction” is an adage for ever in the mouth of the [column 2:] uninformed, who quote it as they would quote any other proposition which to them seemed paradoxical — for the mere point of the paradox. People who read never quote the saying, because sheer truisms are never worth quoting. A friend of mine once read me a long poem on the planet Saturn. He was a man of genius, but his lines were a failure of course, since the realities of the planet, detailed in the most prosaic language, put to shame and quite overwhelm all the accessory fancies of the poet.

If, however, the solemn adage in question should ever stand in need of support, here is a book will support it.*



Some richly imaginative thoughts, skilfully expressed, might be culled from this poem — which, as a whole, is nothing worth. E. g —

And I can hear the click of that old gate,

As once again, amid the chirping yard,

I see the summer rooms open and dark.

and —

— How calm the night moves on! and yet,

In the dark morrow that behind those hills

Lies sleeping now, who knows what horror lurks?



The great force derivable from repetition of particular vowel sounds in verse, is little understood, or quite overlooked, even by those versifiers who dwell most upon what is commonly called “alliteration.” How richly melodious are these lines of Milton's “Comus!”

May thy brimmed waves for this

Their full tribute never miss —

May thy billows roll ashore

The beryl and the golden ore!

— and yet it seems especially singular that, with the full and noble volume of the long o resounding in his ears, the poet should have written, in the last line, “beryl,” when he might so well have written “onyx.”



[page 494:]

Moore has been noted for the number and appositeness, as well as novelty of his similes; and the renown thus acquired is indicial of his deficiency in that noble merit — the noblest of all. No poet thus distinguished was ever richly ideal. Pope and Cowper are instances. Direct similes are of too palpably artificial a character to be artistical. An artist will always contrive to weave his illustrations into the metaphorical form.

Moore has a peculiar facility in prosaically telling a poetical story. By this I mean that he preserves the tone and method of arrangement of a prose relation, and thus obtains great advantage, in important points, over his more stilted compeers. His is no poetical style (such as the French have — a distinct style for a distinct purpose) but an easy and ordinary prose manner, which rejects the licenses because it does not require them, and is merely ornamented into poetry. By means of this manner he is enabled to encounter, effectually, details which would baffle any other versifier of the day; and at which Lamartine would stand aghast. In “Alciphron” we see this exemplified. Here the minute and perplexed incidents of the descent into the pyramid, are detailed, in verse, with quite as much precision and intelligibility as could be attained even by the coolest prose of Mr. Jeremy Bentham.

Moore has vivacity; verbal and constructive dexterity; a musical ear not sufficiently cultivated; a vivid fancy; an epigrammatic spirit; and a fine taste — as far as it goes.



The defenders of this pitiable stuff, uphold it on the ground of its truthfulness. Taking the thesis into question, this truthfulness is the one overwhelming defect. An original idea that — to laud the accuracy with which the stone is hurled that knocks us in the head. A little less accuracy might have left us more brains. And here are critics absolutely commending the truthfulness with which only the disagreeable is conveyed! In my view, if an artist must paint decayed cheeses, his merit will lie in their looking as little like decayed cheeses as possible.

(To be continued.)



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 486:]

*  H. F. Chorley, author of “Conti.”

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 487:]

*  Grant — author of “Walks and Wanderings.”

  [[“]]Sacred Philosophy of the Seasons” — By the Rev. Henry DuncanRuthwell, Scotland.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 488:]

*  “Poem de Ponderibus et Mensuris,” by Quintus Rhemnius Fannius Palæmon. Its conclusion: — found by Denis, in the Imperial Library, Vienna.

  “The Age of Reason.”

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 491:]

*  That of John Randolph.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 493:]

*  Ramaseand; or a Vocabulary of the peculiar language used by the Thugs, with an Introduction and Appendix descriptive of the System pursued by that Fraternity, and of the Measures adopted by the Supreme Government of India for its Suppression. — Calcutta, 1836.

  “The Bride of Fort Edward.” — Anonymous.




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 link defined connects each item to the corresponding item in Pollin's edition.

The table of contents for the original printing of the current installment states only “VII. Marginalia — by Edgar A. Poe” with the page number. (This article is the seventh item in the November 1844 issue.)


[S:0 - DR, 1844] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Misc - Marginalia [part I] [Text-02]