How To Write A Blackwood Article by Edgar Allan Poe


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1850
HOW TO WRITE A BLACKWOOD ARTICLE
by Edgar Allan Poe

“In the name of the prophets- figs!!”
Cry of Turkish fig-peddler.

I PRESUME everybody has heard of me. My name is the Signora Psyche
Zenobia. This I know to be a fact. Nobody but my enemies ever calls me
Suky Snobbs. I have been assured that Suky is but a vulgar
corruption of Psyche, which is good Greek, and means “the soul”
(that’s me, I’m all soul) and sometimes “a butterfly,” which latter
meaning undoubtedly alludes to my appearance in my new crimson satin
dress, with the sky-blue Arabian mantelet, and the trimmings of
green agraffas, and the seven flounces of orange-colored auriculas. As
for Snobbs- any person who should look at me would be instantly
aware that my name wasn’t Snobbs. Miss Tabitha Turnip propagated
that report through sheer envy. Tabitha Turnip indeed! Oh the little
wretch! But what can we expect from a turnip? Wonder if she
remembers the old adage about “blood out of a turnip,” &c.? [Mem.
put her in mind of it the first opportunity.] [Mem. again- pull her
nose.] Where was I? Ah! I have been assured that Snobbs is a mere
corruption of Zenobia, and that Zenobia was a queen- (So am I. Dr.
Moneypenny always calls me the Queen of the Hearts)- and that Zenobia,
as well as Psyche, is good Greek, and that my father was “a Greek,”
and that consequently I have a right to our patronymic, which is
Zenobia and not by any means Snobbs. Nobody but Tabitha Turnip calls
me Suky Snobbs. I am the Signora Psyche Zenobia.
As I said before, everybody has heard of me. I am that very
Signora Psyche Zenobia, so justly celebrated as corresponding
secretary to the “Philadelphia, Regular, Exchange, Tea, Total,
Young, Belles, Lettres, Universal, Experimental, Bibliographical,
Association, To, Civilize, Humanity.” Dr. Moneypenny made the title
for us, and says he chose it because it sounded big like an empty
rum-puncheon. (A vulgar man that sometimes- but he’s deep.) We all
sign the initials of the society after our names, in the fashion of
the R. S. A., Royal Society of Arts- the S. D. U. K., Society for
the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, &c, &c. Dr. Moneypenny says that S.
stands for stale, and that D. U. K. spells duck, (but it don’t,)
that S. D. U. K. stands for Stale Duck and not for Lord Brougham’s
society- but then Dr. Moneypenny is such a queer man that I am never
sure when he is telling me the truth. At any rate we always add to our
names the initials P. R. E. T. T. Y. B. L. U. E. B. A. T. C. H.-
that is to say, Philadelphia, Regular, Exchange, Tea, Total, Young,
Belles, Lettres, Universal, Experimental, Bibliographical,
Association, To, Civilize, Humanity- one letter for each word, which
is a decided improvement upon Lord Brougham. Dr. Moneypenny will
have it that our initials give our true character- but for my life I
can’t see what he means.
Notwithstanding the good offices of the Doctor, and the strenuous
exertions of the association to get itself into notice, it met with no
very great success until I joined it. The truth is, the members
indulged in too flippant a tone of discussion. The papers read every
Saturday evening were characterized less by depth than buffoonery.
They were all whipped syllabub. There was no investigation of first
causes, first principles. There was no investigation of any thing at
all. There was no attention paid to that great point, the “fitness
of things.” In short there was no fine writing like this. It was all
low- very! No profundity, no reading, no metaphysics- nothing which
the learned call spirituality, and which the unlearned choose to
stigmatize as cant. [Dr. M. says I ought to spell “cant” with a
capital K- but I know better.]
When I joined the society it was my endeavor to introduce a better
style of thinking and writing, and all the world knows how well I have
succeeded. We get up as good papers now in the P. R. E. T. T. Y. B. L.
U. E. B. A. T. C. H. as any to be found even in Blackwood. I say,
