Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Marginalia [part II],” Democratic Review, December 1844, 15:580-594


[page 580, full page:]


[Continued from our last Number.]

[column 1:]


I AM not sure that Tennyson is not the greatest of poets. The uncertainty attending the public conception of the term “poet” alone prevents me from demonstrating that he is. Other bards produce effects which are, now and then, otherwise produced than by what we call poems, but Tennyson an effect which only a poem does. His alone are idiosyncratic poems. By the enjoyment or non-enjoyment of the “Morte D’Arthur,” or of the “Ænone,” I would test any one's idea sense.

There are passages in his works which rivet a conviction I had long entertained, that the indefinite is an element in the true ποιησις. Why do some persons fatigue themselves in attempts to unravel such phantasy-pieces as the “Lady of Shalott?” As well unweave the “ventum textilem.” If the author did not deliberately propose to himself a suggestive indefinitiveness of meaning, with the view of bringing about a definitiveness of vague and therefore of spiritual effects — this, at least, arose from the silent analytical promptings of that poetic genius which, in its supreme development, embodies all orders of intellectual capacity.

I know that indefinitiveness is an element of the true music — I mean of the true musical expression. Give to it any undue decision — imbue it with any very determinate tone — and you deprive it, at once, of its ethereal, its ideal, its intrinsic and essential character. You dispel its luxury of dream. You dissolve the atmosphere of the mystic upon which it floats. You exhaust it of its breath of fäery. It now becomes a tangible and easy [[easily]] appreciable idea — a thing of the earth, earthy. It has not, indeed, lost its power to please, but all which I consider the distinctiveness of that power. And to the uncultivated talent, or to the unimaginative apprehension, this deprivation of its most delicate grace will be, not unfrequently, a recommendation. A determinateness of expression is sought — and often by composers who should [column 2:] know better — is sought as a beauty rather than rejected as a blemish. Thus we have, even from high authorities, attempts at absolute imitation in music. Who can forget the sillinesses of the “Battle of Prague?” What man of taste but must laugh at the interminable drums, trumpets, blunderbusses, and thunder? “Vocal music,” says L’Abbate Gravina, who would have said the same thing of instrumental, “ought to imitate the natural language of the human feelings and passions, rather than the warblings of Canary birds, which our singers, now-a-days, affect so vastly to mimic with their quaverings and boasted cadences.” This is true only so far as the “rather” is concerned. If any music must imitate anything, it were assuredly better to limit the imitation as Gravina suggests.

Tennyson's shorter pieces abound in minute rhythmical lapses sufficient to assure me that — in common with all poets living or dead — he has neglected to make precise investigation of the principles of metre; but, on the other hand, so perfect is his rhythmical instinct in general, that, like the present Viscount Canterbury, he seems to see with his ear.



A man of genius, if not permitted to choose his own subject, will do worse, in letters, than if he had talents none at all. And here how imperatively is he controlled! To be sure, he can write to suit himself — but in the same manner his publishers print. From the nature of our Copy-Right laws, he has no individual powers. As for his free agency, it is about equal to that of the dean and chapter of the see-cathedral, in a British election of Bishops — an election held by virtue of the king's writ of congé d’élire, and specifying the person to be elected.



It may well be doubted whether a single paragraph of merit can be found either in the “Koran” of Lawrence Sterne, [page 581:] or in the “Lacon” of Colton, of which paragraph the origin, or at least the germ, may not be traced to Seneca, to Plutarch, (through Machiavelli) to Machiavelli himself, to Bacon, to Burdon, to Burton, to Bolinbroke [[Bolingbroke]], to Rochefoucault, to Balzac, the author of “La Maniêre [[Manière]] de Bien Penser,” or to Bielfeld, the German, who wrote, in French, “Les Premiers Traits de L’Erudition Universelle.”



We might give two plausible derivations of the epithet “weeping” as applied to the willow. We might say that the word has its origin in the pendulous character of the long branches, which suggest the idea of water dripping; or we might assert that the term comes from a fact in the Natural History of the tree. It has a vast insensible perspiration, which, upon sudden cold, condenses, and sometimes is precipitated in a shower. Now, one might very accurately determine the bias and value of a man's powers of causality, by observing which of these two derivations he would adopt. The former is, beyond question, the true; and, for this reason — that common or vulgar epithets are universally suggested by common or immediately obvious things, without strict regard of any exactitude in application: — but the latter would be greedily seized by nine philologists out of ten, for no better cause than its epigrammatism — than the pointedness with which the singular fact seems to touch the occasion.

Here, then, is a subtle source of error which Lord Bacon has neglected. It is an Idol of the Wit.



I believe that odors have an altogether idiosyncratic force, in affecting us through association; a force differing essentially from that of objects addressing the touch, the taste, the sight, or the hearing.



It would have been becoming, I think, in Bulwer, to have made at least a running acknowledgment of that extensive indebtedness to Arnay's “Private Life of the Romans”* which he had so little scruple about incurring, during the composition of “The Last Days of Pompeii.” He acknowledges, [column 2:] I believe, what he owes to Sir William Gell's “Pompeiana.” Why this? — why not that?



La Harpe (who was no critic) has, nevertheless, done little more than strict justice to the fine taste and precise finish of Racine, in all that regards the Minor Morals of Literature. In these he as far excels Pope, as Pope the veriest dolt in his own “Dunciad.”



“That evil predominates over good, becomes evident, when we consider that there can be found no aged person who would be willing to re-live the life he has already lived.” — Volney.

The idea here, is not distinctly made out; for unless through the context, we cannot be sure whether the author means merely this: — that every aged person fancies he might, in a different course of life, have been happier than in the one actually lived, and, for this reason, would not be willing to live his life over again, but some other life; — or, whether the sentiment intended is this: — that if, upon the grave's brink, the choice were offered any aged person between the expected death and the re-living the old life, that person would prefer to die.

The first proposition is, perhaps, true; but the last (which is the one designed) is not only doubtful, in point of mere fact, but is of no effect, even if granted to be true, in sustaining the original proposition — that evil predominates over good.

