Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. E. C. Stedman and G. E. Woodberry), “Marginalia (Part III),” The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, New York: Stone and Kimball, vol. VII, 1895, pp. 270-300


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[page 270, continued:]

[[XXVII]] [[M074 and M106]]

SIMMS

“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, etc.” 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 [page 271:] 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.

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.

[[XXVIII]] [[M122]]

LOWELL

“Here is a man who is a scholar and an artist, who knows precisely how every effect has been produced by [page 272:] every great writer, and who is resolved to reproduce them. But the heart passes by his pitfalls and traps, and carefully-planned springs, to be taken captive by some simple fellow who expected the event as little as did his prisoner.”

Perhaps I err in quoting these words as the author’s own — they are in the mouth of one of his interlocutors — but whoever claims them, they are poetical and no more. The error is exactly that common one of separating practice from the theory which includes it. In all cases, if the practice fail, it is because the theory is imperfect. If Mr. Lowell’s heart be not caught in the pitfall or trap, then the pitfall is ill-concealed and the trap is not properly baited or set. One who has some artistical ability may know how to do a thing, and even show how to do it, and yet fail in doing it after all; but the artist and the man of some artistic ability must not be confounded. He only is the former who can carry his most shadowy precepts into successful application. To say that a critic could not have written the work which he criticises, is to put forth a contradiction in terms.

[[XXIX]] [[M221, M117, M177, SM004 and M073]]

BULWER

“He (Bulwer) is the most accomplished writer of the most accomplished era of English Letters; practicing all styles and classes of composition, and eminent in all — novelist, dramatist, poet, historian, moral philosopher, essayist, critic, political pamphleteer; — in each superior to all others, and only rivalled in each by himself.”

Ward — author of “Tremaine.”

The “only rivalled in each by himself,” here, puts me in mind of

None but himself can be his parallel.” [page 273:]

But surely Mr. Ward (who, although he did write “De Vere,” is by no means a fool) could never have put to paper, in his sober senses, anything so absurd as the paragraph quoted above, without stopping at every third word to hold his sides, or thrust his pocket-handkerchief into his mouth. If the serious intention be insisted upon, however, I have to remark that the opinion is the mere opinion of a writer remarkable for no other good trait than his facility at putting his readers to sleep according to rules Addisonian and with the least possible loss of labor and time. But as the mere opinion of even a Jeffrey or a Macaulay, I have an inalienable right to meet it with another.

As a novelist, then, Bulwer is far more than respectable; although generally inferior to Scott, Godwin, D’Israeli, Miss Burney, Sue, Dumas, Dickens, the author of “Ellen Wareham,” the author of “Jane Eyre,” and several others. From the list of foreign novels I could select a hundred which he could neither have written nor conceived. As a dramatist, he deserves more credit, although he receives less. His “Richelieu,” “Money” and “Lady of Lyons”, have done much in the way of opening the public eyes to the true value of what is superciliously termed “stage-effect” in the hands of one able to manage it. But if commendable at this point, his dramas fail egregiously in points more important; so that, upon the whole, he can be said to have written a good play, only when we think of him in connection with the still more contemptible “old-dramatist” imitators who are his contemporaries and friends. As historian, he is sufficiently dignified, sufficiently ornate, and more than sufficiently self-sufficient. His “Athens” would have [page 274:] received an Etonian prize, and has all the happy air of an Etonian prize-essay re-vamped. His political pamphlets are very good as political pamphlets and very disreputable as anything else. His essays leave no doubt upon any body’s mind that, with the writer, they have been essays indeed. His criticism is really beneath contempt. His moral philosophy is the most ridiculous of all the moral philosophies that ever have been imagined upon earth.

the “men of sense,” says Helvetius, “those idols of the unthinking, are very far inferior to the men of passions. It is the strong passions which, rescuing us from sloth, can alone impart to us that continuous and earnest attention necessary to great intellectual efforts.”