Blackwood, because I have been assured that the finest writing, upon
every subject, is to be discovered in the pages of that justly
celebrated Magazine. We now take it for our model upon all themes, and
are getting into rapid notice accordingly. And, after all, it’s not so
very difficult a matter to compose an article of the genuine Blackwood
stamp, if one only goes properly about it. Of course I don’t speak
of the political articles. Everybody knows how they are managed, since
Dr. Moneypenny explained it. Mr. Blackwood has a pair of
tailor’s-shears, and three apprentices who stand by him for orders.
One hands him the “Times,” another the “Examiner” and a third a
“Culley’s New Compendium of Slang-Whang.” Mr. B. merely cuts out and
intersperses. It is soon done- nothing but “Examiner,”
“Slang-Whang,” and “Times”- then “Times,” “Slang-Whang,” and
“Examiner”- and then “Times,” “Examiner,” and “Slang-Whang.”
But the chief merit of the Magazine lies in its miscellaneous
articles; and the best of these come under the head of what Dr.
Moneypenny calls the bizarreries (whatever that may mean) and what
everybody else calls the intensities. This is a species of writing
which I have long known how to appreciate, although it is only since
my late visit to Mr. Blackwood (deputed by the society) that I have
been made aware of the exact method of composition. This method is
very simple, but not so much so as the politics. Upon my calling at
Mr. B.’s, and making known to him the wishes of the society, he
received me with great civility, took me into his study, and gave me a
clear explanation of the whole process.
“My dear madam,” said he, evidently struck with my majestic
appearance, for I had on the crimson satin, with the green agraffas,
and orange-colored auriclas. “My dear madam,” said he, “sit down.
The matter stands thus: In the first place your writer of
intensities must have very black ink, and a very big pen, with a
very blunt nib. And, mark me, Miss Psyche Zenobia!” he continued,
after a pause, with the most expressive energy and solemnity of
manner, “mark me!- that pen- must- never be mended! Herein, madam,
lies the secret, the soul, of intensity. I assume upon myself to
say, that no individual, of however great genius ever wrote with a
good pen- understand me,- a good article. You may take, it for
granted, that when manuscript can be read it is never worth reading.
This is a leading principle in our faith, to which if you cannot
readily assent, our conference is at an end.”
He paused. But, of course, as I had no wish to put an end to the
conference, I assented to a proposition so very obvious, and one, too,
of whose truth I had all along been sufficiently aware. He seemed
pleased, and went on with his instructions.
“It may appear invidious in me, Miss Psyche Zenobia, to refer you to
any article, or set of articles, in the way of model or study, yet
perhaps I may as well call your attention to a few cases. Let me
see. There was ‘The Dead Alive,’ a capital thing!- the record of a
gentleman’s sensations when entombed before the breath was out of
his body- full of tastes, terror, sentiment, metaphysics, and
erudition. You would have sworn that the writer had been born and
brought up in a coffin. Then we had the ‘Confessions of an
Opium-eater’- fine, very fine!- glorious imagination- deep
philosophy acute speculation- plenty of fire and fury, and a good
spicing of the decidedly unintelligible. That was a nice bit of
flummery, and went down the throats of the people delightfully. They
would have it that Coleridge wrote the paper- but not so. It was
composed by my pet baboon, Juniper, over a rummer of Hollands and
water, ‘hot, without sugar.'” [This I could scarcely have believed had
it been anybody but Mr. Blackwood, who assured me of it.] “Then
there was ‘The Involuntary Experimentalist,’ all about a gentleman who
got baked in an oven, and came out alive and well, although
certainly done to a turn. And then there was ‘The Diary of a Late
Physician,’ where the merit lay in good rant, and indifferent Greek-
