Text: Thomas Ollive Mabbott (E. A. Poe), “Preface to Marginalia,” The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe — Vol. III: Tales and Sketches (1978), pp. 1112-1118 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 1112, continued:]


The pleasant little Introduction to the series of miscellaneous paragraphs that Poe called “Marginalia” is to some extent integral to a collected edition of them, which there is reason to think Poe planned.* But it has also its place in our volumes containing his Tales and Sketches, since it is itself fiction. Poe really wrote almost no marginal notes in books he owned, and the very few discovered are all extremely brief. His printed “Marginalia” are made up of extracts from his reviews, and some articles — mostly, but not all, brief — composed for the series, or revised extracts from the works of others that he found of special interest.

Poe published installments of “Marginalia” in various magazines, and on January 12, 1849 wrote to John R. Thompson proposing a new series in the Southern Literary Messenger, at “$2 per page.” On January 31, Poe wrote Thompson that he was sending “eleven pages . . . done up in a roll”; he suggested that they be prefaced by a reprint of his original introduction, with a note saying [page 1113:] that it was a reprint. The note in the Messenger of April 1849 reads:

Some years since Mr. Poe wrote for several of the Northern magazines a series of critical brevities under the title of “Marginalia.” They attracted great attention at the time and since, as characteristic of the author, and we are sure that our readers will be gratified at his resuming them in the Messenger. By way of introduction, we republish the original preface from the Democratic Review. — (Ed., Mess.)

Despite the signature, Poe probably composed this paragraph.


(A) Democratic Review, November 1844 (15:484-485); (B) Pages of the last, with slight autograph revisions, in the Johns Hopkins University Library; (C) Southern Literary Messenger, April 1849 (15:217-218); (D) Works (1850), III, 483-485.

Our text is from the Southern Literary Messenger (C), verbally the same as Griswold’s version (D).


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.(1)

This making of notes, however, is by no means the making of [page 1114:] mere memoranda — a custom which has its disadvantages, beyond doubt. “Ce que je mets sur papier,” says Bernardin de St. Pierre, “je remets de ma mémoire, et par consequence je l’oublie;” — and, in fact, if you wish to forget anything on{a} the spot, make a note that this thing is to be remembered.(2)

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,”(3) 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,(4) 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{b} 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,”)(5) — or even into Carlyle-ism — a thing which, I have been told, is not to be confounded with your ordinary affectation and bad grammar.(6) 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 [page 1115:] bad just as the analyst is sage or silly — just as he is a Horne Tooke or a Cobbett.(7)

But to our sheep.(8) 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 recherché.(9)

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-skelteriness 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,)(10) was natural enough: — there might be something even in my scribblings which, for the mere sake of scribbling, 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(11) — or those of Lycophron Tenebrosus(12) — or the essays of the pedant’s pupils, in Quintillian,(13) 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 synonyme, or overzezet (turned topsy-turvy) which is the Dutch one?(14)

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,(15) 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, [page 1116:] I could name it. In short, like a novel-hero dilemma’d, I made up my mind “to be guided by circumstances,”(16) 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.



[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 1114:]

a  upon (A) changed in B

b  than of (A, B)


[page 1116, continued:]


1.  Jeremy Bentham was the leading utilitarian philosopher. Mill, here, is probably James Mill (1773-1836), Bentham’s friend and follower and a vigorous opponent of romanticism; although James’s more famous son, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), the logician, who was also interested to some extent in Bentham’s ideas, may be intended.

2.  Saint-Pierre’s remark has not been traced. [See Burton Pollin’s paper on Poe and Saint-Pierre in Romance Notes, Spring 1971, p. 8.]

3.  On “talk for talk’s sake” compare Doings of Gotham, Letter I (May 14, 1844), and “Marginalia,” number 109 (Democratic Review, December 1844, p, 592). “Talking just for the sake of talking” may be traced to Plato; see W. R. M. Lamb’s translation of Laches, 196C (LCL edition, Plato, v. II, p. 67).

4.  The names of the old moralists are familiar to most readers. Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667) is best known for his Holy Living and Holy Dying (1650-1651); Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) is best known for his Urn-Burial (1658), whence Poe took the motto for “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”; Sir William Temple (1628-1699), patron of Jonathan Swift, wrote a great deal — his best-known essays are included in Miscellanea, I and II (1680, 1692) — but if Poe had any particular work in mind, it is not to be identified. Robert Burton (1577-1640) wrote the famous Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1621. Joseph Butler (1692-1752) first printed his extremely popular Analogy of Religion Natural and Revealed in 1736.

5.  Poe’s reference to the conciseness of Tacitus and Montesquieu comes from the eighteenth of Hugh Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric (1783); see “The Man that was Used Up,” and its note 22. In “Pinakidia,” number 161 (SLM, August 1836, p. 581), Poe mentions the “extreme prolixity” of the conclusion of the Annals.

