Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. E. C. Stedman and G. E. Woodberry), “Marginalia (Part V),” The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, New York: Stone and Kimball, vol. VII, 1895, pp. 327-349


[page 327:]

[[XCVIII]] [[M184]]


It is a thousand pities that the puny witticisms of a few professional objectors should have power to prevent, even for a year, the adoption of a name for our country. At present we have, clearly, none. There should be no hesitation about “Appalachia.” In the first place, it is distinctive. “America”(1) is not, and can never be made so. We may legislate as much as we please, and assume for our country whatever name we think right — but to us it will be no name, to any purpose for which a name is needed, unless we can take it away from the regions which employ it at present. South America is “America,” and will insist upon remaining so. In the second place, “Appalachia” is indigenous, springing from one of the most magnificent and distinctive features of the country itself. Thirdly, in employing this word we do honor to the Aborigines, whom, hitherto, we have at all points unmercifully despoiled, assassinated and dishonored. Fourthly, the name is the suggestion of, perhaps, the most deservedly eminent among all the pioneers of American literature. It is but just that Mr. Irving should name the land for which, in letters, he first established a name. The last, and by far the most truly important consideration of all, however, is the music of “Appalachia” itself; nothing could be more sonorous, more liquid, or of fuller volume, while its length is just sufficient for dignity. How the guttural “Alleghania” could ever have been preferred for a moment is difficult to conceive. I yet hope to find “Appalachia” assumed. [page 328:]

[[XCIX]] [[M217]]


It is not proper, (to use a gentle word), nor does it seem courageous, to attack our foe by name in spirit and in effect, so that all the world shall know whom we mean, while we say to ourselves, “I have not attacked this man by name in the eye, and according to the letter, of the law” — yet how often are men who call themselves gentlemen, guilty of this meanness! We need reform at this point of our Literary Morality: — very sorely, too, at another — the system of anonymous reviewing. Not one respectable word can be said in defence of this most unfair — this most despicable and cowardly practice.

[[C]] [[M282]]


To villify a great man is the readiest way in which a little man can himself attain greatness. The Crab might never have become a Constellation but for the courage it evinced in nibbling Hercules on the heel.

[[CI]] [[M283]]


Our “blues” are increasing in number at a great rate; and should be decimated, at the very least. Have we no critic with nerve enough to hang a dozen or two of them, in terrorem? He must use a silk cord, of course — as they do, in Spain, with all grandees of the blue blood — of the “sangre azula.”

[[CII]] [[M284]]


No doubt, the association of idea is somewhat singular — but I never can hear a crowd of people singing [page 329:] and gesticulating, all together, at an Italian opera, without fancying myself at Athens, listening to that particular tragedy, by Sophocles, in which he introduces a full chorus of turkeys who set about bewailing the death of Meleager. It is noticeable in this connection, by the way, that there is not a goose in the world who, in point of sagacity, would not feel itself insulted in being compared with a turkey. The French seem to feel this. In Paris, I am sure, no one would think of saying to Mr. F——, “What a goose you are!” — “Quel dindon tu es!” would be the phrase employed as equivalent.

[[CIII]] [[M279]]


Alas! how many American critics neglect the happy suggestion of M. Timon — “que le ministre de L’Instruction Publique doit lui-même savoir parler français.”

[[CIV]] [[M276]]


It is folly to assert, as some at present are fond of asserting, that the Literature of any nation or age was ever injured by plain speaking on the part of the Critics. As for American Letters, plain-speaking about them is, simply, the one thing needed. They are in a condition of absolute quagmire — a quagmire, to use the words of Victor Hugo, d’où on ne peut se tirer par des periphrases — par des quemadmodums et des verumenimveros.

[[CV]] [[M288]]


“What does a man learn by travelling?” demanded Doctor Johnson, one day, in a great rage — ”What [page 330:] did Lord Charlemont learn in his travels, except that there was a snake in one of the pyramids of Egypt?” — but had Doctor Johnson lived in the days of the Silk Buckinghams, he would have seen that, so far from thinking anything of finding a snake in a pyramid, your traveller would take his oath, at a moment’s notice, of having found a pyramid in a snake.

[[CVI]] [[M287]]


L—— is busy in attempting to prove that his Play was not fairly d——d, that it is only “scotched, not killed;” but if the poor Play could speak from the tomb, I fancy it would sing with the Opera heroine:

the “flattering error cease to prove!

Oh, let me be deceased!”

[[CVII]] [[M111]]


“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.

[[CVIII]] [[M102]]


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. [page 331:] Peter’s Church, in Barclay-street, expecting that the Catholic ritual would be performed with a degree of pomp and splendor which has 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.