both of them taking things with the public. And then there was ‘The
Man in the Bell,’ a paper by-the-by, Miss Zenobia, which I cannot
sufficiently recommend to your attention. It is the history of a young
person who goes to sleep under the clapper of a church bell, and is
awakened by its tolling for a funeral. The sound drives him mad,
and, accordingly, pulling out his tablets, he gives a record of his
sensations. Sensations are the great things after all. Should you ever
be drowned or hung, be sure and make a note of your sensations- they
will be worth to you ten guineas a sheet. If you wish to write
forcibly, Miss Zenobia, pay minute attention to the sensations.”
“That I certainly will, Mr. Blackwood,” said I.
“Good!” he replied. “I see you are a pupil after my own heart. But I
must put you au fait to the details necessary in composing what may be
denominated a genuine Blackwood article of the sensation stamp- the
kind which you will understand me to say I consider the best for all
purposes.
“The first thing requisite is to get yourself into such a scrape
as no one ever got into before. The oven, for instance,- that was a
good hit. But if you have no oven or big bell, at hand, and if you
cannot conveniently tumble out of a balloon, or be swallowed up in
an earthquake, or get stuck fast in a chimney, you will have to be
contented with simply imagining some similar misadventure. I should
prefer, however, that you have the actual fact to bear you out.
Nothing so well assists the fancy, as an experimental knowledge of the
matter in hand. ‘Truth is strange,’ you know, ‘stranger than fiction’-
besides being more to the purpose.”
Here I assured him I had an excellent pair of garters, and would
go and hang myself forthwith.
“Good!” he replied, “do so;- although hanging is somewhat
hacknied. Perhaps you might do better. Take a dose of Brandreth’s
pills, and then give us your sensations. However, my instructions will
apply equally well to any variety of misadventure, and in your way
home you may easily get knocked in the head, or run over by an
omnibus, or bitten by a mad dog, or drowned in a gutter. But to
proceed.
“Having determined upon your subject, you must next consider the
tone, or manner, of your narration. There is the tone didactic, the
tone enthusiastic, the tone natural- all common- place enough. But
then there is the tone laconic, or curt, which has lately come much
into use. It consists in short sentences. Somehow thus: Can’t be too
brief. Can’t be too snappish. Always a full stop. And never a
paragraph.
“Then there is the tone elevated, diffusive, and interjectional.
Some of our best novelists patronize this tone. The words must be
all in a whirl, like a humming-top, and make a noise very similar,
which answers remarkably well instead of meaning. This is the best
of all possible styles where the writer is in too great a hurry to
think.
“The tone metaphysical is also a good one. If you know any big words
this is your chance for them. Talk of the Ionic and Eleatic schools-
of Archytas, Gorgias, and Alcmaeon. Say something about objectivity
and subjectivity. Be sure and abuse a man named Locke. Turn up your
nose at things in general, and when you let slip any thing a little
too absurd, you need not be at the trouble of scratching it out, but
just add a footnote and say that you are indebted for the above
profound observation to the ‘Kritik der reinem Vernunft,’ or to the
‘Metaphysithe Anfongsgrunde der Noturwissenchaft.’ This would look
erudite and- and- and frank.
“There are various other tones of equal celebrity, but I shall
mention only two more- the tone transcendental and the tone
heterogeneous. In the former the merit consists in seeing into the
nature of affairs a very great deal farther than anybody else. This
second sight is very efficient when properly managed. A little reading
of the ‘Dial’ will carry you a great way. Eschew, in this case, big
words; get them as small as possible, and write them upside down. Look
over Channing’s poems and quote what he says about a ‘fat little man
with a delusive show of Can.’ Put in something about the Supernal
