Text: Burton R. Pollin (and E. A. Poe), “Marginalia - part 08,” The Collected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe — Vol. II: The Brevities (1985), pp. 292-304 (This material is protected by copyright)


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[page 292:]

INSTALLMENT VIII

Graham’s American Monthly Magazine of Literature and Art

November 1846 XXIX, 245-48

MARGINALIA.

By Edgar A. Poe.

[5 items, nos. 176-180]

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Marginalia 176

I have just finished the “Mysteries of Paris” — a work of unquestionable power — a museum of novel and ingenious incident — a paradox of childish folly and consummate skill. It has this point in common with all the “convulsive” fictions — that the incidents are consequential from the premises, while the premises themselves are laughably incredible. Admitting, for instance, the possibility of such a man as Rodolphe, and of such a state of society as would tolerate his perpetual interference, we have no difficulty in agreeing to admit the possibility of his accomplishing all that is accomplished. Another point which distinguishes the Sue school, is the total want of the ars celare artem.(a) In effect the writer is always saying to the reader, “Now — in one moment — you shall see what you shall see. I am about to produce on you a remarkable impression. Prepare to have your imagination, or your pity, greatly excited.” The wires are not only not concealed, but displayed as things to be admired, equally with the puppets they set in motion. The result is, that in perusing, for example, a pathetic chapter in “The Mysteries of Paris” we say to ourselves, without shedding a tear — “Now, here is something which will be sure to move every reader to tears.” The philosophical motives attributed to Sue are absurd in the extreme. His first, and in fact his sole object, is to make an exciting, and therefore saleable book. The cant (implied or direct) about the amelioration of society, etc., is [page 293:] but a very usual trick among authors, whereby they hope to add such a tone of dignity or utilitarianism to their pages as shall gild the pill of their licentiousness. The ruse is even more generally employed by way of engrafting a meaning upon the otherwise unintelligible. In the latter case, however, this ruse is an after-thought, manifested in the shape of a moral, either appended (as in Æsop) or dovetailed into the body of the work, piece by piece, with great care, but never without leaving evidence of its after-insertion.

The translation (by C. H. Town) is very imperfect, and, by a too literal rendering of idioms, contrives to destroy the whole tone of the original. Or, perhaps, I should say a too literal rendering of local peculiarities of phrase. There is one point (never yet, I believe, noticed) which, obviously, should be considered in translation. We should so render the original that the version should impress the people for whom it is intended, just as the original impresses the people for whom it (the original) is intended. Now, if we rigorously translate mere local idiosyncrasies of phrase (to say nothing of idioms) we inevitably distort the author’s designed impression. We are sure to produce a whimsical, at least, if not always a ludicrous, effect — for novelties, in a case of this kind, are incongruities — oddities. A distinction, of course, should be observed between those peculiarities of phrase which appertain to the nation and those which belong to the author himself — for these latter will have a similar effect upon all nations, and should be literally translated. It is merely the general inattention to the principle here proposed, which has given rise to so much international depreciation, if not positive contempt, as regards literature. The English reviews, for example, have abundant allusions to what they call the “frivolousness” of French letters — an idea chiefly derived from the impression made by the French manner merely — this manner, again, having in it nothing essentially frivolous, but affecting all foreigners as such (the English especially) through that oddity of which I have already assigned the origin. The French return the compliment, complaining of the British gaucherie in style. The phraseology of every nation has a taint of drollery about it in the ears of every other nation speaking a different tongue. Now, to convey the true spirit of an author, this taint should be corrected in translation. We should pride ourselves less upon literality and more upon dexterity at paraphrase. Is it not clear that, by such dexterity, a translation may be made to convey to a foreigner a juster conception of an original than could the original itself?(b)

The distinction I have made between mere idioms (which, of course, should never be literally rendered) and “local idiosyncrasies of phrase,” may be exemplified by a passage at page 291 of Mr. Town’s translation:

“Never mind! Go in there! You will take the cloak of Calebasse. You will wrap yourself in it,” etc., etc.

These are the words of a lover to his mistress, and are meant kindly, although imperatively. They embody a local peculiarity — a French peculiarity [page 294:] of phrase, and (to French ears) convey nothing dictatorial. To our own, nevertheless, they sound like the command of a military officer to his subordinate, and thus produce an effect quite different from that intended. The translation, in such case, should be a bold paraphrase. For example:-“I must insist upon your wrapping yourself in the cloak of Calebasse.”