It is assumed that the aged person will not re-live his life, because he knows that its evil predominated over its good. The source of error lies in the word “knows” — in the assumption that we can ever be, really, in possession of the whole knowledge to which allusion is cloudily made. But there is a seeming — a fictitious knowledge; and this verily seeming knowledge it is, of what the life has been, which incapacitates the aged person from deciding the question upon its merits. He blindly deduces a notion of the happiness of the original real life — a notion of its preponderating evil or good — from a consideration of the secondary or supposititious one. In his estimate he merely strikes a balance between [page 582:] events, and leaves quite out of the account that elastic Hope which is the Harbinger and the Eos of all. Man's real life is happy, chiefly because he is ever expecting that it soon will be so. But, in regarding the supposititious life, we paint to ourselves chill certainties for warm expectations, and grievances quadrupled in being foreseen. But because we cannot avoid doing this — strain our imaginative faculties as we will — because it is so very difficult — so nearly impossible a task, to fancy the known unknown — the done unaccomplished — and because (through our inability to fancy all this) we prefer death to a secondary life — does it, in any manner, follow that the evil of the properly-considered real existence does predominate over the good?

In order that a just estimate be made by Mr. Volney's “aged person,” and from this estimate a judicious choice: — in order, again, that from this estimate and choice, we deduce any clear comparison of good with evil in human existence, it will be necessary that we obtain the opinion, or “choice,” upon this point, from an aged person who shall be in condition to appreciate, with precision, the hopes he is naturally led to leave out of question, but which reason tells us he would as strongly experience as ever, in the absolute reliving of the life. On the other hand, too, he must be in condition to dismiss from the estimate the fears which he actually feels, and which show him bodily the ills that are to happen, but which fears, again, reason assures us he would not, in the absolute secondary life, encounter. Now what mortal was ever in condition to make these allowances? — to perform impossibilities in giving these considerations their due weight? What mortal, then, was ever in condition to make a well-grounded choice? How, from an ill-grounded one, are we to make deductions which shall guide us aright? How out of error shall we fabricate truth?



A remarkable work,* and one which I find much difficulty in admitting to be the composition of a woman. Not that many good and glorious things have not been the composition of women — but, because, here, the severe precision of style, the thoroughness, [column 2:] and the luminousness, are points never observable, in even the most admirable of their writings. Who is Lady Georgiana Fullerton? Who is that Countess of Dacre, who edited “Ellen Wareham,” — the most passionate of fictions — approached, only in some particulars of passion, by this?

The great defect of “Ellen Middleton,” lies in the disgusting sternness, captiousness, and bullet-headedness of her husband. We cannot sympathize with her love for him. And the intense selfishness of the rejected lover precludes that compassion which is designed. Alice is a creation of true genius. The imagination, throughout, is of a lofty order, and the snatches of original verse would do honor to any poet living. But the chief merit, after all, is that of the style — about which it is difficult to say too much in the way of praise, although it has, now and then, an odd Gallicism — such as “she lost her head,” meaning she grew crazy. There is much, in the whole manner of this book, which puts me in mind of “Caleb Williams.”



The God-abstractions of the modern polytheism are nearly in as sad a state of perplexity and promiscuity as were the more substantial deities of the Greeks. Not a quality named that does not impinge upon some one other; and Porphyry admits that Vesta, Rhea, Ceres, Themis, Proserpina, Bacchus, Attis, Adonis, Silenus, Priapus, and the Satyrs, were merely different terms for the same thing. Even gender was never precisely settled. Servius on Virgil mentions a Venus with a beard. In Macrobius, too, Calvus talks of her as if she were a man; while Valerius Soranus expressly calls Jupiter “the Mother of the Gods.”



Von Raumer says that Enslen, a German optician, conceived the idea of throwing a shadowy figure, by optical means, into the chair of Banquo; and that the thing was readily done. Intense effect was produced; and I do not doubt that an American audience might be electrified by the feat. But our managers not only have no invention of their own, but no energy to avail themselves of that of others. [page 583:]



It is observable that, in his brief account of the Creation, Moses employs the words, Bara Elohim (the Gods created), no less than thirty times, using the noun in the plural with the verb in the singular. Elsewhere, however — in Deuteronomy, for example — he employs the singular, Eloah.



Among the moralists who keep themselves erect by the perpetual swallowing of pokers, it is the fashion to decry the “fashionable” novels. These works have their demerits; but a vast influence which they exert for an undeniable good, has never yet been duly considered. Ingenuos didicisse fideliter libros, emollit mores nec sinit esse feros.” Now, the fashionable novels are just the books which most do circulate among the class unfashionable; and their effect in softening the worst callosities — in smoothing the most disgusting asperities of vulgarism, is prodigious. With the herd, to admire and to attempt imitation are the same thing. What if, in this case, the manners imitated are frippery; better frippery than brutality — and, after all, there is little danger that the intrinsic value of the sturdiest iron will be impaired by a coating of even the most diaphanous gilt.



The ancients had at least half an idea that we travelled on horseback to heaven. See a passage of Passeri, “de animæ transvectione” — quoted by Caylus. See, also, old tombs.



A corrupt and impious heart — a merely prurient fancy — a Saturnian brain in which invention has only the phosphorescent glimmer of rottenness.* Worthless, body and soul. A foul reproach to the nation that engendered and endures him. A fetid battener upon the garbage of thought. No man. A beast. A pig. Less scrupulous than a carrion-crow, and not very much less filthy than a Wilmer.



In reading some books we occupy ourselves chiefly with the thoughts of the author; in perusing others, exclusively with our own. And this * [[]] is one of the “others” — a suggestive book. [column 2:] But there are two classes of suggestive books — the positively and the negatively suggestive. The former suggest by what they say; the latter by what they might and should have said. It makes little difference, after all. In either case the true book-purpose is answered.



Sallust, too. He had much the same free-and-easy idea, and Metternich himself could not have quarrelled with his “Impune quæ libet facere, id est esse regem.”



The first periodical moral essay! Mr. Macaulay forgets the “Courtier of Baldazzar Castiglione — 1528.”



For my part I agree with Joshua Barnes: — nobody but Solomon could have written the Iliad. The catalogue of ships was the work of Robins.



