Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. B. R. Pollin), “Marginalia - part 11,” The Collected Writings of Edgar Allan PoeVol. II: The Brevities (1985), pp. 325-330 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 325:]


Graham’s American Monthly Magazine of Literature and Art

February 1848, XXXII, 130-31


By Edgar A. Poe.

[3 items, nos. 197-199]

  * * * * * * * * * * * * * *  

Marginalia 197

That punctuation is important all agree; but how few comprehend the extent of its importance! The writer who neglects punctuation, or mis-punctuates, is liable to be misunderstood — this, according to the popular idea, is the sum of the evils arising from heedlessness or ignorance. It does not seem to be known that, even where the sense is perfectly clear, a sentence may be deprived of half its force — its spirit — its point — by improper punctuation. For the want of merely a comma, it often occurs that an axiom appears a paradox, or that a sarcasm is converted into a sermonoid.

There is no treatise on the topic — and there is no topic on which a treatise is more needed. There seems to exist a vulgar notion that the subject is one of pure conventionality, and cannot be brought within the limits of intelligible and consistent rule. And yet, if fairly looked in the face, the whole matter is so plain that its rationale may be read as we run. If not anticipated, I shall, hereafter, make an attempt at a magazine paper on “The Philosophy of Point.”(a)

In the meantime let me say a word or two of the dash. Every writer for the press, who has any sense of the accurate, must have been frequently mortified and vexed at the distortion of his sentences by the printer’s now general substitution of a semicolon, or comma, for the dash of the MS. The total or nearly total disuse of the latter point, has [page 326:] been brought about by the revulsion consequent upon its excessive employment about twenty years ago. The Byronic poets were all dash. John Neal, in his earlier novels, exaggerated its use into the grossest abuse — although his very error arose from the philosophical and self-dependent spirit which has always distinguished him, and which will even yet lead him, if I am not greatly mistaken in the man, to do something for the literature of the country which the country “will not willingly,” and cannot possibly, “let die.”(b)

Without entering now into the why, let me observe that the printer may always ascertain when the dash of the MS. is properly and when improperly employed, by bearing in mind that this point represents a second thought — an emendation.(c) In using it just above I have exemplified its use. The words “an emendation” are, speaking with reference to grammatical construction, put in apposition with the words “a second thought.” Having written these latter words, I reflected whether it would not be possible to render their meaning more distinct by certain other words. Now, instead of erasing the phrase “a second thought,” which is of some use — which partially conveys the idea intended — which advances me a step toward my full purpose — I suffer it to remain, and merely put a dash between it and the phrase “an emendation.” The dash gives the reader a choice between two, or among three or more expressions, one of which may be more forcible than another, but all of which help out the idea. It stands, in general, for these words — “or, to make my meaning more distinct.” This force it has — and this force no other spoint can have; since all other points have well-understood uses quite different from this. Therefore, the dash cannot be dispensed with.

It has its phases — its variation of the force described; but the one principle — that of second thought or emendation — will be found at the bottom of all.


Point) a. Poe’s analytic tendencies led to this approach in many fields: “Rationale of Verse,” “Philosophy of Composition,” “Philosophy of Furniture,” and “Poetic Principle.” His coinage of “sermonoid” occurs in M 109 and in BJ (2.152-uncollected). The end of the penultimate sentence alludes to Habakkuk 2:2 “Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it.” Poe seems unaware of such works on the subject as these: Joseph Robertson, Essay on Punctuation (Phila., 1789); George Edmonds, The Philosophic Alphabet ... [plus] a Philosophic System of Punctuation (London, 1832); John Wilson, Treatise on Grammatical Punctuation (Manchester, 1844); William Day, Punctuation Reduced to a System (London, 1847).

let die) b. John Neal (1793-1876), a prolific editor and author early and late of Portland, intermediately of London and Baltimore, had encouraged Poe at the start and he was to publish a loyal appreciation and defense in 1850 (Quinn, pp. 152-54, 667-70). Poe’s present statement [page 327:] of friendly warmth serves to disprove the notion of Poe’s “Diddling” as being a satire on Neal (e.g., C. Richard, Miss Q, 1968, 21.93109, answered by Pollin, SLJ,1969, 2.106-11). Neal’s dashes are indeed plentiful in Keep Cool (1817), Logan (1822), Errata (1823), Authorship (1830) and Down-Easters (1833). Poe derives his final allusion (used also in the “Literati” sketch of Mrs. Osgood, H 15.96), perhaps not knowingly, from Milton’s The Reason of Church-Government of 1641: “ ... I might perhaps leave something so written to aftertimes, as they should not willingly let it die” (Works of John Milton, Columbia Univ. Press, 1931, 3.236).

emendation) c. Here and in para. 2 Poe seems to direct his remarks particularly to the typesetter, who often afforded him great trouble, as various letters to editors and publishers indicate. TOM summarizes the “printer’s” habit of inserting a dash at the end of a sentence in BJ Poe texts, violating his intentions (TOM, pp. xxxi-ii). In revision Poe often replaced dashes with commas and semicolons, despite his comments in M 197.