When the Swiss philosopher here speaks of “inferiority,” he refers to inferiority in worldly success: — by “men of sense” he intends indolent men of genius. And Bulwer is, emphatically, one of the “men of passions” contemplated in the apopthegm. His passions, with opportunities, have made him what he is. Urged by a rabid ambition to do much, in doing nothing he would merely have proved himself an idiot. Something he has done. In aiming at Crichton, he has hit the target an inch or two above Harrison Ainsworth. Not to such intellects belong the honors of universality. His works bear about them the unmistakeable indications of mere talent — talent, I grant, of an unusual order and nurtured to its extreme of development with a very tender and elaborate care. Nevertheless, it is talent still. Genius it is not.

And the proof is, that while we often fancy ourselves about to be enkindled beneath its influence, fairly enkindled we never are. That Bulwer is no poet, follows as a corollary from what has been already [page 275:] said: — for to speak of a poet without genius, is merely to put forth a flat contradiction in terms.

The merely mechanical style of “Athens” is far better than that of any of Bulwer’s previous books. In general he is atrociously involute — this is his main defect. He wraps one sentence in another ad infinitum — very much in the fashion of those “nests of boxes” sold in our wooden-ware shops, or like the islands within lakes, within islands within lakes, within islands within lakes, of which we read so much in the “Periplus” of Hanno.

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 [page 276:] (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.

We have long learned to reverence the fine intellect of Bulwer. We take up any production of his pen with a positive certainty that, in reading it, the wildest passions of our nature, the most profound of our thoughts, the brightest visions of our fancy, and the most ennobling and lofty of our aspirations will, in due turn, be enkindled within us. We feel sure of rising from the perusal a wiser if not a better man. In no instance are we deceived. From the brief tale — from the “Monos and Daimonos” of the author — to his most ponderous and labored novels — all is richly, and glowingly intellectual — all is energetic, or astute, or brilliant, or profound. There may be men now living who possess the power of Bulwer — but it is quite evident that very few have made that power so palpably manifest. Indeed we know of none. Viewing him as a novelist — a point of view exceedingly unfavorable (if we hold to the common acceptation of “the novel”) for a proper contemplation of his genius — he is unsurpassed by any writer living or dead. Why should we hesitate to say this, feeling, as we do, thoroughly persuaded [page 277:] of its truth. Scott has excelled him in many points, and the “Bride of Lammermoor” is a better book than any individual work by the author of Pelham“Ivanhoe” is, perhaps, equal to any. Descending to particulars, D‘Israeli has a more brilliant, a more lofty, and a more delicate (we do not say a wilder) imagination. Lady Dacre has written Ellen Wareham, a more forcible tale of passion. In some species of wit Theodore Hook rivals, and in broad humor our own Paulding surpasses him. The writer of “Godolphin” equals him in energy. Banim is a better sketcher of character. Hope is a richer colorist. Captain Trelawny is as original — Moore is as fanciful, and Horace Smith is as learned. But who is there uniting in one person the imagination, the passion, the humor, the energy, the knowledge of the heart, the artist-like eye, the originality, the fancy, and the learning of Edward Lytton Bulwer? In a vivid wit — in profundity and a Gothic massiveness of thought — in style — in a calm certainty and definitiveness of purpose — in industry — and above all, in the power of controlling and regulating by volition his illimitable faculties of mind, he is unequalled — he is unapproached.

The style of Bulwer’s “Night and Morning” is so involute that one cannot help fancying it must be falsely 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. [page 278:]

[[XXX]] [[SM014, SM015, SM020, M-020]]

DICKENS

The great feature of the “Curiosity Shop” is its chaste, vigorous, and glorious imagination. This is the one charm, all potent, which alone would suffice to compensate for a world more of error than Mr. Dickens ever committed. It is not only seen in the conception, and general handling of the story, or in the invention of character; but it pervades every sentence of the book. We recognise its prodigious influence in every inspired word. It is this which induces the reader who is at all ideal, to pause frequently, to re-read the occasionally quaint phrases, to muse in uncontrollable delight over thoughts which, while he wonders he has never hit upon them before, he yet admits that he never has encountered. In fact it is the wand of the enchanter.