The à priori reasoners upon government are, of all plausible people, the most preposterous. They only argue too cleverly to permit my thinking them silly enough to be themselves deceived by their own arguments. Yet even this is possible; for there is something in the vanity of logic which addles a man's brains. Your true logician gets, in time, to be logicalized, and then, so far as regards himself, the universe is one word. A thing, for him, no longer exists. He deposits upon a sheet of paper a certain assemblage of syllables, and fancies that their meaning is riveted by the act of deposition. I am serious in the opinion that some such process of thought passes through the mind of the “practiced” logician, as he makes note of the thesis proposed. He is not aware that he thinks in this way — but, unwittingly, he so thinks. The syllables deposited acquire, in his view, a new character. While afloat in his brain, he might have been brought to admit the possibility that these syllables were variable exponents of various phases of thought; but he will not admit this if he once gets them upon the paper.

In a single page of “Mill,” I find the word “force” employed four times; and each employment varies the idea. [page 584:] The fact is that à priori argument is much worse than useless except in the mathematical sciences, where it is possible to obtain precise meanings. If there is any one subject in the world to which it is utterly and radically inapplicable, that subject is Government. The identical arguments used to sustain Mr. Bentham's positions, might, with little exercise of ingenuity, be made to overthrow them; and, by ringing small changes on the words “leg-of-mutton,” and “turnip” (changes so gradual as to escape detection), I could “demonstrate” that a turnip was, is, and of right ought to be a leg-of-mutton.



Has any one observed the excessively close resemblance in subject, thought, general manner and particular point, which this clever composition* bears to the “Hudibras” of Butler?



The concord of sound-and-sense principle was never better exemplified than in these lines: —

“Ast amans charæ thalamum puellæ

Deserit flens, et tibi verba dicit

Aspera amplexu teneræ cupito a —

— vulsus amicæ.”



Miss Gould has much in common with Mary Howitt; — the characteristic trait of each being a sportive, quaint, epigrammatic grace, that keeps clear of the absurd by never employing itself upon very exalted topics. The verbal style of the two ladies is identical. Miss Gould has the more talent of the two, but is somewhat the less original. She has occasional flashes of a far higher order of merit than appertains to her ordinary manner. Her “Dying Storm” might have been written by Campbell.



Cornelius Webbe is one of the best of that numerous school of extravaganzists who sprang from the ruins of Lamb. We must be in perfectly good humor, however, with ourselves and all the world, to be much pleased with [column 2:] such works as “The Man about Town,” in which the harum-scarum, hyper-excursive mannerism is carried to an excess which is frequently fatiguing.



Nearly, if not quite the best “Essay on a Future State.” The arguments called “Deductions from our Reason,” are, rightly enough, addressed more to the feelings (a vulgar term not to be done without), than to our reason. The arguments deduced from Revelation are (also rightly enough) brief. The pamphlet proves nothing, of course; its theorem is not to be proved.



Not so: — A gentleman, with a pug nose is a contradiction in terms. — “Who can live idly and without manual labour, and will bear the port, charge and countenance of a gentleman, he alone should be called master and be taken for a gentleman.” — Sir Thomas Smith's “Commonwealth of England.”



It is the curse of a certain order of mind, that it can never rest satisfied with the consciousness of its ability to do a thing. Still less is it content with doing it. It must both know and show how it was done.



Here is something at which I find it impossible not to laugh;§ and yet, I laugh without knowing why. That incongruity is the principle of all non-convulsive laughter, is to my mind as clearly demonstrated as any problem in the “Principia Mathematica;” but here I cannot trace the incongruous. It is there, I know. Still I do not see it. In the meantime let me laugh.



The “British Spy” of Wirt seems an imitation of the “Turkish Spy,” upon which Montesquieu's “Persian Letters” are also based. Marana's work was in Italian — Doctor Johnson errs.



The style is so involute,|| that one cannot help fancying it must be falsely [page 585:] constructed. If the use of language is to convey ideas, then it is nearly as much a demerit that our words seem to be, as that they are, indefensible. A man's grammar, like Cæsar's wife, must not only be pure, but above suspicion of impurity.



“It was a pile of the oyster, which yielded the precious pearls of the South, and the artist had judiciously painted some with their lips parted, and showing within the large precious fruit in the attainment of which Spanish cupidity had already proved itself capable of every peril, as well as every crime. At once true and poetical, no comment could have been more severe, &c.” Mr. Simms’ “Damsel of Darien.” Body of Bacchus! — only think of poetical beauty in the countenance of a gaping oyster!

“And how natural, in an age so fanciful, to believe that the stars and starry groups beheld in the new world for the first time by the native of the old were especially assigned for its government and protection.” — Now, if by the Old World be meant the East, and by the New World the West, I am at a loss to know what are the stars seen in the one which cannot be equally seen in the other.

Mr. Simms has abundant faults — or had; — among which inaccurate English, a proneness to revolting images, and pet phrases, are the most noticeable. Nevertheless, leaving out of question Brockden Brown and Hawthorne (who are each a genus), he is immeasurably the best writer of fiction in America. He has more vigor, more imagination, more movement and more general capacity than all our novelists (save Cooper), combined.



This “species of nothingness” is quite as reasonable, at all events, as any “kind of something-ness.” See Cowley's “Creation,” where,

An unshaped kind of something first appeared.



Here is an edition,* which, so far as microscopical excellence and absolute accuracy of typography are concerned, might well be prefaced with the phrase of the Koran — “There is no error in [column 2:] this book.” We cannot call a single inverted o an error — can we? But I am really as glad of having found that inverted o, as ever was a Columbus or an Archimedes. What, after all, are continents discovered, or silversmiths exposed? Give us a good o turned upside-down, and a whole herd of bibliomanic Arguses overlooking it for years.



“That sweet smile and serene — that smile never seen but upon the face of the dying and the dead.” — Ernest Maltravers. Bulwer is not the man to look a stern fact in the face. He would rather sentimentalize upon a vulgar although picturesque error. Who ever really saw anything but horror in the smile of the dead? We so earnestly desire to fancy it “sweet” — that is the source of the mistake; if, indeed, there ever was a mistake in the question.



This misapplication of quotations is clever, and has a capital effect when well done; but Lord Brougham has not exactly that kind of capacity which the thing requires. One of the best hits in this way is made by Tieck, and I have lately seen it appropriated, with interesting complacency, in an English Magazine. The author of the “Journey into the Blue Distance,” is giving an account of some young ladies, not very beautiful, whom he caught in mediis rebus, at their toilet. “They were curling their monstrous heads,” says he, “as Shakspeare says of the waves in a storm.”