Marginalia 198

In a reply to a letter signed “Outis,” and defending Mr. Longfellow from certain charges supposed to have been made against him by myself, I took occasion to assert that “of the class of willful plagiarists nine out of ten are authors of established reputation who plunder recondite, neglected, or forgotten books.” I came to this conclusion à priori; but experience has confirmed me in it.(a) Here is a plagiarism from Channing; and as it is perpetrated by an anonymous writer in a Monthly Magazine, the theft seems at war with my assertion — until it is seen that the Magazine in question is Campbell’s New Monthly for August, 1828. Channing, at that time, was comparatively unknown; and, besides, the plagiarism appeared in a foreign country, where there was little probability of detection.

Channing, in his essay on Bonaparte, says:(b)

“We would observe that military talent, even of the highest order, is far from holding the first place among intellectual endowments. It is one of the lower forms of genius, for it is not conversant with the highest and richest objects of thought. ... Still the chief work of a general is to apply physical force — to remove physical obstructions — to avail himself of physical aids and advantages — to act on matter — to overcome rivers, ramparts, mountains, and human muscles; and these are not the highest objects of mind, nor do they demand intelligence of the highest order: — and accordingly nothing is more common than to find men, eminent in this department, who are almost wholly wanting in the noblest energies of the soul — in imagination and taste — in the capacity of enjoying works of genius-in large views of human nature — in the moral sciences — in the application of analysis and generalization to the human mind and to society, [page 328:] and in original conceptions on the great subjects which have absorbed the most glorious understandings.

The thief in “The New Monthly,” says:

“Military talent, even of the highest grade, is very far from holding the first place among intellectual endowments. It is one of the lower forms of genius, for it is never made conversant with the more delicate and abstruse of mental operations. It is used to apply physical force; to remove physical force; to remove physical obstructions; to avail itself of physical aids and advantages; and all these are not the highest objects of mind, nor do they demand intelligence of the highest and rarest order. Nothing is more common than to find men, eminent in the science and practice of war, wholly wanting in the nobler energies of the soul; in imagination, in taste, in enlarged views of human nature, in the moral sciences, in the application of analysis and generalization to the human mind and to society; or in original conceptions on the great subjects which have occupied and absorbed the most glorious of human understandings.”

The article in “The New Monthly” is on “The State of Parties.” The italics are mine.

Apparent plagiarisms frequently arise from an author’s self-repetition. He fords that something he has already published has fallen dead — been overlooked — or that it is peculiarly àpropos to another subject now under discussion. He therefore introduces the passage; often without allusion to his having printed it before; and sometimes he introduces it into an anonymous article. An anonymous writer is thus, now and then, unjustly accused of plagiarism — when the sin is merely that of self-repetition.

In the present case, however, there has been a deliberate plagiarism of the silliest as well as meanest species. Trusting to the obscurity of his original, the plagiarist has fallen upon the idea of killing two birds with one stone — of dispensing with all disguise but that of decoration.

Channing says “order” — the writer in the New Monthly says “grade.” The former says that this order is “far from holding,” etc. — the latter says it is “very far from holding.” The one says that military talent is “not conversant,” and so on — the other says “it is never made conversant” The one speaks of “the highest and richest objects” — the other of “the more delicate and abstruse.” Channing speaks of “thought” — the thief of “mental operations.” Channing mentions “intelligence of the highest order” — the thief will have it of “the highest and rarest.” Channing observes that military talent is often “almost wholly wanting,” etc. — the thief maintains it to be “wholly wanting.” Channing alludes to “large views of human nature” — the thief can be content with nothing less than “enlarged” ones. Finally, the American having been satisfied with a reference to “subjects which have absorbed the most glorious understandings,” the Cockney puts him to shame at once by discoursing about “subjects which have occupied and absorbed the most glorious of human understandings” — as if one could be absorbed, without being occupied, by a [page 329:] subject — as if “of” were here any thing more than two superfluous letters — and as if there were any chance of the reader’s supposing that the understandings in question were the understandings of frogs, or jackasses, or Johnny Bulls.

