Marginalia by Edgar Allan Poe


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1844-49

MARGINALIA

by Edgar Allan Poe

DEMOCRATIC REVIEW, November, 1844

In getting my books, I have been always solicitous of an ample

margin; this not so much through any love of the thing in itself,

however agreeable, as for the facility it affords me of pencilling

suggested thoughts, agreements, and differences of opinion, or brief

critical comments in general. Where what I have to note is too much to

be included within the narrow limits of a margin, I commit it to a

slip of paper, and deposit it between the leaves; taking care to

secure it by an imperceptible portion of gum tragacanth paste.

All this may be whim; it may be not only a very hackneyed, but a

very idle practice;- yet I persist in it still; and it affords me

pleasure; which is profit, in despite of Mr. Bentham, with Mr. Mill on

his back.

This making of notes, however, is by no means the making of mere

memorandum- a custom which has its disadvantages, beyond doubt “Ce que

je mets sur papier,” says Bernadine de St. Pierre, “je remets de ma

memoire et par consequence je l’oublie;”- and, in fact, if you wish to

forget anything upon the spot, make a note that this thing is to be

remembered.

But the purely marginal jottings, done with no eye to the Memorandum

Book, have a distinct complexion, and not only a distinct purpose, but

none at all; this it is which imparts to them a value. They have a

rank somewhat above the chance and desultory comments of literary

chit-chat- for these latter are not unfrequently “talk for talk’s

sake,” hurried out of the mouth; while the marginalia are deliberately

pencilled, because the mind of the reader wishes to unburthen itself

of a thought;- however flippant- however silly- however trivial- still

a thought indeed, not merely a thing that might have been a thought in

time, and under more favorable circumstances. In the marginalia,

too, we talk only to ourselves; we therefore talk freshly- boldly-

originally- with abandonnement- without conceit- much after the

fashion of Jeremy Taylor, and Sir Thomas Browne, and Sir William

Temple, and the anatomical Burton, and that most logical analogist,

Butler, and some other people of the old day, who were too full of

their matter to have any room for their manner, which, being thus left

out of question, was a capital manner, indeed,- a model of manners,

with a richly marginalic air.

The circumscription of space, too, in these pencillings, has in it

something more of advantage than of inconvenience. It compels us

(whatever diffuseness of idea we may clandestinely entertain), into

Montesquieu-ism, into Tacitus-ism (here I leave out of view the

concluding portion of the “Annals”)- or even into Carlyle-ism- a thing

which, I have been told, is not to be confounded with your ordinary

affectation and bad grammar. I say “bad grammar,” through sheer

obstinacy, because the grammarians (who should know better) insist

upon it that I should not. But then grammar is not what these

grammarians will have it; and, being merely the analysis of

language, with the result of this analysis, must be good or bad just

as the analyst is sage or silly- just as he is Horne Tooke or a

Cobbett.

But to our sheep. During a rainy afternoon, not long ago, being in a

mood too listless for continuous study, I sought relief from ennui

in dipping here and there, at random, among the volumes of my library-

no very large one, certainly, but sufficiently miscellaneous; and, I

flatter myself, not a little recherche.

Perhaps it was what the Germans call the “brain-scattering” humor of

the moment; but, while the picturesqueness of the numerous

pencil-scratches arrested my attention, their helter-skelter-iness

of commentary amused me. I found myself at length forming a wish

that it had been some other hand than my own which had so bedevilled

the books, and fancying that, in such case, I might have derived no

inconsiderable pleasure from turning them over. From this the

transition- thought (as Mr. Lyell, or Mr. Murchison, or Mr.

Featherstonhaugh would have it) was natural enough:- there might be

something even in my scribblings which, for the mere sake of

scribblings would have interest for others.

The main difficulty respected the mode of transferring the notes

from the volumes- the context from the text- without detriment to that

exceedingly frail fabric of intelligibility in which the context was

imbedded. With all appliances to boot, with the printed pages at their

back, the commentaries were too often like Dodona’s oracles- or

those of Lycophron Tenebrosus- or the essays of the pedant’s pupils,

in Quintilian, which were “necessarily excellent, since even he (the

pedant) found it impossible to comprehend them”:- what, then, would

become of it- this context- if transferred?- if translated? Would it

not rather be traduit (traduced) which is the French synonym, or

overzezet (turned topsy-turvy) which is the Dutch one?