Had we room to particularize, we would mention as points evincing most distinctly the ideality of the “Curiosity Shop” — the picture of the shop itself — the newly-born desire of the worldly old man for the peace of green fields — his whole character and conduct, in short — the schoolmaster, with his desolate fortunes, seeking affection in little children — the haunts of Quilp among the wharf-rats — the tinkering of the Punchmen among the tombs — the glorious scene where the man of the forge sits poring, at deep midnight, into that dread fire — again the whole conception of this character; and, last and greatest, the stealthy approach of Nell to her death — her gradual sinking away on the journey to the village, so skilfully indicated rather than described — her pensive and prescient meditation — the fit of strange musing which came over her when the house in which she was to die first [page 279:] broke upon her sight, the description of this house, of the old church, and of the church-yard — everything in rigid consonance with the one impression to be conveyed — that deep meaningless well — the comments of the Sexton upon death, and upon his own secure life — this whole world of mournful yet peaceful idea merging, at length, into the decease of the child Nelly, and the uncomprehending despair of the grandfather. These concluding scenes are so drawn that human language, urged by human thought, could go no farther in the excitement of human feelings. And the pathos is of that best order which is relieved, in great measure, by ideality. Here the book has never been equalled, — never approached except in one instance, and that is in the case of the “Undine” of De La Motte Fouqué. The imagination is perhaps as great in this latter work, but the pathos, though truly beautiful and deep, fails of much of its effect through the material from which it is wrought. The chief character, being endowed with purely fanciful attributes, cannot command our full sympathies, as can a simple denizen of earth. In saying, a page or so above, that the death of the child left too painful an impression, and should therefore have been avoided, we must, of course, be understood as referring to the work as a whole, and in respect to its general appreciation and popularity. The death, as recorded, is, we repeat, of the highest order of literary excellence — yet while none can deny this fact, there are few who will be willing to read the concluding passages a second time.

Upon the whole we think the “Curiosity Shop” very much the best of the works of Mr. Dickens. [page 280:] It is scarcely possible to speak of it too well. It is in all respects a tale which will secure for its author the enthusiastic admiration of every man of genius.

It is not every one who can put “a good thing” properly together, although, perhaps, when thus properly put together, every tenth person you meet with may be capable of both conceiving and appreciating it. We cannot bring ourselves to believe that less actual ability is required in the composition of a really good “brief article,” than in a fashionable novel of the usual dimensions. The novel certainly requires what is denominated a sustained effort — but this is a matter of mere perseverance, and has but a collateral relation to talent. On the other hand — unity of effect, a quality not easily appreciated or indeed comprehended by an ordinary mind, and a desideratum difficult of attainment, even by those who can conceive it — is indispensable in the “brief article,” and not so in the common novel. The latter, if admired at all, is admired for its detached passages, without reference to the work as a whole — or without reference to any general design — which, if it even exist in some measure, will be found to have occupied but little of the writer’s attention, and cannot, from the length of the narrative, be taken in at one view, by the reader.

The art of Mr. Dickens, although elaborate and great, seems only a happy modification of Nature. In this respect he differs remarkably from the author of “Night and Morning.” The latter, by excessive care and by patient reflection, aided by much rhetorical knowledge, and general information, has arrived [page 281:] at the capability of producing books which might be mistaken by ninety-nine readers out of a hundred, for the genuine inspirations of genius. The former, by the promptings of the truest genius itself, has been brought to compose, and evidently without effort, works which have effected a long-sought consummation — which have rendered him the idol of the people, while defying and enchanting the critics. Mr. Bulwer, through art has almost created a genius. Mr. Dickens, through genius, has pe[r]fected a standard from which art itself will derive its essence in rules.