By the way, in a case of this kind, whenever there is a question as to who is the original and who the plagiarist, the point may be determined, almost invariably, by observing which passage is amplified, or exaggerated, in tone. To disguise his stolen horse, the uneducated thief cuts off the tail; but the educated thief prefers tying on a new tail at the end of the old one, and painting them both sky blue.(c)


in it) a. The long letter in defense of Longfellow against Poe’s charges of plagiarism had been printed in the 3/1/45 Evening Mirror of Willis (with Poe as a subeditor), under the name of “Outis” (Greek for “Nobody”), as though by one of Longfellow’s friends. Modern scholars have speculated that Poe himself wrote the “Outis” defense as a launching-place for the five long articles of counter-attack, chiefly on plagiarism, that Poe published in the BJ (3/8, 15, 22, 29, 415; H 12.41-106), especially TOM (Poems 557n5; for a brief survey see Sidney Moss, Poe’s Literary Battles [Duke Univ. Press, 1963], pp. 167-170). Poe’s sentence is the penultimate of the first BJ attack, 1.150). The 1850 text begins with “In my reply. ...

says) b. William Ellery Channing (1780-1842), a foremost Unitarian clergyman, essayist, and biographer, and leader in the Boston literary circle, was becoming prominent in both English speaking countries. In the 12/41 Graham’s “Autography” sketch Poe said that he “is at the head of our moral and didactic writers. His reputation both at home and abroad is deservedly high and in regard to the matters of purity, polish and modulation of style he ... [has] the dignity of a standard and a classic” (H 15.226) — perhaps the reason for the plagiarism. His writings on Napoleon (as well as Milton; see the DAB), just begun, were to have wide circulation. Poe’s assumption of Channing’s obscurity in 1828 was groundless, for at forty-eight Channing was fairly well known and highly praised; see the remarks of the Monthly Magazine of 9/26 on his essay on Milton, of Blackwood’s Magazine of 8/25, and of the Quarterly Review, 56.135 (all given in the advertisement of his 48-page essay on Scott’s Napoleon, reprinted in Boston and in London (Rainford, 1828).

This passage comes from Channing’s review of Scott’s Life of ... Buonaparte in the Christian Examiner and Theological Review, 9 and 10/1827, 4.386-87 (the same except for accidentals). Other Poe statements on Channing, some a bit ambiguous as above because of his “transcendental” views and associations, are these: H 9.201, 10.156, 13.143, 15.161-62, 176. For the transcendentalist poetry of his son (of the same name) Poe had only abusive contempt. The article in Thomas Campbell’s 8/1828 New Monthly Magazine is 23.180-87 (specifically [page 330:] 186). The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals (3.205) ascribes it to Cyrus Redding as subeditor. There is evidence that the borrowing of this and other material from Channing had been more widely discussed than simply in Poe’s article (q.v. in the next note).

blue) c. Poe’s figure of speech at the end shows him to be the writer also of the following para. in the 10/12/44 Evening Mirror and also suggests a widespread ado over this and other borrowings from Channing’s material:

When the English play the literary thief they do it at least with an appreciative discrimination. When Dr. Channing’s light broke through the Atlantic cloud, it was discovered that the religious Reviews had been for some time quietly using his lamp without showing its handle, and now two other barefaced robberies have come to light, perpetrated upon one of the best and clearest minds in this country, that of Mr. BRAZER of Salem. In Nos. 107 and 108 of the Christian Examiner, are two elaborate articles by this fine scholar and pure writer, on the “BURIAL, OF THE DEAD.” A writer in the London Monthly Review has stolen and transferred these bodily, only leaving out a few local allusions and details for the sake of concealing the theft. Sidney Smith’s famous question wants a tail, which we hereby affix: “Who reads an American book” — until re-ticketed by an appreciative English appropriator?

The Rev. John Brazer (1789-1846), like Channing, was a Harvard graduate and Unitarian clergyman, for twenty-six years at Salem. His thought too might be termed “Transcendental.” The final ref. is to Sydney Smith’s famous query, in the Edin. Rev. of 1/20, the rev. of Seybert’s Annals of the U. S.: “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?”

Marginalia 199

After reading all that has been written, and after thinking all that can be thought, on the topics of God and the soul, the man who has a right to say that he thinks at all, will find himself face to face with the conclusion that, on these topics, the most profound thought is that which can be the least easily distinguished from the most superficial sentiment.


Note: Poe deals with both topics in Pin 1 and with the soul alone in M 126. Would he say profoundly or superficially?







[S:0 - BRP2B, 1985] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Collected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (B. R. Pollin) (Marginalia - part 11)