Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Marginalia [part VIII],” Graham's Magazine, November 1846, pp. 245-247


[page 245, unnumbered, full page:]




[column 1:]


I HAVE just finished the “Mysteries of Paris” — a work of unquestionable power — a museum of novel and ingenious incident — a paradox of childish folly and consummate skill. It has this point m common with all the “convulsive” fictions — that the incidents are consequential from the premises, while the premises themselves are laughably incredible. Admitting, for instance, the possibility of such a man as Rodolphe, and of such a state of society as would tolerate his perpetual interference, we have no difficulty in agreeing to admit the possibility of his accomplishing all that is accomplished. Another point which distinguishes the Sue school, is the total want of the ars celare artem. In effect the writer is always saying to the reader, “Now — in one moment — you shall see what you shall see. I am about to produce on you a remarkable impression. Prepare to have your imagination, or your pity, greatly excited.” The wires are not only not concealed, but displayed as things to be admired, equally with the puppets they set in motion. The result is, that in perusing for example, a pathetic chapter in “The Mysteries of Paris” we say to ourselves, without shedding a tear — “Now, here is something which will be sure to move every reader to tears.” The philosophical motives attributed to Sue are absurd in the extreme. His first, and in fact his sole object, is to make an exciting, and therefore saleable book. The cant (implied or direct) about the amelioration of society, etc., is but a very usual trick among authors, whereby they hope to add such a tone of dignity or utilitarianism to their pages as shall gild the pill of their licentiousness. The ruse is even more generally employed by way of engrafting a meaning upon the otherwise unintelligible. In the latter case, however, this ruse is an afterthought, manifested in the shape of a moral, either appended (as in Æsop) or dovetailed into the body of the work, piece by piece, with great care, but never without leaving evidence of its after-insertion.

The translation (by C. H. Town) is very imperfect, and, by a too literal rendering of idioms, contrives to destroy the whole tone of the original. Or, perhaps, I should say a too literal rendering of local peculiarities of phrase. There is one point (never yet, I believe, noticed) which, obviously, should be considered in translation. We should so render the original that the version should impress the people for whom it is intended, just as the original impresses the people for whom it (the original) is intended. Now, if we rigorously translate mere local idiosyncrasies of phrase (to say nothing of idioms) we inevitably distort the author's designed impression. We are sure to produce a whimsical, at least, if not always a ludicrous, effect — for novelties, in a case of this kind, are incongruities — oddities. A distinction, of course, should be observed between those peculiarities of phrase which appertain to the nation and those which belong to the author himself — for these latter will have a similar effect upon all nations, and should be literally translated. It is merely the general inattention to the principle here proposed, which has given rise to so much international depreciation, if not positive contempt, as regards literature. The English reviews, for example, have abundant allusions to what they call the “frivolousness” of French letters — an idea chiefly derived from the impression made by the French manner derived merely — the manner, again, having in it nothing essentially frivolous, but affecting all foreigners as such (the English especially) through that oddity of which I have already assigned the origin. The French return the compliment, complaining of the British gaucherie in style. The phraseology of every nation has a taint of drollery about it in the ears of every other nation speaking a different tongue. Now, to convey the true spirit of an author, this taint should be corrected in translation. We should pride ourselves less upon literality and more upon dexterity at paraphrase. Is it not clear that, by such dexterity, a translation may be made to convey to a foreigner a juster conception of an original than could the original itself?

The distinction I have made between mere idioms (which, of course, should never be literally rendered) and “local idiosyncrasies of phrase,” may be exemplified by a passage at page 291 of Mr. Town's translation:

“Never mind! Go in there! You will take the cloak of Calebasse. You will wrap yourself in it,” etc., etc.

These are the words of a lover to his mistress, and are meant kindly, although imperatively. They embody a local pa culiarity — a French peculiarity of phrase, and (to French ears) convey nothing dictatorial. To our own, nevertheless, they sound like the command of a military officer to his subordinate, and thus produce an effect quite different from that intended. The translation, in such case, should be a bold paraphrase. For example: — “I must insist upon your wrapping yourself in the cloak of Calebasse.”

Mr. Town's version of “The Mysteries of Paris,” however, is not objectionable on the score of excessive [page 246:] literality alone, but abounds in misapprehensions of the author's meaning. One of the strangest errors occurs at page 368, where we read:

“From a wicked, brutal savage and riotous rascal, he has made me a kind of honest man by saying only two words to me; but these words, ‘voyez vous,’ were like magic.”

Here “voyez vous” are made to be the two magical words spoken; but the translation should run — ”these words, do you see? were like magic.” The actual words described as producing the magical effect are “heart” and “honor.”

Of similar character is a curious mistake at page 245.

“He is a gueux fini and an attack will not save him,” added Nicholas. “A — yes,” said the widow.

Many readers of Mr. Town's translation have no doubt been puzzled to perceive the force or relevancy of the widow's “A — yes” in this case. I have not the original before me, but take it for granted that it runs thus, or nearly so: — “Il est un guenx fini et un assaut ne l’intimidera pas.” “Un — oui!dit la Peuve.