Oneness. Don’t say a syllable about the Infernal Twoness. Above all,
study innuendo. Hint everything- assert nothing. If you feel
inclined to say ‘bread and butter,’ do not by any means say it
outright. You may say any thing and every thing approaching to
‘bread and butter.’ You may hint at buck-wheat cake, or you may even
go so far as to insinuate oat-meal porridge, but if bread and butter
be your real meaning, be cautious, my dear Miss Psyche, not on any
account to say ‘bread and butter!’
I assured him that I should never say it again as long as I lived.
He kissed me and continued:
“As for the tone heterogeneous, it is merely a judicious mixture, in
equal proportions, of all the other tones in the world, and is
consequently made up of every thing deep, great, odd, piquant,
pertinent, and pretty.
“Let us suppose now you have determined upon your incidents and
tone. The most important portion- in fact, the soul of the whole
business, is yet to be attended to- I allude to the filling up. It
is not to be supposed that a lady, or gentleman either, has been
leading the life of a book worm. And yet above all things it is
necessary that your article have an air of erudition, or at least
afford evidence of extensive general reading. Now I’ll put you in
the way of accomplishing this point. See here!” (pulling down some
three or four ordinary-looking volumes, and opening them at random).
“By casting your eye down almost any page of any book in the world,
you will be able to perceive at once a host of little scraps of either
learning or bel-espritism, which are the very thing for the spicing of
a Blackwood article. You might as well note down a few while I read
them to you. I shall make two divisions: first, Piquant Facts for
the Manufacture of Similes, and, second, Piquant Expressions to be
introduced as occasion may require. Write now!”- and I wrote as he
dictated.
“PIQUANT FACTS FOR SIMILES. ‘There were originally but three
Muses- Melete, Mneme, Aoede- meditation, memory, and singing.’ You may
make a good deal of that little fact if properly worked. You see it is
not generally known, and looks recherche. You must be careful and give
the thing with a downright improviso air.
“Again. ‘The river Alpheus passed beneath the sea, and emerged
without injury to the purity of its waters.’ Rather stale that, to
be sure, but, if properly dressed and dished up, will look quite as
fresh as ever.
“Here is something better. ‘The Persian Iris appears to some persons
to possess a sweet and very powerful perfume, while to others it is
perfectly scentless.’ Fine that, and very delicate! Turn it about a
little, and it will do wonders. We’ll have some thing else in the
botanical line. There’s nothing goes down so well, especially with the
help of a little Latin. Write!
“‘The Epidendrum Flos Aeris, of Java, bears a very beautiful flower,
and will live when pulled up by the roots. The natives suspend it by a
cord from the ceiling, and enjoy its fragrance for years.’ That’s
capital! That will do for the similes. Now for the Piquant
Expressions.
“PIQUANT EXPRESSIONS. ‘The Venerable Chinese novel Ju-Kiao-Li.’
Good! By introducing these few words with dexterity you will evince
your intimate acquaintance with the language and literature of the
Chinese. With the aid of this you may either get along without
either Arabic, or Sanscrit, or Chickasaw. There is no passing
muster, however, without Spanish, Italian, German, Latin, and Greek. I
must look you out a little specimen of each. Any scrap will answer,
because you must depend upon your own ingenuity to make it fit into
your article. Now write!
“‘Aussi tendre que Zaire’- as tender as Zaire-French. Alludes to the
frequent repetition of the phrase, la tendre Zaire, in the French
tragedy of that name. Properly introduced, will show not only your
knowledge of the language, but your general reading and wit. You can
say, for instance, that the chicken you were eating (write an
article about being choked to death by a chicken-bone) was not
altogether aussi tendre que Zaire. Write!