Mr. Town’s version of “The Mysteries of Paris,” however, is not objectionable on the score of excessive literality alone, but abounds in misapprehensions of the author’s meaning. One of the strangest errors occurs at page 368, where we read:

“From a wicked, brutal savage and riotous rascal, he has made me a kind of honest man by saying only two words to me; but these words, ‘voyez vous,’ were like magic.”

Here “voyez vous” are made to be the two magical words spoken; but the translation should run — “these words, do you see? were like magic.” The actual words described as producing the magical effect are “heart” and “honor.”(c)

Of similar character is a curious mistake at page 245.

“He is a gueux fini and an attack will not save him,” added Nicholas. “Ayes,” said the widow.

Many readers of Mr. Town’s translation have no doubt been puzzled to perceive the force or relevancy of the widow’s “A — yes” in this case. I have not the original before me, but take it for granted that it runs thus, or nearly so: — “Il est un gueux fini et un assaut ne Pintimidera pas.” “Un-oui!dit la veuve.

It must be observed that, in vivacious French colloquy, the oui seldom implies assent to the letter, but generally to the spirit, of a proposition. Thus a Frenchman usually says “yes” where an Englishman would say “no.” The latter’s reply, for example, to the sentence “An attack will not intimidate him,” would be “No” — that is to say, “I grant you that it would not.” The Frenchman, however, answers “Yes” — meaning, “I agree with what you say — it would not.” Both replies, of course, reaching the same point, although by opposite routes. With this understanding, it will be seen that the true version of the widow’s “Un — oui!” should be, “One attack, I grant you, might not,” and that this is the version becomes apparent when we read the words immediately following — “but every day — every day it is hell!”(d)

An instance of another class of even more reprehensible blunders, is to be found on page 297, where Bras-Rouge is made to say to a police officer — “No matter; it is not of that I complain; every trade has its disagreements.” Here, no doubt, the French is désagémens — inconveniences — disadvantages — unpleasantnesses. Désagrémens conveys disagreements not even so nearly as, in Latin, religio implies religion.(e)

I was not a little surprised, in turning over these pages, to come [page 295:] upon the admirable, thrice admirable story called “Gringalet et Coupe en Deux,” which is related by Pique-Vinaigre to his companions in La Force. Rarely have I read any thing of which the exquisite skill so delighted me. For my soul I could not suggest a fault in it — except, perhaps, that the intention of telling a very pathetic story is a little too transparent.

But I say that I was surprised in coming upon this story — and I was so, because one of its points has been suggested to M. Sue by a tale of my own. Coupe en Deux has an ape remarkable for its size, strength, ferocity, and propensity to imitation. Wishing to commit a murder so cunningly that discovery would be impossible, the master of this animal teaches it to imitate the functions of a barber, and incites it to cut the throat of a child, under the idea that, when the murder is discovered, it will be considered the uninstigated deed of the ape.

On first seeing this, I felt apprehensive that some of my friends would accuse me of plagiarising from it my “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” But I soon called to mind that this latter was first published in “Graham’s Magazine” for April, 1841. Some years ago, “The Paris Charivari” copied my story with complimentary comments; objecting, however, to the Rue Morgue on the ground that no such street (to the Charivari’s knowledge) existed in Paris. I do not wish, of course, to look upon M. Sue’s adaptation of my property in any other light than that of a compliment. The similarity may have been entirely accidental.(f)

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artem) a. Poe’s reasons for including this review-like article are, perhaps, to comment on the work of Marie Joseph (self-styled Eugene) Sue (1804-57), to make learned observations on translating from French and other tongues, and to imply Sue’s lifting his ape episode in the Mysteries of Paris (1842-43) from Poe’s “Murders.” Clearly he had mixed critical thoughts about France’s popular, highly paid novelist, who admitted to writing without any overall plan for his long, episodic novels published in fortnightly numbers (see “roman-feuilleton” in Oxford Companion to French Literature, p. 632) before being collected into multi-volume publications. Poe’s reservations about his style, manner, and alleged social purpose as well as his admiration appear here, in MM 181, 221, TOM 1270n, and a 1500 word disparaging critique of The Wandering Jew (1844-45), still in manuscript in the Huntington Library and intended for the Stylus article on “Literary America.” Poe apparently invented his term “convulsive” in ref. to the elements which are here well summarized: “sentimental novels of Paris low life, written with more exuberance than style, but showing a fertile, at times grandiose, imagination and strong dramatic sense; containing a hotch-potch of contemporary ideals of social and democratic reform” (Oxford Companion, p. 687). Poe’s word is, in a sense, repeated in his contrasting the “polished insipidity of. . . England” with “that ultimate throe of taste” exemplified “in Sue” (para. 2 of M 176). Poe’s odd usage is, perhaps, echoed in the [page 296:] Grand Dictionnaire Larousse’s “figurative and literary” connotation of “convulsif”: “Where prevails an agitation expressive, irrational.” Whom would Poe place in this “school”: “Frédéric Soulie, Jules Janin, Dumas pere, Honoré Balzac, Charles Paul de Kock? At any rate, American publishers, in intense rivalry to rush into newsprint or book publication Sue’s works, arranged for quick-therefore careless-translations such as H. L. Williams’ of the Mysteries, Part I (1842) and that by Charles H. Town (N. Y.: Harper, 1843). The latter was reviewed in Graham’s of 2/44, pp. 93-95, by a thoughtful critic, rather more familiar with French literature than Poe, and one who makes many of the points about Town’s incapacity to translate Sue’s “flash language” or ordinary French expressions and also deprecates the “moralistic” implications added to a sensationalistic novel. Poe surely saw and found stimulus in this anonymous review.