It must be observed that, in vivacious French colloquy, the oui seldom implies assent to the letter, but generally to the spirit, of a proposition. Thus a Frenchman usually says “yes” where an Englishman would say “no.” The latter's reply, for example, to the sentence “An attack will not intimidate him,” would be “No” — that is to say, “I grant you that it would not.” The Frenchman, however, answers “Yes” — meaning, “I agree with what you say — it would not.” Both replies, of  course, reaching the same point, although by opposite routes. With this understanding, it will be seen that the true version of the widow's “Un — oui!” should be, “One attack, I grant you, might not,” and that this is the version becomes apparent when we read the words immediately following — “but every day — every day it is hell!”

An instance of another class of even more reprehensible blunders, is to be found on page 297, where Bras-Rouge is made to say to a police officer — “No matter; it is not of that I complain; every trade has its disagreements.” Here, no doubt, the French is désagr´emens — inconveniences — disadvantages — unpleasantnesses. Désagrémens conveys disagreements not even so nearly as, in Latin, religio implies religion.

I was not a little surprised, in turning over these pages, to come upon the admirable, thrice admirable story called “Gringalet et Coupe en Deux,” which is related by Pique-Vinaigre to his companions in La Force. Rarely have I read any thing of which the exquisite skill so delighted me. For my soul I could not suggest a fault in it — except, perhaps, that the intention of telling a very pathetic story is a little too transparent.

But I say that I was surprised in coming upon this story — and I was so, because one of its points has been suggested to M. Sue by a tale of my own. Coupe en Deux has an ape remarkable for its size, strength, ferocity, and propensity to imitation. [column 2:] Wishing to commit a murder so cunningly that discovery would be impossible, the master of this animal teaches it to imitate the functions of a barber, and incites it to cut the throat of a child, under the idea that, when the murder is discovered, it will be considered the uninstigated deed of the ape.

On first seeing this, I felt apprehensive that some of my friends would accuse me of plagiarising from it my “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” But I soon called to mind that this latter was first published in “Graham's Magazine” for April, 1841. Some years ago, “The Paris Charivari” copied my story with complimentary comments; objecting, however, to the Rue Morgue on the ground that no such street (to the Charivari's knowledge) existed in Paris. I do not wish, of course, to look upon M. Sue's adaptation of my property in any other light than that of a compliment. The similarity may have been entirely accidental.



A hundred criticisms to the contrary notwithstanding, I must regard “The Lady of Lyons” as one of the most successful dramatic efforts of modern times. It is popular, and justly so. It could not fail to be popular so long as the people have a heart. It abounds in sentiments which stir the soul as the sound of a trumpet. It proceeds rapidly and consequentially; the interest not for one moment being permitted to flag. Its incidents are admirably conceived and skillfully wrought into execution. Its dramatic persona, throughout, have the high merit of being natural, although, except in the case of Pauline, there is no marked individuality. She is a creation which would have done no dishonor to Shakspeare. She excites profound emotion. It has been sillily objected to her, that she is weak, mercenary, and at points ignoble. She is; and what then? We are not dealing with Clarissa Harlowe. Bulwer has painted a woman. The chief defect of the play lies in the heroine's consenting to wed Beauseant while aware of the existence and even the continued love of Claude. As the plot runs, there is a question in Pauline's soul between a comparatively trivial (because merely worldly) injury to her father, and utter ruin and despair inflicted upon her husband. Here there should not have been an instant's hesitation. The audience have no sympathy with any. Nothing on earth should have induced the wife to give up the living Melnotte. Only the assurance of his death could have justified her in sacrificing herself to Beauseant. As it is, we hate her for the sacrifice. The effect is repulsive — but I must be understood as calling this effect objectionable solely on the ground of its being at war with the whole genius of the play.



One of the most singular styles in the world — certainly one of the most loose — is that of the elder D’Israeli. For examples he thus begins his Chapter on Bibliomania: “The preceding article [that on Libraries] is honorable to literature.” Here no self-praise is intended. The writer means to say merely that the facts narrated in the preceding article are [page 247:] honorable, etc. Three-fourths of his sentences are constructed in a similar manner. The blunders evidently arise, however, from the author's preoccupation with his subject. His thought, or rather matter, outruns his pen, and drives him upon condensation at the expense of luminousness. The manner of D’Israeli has many of the traits of Gibbon — although little of the latter's precision.



If need were, I should have little difficulty, perhaps, in defending a certain apparent dogmatism to which I am prone, on the topic of versification.