[[CIX]] [[M103]]


Perhaps Mr. Barrow is right after all, and the dearth of genius in America is owing to the continual teasing of the musquitoes.

[[CX]] [[M120]]


When I call to mind the preposterous “asides” and soliloquies of the drama among civilized nations, the shifts employed by the Chinese playwrights appear altogether respectable. If a general, on a Pekin or Canton stage, is ordered on an expedition, “he brandishes a whip,” says Davis, “or takes in his hand the reins of a bridle, and striding three or four times around a platform, in the midst of a tremendous crash of gongs, drums and trumpets, finally stops short and tells the audience where he has arrived.” It would sometimes puzzle an European stage hero in no little degree to “tell an audience where he has arrived.” Most of them seem to have a very imperfect conception of their whereabouts. In the “Mort de Cæsar,” for example, Voltaire makes his populace rush to and fro, exclaiming, “Courons au Capitole!” Poor fellows — they are in the capitol all the time; — in his scruples about unity of place, the author has never once let them out of it. [page 332:]

[[CXI]] [[M107]]


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

[[CXII]] [[M144]]


Jack Birkenhead, apud Bishop Sprat, says that “a great wit’s great work is to refuse.” The apothegm must be swallowed cum grano salis. His greatest work is to originate no matter that shall require refusal.

[[CXIII]] [[M142]]


In the sweet “Lily of Nithsdale,” we read —

“She’s gane to dwell in heaven, my lassie —

She’s gane to dwell in heaven; —

Ye’re ow’re pure, quo’ the voice of God,

For dwelling out o’ heaven.”

The owre and the o’ of the two last verses should be Anglicized. The Deity, at least, should be supposed to speak so as to be understood — although I am aware that a folio has been written to demonstrate broad Scotch as the language of Adam and Eve in Paradise.

[[CXIV]] [[M127]]


The United States’ motto, E pluribus unum, may possibly have a sly allusion to Pythagoras’ definition of beauty — the reduction of many into one. [page 333:]

[[CXV]] [[M-003]]


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

[[CXVI]] [[M-005]]


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

[[CXVII]] [[M-006]]


But for the shame of the thing, there are few of the so-called apothegms which would not avow themselves epigrams outright. They have it in common with the fencing school-foils, that we can make no real use of any part of them but the point, while this we can never get fairly at, on account of a little flat profundity-button. [page 334:]

[[CXVIII]] [[M-008]]


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

[[CXIX]] [[M-010]]


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

[[CXX]] [[M-011]]


Our literature is infested with a swarm of just such little people as this — creatures who succeed in creating for themselves an absolutely positive reputation, by mere dint of the continuity and perpetuality of their appeals to the public — which is permitted, not [page 335:] for a single instant, to rid itself of these Epizœ, or to get their pretensions out of sight.

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

[[CXXI]] [[M-015]]


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

[[CXXII]] [[M-016]]


The author speaks of music like a man, and not like a fiddler. This is something — and that he has imagination is more. But the philosophy of music is beyond his depth, and of its physics he, unquestionably, has no conception. By the way — of all the so-called scientific musicians, how many may we suppose cognizant of the acoustic facts and mathematical deductions? To be sure, my acquaintance with eminent composers is quite limited — but I have never met one who did not stare and say “yes,” “no,” “hum!” “ha!” “eh?” when I mentioned the mechanism of the Sirène, or made allusion to the oval vibrations at right angles. [page 336:]

[[CXXIII]] [[M-023]]


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

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

[[CXXIV]] [[M-024]]


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

[[CXXV]] [[M-026]]


The sense of high birth is a moral force whose value the democrats, albeit compact of mathematics, are never in condition to calculate. “Pour savoir ce qu’est Dieu,” says the Baron de Bielfeld, “il faut être Dieu mêmê.” [page 337:]

[[CXXVI]] [[M-027]]