‘Van muerte tan escondida,
Que no te sienta venir,
Porque el plazer del morir,
No mestorne a dar la vida.’

“That’s Spanish- from Miguel de Cervantes. ‘Come quickly, O death!
but be sure and don’t let me see you coming, lest the pleasure I shall
feel at your appearance should unfortunately bring me back again to
life.’ This you may slip in quite a propos when you are struggling
in the last agonies with the chicken-bone. Write!

‘Il pover ‘huomo che non se’n era accorto,
Andava combattendo, e era morto.’

That’s Italian, you perceive- from Ariosto. It means that a great
hero, in the heat of combat, not perceiving that he had been fairly
killed, continued to fight valiantly, dead as he was. The
application of this to your own case is obvious- for I trust, Miss
Psyche, that you will not neglect to kick for at least an hour and a
half after you have been choked to death by that chicken-bone.
Please to write!

‘Und sterb’ich doch, no sterb’ich denn
Durch sie- durch sie!’

That’s German- from Schiller. ‘And if I die, at least I die- for thee-
for thee!’ Here it is clear that you are apostrophizing the cause of
your disaster, the chicken. Indeed what gentleman (or lady either)
of sense, wouldn’t die, I should like to know, for a well fattened
capon of the right Molucca breed, stuffed with capers and mushrooms,
and served up in a salad-bowl, with orange-jellies en mosaiques.
Write! (You can get them that way at Tortoni’s)- Write, if you please!
“Here is a nice little Latin phrase, and rare too, (one can’t be too
recherche or brief in one’s Latin, it’s getting so common- ignoratio
elenchi. He has committed an ignoratio elenchi- that is to say, he has
understood the words of your proposition, but not the idea. The man
was a fool, you see. Some poor fellow whom you address while choking
with that chicken-bone, and who therefore didn’t precisely
understand what you were talking about. Throw the ignoratio elenchi in
his teeth, and, at once, you have him annihilated. If he dares to
reply, you can tell him from Lucan (here it is) that speeches are mere
anemonae verborum, anemone words. The anemone, with great
brilliancy, has no smell. Or, if he begins to bluster, you may be down
upon him with insomnia Jovis, reveries of Jupiter- a phrase which
Silius Italicus (see here!) applies to thoughts pompous and
inflated. This will be sure and cut him to the heart. He can do
nothing but roll over and die. Will you be kind enough to write?
“In Greek we must have some thing pretty- from Demosthenes, for
example.

Anerh o pheugoen kai palin makesetai

There is a tolerably good translation of it in Hudibras

‘For he that flies may fight again,
Which he can never do that’s slain.’

In a Blackwood article nothing makes so fine a show as your Greek. The
very letters have an air of profundity about them. Only observe,
madam, the astute look of that Epsilon! That Phi ought certainly to be
a bishop! Was ever there a smarter fellow than that Omicron? Just twig
that Tau! In short, there is nothing like Greek for a genuine
sensation-paper. In the present case your application is the most
obvious thing in the world. Rap out the sentence, with a huge oath,
and by way of ultimatum at the good-for-nothing dunder-headed
villain who couldn’t understand your plain English in relation to
the chicken-bone. He’ll take the hint and be off, you may depend
upon it.”
These were all the instructions Mr. B. could afford me upon the
topic in question, but I felt they would be entirely sufficient. I
was, at length, able to write a genuine Blackwood article, and
determined to do it forthwith. In taking leave of me, Mr. B. made a
proposition for the purchase of the paper when written; but as he
could offer me only fifty guineas a sheet, I thought it better to
let our society have it, than sacrifice it for so paltry a sum.
Notwithstanding this niggardly spirit, however, the gentleman showed
his consideration for me in all other respects, and indeed treated
me with the greatest civility. His parting words made a deep
impression upon my heart, and I hope I shall always remember them with
gratitude.
“My dear Miss Zenobia,” he said, while the tears stood in his
eyes, “is there anything else I can do to promote the success of
your laudable undertaking? Let me reflect! It is just possible that
you may not be able, so soon as convenient, to- to- get yourself
drowned, or- choked with a chicken-bone, or- or hung,- or- bitten by
a- but stay! Now I think me of it, there are a couple of very
excellent bull-dogs in the yard- fine fellows, I assure you- savage,
and all that- indeed just the thing for your money- they’ll have you
eaten up, auricula and all, in less than five minutes (here’s my
watch!)- and then only think of the sensations! Here! I say- Tom!-
Peter!- Dick, you villain!- let out those”- but as I was really in a
great hurry, and had not another moment to spare, I was reluctantly
forced to expedite my departure, and accordingly took leave at once-
somewhat more abruptly, I admit, than strict courtesy would have
otherwise allowed.
It was my primary object upon quitting Mr. Blackwood, to get into
some immediate difficulty, pursuant to his advice, and with this
view I spent the greater part of the day in wandering about Edinburgh,
seeking for desperate adventures- adventures adequate to the intensity
of my feelings, and adapted to the vast character of the article I
intended to write. In this excursion I was attended by one negro-
servant, Pompey, and my little lap-dog Diana, whom I had brought
with me from Philadelphia. It was not, however, until late in the
afternoon that I fully succeeded in my arduous undertaking. An
important event then happened of which the following Blackwood
article, in the tone heterogeneous, is the substance and result.
THE END

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