6.  Poe’s poor opinion of Carlyle’s style is frequently revealed. See “Never Bet the Devil Your Head,” n.13. [page 1117:]

7.  John Home Tooke (1736-1812), vigorous promoter of parliamentary reform, was “an old-fashioned radical, who appealed to Magna Charta but ridiculed ‘the rights of man’ ” (Concise DNB), but he was also the author of Epea Pteroenta, or the Diversions of Purley (2 parts, 1786 and 1798), largely on etymology, which established him as a philologist. A review — Poe’s almost certainly — in the Southern Literary Messenger, August 1836, of Charles Richardson’s New Dictionary of the English Language called Horne Tooke “the greatest of philosophical grammarians.”

William Cobbett (1762-1835), virile writer, ardent champion of the working class, published an English Grammar in 1818 of which over ten thousand copies were sold. Poe despised him. (See review of Pue’s Grammar in Graham’s, July 1841, cited in “Never Bet the Devil Your Head,” n. 25.)

8.  “To our sheep,” meaning “Let’s get back to the matter in hand,” has become a proverbial expression; it is traced back through Rabelais to line 1291: “Sus! Revenons à ces moutons!” in the fifteenth century French farce MaĆ®tre Pierre Pathelin. See introduction and notes to Richard Holbrook’s translation, The Farce of Master Pierre Patelin (Boston and New York, 1905).

9.  Recherché — here — means “rare.”

10.  Charles Lyell (1797-1875), knighted in 1848, was one of the eminent geologists of his time. He lectured in America in 1841, and published Travels in North America, with Geological Observations in 1845.

Roderick Impey Murchison (1792-1871, knighted in 1846) was another eminent geologist, who in 1835 distinguished and named the Silurian System — the period of the earliest plants and land animals on the earth. In 1843 and 1844 there was animated discussion in the American Journal of Science and other periodicals of the fossil bird-like footprints found in the Connecticut Valley, and the opinions of Murchison and Lyell were sought. Lyell thought they were bird tracks; Murchison thought they might have been made by either birds or reptiles. (G. P. Merrill, The First One Hundred Years of American Geology, 1924, pp. 553-559.)

George William Featherstonhaugh, an Englishman of means and education, came to America as a young man, settled in Duanesburg, New York, and became one of the directors of the railroad from Albany to Schenectady, chartered in 1826; in 1831 he founded the short-lived Monthly American Journal of Geology and Natural History (New York). Subsequently he served as a government geologist in various parts of the United States, and in 1844 he published An Excursion Through the Slave States, an account of his survey of the Ozark country, made a decade before. (See indexed references in Merrill, cited above.)

11.  At Dodona in Epirus was a grove of Zeus where the priests interpreted oracularly the rustling of the oak leaves. There is another reference to it in “Silence — a Fable.”

12.  Lycophron Tenebrosus, a Greek poet of Alexandria, was justly called “full of darkness” from the obscurity of his works.

13.  For Quintilian’s obscurantists, see his Institutes, VIII, ii, 18. Poe found both mentioned in Isaac D‘Israeli’s Curiosities of Literature, in the chapter on [page 1118:] “Professors of Plagiarism and Obscurity,” and refers to them also, along with Carlyle, in the paragraphs on Emerson in “An Appendix of Autographs” (Graham’s Magazine, January 1842).

14.  Poe’s intentional confusion here is compounded by what is probably a printer’s error — z for g in overgezet.

15.  Compare I Corinthians 13:2, “. . . and though I have all faith so that I could remove mountains . . .”

16.  See Livy’s Annals, xxii, xxxix, 9-10, for “guided by circumstances.”



[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 1112:]

*  Pages of the first installment (Democratic Review, November 1844, pp. 484-494) with revisions in Poe’s hand, now in the library of the Johns Hopkins University (see Ex Libris, a Quarterly Leaflet, No. 2, January 1940), show that he was planning a reprint before July 1847. His manuscript changes in number 38 include, in the paragraph alluding to ten planetoids (p. 492, col. 1), the insertion of a footnote reading: “Now eleven-Astræa since discovered” (December 8, 1845), but no mention of Hebe, found July 1, 1847.

  A list of the few books now known to be from Poe’s library will appear as an appendix to our collection of the “Marginalia” in a future volume of the present edition.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 1113:]

  Mr. William H. Koester kindly sent me a copy of this unpublished letter. [It was published in 1973 by Professor Moldenhauer on p. 71 of his Descriptive Catalog of Edgar Allan Poe Manuscripts.] The letter of “May 10, 1849” relating to “Marginalia,” until recently ascribed to Poe, is now known to be a forgery. [See Ostrom in American Literature, January 1974, p. 536.]




In regard to the second footnote on page 1112, the volume containing “Marginalia” was edited by Burton R. Pollin, and was published by Gordian Press in 1985.

In regard to the footnote on page 1113, TOM’s attribution of the second letter as a forgery may be questioned. In the revised third edition of Poe’s collected letters, the brief note of May 10, 1849 is reinstated as probably authentic, with a long explanation about the changes in its status. See The Collected Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, 2008, 2:800.


[S:0 - TOM3T, 1978] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (T. O. Mabbott) (Preface to Marginalia)