Mr. Hawthorne is one of the very few American story-tellers whom the critic can commend with the hand upon the heart. He is not always original in his entire theme — (I am not quite sure, even, that he has not borrowed an idea or two from a gentleman whom I know very well, and who is honored in the loan) — but, then, his handling is always thoroughly original. His style, although never vigorous, is purity itself. His imagination is rich. His sense of art is exquisite, and his executive ability great. He has little or no variety of tone. He handles all subjects in the same subdued, misty, dreamy, suggestive, inuendo way, and although I think him the truest genius, [page 586:] upon the whole, which our literature possesses, I cannot help regarding him as the most desperate mannerist of his day.

P. S. The chief — not the leading idea in this story “(Drowne's Wooden Image),” is precisely that of Michael Angelo's couplet, borrowed from Socrates:

Non ha l’ottimo artist a alcun concerto

Che un marmo solo in se non circunscriva.



Here are both Dickens and Bulwer perpetually using the adverb “directly” in the sense of “as soon as.” “Directly he came I did so and so” — “Directly I knew it I said this and that.” But observe! — “Grammar is hardly taught” [in the United States], “being thought an unnecessary basis for other learning.” I quote “America and her Resources,” by the British Counsellor at law, John Bristed.



At Ermenonville, too, there is a striking instance of the Gallic rhythm with which a Frenchman regards the English verse. There Gerardin has the following inscription to the memory of Shenstone:

This plain stone

To William Shenstone.

In his writings he displayed

A mind natural;

At Leasowes he laid

Arcadian greens rural.

There are few Parisians, speaking English, who would find anything particularly the matter with this epitaph.



Here is a plot which, with all its complexity, has no adaptation — no dependency; — it is involute and nothing more — having all the air of G——'s wig, or the cycles and epicycles in Ptolemy's “Almagest.”



“Accursed be the heart that does not wildly throb, and palsied be the eye that will not weep over the woes of the wanderer of Switzerland.” — Monthly Register, 1807. [column 2:]

This is “dealing damnation round the land” to some purpose; — upon the reader, and not upon the author as usual. For my part I shall be one of the damned; for I have in vain endeavored to see even a shadow of merit in anything ever written by either of the Montgomeries.



Strange — that I should here* find the only non-execrable barbarian attempts at imitation of the Greek and Roman measures!



Upon her was lavished the enthusiastic applause of the most correct taste, and of the deepest sensibility. Human triumph, in all that is most exciting and delicious, never went beyond that which she experienced — or never but in the case of Taglioni. For what are the extorted adulations that fall to the lot of the conqueror? — what even are the extensive honors of the popular author — his far-reaching fame — his high influence — or the most devout public appreciation of his works — to that rapturous approbation of the personal woman — that spontaneous, instant, present, and palpable applause — those irrepressible acclamations — those eloquent sighs and tears which the idolized Malibran at once heard, and saw, and deeply felt that she deserved? Her brief career was one gorgeous dream — for even the many sad intervals of her grief were but dust in the balance of her glory. In this book I read much about the causes which curtailed her existence; and there seems to hang around them, as here given, an indistinctness which the fair memorialist tries in vain to illumine. She seems never to approach the full truth. She seems never to reject that the speedy decease was but a condition of the rapturous life. No thinking person, hearing Malibran sing, could have doubted that she would die in the spring of her days. She crowded ages into hours. She left the world at twenty-five, having existed her thousands of years.


[page 587:]


Were I to consign these volumes,* altogether, to the hands of any very young friend of mine, I could not, in conscience, describe them otherwise than as “tam multi, tam grandes, tam pretiosi codices;[[”]] and it would grieve me much to add the “incendite omnes illas membranas.”



This reasoning is about as convincing as would be that of a traveller who, going from Maryland to New York without entering Pennsylvania, should advance this feat as an argument against Leibnitz’ Law of Continuity — according to which nothing passes from one state to another without passing through all the intermediate states.



Not so: — The first number of the “Gentleman's Magazine” has published on the first of January, 1731; but long before this — in 1681 — there appeared the “Monthly Recorder” with all the Magazine features.

I have a number of the “London Magazine,” dated 1760; — commenced 1732, at least, but I have reason to think much earlier.



Stolen, body and soul (and spoilt in the stealing), from a paper of the same title in the “European Magazine” for December, 1817. Blunderingly done throughout, and must have cost more trouble than an original thing. This makes paragraph 33 of my “Chapter on American Cribbage.” The beauty of these exposés must lie in the precision and unanswerability with which they are given — in day and date — in chapter and verse — and, above all, in an unveiling of the minute trickeries by which the thieves hope to disguise their stolen wares.

I must soon a tale unfold, and an astonishing tale it will be. The C—— bears away the bell. The ladies, however, should positively not be guilty of these tricks; — for one has never the heart to unmask or deplume them.

After all, there is this advantage in purloining one's Magazine papers; — we are never forced to dispose of them under prime cost.



“ ‘Amare et sapere vix Deo conceditur,’ as the acute Seneca well observes.” [column 2:]

However acute might be Seneca, still he was not sufficiently acute to say this. The sentence is often attributed to him, but it is not to be found in his works. “Semel insanavimus omnes,” a phrase often quoted, is invariably placed to the account of Horace, and with equal error. It is from the “De Honesto Amore” of the Italian Mantuanus, who has

Id commune malum; semel insanavimus omnes.

In the title, “De Honesto Amore,” by the way, Mantuanus misconceives the force of honestus — just as Dryden does in his translation of Virgil's

Et quocunque Deus circum caput egit honestum;

which he renders

On whate’er side he turns his honest face.



“Jehovah” is not Hebrew.



Macaulay, in his just admiration of Addison, over-rates Tickell, and does not seem to be aware how much the author of the “Elegy” is indebted to French models. Boileau, especially, he robbed without mercy, and without measure. A flagrant example is here. Boileau has the lines:

En vain contre “Le Cid” un ministre se ligue;

Tout Paris pour Chiméne a les yeux de Rodrigue.