I have seen many computations respecting the greatest amount of erudition attainable by an individual in his life-time; but these computations are falsely based, and fall infinitely beneath the truth. It is true that, in general, we retain, we remember to available purpose, scarcely one-hundredth part of what we read; yet there are minds which not only retain all receipts, but keep them at compound interest forever. Again: — were every man supposed to read out, he could read, of course, very little, even in half a century; for, in such case, each individual word must be dwelt upon in some degree. But, in reading to ourselves, at the ordinary rate of what is called “light reading,” we scarcely touch one word in ten. And, even physically considered, knowledge breeds knowledge, as gold gold; for he who reads really much, finds his capacity to read increase in geometrical ratio. The helluo librorum will but glance at the page which detains the ordinary reader some minutes; and the difference in the absolute reading (its uses considered), will be in favor of the helluo, who will have winnowed the matter of which the tyro mumbled both the seeds and the chaff. A deep-rooted and strictly continuous habit of reading will, with certain classes of intellect, result in an instinctive and seemingly magnetic appreciation of a thing written; and now the student reads by pages just as other men by words. Long years to come, with a careful analysis of the mental process, may even render this species of appreciation a common thing. It may be taught in the schools of our descendants of the tenth or twentieth generation. It may become the method of the mob of the eleventh or [page 338:] twenty-first. And should these matters come to pass — as they will — there will be in them no more legitimate cause for wonder than there is, to-day, in the marvel that, syllable by syllable, men comprehend what, letter by letter, I now trace upon this page.

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

[[CXXVII]] [[M-029]]


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

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

He had three hobbies which he rode to the death (stuffed puppets as they were), and which he kept in condition by the continual sacrifice of all that is valuable [page 339:] in language. These hobbies were DignityModulationLaconism.

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

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

With him, to speak lucidly was a far less merit than to speak smoothly and curtly. There is a wall in which, through the nature of language itself, we may often save a few words by talking backwards; and this is, therefore, a favorite practice with Gibbon. Observe the sentence commencing — the “nature of the soil.” The thought expressed could scarcely be more condensed in expression; but, for the sake of this condensation, he renders the idea difficult of comprehension, by subverting the natural order of a simple proposition, and placing a deduction before that from which it is deduced. An ordinance man would have thus written: “As these formidable concussions arise from subterranean fires kindled by the union and fermentation of iron and sulphur, we may judge of the degree in which any region is exposed to earthquake by the presence or absence of these minerals.” My sentence has forty words — that of Gibbon thirty-six; but the first cannot fail of being instantly comprehended, while the latter it may be necessary to re-read. [page 340:]

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

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

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

Observe, now, the passage above quoted, commencing — “Each year is marked.” What is it the historian wishes to say? Not, certainly, that every year was marked by earthquakes that shook Constantinople forty days, and extended to all regions of the earth! — yet this only is the legitimate interpretation. The earthquakes are said to be of such duration that Constantinople, etc., and these earthquakes (of such duration) were experienced every year. But this is a pure Gibbonism — an original one; no man ever so rhodomontaded before. He means to say merely that the earthquakes were of unusual duration and extent — the duration of one being so long that [page 341:] Constantinople shook for forty days, and the extent of another being so wide as to include the whole empire of Rome — “by which,” he adds sotto voce — “by which insulated facts the reader may estimate that average duration and extent of which I speak” — a thing the reader will find it difficult to do.

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

[[CXXVIII]] [[M-031]]


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

[[CXXIX]] [[M-032]]


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

The orange ray of the spectrum and the buzz of the gnat (which never rises above the second A), affect me with nearly similar sensations. In hearing [page 342:] the gnat, I perceive the color. In perceiving the color, I seem to hear the gnat.

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

[[CXXX]] [[M-033]]


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

[[CXXXI]] [[M-034]]


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

The general proposition is unquestionable — that the mental qualities will have a tendency to impress the MS. The difficulty lies in the comparison of this tendency, as a mathematical force, with the forces of the various disturbing influences of mere circumstance. But — given a man’s purely physical biography, with his MS., and the moral biography may be deduced. [page 343:]

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

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

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

[[CXXXII]] [[M-038]]


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

“Various solutions have been proposed, and the one generally adopted by scientific minds I will now endeavor to make plain, though I fear its nature is so remarkable that I am not sure I shall make it intelligible. But here it is. If the sun, or another celestial object, be near the [page 344:] horizon, and I direct my attention to it, I see between me and that object a vast number of objects upon the face of the earth, as trees, houses, mountains, the magnitudes and positions of which are familiar to me. These supply the mind with a means of estimating the size of the object at which I am looking. I know that it is much farther off than these; and yet the sun appears, perhaps, much larger than the top of the intervening mountain. I thus compare the sun, by a process of the mind so subtle and instinctive that I am unconscious of it, with the objects which I see between it and myself, and I conclude that it is much larger than those. Well, the same sun rises to the meridian; then there are no intervening objects whereby to space off the distance, as it were, and thus form a comparative estimate of its size. . . . . I am prepared to be met by the objection, that this is an extremely learned and metaphysical reason. So it is.”