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

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

[[XXXI]] [[SM005]]

JAMES

The author of “Richelieu” and “Darnley” is lauded, by a great majority of those who laud him, from mere motives of duty, not of inclination — duty erroneously conceived. He is looked upon as the head and representative of those novelists who, in historical romance, attempt to blend interest with instruction. His sentiments are found to be pure — his morals unquestionable, and pointedly shown forth, [page 282:] his language indisputably correct. And for all this, praise, assuredly, but then only a certain degree of praise, should be awarded him. To be pure in his expressed opinions is a duty; and were his language as correct as any spoken, he would speak only as every gentleman should speak. In regard to his historical information, were it much more accurate, and twice as extensive as, from any visible indications, we have reason to believe it, it should still be remembered that similar attainments are possessed by many thousands of well-educated men of all countries, who look upon their knowledge with no more than ordinary complacency; and that a far, very far higher reach of erudition is within the grasp of any general reader having access to the great libraries of Paris or the Vatican. Something more than we have mentioned is necessary to place our author upon a level with the best of the English novelists — for here his admirers would desire us to place him. Had Sir Walter Scott never existed, and Waverley never been written, we would not, of course, award Mr. J. the merit of being the first to blend history, even successfully, with fiction. But as an indifferent imitator of the Scotch novelist in this respect, it is unnecessary to speak of the author of “Richelieu” any farther. To genius of any kind, it seems to us, that he has little pretension. In the solemn tranquility of his pages we seldom stumble across a novel emotion, and if any matter of deep interest arises in the path, we are pretty sure to find it an interest appertaining to some historical fact equally vivid or more so in the original chronicles. [page 283:]

[[XXXII]] [[M291]]

HOOD

“Frequently since his recent death,” says the American Editor of Hood, “he has been called a great author — a phrase used not inconsiderately or in vain.” Yet, if we adopt the conventional idea of “a great author,” there has lived, perhaps, no writer of the last half century who, with equal notoriety, was less entitled than Hood to be so called. In fact, he was a literary merchant, whose main stock in trade was littleness; for, during the larger portion of his life, he seemed to breathe only for the purpose of perpetrating puns — things of so despicable a platitude that the man who is capable of habitually committing them, is seldom found capable of anything else. Whatever merit may be discovered in a pun, arises altogether from unexpectedness. This is the pun’s element and is two-fold. First, we demand that the combination of the pun be unexpected; and, secondly, we require the most entire unexpectedness in the pun per se. A rare pun, rarely appearing, is, to a certain extent, a pleasurable effect; but to no mind, however debased in taste, is a continuous effort at punning otherwise than unendurable. The man who maintains that he derives gratification from any such chapters of punnage as Hood was in the daily practice of committing to paper, should not be credited upon oath.

The puns of the author of “Fair Inez,” however, are to be regarded as the weak points of the man. Independently of their ill effect, in a literary view, as mere puns, they leave upon us a painful impression; for too evidently they are the hypochondriac’s struggles at mirth — the grinnings of the death’s [page 284:] head. No one can read his “Literary Reminiscences” without being convinced of his habitual despondency: — and the species of false wit in question is precise of that character which would be adopted by an author of Hood’s temperament and cast of intellect, when compelled to write at an emergency. That his heart had no interest in these niäiseries, is clear. I allude, of course, to his mere puns for the pun’s sake — a class of letters by which he attained his widest renown. That he did more in this way than in any other, is but a corollary from what I have already said, for, generally, he was unhappy, and almost continually he wrote invitâ Minerva. But his true province was a very rare and ethereal humor, in which the mere pun was left out of sight, or took the character of the richest grotesquerie; impressing the imaginative reader with remarkable force, as if by a new phase of the ideal. It is in this species of brilliant, or, rather, glowing grotesquerie, uttered with a rushing abandon vastly heightening its effect, that Hood’s marked originality mainly consisted: — and it is this which entitles him, at times, to the epithet “great:” — for that undeniably may be considered great (of whatever seeming littleness in itself) which is capable of inducing intense emotion in the minds, or hearts, of those who are themselves undeniably great.

The field in which Hood is distinctive is a border-land between Fancy and Fantasy. In this region he reigns supreme. Nevertheless, he has made successful and frequent incursions, although vacillatingly, into the domain of the true Imagination. I mean to say that he is never truly or purely imaginative for more than a paragraph at a time. In a word, his peculiar [page 285:] genius was the result of vivid Fancy impelled by Hypochondriasis.