In the first sentence by “museum” Poe means assemblage or “repository,” the latter being the word for “museum” that Poe inserted as a gloss in the Whitman copy of BJ of 9/6/45, 2:141, in the Huntington Library. The phrase in Latin comes from Ovid, Ars Amatoria, 1.1, often rendered as having a verb “est” for “Art consists in concealing art,” here meaning “deceit” or “cunning.”

original itself) b. Poe’s sensible words about conveying the basic meaning and the manner of material being translated through paraphrases, not verbatim rendering, ends in a sentence that must imply a foreigner who knows enough of the original tongue to inch his way meticulously through a passage for a limitedly literal meaning. Only Régis Messac, Les Influences françaises dans l‘oeuvre d‘Edgar Poe (Paris, 1929), pp. 12-19, has examined M 176 for insight into Poe’s French-language adeptness, and he concludes: “keen insights, superficial, more trained for reading than speaking, and for simple texts.” For specific passages he is cited below.

honor) c. Poe is right about the obvious manner of issuing a strong request — avoiding a peremptory imperative mood for “the cloak of Calebasse” but he seems to misuse the term “bold paraphrase,” since very few words or expressions need be changed, even to fulfill his own example. As for the possible false inference for “voyez-vous” — few indeed would fail to recognize this as an interjection, especially since Town italicized the words and “quoted” them; moreover, “heart” and “honor” are spelled out as the words in the first sentence of the very next paragraph. Poe himself had spoken of readers as proceeding by pages, as touching on one word in ten (M 27). No confusion could here occur.

hell) d. For his “gueux fini” example, Messac denies that Poe’s distinction between the English and French way of responding is valid, especially since his “pompous grammatical dissertation” is totally unnecessary; all that we need to note is the ambiguity of “un” in France — meaning both “a” or “an” and also “one.” Messac indicates Poe’s errors [page 297:] in using “assaut” for “une batterie” and “Il est un gueux” for “C‘est an gueux.” He might have added Poe’s failure to object to the retention of French for “gueux fini” or “complete rascal.”

religion) e. Messac agrees with Poe’s objection to the word “disagreements” instead of Poe’s suggestions.

Poe’s joke about “religio” or “superstition” occurs also in “Metzengerstein” (TOM 300) and “Purloined Letter” (995n 17). Poe is correct about the error in “disagreements.” However, Poe has carelessly ascribed to Bras Rouge the sentence of Narcisse Borel, police officer.

accidental) (f). Perhaps the major purpose of the whole article lies in this section, attributing to Sue a plagiarism from Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” of 4/41. Not long after the publication of M 176 Poe renewed the charge via a letter to Evert A. Duyckinck (12/30/46) asking him to manage to insert it as a para. in one of the city papers (Ostrom 336). The Charivari allegation is also mentioned, as it is again in a humorous column about French translations of the tale after its reprinting in Poe’s 1845 Tales, which appeared in the New York Spirit of the Times of 1/16/47: Poe’s “Murders” “was copied immediately, or at all events noticed, and a digest given of it, in the ‘Charivari,’ and Sue, in his ‘Mysteries of Paris,’ has been largely indebted to it for the epistle of ‘Gringalêt [sic] et Coupe en Deux” (see Pollin, SAR 1977, pp. 235-237). The Charivari myth has been thoroughly exploded (see C. P. Cambiaire, The Influence of Poe in France, 1927, pp. 23-33; and TOM 525-26). There was scarcely time for Poe’s tale to be translated from its 4/41 issue into French for Sue’s use, although the ape episode does occur toward the end (Part 7, ch. 27) and Sue’s “plan” was improvisatory. The coincidental parallels are sufficient, according to Jean-Louis Bory, ed. of Les Mystères de Paris (Paris, 1963), p. xiii, to support Poe’s contention, which he first presents as a fact and only, at the end, as a possibility.