Tickell thus appropriates them:

While the charm ‘d reader with thy thought complies,

And views thy Rosamond with Henry's eyes.



No; — he fell by his own Fame. Like Richmann, he was blasted by the fires himself had sought, and obtained, from the Heavens.



I have at length attained the last page, which is a thing to thank God for; and all this may be logic, but I am sure it is nothing more. Until I get the means of refutation, however, [page 588:] I must be content to say, with the Jesuits, Le Sueur and Jacquier, that “I acknowledge myself obedient to the decrees of the Pope against the motion of the Earth.”



How overpowering a style is that of Curran! I use “overpowering” in the sense of the English exquisite. I can imagine nothing more distressing than the extent of his eloquence.



“With all his faults, however, this author is a man of respectable powers.”

Thus discourses, of William Godwin, the “London Monthly Magazine:” May, 1818.



“Rhododaphne” is brim-full of music: — e. g.

By living streams, in sylvan shades,

Where wind and wave symphonious make

Rich melody, the youths and maids

No more with choral music wake

Lone Echo from her tangled brake.



How thoroughly — how radically — how wonderfully has “Undine” been misunderstood! Beneath its obvious meaning there runs an under-current, simple, quite intelligible, artistically managed, and richly philosophical.

From internal evidence afforded by the book itself, I gather that the author suffered from the ills of a mar-arranged marriage — the bitter reflections thus engendered inducing the fable.

In the contrast between the artless, thoughtless, and careless character of Undine before possessing a soul, and her serious, enwrapt, and anxious yet happy condition after possessing it, — a condition which, with all its multiform disquietudes, she still feels to be preferable to her original state, — Fouqué has beautifully painted the difference between the heart unused to love, and the heart which has received its inspiration.

The jealousies which follow the marriage, arising from the conduct of Bertalda, are but the natural troubles of love; but the persecutions of Kuhleborn and the other water-spirits who take umbrage at Huldbrand's treatment of his wife, are meant to picture certain difficulties from the interference of relations in conjugal matters — difficulties [column 2:] which the author has himself experienced. The warning of Undine to Huldbrand — “Reproach me not upon the waters, or we part for ever” — is intended to embody the truth that quarrels between man and wife are seldom or never irremediable unless when taking place in the presence of third parties. The second wedding of the knight with his gradual forgetfulness of Undine, and Undine's intense grief beneath the waters — are dwelt upon so pathetically — so passionately — that there can be no doubt of the author's personal opinions on the subject of second marriages — no doubt of his deep personal interest in the question. How thrillingly are these few and simple words made to convey his belief that the mere death of a beloved wife does not imply a separation so final or so complete as to justify an union with another! — “The fisherman had loved Undine with exceeding tenderness, and it was a doubtful conclusion to his mind that the mere disappearance of his beloved child could be properly viewed as her death.” — This is where the old man is endeavoring to dissuade the knight from wedding Bertalda.

I cannot say whether the novelty of the conception of “Undine,” or the loftiness and purity of its ideality, or the intensity of its pathos, or the rigor of its simplicity, or the high artistical ability with which all are combined into a well-kept, well-motivirt whole of absolute unity of effect — is the particular chiefly to be admired.

How delicate and graceful are the transitions from subject to subject! — a point severely testing the autorial power — as, when, for the purposes of the story, it becomes necessary that the knight, with Undine and Bertalda, shall proceed down the Danube. An ordinary novelist would have here tormented both himself and his readers, in his search for a sufficient motive for the voyage. But, in a fable such as “Undine,” how all-sufficient — how well in keeping — appears the simple motive assigned! — “In this grateful union of friendship and affection winter came and passed away; and spring, with its foliage of tender green, and its heaven of softest blue, succeeded to gladden the hearts of the three inmates of the castle. What wonder, then, that its storks and swallows inspired them also with a disposition to travel?” [page 589:]

How exquisitely artistic is the management of imagination, so visible in the passages where the brooks are water-spirits and the water-spirits brooks — neither distinctly either! What can be more ethereally ideal than the frequent indeterminate glimpses caught of Kuhleborn? — or than his wild lapses into shower and foam? — or than the vanishing of the white wagoner and his white horses into the shrieking and devouring flood? — or than the gentle melting of the passionately weeping bride into the crystal waters of the Danube? What can be more divine than the character of the soul-less Undine? — what more august than the transition into the soul-possessing wife? What can be more purely beautiful than the whole book? Fictitious literature has nothing superior, in loftiness of conception, or in felicity of execution, to those final passages which embody the uplifting of the stone from the fount by the order of Bertalda — the silent and sorrowful re-advent of Undine — and the rapturous death of Sir Huldbrand in the embraces of his spiritual wife.



These twelve Letters* are occupied, in part, with minute details of such atrocities on the part of the British, during their sojourn in Charleston, as the quizzing of Mrs. Wilkinson and the pilfering of her shoe-buckles — the remainder being made up of the indignant comments of Mrs. Wilkinson herself.

It is very true, as the Preface assures us, that “few records exist of American women either before or during the war of the Revolution, and that those perpetuated by History want the charm of personal narration,” — but then we are well delivered from such charms of personal narration as we find here. The only supposable merit in the compilation is that dogged air of truth with which the fair authoress relates the lamentable story of her misadventures. I look in vain for that “useful information” about which I have heard — unless, indeed, it is in the passage where we are told that the letter-writer “was a young and beautiful widow; that her hand-writing is clear and feminine; and that the letters were copied by herself into a blank quarto book, on [column 2:] which the extravagant sale-price marks one of the features of the times:” — there are other extravagant sale-prices, however, besides that; — it was seventy-five cents that I paid for these “Letters.” Besides, they are silly, and I cannot conceive why Miss Gilman thought the public wished to read them. It is really too bad for her to talk at a body, in this style, about “gathering relics of past history,” and “floating down streams of time.”

As for Mrs. Wilkinson, I am really rejoiced that she lost her shoe-buckles.



A rather bold and quite unnecessary plagiarism — from a book too well known to promise impunity.

“It is now full time to begin to brush away the insects of literature, whether creeping or fluttering, which have too long crawled over and soiled the intellectual ground of this country. It is high time to shake the little sickly stems of many a puny plant, and make its fading flowerets fall.” — “Monthly Register” — p. 243 — Vol. 2 — N. York, 1807.