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

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

We appreciate time by events alone. For this reason [page 345:] we define time (somewhat improperly) as the succession of events; but the fact itself — that events are our sole means of appreciating time — tends to the engendering of the erroneous idea that events are time — that the more numerous the events, the longer the time; and the converse. This erroneous idea there can be no doubt that we should absolutely entertain in all cases, but for our practical means of correcting the impression — such as clocks, and the movements of the heavenly bodies — whose revolutions, after all, we only assume to be regular.

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

The mind can form some conception of the distance (however vast) between the sun and Uranus, because there are ten objects which (mentally) intervene — the planets Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, Vesta, Juno, Pallas, Jupiter, and Saturn. These objects serve as stepping-stones to the mind; which, nevertheless, is utterly lost in the attempt at establishing a notion of the interval between Uranus and Sirius; lost — yet, clearly, not on account of the mere distance [page 346:] (for why should we not conceive the abstract idea of the distance, two miles, as readily as that of the distance, one?) but, simply, because between Uranus and Sirius we happen to know that all is void. And, from what I have already said, it follows that this vacuity — this want of intervening points — will cause to fall short of the truth any notion we shall endeavor to form. In fact, having once passed the limits of absolutely practical adrneasurement, by means of intervening objects, our ideas of distances are one; they have no variation. Thus, in truth, we think of the interval between Uranus and Sirius precisely as of that between Saturn and Uranus, or of that between any one planet and its immediate neighbor. We fancy, indeed, that we form different conceptions of the different intervals; but we mistake the mathematical knowledge of the fact of the interval, for an idea of the interval itself.

It is the principle for which I contend that instinctively leads the artist, in painting what he technically calls distances, to introduce a succession of objects between the “distance” and the foreground. Here it will be said that the intention is the perspective comparison of the size of the objects. Several men, for example, are painted, one beyond the other, and it is the diminution of apparent size by which the idea of distance is conveyed; — this, I say, will be asserted. But here is mere confusion of the two notions of abstract and comparative distance. By this process of diminishing figures, we are, it is true, made to feel that one is at a greater distance than the other, but the idea we thence glean of abstract distance, is gleaned altogether from the mere succession of the figures, independently of magnitude. To prove this, [page 347:] let the men be painted out, and rocks put in their stead. A rock may be of any size. The farthest may be, for all we know, really, and not merely optically, the least. The effect of absolute distance will remain untouched, and the sole result will be confusion of idea respecting the comparative distances from rock to rock. But the thing is clear: if the artist’s intention is really, as supposed, to convey the notion of great distance by perspective comparison of the size of men at different intervals, we must, at least, grant that he puts himself to unnecessary trouble in the multiplication of his men. Two would answer all the purposes of two thousand; — one in the foreground as a standard, and one in the background, of a size corresponding with the artist’s conception of the distance.

In looking at the setting sun in a mountainous region, or with a city between the eye and the orb, we see it of a certain seeming magnitude, and we do not perceive that this seeming magnitude varies when we look at the same sun setting on the horizon of the ocean. In either case we have a chain of objects by which to appreciate a certain distance; — in the former case this chain is formed of mountains and towers — in the latter, of ripples, or specks of foam; but the result does not present any difference. In each case we get the same idea of the distance, and consequently of the size. This size we have in our mind when we look at the sun in his meridian place; but this distance we have not — for no objects intervene. That is to say, the distance falls short, while the size remains. The consequence is, that, to accord with the diminished distance, the mind instantaneously diminishes the size. The conversed experiment gives, of course, a conversed result. [page 348:]

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

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

[[CXXXIII]] [[M-039]]


That “truth is stranger than fiction” is an adage for ever in the mouth of the uninformed, who quote it as they would quote any other proposition which to them seemed paradoxical — for the mere point of the paradox. People who read never quote the saying, because sheer truisms are never worth quoting. A friend of mine once read me a long poem on the planet Saturn. He was a man of genius, but his lines were a failure of course, since the realities of the planet, detailed in the most prosaic language, put [page 349:] to shame and quite overwhelm all the accessory fancies of the poet.

If, however, the solemn adage in question should ever stand in need of support, here is a book will support it.(1)

[[CXXXIV]] [[M-040]]


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

“And I can hear the click of that old gate,

As once again, amid the chirping yard,

I see the summer rooms open and dark.”

and —

“— How calm the night moves on! and yet,

In the dark morrow that behind those hills

Lies sleeping now, who knows what horror lurks?

[[CXXXV]] [[M-043]]


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



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 327:]

1  Mr. Field, in a meeting of the New York Historical Society, proposed that we take the name of “America,” and bestow “Columbia” upon the continent.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 349:]

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




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