[[XXXIII]] [[SM007]]

WILSON

That Professor Wilson is one of the most gifted and altogether one of the most remarkable men of his day, few persons will be weak enough to deny. His ideality — his enthusiastic appreciation of the beautiful, conjoined with a temperament compelling him into action and expression, has been the root of his prëeminent success. Much of it, undoubtedly, must be referred to that so-called moral courage which is but the consequence of the temperament in its physical elements. In a word, Professor Wilson is what he is, because he possesses ideality, energy and audacity, each in a very unusual degree. The first, almost unaided by the two latter, has enabled him to produce much impression, as a poet, upon the secondary or tertiary grades of the poetic comprehension. His “Isle of Palms” appeals effectively to all those poetic intellects in which the poetic predominates greatly over the intellectual element. It is a composition which delights through the glow of its imagination, but which repels (comparatively, of course) through the niaiseries of its general conduct and construction. As a critic, Professor Wilson has derived, as might easily be supposed, the greatest aid from the qualities for which we have given him credit — and it is in criticism especially, that it becomes very difficult to say which of these qualities has assisted him the most. It is sheer audacity, however, to which, perhaps, after all, he is the most particularly indebted. How little he owes to intellectual preeminence, and how much to the mere overbearing impetuosity of his [page 286:] opinions, would be a singular subject for speculation. Nevertheless it is true, that this rash spirit of domination would have served, without his rich ideality, but to hurry him into contempt. Be this as it may, in the first requisite of a critic the Scotch Aristarchus is grossly deficient. Of one who instructs we demand, in the first instance, a certain knowledge of the principles which regulate the instruction. Professor Wilson’s capability is limited to a keen appreciation of the beautiful, and fastidious sense of the deformed. Why or how either is either, he never dreams of pretending to inquire, because he sees clearly his own inability to comprehend. He is no analyst. He is ignorant of the machinery of his own thoughts and the thoughts of other men. His criticism is emphatically on the surface — superficial. His opinions are mere dicta — unsupported verba magistri — and are just or unjust at the variable taste of the individual who reads them. He persuades — he bewilders — he overwhelms — at times he even argues — but there has been no period at which he ever demonstrated anything beyond his own utter incapacity for demonstration.

[[XXXIV]] [[M178]]

D’ISRAELI

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 honorable, etc. Three-fourths of his sentences are constructed in a similar manner. The blunders evidently [page 287:] 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.

[[XXXV]] [[SM009]]

MARVELL

How truthful an air of deep lamentation hangs here(1) upon every gentle syllable! It pervades all. It comes over the sweet melody of the words, over the gentleness and grace which we fancy in the little maiden herself, even over the half-playful, half-petulant air with which she lingers on the beauties and good qualities of her favorite — like the cool shadow of a summer cloud over a bed of lilies and violets, and “all sweet flowers.” The whole thing is redolent with poetry of the very loftiest order. It is positively crowded with nature and with pathos. Every line is an ideaconveying either the beauty and playfulness of the fawn, or the artlessness of the maiden, or the love of the maiden, or her admiration, or her grief, or the fragrance, and sweet warmth and perfect appropriateness of the little nest-like bed of lilies and roses, which the fawn devoured as it lay upon them, and could scarcely be distinguished from them by the once happy little damsel who went to seek her pet with an arch and rosy smile upon her face. Consider the great variety of truth and delicate thought in the few lines we have quoted — the wonder of the maiden at the fleetness of her favorite — the “little silver feet” — the fawn challenging his mistress to the race, “with a pretty [page 288:] skipping grace,” running on before, and then, with head turned back, awaiting her approach only to fly from it again — can we not distinctly perceive all these things? The exceeding vigor, too, and beauty of the line,

And trod as if on the four winds.”

which are vividly apparent when we regard the artless nature of the speaker, and the four feet of the favorite — one for each wind. Then the garden of “my own,” so overgrown — entangled — with lilies and roses as to be “a little wilderness” — the fawn loving to be there and there “only” — the maiden seeking it “where it should lie,” and not being able to distinguish it from the flowers until “itself would rise” — the lying among the lilies “like a bank of lilies” — the loving to “fill” itself with roses,

“And its pure virgin limbs to fold

In whitest sheets of lilies cold,”

and these things being its “chief” delights — and then the pre-eminent beauty and naturalness of the concluding lines — whose very outrageous hyperbole and absurdity only render them the more true to nature and to propriety, when we consider the innocence, the artlessness, the enthusiasm, the passionate grief, and more passionate admiration of the bereaved child.