On the other hand — “I have brushed away the insects of Literature, whether fluttering or creeping; I have shaken the little stems of many a puny plant, and the flowerets have fallen.” — Preface to the “Pursuits of Literature.”



Had John Bernouilli lived to have experience of G———'s occiput and sinciput, he would have abandoned, in dismay, his theory of the non-existence of hard bodies.



As to this last term (“high-binder”) which is so confidently quoted as modern (“not in use, certainly, before 1819”), I can refute all that is said by referring to a journal in my own possession — “The Weekly Inspector,” for December 17, 1806 — published in New York:

“On Christmas Eve, a party of banditti, amounting, it is stated, to forty or fifty members of an association, calling themselves ‘High-Binders,’ assembled in front of St. Peter's Church, in Barclay-street, expecting that the Catholic ritual would be performed with a degree of pomp and splendor which has [page 590:] usually been omitted in this city. These ceremonies, however, not taking place, the High-Binders manifested great displeasure.”

In a subsequent number the association are called “High-Binders.” They were Irish.



Perhaps Mr. Barrow is right after all, and the dearth of genius in America is owing to the continual teasing of the musquitoes. See “Voyage to Cochin-China.”



Mrs. Amelia Welby has all the imagination of Maria del Occidente, with more refined taste; and all the passion of Mrs. Norton, with a nicer ear, and (what is surprising) equal art. Very few American poets are at all comparable with her in the true poetic qualities. As for our poetesses (an absurd but necessary word), none of them approach her.

With some modifications, this little poem would do honor to any one living or dead.

The moon within our casement beams,

Our blue-eyed babe hath dropped to sleep,

And I have left it to its dreams

Amid the shadows deep,

To muse beside the silver tide

Whose waves are rippling at thy side.

It is a still and lovely spot

Where they have laid thee down to rest;

The white-rose and forget-me-not

Bloom sweetly on thy breast,

And birds and streams with liquid lull

Have made the stillness beautiful.

And softly thro’ the forest bars

Light lovely shapes, on glossy plumes,

Float ever in, like winged stars,

Amid the purpling glooms:

Their sweet songs, borne from tree to tree,

Thrill the light leaves with melody.

Alas! the very path I trace,

In happier hours thy footsteps made;

This spot was once thy resting-place;

Within the silent shade

Thy white hand trained the fragrant bough

That drops its blossoms o’er me now.

’Twas here at eve we used to rove;

’Twas here I breathed my whispered vows,

And sealed them on thy lips, my love,

Beneath the apple-boughs.

Our hearts had melted into one,

But Death undid what Love had done. [column 2:]

Alas! too deep a weight of thought

Had fill’d thy heart in youth's sweet hour;

It seem’d with love and bliss o’erfraught;

As fleeting passion-flower

Unfolding ’neath a southern sky,

To blossom soon and soon to die.

Yet in these calm and blooming bowers,

I seem to see thee still,

Thy breath seems floating o’er the flowers,

Thy whisper on the hill;

The clear faint star-light and the sea

Are whispering to my heart of thee.

No more thy smiles my heart rejoice —

Yet still I start to meet thine eye,

And call upon the low sweet voice

That gives me no reply —

And list within my silent door

For the light feet that come no more.

In a critical mood I would speak of these stanzas thus: The subject has nothing of originality: — A widower muses by the grave of his wife. Here then is a great demerit; for originality of theme, if not absolutely first sought, should be sought among the first. Nothing is more clear than this proposition — although denied by the chlorine critics (the grassgreen). The desire of the new is an element of the soul. The most exquisite pleasures grow dull in repetition. A strain of music enchants. Heard a second time it pleases. Heard a tenth, it does not displease. We hear it a twentieth, and ask ourselves why we admired. At the fiftieth it endures ennui — at the hundredth disgust.

Mrs. Welby's theme is, therefore, radically faulty so far as originality is concerned; — but of common themes, it is one of the very best among the class passionate. True passion is prosaic — homely. Any strong mental emotion stimulates all the mental faculties; thus grief the imagination: — but in proportion as the effect is strengthened, the cause surceases. The excited fancy triumphs — the grief is subdued — chastened — is no longer grief. In this mood we are poetic, and it is clear that a poem now written will be poetic in the exact ratio of its dispassion. A passionate poem is a contradiction in terms. When I say, then, that Mrs. Welby's stanzas are good among the class passionate (using the term commonly and falsely applied), I mean that her tone is properly subdued, and is not so much the tone of passion, as of a [page 591:] gentle and melancholy regret, interwoven with a pleasant sense of the natural loveliness surrounding the lost in the tomb, and a memory of her human beauty while alive. — Elegiac poems should either assume this character, or dwell purely on the beauty (moral or physical) of the departed — or, better still, utter the notes of triumph. I have endeavored to carry out this latter idea in some verses which I have called “Lenore.”

Those who object to the proposition — that poetry and passion are discordant — would, thus, cite Mrs. Welby's poem as an instance of a passionate one. It is precisely similar to the hundred others which have been cited for like purpose. But it is not passionate; and for this reason (with others having regard to her fine genius) it is poetical. The critics upon this topic display an amusing ignoratio elenchi.

Dismissing originality and tone, I pass to the general handling, than which nothing could be more pure, more natural, or more judicious. The perfect keeping of the various points is admirable — and the result is entire unity of impression, or effect. The time, a moonlight night; the locality of the grave; the passing thither from the cottage, and the conclusion of the theme with the return to “the silent door;” the babe left, meanwhile, “to its dreams;” the “white rose and forget-me-not” upon the breast of the entombed; the “birds and streams, with liquid lull, that make the stillness beautiful;” the birds whose songs “thrill the light leaves with melody;” — all these are appropriate and lovely conceptions: — only quite unoriginal; — and (be it observed), the higher order of genius should, and will, combine the original with that which is natural — not in the vulgar sense, (ordinary) — but in the artistic sense, which has reference to the general intention of Nature. — We have this combination well effected in the lines:

And softly through the forest bars

Light lovely shapes, on glossy plumes,

Float ever in, like winged stars,

Amid the purpling glooms —

which are, unquestionably, the finest in the poem.