I concluded, at length, to put extensive faith in the acumen and

imagination of the reader:- this as a general rule. But, in some

instances, where even faith would not remove mountains, there seemed

no safer plan than so to re-model the note as to convey at least the

ghost of a conception as to what it was all about. Where, for such

conception, the text itself was absolutely necessary, I could quote

it, where the title of the book commented upon was indispensable, I

could name it. In short, like a novel-hero dilemma’d, I made up my

mind “to be guided by circumstances,” in default of more

satisfactory rules of conduct.

As for the multitudinous opinion expressed in the subjoined farrago-

as for my present assent to all, or dissent from any portion of it- as

to the possibility of my having, in some instances, altered my mind-

or as to the impossibility of my not having altered it often- these

are points upon which I say nothing, because upon these there can be

nothing cleverly said. It may be as well to observe, however, that

just as the goodness of your true pun is in the direct ratio of its

intolerability, so is nonsense the essential sense of the Marginal

Note.

 

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

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?

 

Moore has been noted for the number of appositeness, as well as

novelty of his similes; and the renown thus acquired is indicial of

his deficiency in that noble merit- the noblest of all. No poet thus

distinguished was ever richly ideal. Pope and Cowper are instances.

Direct similes are of too palpably artificial a character to be

artistical. An artist will always contrive to weave his

illustrations into the metaphorical form.

Moore has a peculiar facility in prosaically telling a poetical

story. By this I mean that he preserves the tone and method of

arrangement of a prose relation, and thus obtains great advantage,

in important points, over his more stilted compeers. His is no

poetical style (such as the French have- a distinct style for a

distinct purpose) but an easy and ordinary prose manner, which rejects

the licenses because it does not require them, and is merely

ornamented into poetry. By means of this manner he is enabled to

encounter, effectually, details which would baffle any other versifier

of the day; and at which Lamartine would stand aghast. In

“Alciphron” we see this exemplified. Here the minute and perplexed

incidents of the descent into the pyramid, are detailed, in verse,

with quite as much precision and intelligibility as could be

attained even by the coolest prose of Mr. Jeremy Bentham.

Moore has vivacity; verbal and constructive dexterity; a musical ear

not sufficiently cultivated; a vivid fancy; an epigrammatic spirit;

and a fine taste- as far as it goes.

 

Democratic Review, December, 1844

I am not sure that Tennyson is not the greatest of poets. The

uncertainty attending the public conception of the term “poet” alone

prevents me from demonstrating that he is. Other bards produce effects

which are, now and then, otherwise produced than by what we call

poems; but Tennyson an effect which only a poem does. His alone are

idiosyncratic poems. By the enjoyment or non-enjoyment of the “Morte

D’Arthur” or of the “Oenone,” I would test any one’s ideal sense.

There are passages in his works which rivet a conviction I had

long entertained, that the indefinite is an element in the true

poiesis. Why do some persons fatigue themselves in attempts to unravel

such fantasy-pieces as the “Lady of Shalott”? As well unweave the

“ventum textilem.” If the author did not deliberately propose to

himself a suggestive indefinitiveness of meaning with the view of

bringing about a definitiveness of vague and therefore of spiritual

effect- this, at least, arose from the silent analytical promptings of

that poetic genius which, in its supreme development, embodies all

orders of intellectual capacity.

I know that indefinitiveness is an element of the true music- I mean

of the true musical expression. Give to it any undue decision- imbue

it with any very determinate tone- and you deprive it at once of its

ethereal, its ideal, its intrinsic and essential character. You dispel

its luxury of dream. You dissolve the atmosphere of the mystic upon

which it floats. You exhaust it of its breath of fiery. It now becomes

a tangible and easily appreciable idea- a thing of the earth,

earthy. It has not, indeed, lost its power to please, but all which

I consider the distinctiveness of that power. And to the

uncultivated talent, or to the unimaginative apprehension, this

deprivation of its most delicate air will be, not unfrequently, a

recommendation. A determinateness of expression is sought- and often

by composers who should know better- is sought as a beauty rather than

rejected as a blemish. Thus we have, even from high authorities,

attempts at absolute imitation in music. Who can forget the

silliness of the “Battle of Prague”? What man of taste but must

laugh at the interminable drums, trumpets, blunderbusses, and thunder?