Had it lived long it would have been

Lilies without — roses within.”

[[XXXVI]] [[SM010]]

PETRARCH

We are not among those who regard the genius of Petrarch as a subject for enthusiastic admiration. The characteriztics of his poetry are not traits of the [page 289:] highest, or even of a high order; and in accounting for his fame, the discriminating critic will look rather to the circumstances which surrounded the man, than to the literary merits of the pertinacious sonnetteer. Grace and tenderness we grant him — but these qualities are surely insufficient to establish his poetical apotheosis.

In other respects he is entitled to high consideration. As a patriot, notwithstanding some accusations which have been rather urged than established, we can only regard him with approval. In his republican principles; in his support of Rienzi at the risk of the displeasure of the Colonna family; in his whole political conduct, in short, he seems to have been nobly and disinterestedly zealous for the welfare of his country. But Petrarch is most important when we look upon him as the bridge by which, over the dark gulf of the middle ages, the knowledge of the old world made its passage into the new. His influence on what is termed the revival of letters was, perhaps, greater than that of any man who ever lived; certainly far greater than that of any of his immediate contemporaries. His ardent zeal in recovering and transcribing the lost treasures of antique lore cannot be too highly appreciated. But for him, many of our most valued classics might have been numbered with Pindar’s hymns and dithyrambics. He devoted days and nights to this labor of love; snatching numerous precious books from the very brink of oblivion. His judgment in these things was strikingly correct, while his erudition, for the age in which he lived, and for the opportunities he enjoyed, has always been a subject of surprise. [page 290:]

[[XXXVII]] [[SM012]]

BYRON

“Les anges,” says Madame Dudevant, a woman who intersperses many an admirable sentiment amid a chaos of the most shameless and altogether objectionable fiction — “Les anges ne sont plus pures que le cœur d’un jeune homme qui aime en vérité.” The angels are not more pure than the heart of a young man who loves with fervor. The hyperbole is scarcely less than true. It would be truth itself, were it averred of the love of him who is at the same time young and a poet. The boyish poet-love is indisputably that one of the human sentiments which most nearly realizes our dreams of the chastened voluptuousness of heaven.

In every allusion made by the author of “Childe Harold” to his passion for Mary Chaworth, there runs a vein of almost spiritual tenderness and purity, strongly in contrast with the gross earthliness per vading and disfiguring his ordinary love-poems. The Dream, in which the incidents of his parting with her when about to travel, are said to be delineated, or at least paralleled, has never been excelled (certainly never excelled by him) in the blended fervor, delicacy, truthfulness and ethereality which sublimate and adorn it. For this reason, it may well be doubted if he has written anything so universally popular. That his attachment for this “Mary” (in whose very name there indeed seemed to exist for him an “enchantment”) was earnest, and long-abiding, we have every reason to believe. There are a hundred evidences of this fact, scattered not only through his own poems and letters, but in the memoirs of his relatives, and cotemporaries in general. But that it was thus earnest and [page 291:] enduring, does not controvert, in any degree, the opinion that it was a passion (if passion it can properly be termed) of the most thoroughly romantic, shadowy and imaginative character. It was born of the hour, and of the youthful necessity to love, while it was nurtured by the waters and the hills, and the flowers, and the stars. It had no peculiar regard to the person, or to the character, or to the reciprocating affection of Mary Chaworth. Any maiden, not immediately and positively repulsive, he would have loved, under the same circumstances of hourly and unrestricted communion, such as the engravings of the subject shadow forth. They met without restraint and without reserve. As mere children they sported together; in boyhood and girlhood they read from the same books, sang the same songs, or roamed hand in hand, through the grounds of the conjoining estates. The result was not merely natural or merely probable, it was as inevitable as destiny itself.