The reflections suggested by the scene — commencing: [column 2:]

Alas! the very path I trace,

are, also, something more than merely natural, and are richly ideal; especially the cause assigned for the early death; and “the fragrant bough”

That drops its blossoms o’er me now.

The two concluding stanzas are remarkable examples of common fancies rejuvenated, and etherealized by grace of expression, and melody of rhythm.

The “light lovely shapes” in the third stanza (however beautiful in themselves), are defective, when viewed in reference to the “birds” of the stanza preceding. The topic “birds” is dismissed in the one paragraph, to be resumed in the other.

“Drops,” in the last line of the fourth stanza, is improperly used in an active sense. To drop is a neuter verb. An apple drops; we let the apple fall.

The repetition (“seemed,” “seem,” “seems,”) in the sixth and seventh stanzas, is ungraceful; so also that of “heart,” in the last line of the seventh, and the first of the eighth. The words “breathed” and “whispered,” in the second line of the fifth stanza, have a force too nearly identical. “Neath,”just below, is an awkward contraction. All contractions are awkward. It is no paradox, that the more prosaic the construction of verse, the better. Inversions should be dismissed. The most forcible lines are the most direct. Mrs. Welby owes three-fourths of her power (so far as style is concerned), to her freedom from these vulgar, and particularly English errors — elision and inversion. O’er is, however, too often used by her in place of over, and ’twas for it was. We see instances here. The only inversions, strictly speaking, are

The moon within our casement beams,

and — “Amid the shadows deep.”

The versification throughout, is unusually good. Nothing can excel

And birds and streams with liquid lull

Have made the stillness beautiful;

or —

And sealed them on thy lips, my love,

Beneath the apple-boughs; [page 592:]

or the whole of the concluding stanza, if we leave out of view the unpleasant repetition of “And,” at the commencement of the third and fifth lines. “Thy white hand trained” (see stanza the fourth) involves four consonants, that unite with difficulty — ndtr — and the harshness is rendered more apparent, by the employment of the spondee, “hand trained,” in place of an iambus. “Melody,” is a feeble termination of the third stanza's last line. The syllable dy is not full enough to sustain the rhyme. All these endings, liberty, property, happily, and the like, however justified by authority, are grossly objectionable. Upon the whole, there are some poets in America (Bryant and Sprague, for example), who equal Mrs. Welby in the negative merits of that limited versification which they chiefly affect — the iambic pentameter — but none equal her in the richer and positive merits of rhythmical variety, conception — invention. They, in the old routine, rarely err. She often surprises, and always delights, by novel, rich and accurate combination of the ancient musical expressions.



How thoroughly comprehensive is the account of Adam, as given at the bottom of the old picture in the Vatican! — “Adam, divinitus edoctus, primus scientiarum et literarum inventor.”



A ballad entitled “Indian Serenade,” and put into the mouth of the hero, Vasco Nunez, is, perhaps, the most really meritorious portion of Mr. Simms’ “Damsel of Darien.” This stanza is full of music:

And their wild and mellow voices

Still to hear along the deep

Everv brooding star rejoices,

While the billow, on its pillow,

Lulled to silence seems to sleep.

And also this:

’Tis the wail for life they waken

By Samana's yielding shore —

With the tempest it is shaken;

The wild ocean is in motion,

And the song is heard no more.



Talking of conundrums: — Why will a geologist put no faith in the Fable of [column 2:] the Fox that lost his tail? Because he knows that no animal remains have ever been found in trap.



Twenty years ago credulity was the characteristic trait of the mob; incredulity the distinctive feature of the philosophic; now the case is conversed. The wise are wisely averse from disbelief. To be sceptical is no longer evidence either of information or of wit.



The title of this book* deceives us. It is by no means “talk” as men understand it — not that true talk of which Boswell has been the best historiographer. In a word it is not gossip which has been never better defined than by Basil, who calls it “talk for talk's sake,” nor more thoroughly comprehended than by Horace Walpole and Mary Wortley Montague, who made it a profession and a purpose. Embracing all things, it has neither beginning, middle, nor end. Thus of the gossiper it was not properly said that “he commences his discourse by jumping in medias res.” For, clearly, your gossiper commences not at all. He is begun. He is already begun. He is always begun. In the matter of end he is indeterminate. And by these extremes shall ye know him to be of the Cæsars — porphyrogenitus — of the right vein — of the true blood — of the blue blood — of the sangre azul. As for laws, he is cognizant of but one, the invariable absence of all. And for his road, were it as straight as the Appia and as broad as that “which leadeth to destruction,” nevertheless would he be malcontent without a frequent hop-skip-and-jump, over the hedges, into the tempting pastures of digression beyond. Such is the gossiper, and of such alone is the true talk. But when Coleridge asked Lamb if he had ever heard him preach, the answer was quite happy — “I have never heard you do anything else.” The truth is that “Table Discourse” might have answered as a title to this book; but its character can be fully conveyed only in “Post-Prandian Sub-Sermons,” or “Three-Bottle Sermonoids.”



Dickens is a man of higher genius than Bulwer. The latter is thoughtful, [page 593:] industrious, patient, pains-taking, educated, analytic, artistical (using the three last epithets with much mental reserve); and therefore will write the better book upon the whole: — but the former rises, at times, to an unpremeditated elevation altogether beyond the flight, and even beyond the appreciation of his cotemporary. Dickens, with care and culture, might have produced “The Last of the Barons,” but nothing short of moral Voltaism could have spirited Bulwer into the conception of the concluding passages of the “Curiosity-Shop.”



“Advancing briskly with a rapier, he did the business for him at a blow.” — Smollett. This vulgar colloquialism had its type among the Romans. Et ferro subitus grassatus, agit rem. — Juvenal.



We may safely grant that the effects of the oratory of Demosthenes were vaster than those wrought by the eloquence of any modern, and yet not controvert the idea that the modern eloquence, itself, is superior to that of the Greek. The Greeks were an excitable, unread race, for they had no printed books. Vivâ voce exhortations carried with them, to their quick apprehensions, all the gigantic force of the new. They had much of that vivid interest which the first fable has upon the dawning intellect of the child — an interest which is worn away by the frequent perusal of similar things — by the frequent inception of similar fancies. The suggestions, the arguments, the incitements of the ancient rhetorician were, when compared with those of the modern, absolutely novel; possessing thus an immense adventitious force — a force which has been, oddly enough, left out of sight in all estimates of the eloquence of the two eras.