“Vocal music,” says L’Abbate Gravina, who would have said the same

thing of instrumental, “ought to imitate the natural language of the

human feelings and passions, rather than the warblings of canary

birds, which our singers, now-a-days, affect so vastly to mimic with

their quaverings and boasted cadences.” This is true only so far as

the “rather” is concerned. If any music must imitate anything, it were

assuredly better to limit the imitation as Gravina suggests.

Tennyson’s shorter pieces abound in minute rhythmical lapses

sufficient to asure me that- in common with all poets living or

dead- he has neglected to make precise investigation of the principles

of metre; but, on the other hand, so perfect is his rhythmical

instinct in general that, like the present Viscount Canterbury, he

seems to see with his ear.

 

Godey’s Lady’s Book, September, 1845

The increase, within a few years, of the magazine literature, is

by no means to be regarded as indicating what some critics would

suppose it to indicate- a downward tendency in American taste or in

American letters. It is but a sign of the times, an indication of an

era in which men are forced upon the curt, the condensed, the

well-digested in place of the voluminous- in a word, upon journalism

in lieu of dissertation. We need now the light artillery rather than

the peace-makers of the intellect. I will not be sure that men at

present think more profoundly than half a century ago, but beyond

question they think with more rapidity, with more skill, with more

tact, with more of method and less of excrescence in the thought.

Besides all this, they have a vast increase in the thinking

material; they have more facts, more to think about. For this

reason, they are disposed to put the greatest amount of thought in the

smallest compass and disperse it with the utmost attainable

rapidity. Hence the journalism of the age; hence, in especial,

magazines. Too many we cannot have, as a general proposition; but we

demand that they have sufficient merit to render them noticeable in

the beginning, and that they continue in existence sufficiently long

to permit us a fair estimation of their value.

 

Broadway Journal, Oct. 4, 1845

Much has been said, of late, about the necessity of maintaining

a proper nationality in American Letters; but what this nationality

is, or what is to be gained by it, has never been distinctly

understood. That an American should confine himself to American

themes, or even prefer them, is rather a political than a literary

idea- and at best is a questionable point. We would do well to bear in

mind that “distance lends enchantment to the view.” Ceteris paribus, a

foreign theme is, in a strictly literary sense, to be preferred. After

all, the world at large is the only legitimate stage for the

autorial histrio.

But of the need of that nationality which defends our own

literature, sustains our own men of letters, upholds our own

dignity, and depends upon our own resources, there can not be the

shadow of a doubt. Yet here is the very point at which we are most

supine. We complain of our want of International Copyright on the

ground that this want justifies our publishers in inundating us with

British opinion in British books; and yet when these very

publishers, at their own obvious risk, and even obvious loss, do

publish an American book, we turn up our noses at it with supreme

contempt (this is a general thing) until it (the American book) has

been dubbed “readable” by some literate Cockney critic. Is it too much

to say that, with us, the opinion of Washington Irving- of Prescott-

of Bryant- is a mere nullity in comparison with that of any

anonymous sub-sub-editor of the Spectator, the Athenaeum, or the

London Punch? It is not saying too much to say this. It is a solemn-

an absolutely awful fact. Every publisher in the country will admit it

to be a fact. There is not a more disgusting spectacle under the sun

than our subserviency to British criticism. It is disgusting, first

because it is truckling, servile, pusilanimous- secondly, because of

its gross irrationality. We know the British to bear us little but ill

will- we know that, in no case, do they utter unbiased opinions of

American books- we know that in the few instances in which our writers

have been treated with common decency in England, these writers have

either openly paid homage to English institutions, or have had lurking

at the bottom of their hearts a secret principle at war with

Democracy:- we know all this, and yet, day after day, submit our necks

to the degrading yoke of the crudest opinion that emanates from the

fatherland. Now if we must have nationality, let it be a nationality

that will throw off this yoke.