In view of a passion thus engendered, Miss Chaworth, (who is represented as possessed of no little personal beauty and some accomplishments) could not have failed to serve sufficiently well as the incarnation of the ideal that haunted the fancy of the poet. It is perhaps better, nevertheless, for the mere romance of the love-passages between the two, that their intercourse was broken up in early life and never uninterruptedly resumed in after years. Whatever of warmth, whatever of soul-passion, whatever of the truer nare and essentiality of romance was elicited during the youthful association is to be attributed altogether to the poet. If she felt at all, it was only while the magnetism of his actual presence compelled her to feel. If she responded at all, it was merely because the [page 292:] necromancy of his words of fire could not do otherwise than exhort a response. In absence, the bard bore easily with him all the fancies which were the basis of his flame — a flame which absence itself but served to keep in vigor — while the less ideal but at the same time the less really substantial affection of his lady-love, perished utterly and forthwith, through simple lack of the element which had fanned it into being. He to her, in brief, was a not unhandsome, and not ignoble, but somewhat portionless, somewhat eccentric and rather lame young man. She to him was the Egeria of his dreams — the Venus Aphrodite that sprang, in full and supernal loveliness, from the bright foam upon the storm-tormented ocean of his thoughts.

[[XXXVIII]] [[SM013]]

PAULDINGS “WASHINGTON

We have read Mr. Paulding’s Life of Washington with a degree of interest seldom excited in us by the perusal of any book whatever. We are convinced by a deliberate examination of the design, manner, and rich material of the work, that, as it grows in age, it will grow in the estimation of our countrymen, and, finally, will not fail to take a deeper hold upon the public mind, and upon the public affections, than any work upon the same subject, or of a similar nature, which has been yet written — or, possibly, which may be written hereafter. Indeed, we cannot perceive the necessity of anything farther upon the great theme of Washington. Mr. Paulding has completely and most beautifully filled the vacuum which the works of Marshall and Sparks have left open. He has painted the boy, the man, the husband, and the christian. He has introduced us to the private affections, aspirations, [page 293:] and charities of that hero whose affections of all affections were the most serene, whose aspirations the most God-like, and whose charities the most gentle and pure. He has taken us abroad with the patriot-farmer in his rambles about his homestead. He has seated us in his study and shown us the warrior-christian in unobtrusive communion with his God. He has done all this too, and more, in a simple and quiet manner, in a manner peculiarly his own, and which mainly because it is his own, cannot fail to be exceedingly effective. Yet it is very possible that the public may, for many years to come, overlook the rare merits of a work whose want of arrogant assumption is so little in keeping with the usages of the day, and whose striking simplicity and na├»veté of manner give, to a cursory examination, so little evidence of the labor of composition. We have no fears, however, for the future. Such books as these before us, go down to posterity like rich wines, with a certainty of being more valued as they go. They force themselves with the gradual but rapidly accumulating power of strong wedges into the hearts and understandings of a community.

In regard to the style of Mr. Paulding’s Washington, it would scarcely be doing it justice to speak of it merely as well adapted to its subject, and to its immediate design. Perhaps a rigorous examination would detect an occasional want of euphony, and some inaccuracies of synta[c]tical arrangement. But nothing could be more out of place than any such examination in respect to a book whose forcible, rich, vivid, and comprehensive English might advantageously be held up, as a model for the young writers of the land. There is no better literary manner than the manner of [page 294:] Mr. Paulding. Certainly no American, and possibly no living writer of England, has more of those numerous peculiarities which go to the formation of a happy style. It is questionable, we think, whether any writer of any country combines as many of these peculiarities with as much of that essential negative virtue, the absence of affectation. We repeat, as our confident opinion, that it would be difficult, even with great care and labor, to improve upon the general manner of the volumes now before us, and that they contain many long individual passages of a force and beauty not to be surpassed by the finest passages of the finest writers in any time or country. It is this striking character in the Washington of Mr. Paulding — striking and peculiar indeed at a season when we are so culpably inattentive to all matters of this nature, as to mistake for style the fine airs at second hand of the silliest romancers — it is this character we say, which should insure the fulfilment of the writer’s principal design, in the immediate introduction of his book into every respectable academy in the land. [page 535:]