The finest Philippic of the Greek would have been hooted at in the British House of Peers, while an impromptu of Sheridan, or of Brougham, would have carried by storm all the hearts and all the intellects of Athens.



“The author of “Miserrimusmight have been W. G. Simms (whose “Martin Faber” is just such a work) — but is G. M. W. Reynolds, an Englishman, [column 2:] who wrote, also, “Albert de Rosann,” and “Pickwick Abroad” — both excellent things in their way.



Mr. Grattan, who, in general, writes well, has a bad habit of loitering — of toying with his subject, as a cat with a mouse, instead of grasping it firmly at once, and devouring it without ado. He takes up too much time in the ante-room. He has never done with his introductions. Sometimes one introduction is merely the vestibule to another; so that by the time he arrives at his main theme, there is none of it left. He is afflicted with a perversity common enough even among otherwise good talkers — an irrepressible desire of tantalizing by circumlocution.

If the greasy print here* exhibited is, indeed, like Mr. Grattan, then is Mr. Grattan like nobody else — for who else ever thrust forth, from beneath a wig of wire, the countenance of an over-done apple-dumpling?



It is said in Isaiah, respecting Idumea, that “none shall pass through thee for ever and ever.” Dr. Keith here insists, as usual, upon understanding the passage in its most strictly literal sense. He attempts to prove that neither Burckhardt nor Irby passed through the country — merely penetrating to Petra, and returning. And our Mr. John Stephens entered Idumea with the deliberate design of putting the question to test. He wished to see whether it was meant that Idumea should not be passed through, and “accordingly,” says he, “I passed through it from one end to the other.” Here is error on all sides. In the first place, he was not sufficiently informed in the Ancient Geography to know that the Idumea which he certainly did pass through, is not the Idumea, or Edom, intended in the prophecy — the latter lying much farther eastward. In the next place, whether he did or did not pass through the true Idumea — or whether anybody, of late days, did or did not pass through it — is a point of no consequence either to the proof or to the disproof of the literal fulfilment of the Prophecies. For it is quite a mistake on the part of Dr. Keith — his supposition that travelling through Idumea is prohibited at all. [page 594:]

The words conceived to embrace the prohibition, are found in Isaiah 34-10, and are Lenetsach netsachim ein over bah: — literally — Lenetsach, for an eternity; netsachim, of eternities; fin, not, over, moving about; bah, in it. That is to say; for an eternity of eternities, (there shall) not (be any one) moving about in it — not through it. The participle over refers to one moving to and fro, or up and down, and is the same term which is translated “current” as an epithet of money, in Genesis 23, 16. The prophet means only that there shall be no mark of life in the land — no living being there — no one moving up and down in it. He refers merely to its general abandonment and desolation.

In the same way we have received an erroneous idea of the meaning of Ezekiel 35, 7, where the same region is mentioned. The common version runs; — “Thus will I make Mount Seir most desolate, and cut off from it him that passeth out and him that returneth” — a sentence which Dr. Keith views as he does the one from Isaiah; that is, he supposes it to forbid any travelling in Idumea under penalty of death; instancing Burckhardt's death shortly after his return, as confirming this supposition, on the ground that he died in consequence of the rash attempt.

Now the words of Ezekiel are: — Venathati eth-har Seir leshimmamah ushemamah, vehichrati mimmennn over vasal: — literally — Venathati, and I will give; eth-har, the mountain; Sēir, Seir; leshimmamah, for a desolation; [column 2:] ushemamah, and a desolation, vehichrati, and I will cut off; mimmennu, from it; over, him that goeth; vasal, and him that returneth: — And I will give Mount Seir for an utter desolation, and I will cut off from it him that passeth and repasseth therein. The reference here is as in the preceding passage; allusion is made to the inhabitants of the land, as moving about in it, and actively employed in the business of life. I am sustained in the translation of over basal by Gesenius S.5 — vol 2 — p 570, Leo's Trans.: Compare, also; Zachariah 7, 14 and 9, 8. There is something analogous in the Hebrew-Greek phrase, at Acts, 9, 28 — και ην μετ’ αυτων εισπορευομενος και ’εκπορευομενος εν ’Ιερουσαλημ — And he was with them in Jerusalem, coming in and going out. The Latin versatus est is precisely paraphrastic. The meaning is that Saul, the new convert, was on intimate terms with the true believers in Jerusalem; moving about among them to and fro, or in and out.



The author of “Cromwell” does better as a writer of ballads than of prose. He has fancy, and a fine conception of rhythm. But his romantico-histories have all the effervescence of his verse, without its flavor. Nothing worse than his tone can be invented: — turgid sententiousness, involute, spasmodically straining after effect. And to render matters worse, he is as thorough an unistylist as Cardinal Chigi, who boasted that he wrote with the same pen for half a century.



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 581:]

*  1764.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 582:]

*  “Ellen Middleton.”

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 583:]

*  Michel Masson, author of “Le Cœur d’une Jeune Fille.”

  Mercier's “L’an deux mille quatre cents quarante.”

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 584:]

*  The “Satyre Menipée.”

  By M. Anton. Flaminius.

  A Sermon on a Future State, combating the opinion that “Death is an Eternal Sleep.” By Gilbert Austin. London. 1794.

§  Translation of the Book of Jonah into German Hexameters. By J. G. A. Müller. Contained in the “Memorabilien” von Paulus.

||  “Night and Morning.”

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 585:]

*  Camöens — Genoa — 1798.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 586:]

*  Forelaesninger over det Danske Sprog, eller resonneret Dansk Grammatik, ved Jacob Baden.

  ”Memoirs and Letters of Madame Malibran,” by the Countess of Merlin.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 587:]

*  Voltaire.

  St. Austin de libris Manichæis.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 589:]

*  “Letters of Eliza Wilkinson, during the invasion and possession of Charleston, S. C., by the British, in the Revolutionary War.[[”]] Arranged by Caroline Gilman.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 592:]

*  “Coleridge's Table-Talk.”

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 593:]

*  “High-Ways and By-Ways.

  “Literal Fulfilment of the Prophecies.”




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 44.


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