The chief of the rhapsodists who have ridden us to death like the

Old Man of the Mountain, is the ignorant and egotistical Wilson. We

use the term rhapsodists with perfect deliberation; for, Macaulay, and

Dilke, and one or two others, excepted, there is not in Great

Britain a critic who can be fairly considered worthy the name. The

Germans and even the French, are infinitely superior. As regards

Wilson, no man ever penned worse criticism or better rhodomontade.

That he is “egotistical” his works show to all men, running as they

read. That he is “ignorant” let his absurd and continuous school-boy

blunders about Homer bear witness. Not long ago we ourselves pointed

out a series of similar inanities in his review of Miss Barret’s [sic]

poems- a series, we say, of gross blunders, arising from sheer

ignorance- and we defy him or any one to answer a single syllable of

what we then advanced.

And yet this is the man whose simple dictum (to our shame be it

spoken) has the power to make or to mar any American reputation! In

the last number of Blackwood, he has a continuation of the dull

“Specimens of the British Critics,” and makes occasion wantonly to

insult one of the noblest of our poets, Mr. Lowell. The point of the

whole attack consists in the use of slang epithets and phrases of

the most ineffably vulgar description. “Squabashes” is a pet term.

“Faugh!” is another. “We are Scotsmen to the spiner” says Sawney- as

if the thing were not more than self-evident. Mr. Lowell is called a

“magpie,” an “ape,” a “Yankee cockney,” and his name is

intentionally mis-written John Russell Lowell. Now were these

indecencies perpetrated by an American critic, that critic would be

sent to Coventry by the whole press of the country, but since it is

Wilson who insults, we, as in duty bound, not only submit to the

insult, but echo it, as an excellent jest, throughout the length and

breadth of the land. “Quamdiu Catilina?” We do indeed demand the

nationality of self-respect. In Letters as in Government we require

a Declaration of Independence. A better thing still would be a

Declaration of War- and that war should be carried forthwith “into

Africa.”

 

Graham’s Magazine, March, 1846

Some Frenchman- possibly Montaigne- says: “People talk about

thinking, but for my part I never think except when I sit down to

write.” It is this never thinking, unless when we sit down to write,

which is the cause of so much indifferent composition. But perhaps

there is something more involved in the Frenchman’s observation than

meets the eye. It is certain that the mere act of inditing tends, in a

great degree, to the logicalisation of thought. Whenever, on account

of its vagueness, I am dissatisfied with a conception of the brain,

I resort forthwith to the pen, for the purpose of obtaining, through

its aid, the necessary form, consequence, and precision.

How very commonly we hear it remarked that such and such thoughts

are beyond the compass of words! I do not believe that any thought,

properly so called, is out of the reach of language. I fancy,

rather, that where difficulty in expression is experienced, there

is, in the intellect which experiences it, a want either of

deliberateness or of method. For my own part, I have never had a

thought which I could not set down in words, with even more

distinctness than that with which I conceived it:- as I have before

observed, the thought is logicalised by the effort at (written)

expression.

There is, however, a class of fancies, of exquisite delicacy,

which are not thoughts, and to which, as yet, I have found it

absolutely impossible to adapt language. I use the word fancies at

random, and merely because I must use some word; but the idea commonly

attached to the term is not even remotely applicable to the shadows of

shadows in question. They seem to me rather psychal than intellectual.

They arise in the soul (alas, how rarely!) only at its epochs of

most intense tranquillity- when the bodily and mental health are in

perfection- and at those mere points of time where the confines of the

waking world blend with those of the world of dreams. I am aware of

these “fancies” only when I am upon the very brink of sleep, with

the consciousness that I am so. I have satisfied myself that this

condition exists but for an inappreciable point of time- yet it is

crowded with these “shadows of shadows”; and for absolute thought

there is demanded time’s endurance.