“What is Poetry?” notwithstanding Leigh Hunt's rigmarolic attempt at answering it, is a query that, with great care and deliberate agreement before-hand on the exact value of certain leading words, may, possibly, be settled to the partial satisfaction of a few analytical intellects, but which, in the existing condition of metaphysics, never can be settled to the satisfaction of the majority; for the question is purely metaphysical, and the whole science of metaphysics is at present a chaos, through the impossibility of fixing the meanings of the words which its very nature compels it to employ. But as regards versification, this difficulty is only partial; for although one-third of the topic may be considered metaphysical, and thus may be mooted at the fancy of this individual or of that, still the remaining two-thirds belong, undeniably, to the mathematics. The questions ordinarily discussed with so much gravity in regard to rhythm, metre, etc., are susceptible of positive adjustment by demonstration. Their laws are merely a portion of the Median laws of form and quantity — of relation. In respect, then, to any of these ordinary questions — these sillily moot points which so often arise in common criticism — the prosodist would speak as weakly in saying “this or that proposition is probably so and so, or possibly so and so,” as would the mathematician in admitting that, in his humble opinion, or if he were not greatly mistaken, any two sides of a triangle were, together, greater than the third side. I must add, however, as some palliation of the discussions referred to, and of the objections so often urged with a sneer to “particular theories of versification binding no one but their inventor” — that there is really extant no such work as a Prosody Raisonnée. The Prosodies of the schools are merely collections of vague laws, with their more vague exceptions, based upon no principles whatever, but extorted in the most speculative manner from the usages of the ancients, who had no laws beyond those of their ears and fingers. “And these were sufficient,” it will be said, “since ‘The Iliad’ is melodious and harmonious beyond any thing of modern times.” Admit this: — but neither do we write in Greek, nor has the invention of modern times been as yet exhausted. An analysis based on the natural laws of which the bard of Scios was ignorant, would suggest multitudinous improvements to the best passages of even “The Iliad” — nor does it in any manner follow from the supposititious fact that Homer found in his ears and fingers a satisfactory system of rules (the point which I [column 2:] have just denied) — nor does it follow, I say, from this, that the rules which we deduce from the Homeric effects are to supersede those immutable principles of time, quantity, etc. — the mathematics, in short, of music — which must have stood to these Homeric effects in the relation of causes — the mediate causes of which these “ears and fingers” are simply the intermedia.



A book* which puzzles me beyond measure, since, while agreeing with its general conclusions, (except where it discusses prevision,) I invariably find fault with the reasoning through which the conclusions are attained. I think the treatise grossly illogical throughout. For example: — the origin of the work is thus stated in an introductory chapter:

“About twelve months since, I was asked by some friends to write a paper against Mesmerism — and I was furnished with materials by a highly esteemed quondam pupil, which proved incontestably that under some circumstances the operator might be duped — that hundreds of enlightened persons might equally be deceived — and certainly went far to show that the pretended science was wholly a delusion — a system of fraud and jugglery by which the imaginations of the credulous were held in thraldom through the arts of the designing. Perhaps in an evil hour I assented to the proposition thus made — but on reflection I found that the facts before me only led to the direct proof that certain phenomena might be counterfeited; and the existence of counterfeit coin is rather a proof that there is somewhere the genuine standard gold to be imitated.”

The fallacy here lies in a mere variation of what is called “begging the question.” Counterfeit coin is said to prove the existence of genuine: — this, of course, is no more than the truism that there can be no counterfeit where there is no genuine — just as there can be no badness where there is no goodness — the terms being purely relative. But because there can be no counterfeit where there is no original, does it in any manner follow that any undemonstrated original exists? In seeing a spurious coin we know it to be such by comparison with coins admitted to be genuine; but were no coin admitted to be genuine, how should we establish the counterfeit, and what right should we have to talk of counterfeits at all? Now, in the case of Mesmerism, our author is merely begging the admission. In saying that the existence of counterfeit proves the existence of real Mesmerism, he demands that the real be admitted. Either he demands this or there is no shadow of force in his proposition — for it is clear that we can pretend to be that which is not. A man, for instance, may feign himself a sphynx or a griffin, but it would never do to regard as thus demonstrated the actual existence of either griffins or sphynxes. A word alone — the word “counterfeit” — has been sufficient to lead Mr. Newnharn astray. People cannot be properly said to “counterfeit” prévision, etc., but to feign these phenomena.

Dr. Newnham's argument, of course, is by no [page 248:] means original with him, although he seems to pride himself on it as if it were. Dr. More says: “That there should be so universal a fame and fear of that which never was, nor is, nor can be ever in the world, is to me the greatest miracle of all. If there had not been, at some time or other, true miracles, it had not been so easy to impose on the people by false. The alchemist would never go about to sophisticate metals, to pass them off for true gold and silver, unless that such a thing was acknowledged as true gold and silver in the world.”

This is precisely the same idea as that of Dr. Newnham, and belongs to that extensive class of argumentation which is all point — deriving its whole effect from epigrammatism. That the belief in ghosts, or in a Deity, or in a future state, or in anything else credible or incredible — that any such belief is universal, demonstrates nothing more than that which needs no demonstration — the human unanimity — the identity of construction in the human brain — an identity of which the inevitable result must be, upon the whole, similar deductions from similar data.

Most especially do I disagree with the author of this book in his (implied) disparagement of the work of Chauncey Hare Townshend — a work to be valued properly only in a day to come.



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 247:]

*  Human Magnetism: Its Claim to Dispassionate Inquiry. Being an Attempt to show the Utility of its Application for the Relief of Human Suffering. By W. Newnham, M. R. S. L., Author of the Reciprocal Influence of Body and Mind. Wiley & Putnam.




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 176.



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