[[XXXIX]] [[M146]]

HUDSON

Of Berryer, somebody says “he is the man in whose description is the greatest possible consumption of antithesis.” For “description” read “lectures,” and the sentence would apply well to Hudson, the lecturer on Shakspeare. Antithesis is his end — he has no other. He does not employ it to enforce thought, but he gathers thought from all quarters with the sole view to its capacity for antithetical expression. His essays have thus only paragraphical effect; as wholes, they produce not the slightest impression. No man [page 295:] living could say what it is Mr. Hudson proposes to demonstrate; and if the question were propounded to Mr. H. himself, we can fancy how particularly embarrassed he would be for a reply. In the end, were he to answer honestly, he would say — “antithesis.” As for his reading, Julius Caesar would have said of him that he sang ill, and undoubtedly he must have “gone to the dogs” for his experience in pronouncing the r as if his throat were bored like a rifle-barrel.

[[XL] [[M180]]

NEWNHAMS “HUMAN MAGNETISM

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 [page 296:] 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 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 [page 297:] 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.

[[XLI]] [[M134 and M140]]

LONGFELLOWS “PROEMTO “THE WAIF

the “day is done, and the darkness

Falls from the wings of night,

As a feather is wafted downward

From an eagle in its flight.”

The single feather here is imperfectly illustrative of the omni-prevalent darkness; but a more especial objection is the likening of one feather to the falling of another. Night is personified as a bird, and darkness — the feather of this bird — falls from it, how? — [page 298:] as another feather falls from another bird. Why, it does this of course. The illustration is identical — that is to say, null. It has no more force than an identical proposition in logic.

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

“I see the lights of the village

Gleam through the rain and the mist,

And a feeling of sadness comes over me

That my soul cannot resist —

“A feeling of sadness and longing

That is not akin to pain,

And resembles sorrow only

As the mists resemble the rain.

“And the night shall be filled with music,

And the cares that infest the day

Shall fold their tents like the Arabs,

And as silently steal away.”

Now these lines are not to be scanned. They are referable to no true principles of rhythm. The general idea is that of a succession of anapæsts; yet not only is this idea confounded with that of dactyls, but this succession is improperly interrupted at all points [page 299:] — improperly, because by unequivalent feet. The partial prosaicism thus brought about, however, (without any interference with the mere melody), becomes a beauty solely through the nicety of its adaptation to the tone of the poem, and of this tone, again, to the matter in hand. In his keen sense of this adaptation, (which conveys the notion of what is vaguely termed “ease,”) the reader so far loses sight of the rhythmical imperfection that he can be convinced of its existence only by treating in the same rhythm (or, rather, lack of rhythm) a subject of different tone — a subject in which decision shall take the place of nonchalance. Now, undoubtedly, I intend all this as complimentary to Mr. Longfellow; but it was for the utterance of these very opinions in the “New York Mirror” that I was accused, by some of the poet’s friends, of inditing what they think proper to call “strictures” on the author of “Outre-Mer.”

[[XLII]] [[M126]]

ANNIHILATION

We might contrive a very poetical and very suggestive, although, perhaps, no very tenable philosophy, by supposing that the virtuous live while the wicked suffer annihilation, hereafter; and that the danger of the annihilation (which would be in the ratio of the sin) might be indicated nightly by slumber, and occasionally, with more distinctness, by a swoon. In proportion to the dreamlessness of the sleep, for example, would be the degree of the soul’s liability to annihilation. In the same way, to swoon and awake in utter unconsciousness of any lapse of time during the syncope, would demonstrate the soul to be then in such condition that, had death occurred, annihilation would have followed. On the other hand, when the revival is attended with remembrance [page 300:] of visions, (as is now and then the case, in fact), then the soul to be considered in such condition as would insure its existence after the bodily death — the bliss or wretchedness of the existence to be indicated by the character of the visions.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 287:]

1  “The Nymph complaining for the Death of her Fawn,” by Andrew Marvell.


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Notes:

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[S:0 - SW, 1895] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Marginalia (Part III) (Stedman and Woodberry, 1895)