These “fancies” have in them a pleasurable ecstasy, as far beyond

the most pleasurable of the world of wakefulness, or of dreams, as the

Heaven of the Northman theology is beyond its Hell. I regard the

visions, even as they arise, with an awe which, in some measure

moderates or tranquillises the ecstasy- I so regard them, through a

conviction (which seems a portion of the ecstasy itself) that this

ecstasy, in itself, is of a character supernal to the Human Nature- is

a glimpse of the spirit’s outer world; and I arrive at this

conclusion- if this term is at all applicable to instantaneous

intuition- by a perception that the delight experienced has, as its

element, but the absoluteness of novelty. I say the absoluteness-

for in the fancies- let me now term them psychal impressions- there is

really nothing even approximate in character to impressions ordinarily

received. It is as if the five senses were supplanted by five myriad

others alien to mortality.

Now, so entire is my faith in the power of words, that at times I

have believed it possible to embody even the evanescence of fancies

such as I have attempted to describe. In experiments with this end

in view, I have proceeded so far as, first, to control (when the

bodily and mental health are good), the existence of the condition:-

that is to say, I can now (unless when ill), be sure that the

condition will supervene, if I so wish it, at the point of time

already described: of its supervention until lately I could never be

certain even under the most favorable circumstances. I mean to say,

merely, that now I can be sure, when all circumstances are

favorable, of the supervention of the condition, and feel even the

capacity of inducing or compelling it:- the favorable circumstances,

however, are not the less rare- else had I compelled already the

Heaven into the Earth.

I have proceeded so far, secondly, as to prevent the lapse from

the Point of which I speak- the point of blending between

wakefulness and sleep- as to prevent at will, I say, the lapse from

this border- ground into the dominion of sleep. Not that I can

continue the condition- not that I can render the point more than a

point- but that I can startle myself from the point into

wakefulness; and thus transfer the point itself into the realm of

Memory- convey its impressions, or more properly their

recollections, to a situation where (although still for a very brief

period) I can survey them with the eye of analysis.

For these reasons- that is to say, because I have been enabled to

accomplish thus much- I do not altogether despair of embodying in

words at least enough of the fancies in question to convey to

certain classes of intellect, a shadowy conception of their character.

In saying this I am not to be understood as supposing that the

fancies or psychal impressions to which I allude are confined to my

individual self- are not, in a word, common to all mankind- for on

this point it is quite impossible that I should form an opinion- but

nothing can be more certain than that even a partial record of the

impressions would startle the universal intellect of mankind, by the

supremeness of the novelty of the material employed, and of its

consequent suggestions. In a word- should I ever write a paper on this

topic, the world will be compelled to acknowledge that, at last, I

have done an original thing.

 

Democratic Review, April, 1846

In general, our first impressions are true ones- the chief

difficulty is in making sure which are the first. In early youth we

read a poem, for instance, and are enraptured with it. At manhood we

are assured by our reason that we had no reason to be enraptured.

But some years elapse, and we return to our primitive admiration, just

as a matured judgment enables us precisely to see what and why we

admired.

Thus, as individuals, we think in cycles, and may, from the

frequency, or infrequency of our revolutions about the various

thought-centres, form an accurate estimate of the advance of our

thought toward maturity. It is really wonderful to observe how

closely, in all the essentials of truth, the child- opinion

coincides with that of the man proper- of the man at his best.

And as with individuals so, perhaps, with mankind. When the world

begins to return, frequently, to its first impressions, we shall

then be warranted in looking for the millennium- or whatever it is:-

we may safely take it for granted that we are attaining our maximum of

wit, and of the happiness which is thence to ensue. The indications of

such a return are, at present, like the visits of angels- but we

have them now and then- in the case, for example, of credulity. The

philosophic, of late days, are distinguished by that very facility

in belief which was the characteristic of the illiterate half a

century ago. Skepticism in regard to apparent miracles, is not, as

formerly, an evidence either of superior wisdom or knowledge. In a

word, the wise now believe- yesterday they would not believe- and

day before yesterday (in the time of Strabo, for example) they

believed, exclusively, anything and everything:- here, then, is one of

the indicative cycles of discretion. I mention Strabo merely as an

exception to the rule of his epoch- (just as one in a hurry for an

illustration, might describe Mr. So and So to be as witty or as

amiable as Mr. This and That is not- for so rarely did men reject in

Strabo’s time, and so much more rarely did they err by rejection, that

the skepticism of this philosopher must be regarded as one of the most

remarkable anomalies on record.

 

I have not the slightest faith in Carlyle. In ten years- possibly in

five- he will be remembered only as a butt for sarcasm. His linguistic

Euphuisms might very well have been taken as prima facie evidence of

his philosophic ones; they were the froth which indicated, first,

the shallowness, and secondly, the confusion of the waters. I would

blame no man of sense for leaving the works of Carlyle unread merely

on account of these Euphuisms; for it might be shown a priori that

no man capable of producing a definite impression upon his age or

race, could or would commit himself to such inanities and

insanities. The book about ‘Hero-Worship’- is it possible that it ever

excited a feeling beyond contempt? No hero-worshipper can possess

anything within himself. That man is no man who stands in awe of his

fellow-man. Genius regards genius with respect- with even enthusiastic

admiration- but there is nothing of worship in the admiration, for

it springs from a thorough cognizance of the one admired- from a

perfect sympathy, the result of the cognizance; and it is needless

to say, that sympathy and worship are antagonistic. Your

hero-worshippers, for example- what do they know about Shakespeare?

They worship him- rant about him- lecture about him- about him, him

and nothing else- for no other reason than that he is utterly beyond

their comprehension. They have arrived at an idea of his greatness

from the pertinacity with which men have called him great. As for

their own opinion about him- they really have none at all. In

general the very smallest of mankind are the class of men-worshippers.

Not one out of this class have ever accomplished anything beyond a

very contemptible mediocrity.

Carlyle, however, has rendered an important service (to posterity,

at least) in pushing rant and cant to that degree of excess which

inevitably induces reaction. Had he not appeared we might have gone on

for yet another century, Emerson-izing in prose, Wordsworth-izing in

poetry, and Fourier-izing in philosophy, Wilson-izing in criticism-

Hudson-izing and Tom O’Bedlam-izing in everything. The author of the

‘Sartor Resartus,’ however, has overthrown the various arguments of

his own order, by a personal reductio ad absurdum. Yet an Olympiad,

perhaps, and the whole horde will be swept bodily from the memory of

man- or be remembered only when we have occasion to talk of such

fantastic tricks as, erewhile, were performed by the Abderites.

 

Graham’s Magazine, January, 1848

If any ambitious man have a fancy a revolutionize, at one

effort, the universal world of human thought, human opinion, and human

sentiment, the opportunity is his own- the road to immortal renown

lies straight, open, and unencumbered before him. All that he has to

do is to write and publish a very little book. Its title should be

simple- a few plain words- “My Heart Laid Bare.” But- this little book

must be true to its title.

Now, is it not very singular that, with the rabid thirst for

notoriety which distinguishes so many of mankind- so many, too, who

care not a fig what is thought of them after death, there should not

be found one man having sufficient hardihood to write this little

book? To write, I say. There are ten thousand men who, if the book

were once written, would laugh at the notion of being disturbed by its

publication during their life, and who could not even conceive why

they should object to its being published after their death. But to

write it- there is the rub. No man dare write it. No man ever will

dare write it. No man could write it, even if he dared. The paper

would shrivel and blaze at every touch of the fiery pen.

 

Southern Literary Messenger, April, 1849

I blush to see, in the–, an invidious notice of Bayard Taylor’s

“Rhimes of Travel.” What makes the matter worse, the critique is

from the pen of one who, although undeservedly, holds, himself, some

position as a poet:- and what makes the matter worst, the attack is

anonymous, and (while ostensibly commending) most zealously

endeavors to damn the young writer “with faint praise.” In his whole

life, the author of the criticism never published a poem, long or

short, which could compare, either in the higher merits, or in the

minor morals of the Muse, with the worst of Mr. Taylor’s compositions.

Observe the generalizing, disingenuous, patronizing tone:-

“It is the empty charlatan, to whom all things are alike impossible,

who attempts everything. He can do one thing as well as another, for

he can really do nothing…. Mr. Taylor’s volume, as we have

intimated, is an advance upon his previous publication. We could

have wished, indeed, something more of restraint in the rhetoric,

but,” &c., &c., &c.

The concluding sentence, here, is an excellent example of one of the

most ingeniously malignant of critical ruses- that of condemning an

author, in especial, for what the world, in general, feel to be his

principal merit. In fact, the “rhetoric” of Mr. Taylor, in the sense

intended by the critic, is Mr. Taylor’s distinguishing excellence.

He is, unquestionably, the most terse, glowing, and vigorous of all

our poets, young or old- in point, I mean, of expression. His

sonorous, well-balanced rhythm puts me often in mind of Campbell (in

spite of our anonymous friend’s implied sneer at “mere jingling of

rhymes, brilliant and successful for the moment,”) and his rhetoric in

general is of the highest order:- By “rhetoric, I intend the mode

generally in which thought is presented. When shall we find more

magnificent passages than these?

 

First queenly Asia, from the fallen thrones

Of twice three thousand years

Came with the woe a grieving Goddess owns

Who longs for mortal tears.

The dust of ruin to her mantle clung

And dimmed her crown of gold,

While the majestic sorrow of her tongue

From Tyre to Indus rolled.

 

Mourn with me, sisters, in my realm of woe

Whose only glory streams

From its lost childhood like the Arctic glow

Which sunless winter dreams.

In the red desert moulders Babylon

And the wild serpent’s hiss

Echoes in Petra’s palaces of stone

And waste Persepolis.

 

Then from her seat, amid the palms embowered

That shade the Lion-land,

Swart Africa in dusky aspect towered,

The fetters on her hand.

Backward she saw, from out the drear eclipse,

The mighty Theban years,

And the deep anguish of her mournful lips

Interpreted, her tears.

 

I copy these passages first, because the critic in question has

copied them, without the slightest appreciation of their grandeur- for

they are grand; and secondly, to put the question of “rhetoric” at

rest. No artist who reads them will deny that they are the

perfection of skill in their way. But thirdly, I wish to call

attention to the glowing imagination evinced in the lines. My very

soul revolts at such efforts, (as the one I refer to,) to depreciate

such poems as Mr. Taylor’s. Is there no honor- no chivalry left in the

land? Are our most deserving writers to be forever sneered down, or

hooted down, or damned down with faint praise, by a set of men who

possess little other ability than that which assures temporary success

to them, in common with Swaim’s Panaces or Morrison’s Pills? The

fact is, some person should write, at once, a Magazine paper exposing-

ruthlessly exposing, the dessous de cartes of our literary affairs. He

should show how and why it is that ubiquitous quack in letters can

always “succeed,” while genius, (which implies self-respect with a

scorn of creeping and crawling,) must inevitably succumb. He should

point out the “easy arts” by which any one, base enough to do it,

can get himself placed at the very head of American Letters by an

article in that magnanimous Journal, “The Review.” He should

explain, too, how readily the same work can be induced (in the case of

Simms,) to vilify personally, any one not a Northerner, for a trifling

“consideration.” In fact, our criticism needs a thorough regeneration,

and must have it.

 

Southern Literary Messenger, June, 1849

I have sometimes amused myself by endeavoring to fancy what

would be the fate of any individual gifted, or rather accursed, with

an intellect very far superior to that of his race. Of course, he

would be conscious of his superiority; nor could he (if otherwise

constituted as man is) help manifesting his consciousness. Thus he

would make himself enemies at all points. And since his opinions and

speculations would widely differ from those of all mankind- that he

would be considered a madman, is evident. How horribly painful such

a condition! Hell could invent no greater torture than that of being

charged with abnormal weakness on account of being abnormally strong.

In like manner, nothing can be clearer than that a very generous

spirit- truly feeling what all merely profess- must inevitably find

itself misconceived in every direction- its motives misinterpreted.

Just as extremeness of intelligence would be thought fatuity, so

excess of chivalry could not fail of being looked upon as meanness

in its last degree- and so on with other virtues. This subject is a

painful one indeed. That individuals have so soared above the plane of

their race, is scarcely to be questioned; but, in looking back through

history for traces of their existence, we should pass over all

biographies of “the good and the great,” while we search carefully the

slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon

the gallows.

 

 

THE END

 

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