Marginalia 177

A hundred criticisms to the contrary notwithstanding, I must regard “The Lady of Lyons” as one of the most successful dramatic efforts of modern times.(a) It is popular, and justly so. It could not fail to be popular so long as the people have a heart. It abounds in sentiments which stir the soul as the sound of a trumpet. It proceeds rapidly and consequentially; the interest not for one moment being permitted to flag. Its incidents are admirably conceived and skillfully wrought into execution. Its dramatis personæ, throughout, have the high merit of being natural, although, except in the case of Pauline, there is no marked individuality. She is a creation which would have done no dishonor to [page 298:] Shakspeare. She excites profound emotion. It has been sillily objected to her, that she is weak, mercenary, and at points ignoble. She is; and what then? We are not dealing with Clarissa Harlowe. Bulwer has painted a woman. The chief defect of the play lies in the heroine’s consenting to wed Beauseant while aware of the existence and even the continued love of Claude. As the plot runs, there is a question in Pauline’s soul between a comparatively trivial (because merely worldly) injury to her father, and utter ruin and despair inflicted upon her husband. Here there should not have been an instant’s hesitation. The audience have no sympathy with any. Nothing on earth should have induced the wife to give up the living Melnotte. Only the assurance of his death could have justified her in sacrificing herself to Beauseant. As it is, we hate her for the sacrifice. The effect is repulsive — but I must be understood as calling this effect objectionable solely on the ground of its being at war with the whole genius of the play.(b)

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times) a. This article is para. 5 of “The Drama” (BJ, 7/19/45, 2.29) which was devoted to Bulwer Lytton’s play, performed by Anna Cora Mowatt, at Niblo’s Theatre. The few changes in this text (excluding accidentals) are these (BJ variants are given after the slash): sent. 1: On the play itself we have lately seen some strictures which seem to us unjust. We regard it as one of the most successful dramatic efforts of modern times; sent. 4: in sentiments / with . . .; sent. 6: skillfully wrought / into execution with great skill; sent. 8: Shakspeare. / Shakspeare and she; sent. 13: Bulwer . . . woman / Bulwer wished to paint a woman, and has done so.; sent. 14: chief defect I principal . . .; sent. 14: even 1 even of; sent. 15: merely / mere; sent. 16: should . . . been I should . . . not; sent. 21: but . . . being / not present. The entire original rev. (21/2 columns, 2:2930) is in H 12.184-88.

play) b. Edward Bulwer Lytton (1803-73), popular as novelist, historian, and social critic, produced four plays in one brief period, three of them enjoying contemporary success: The Lady of Lyons, or Love and Pride, Richelieu, (1838) and Money (1840). Poe’s laudation is owed, perhaps, to his enthusiasm for Mrs. Mowatt, for in M 221 (para. 3) he praises the three plays only for their “stage-effect” and superiority to “old-dramatist” imitations; in his many refs. to Bulwer (see PD 15 for loci) he is invariably somewhat pejorative. Poe’s specific comments require a brief summary: Pauline, proud daughter of a Lyons merchant (1795-98), rejects all her suitors including Beauseant, a former marquis, provoking him into prompting her secret admirer Claude Melnotte, a bright and self-educated son to the gardener, to court her as a princely foreigner. A marriage takes place, but the contrite Claude removes her from his mother’s cottage, almost at once, to her father’s mansion and promises an easy annulment. Joining Bonaparte’s army, he wins honors, [page 299:] military rank, and riches in two years and returns to Lyons just in time to prevent Pauline from marrying Beauseant in order to save her father from bankruptcy.

A fair appraisal of this and the other plays of Bulwer Lytton is this: “They abound in examples of strained sentiment and false taste; they have nevertheless a certain theatrical flair, which has enabled them to survive” (En. Br. 17.186).

Poe derives the comparison in sent. 4 from two sources: Jer. 4:19: “Thou hast heard, o my soul, the sound of the trumpet”; and Sir Philip Sidney, Defence of Poesy (1595): “I never heard the old song of Percy and Douglas, that I found not my heart moved more than with a trumpet” (p. 25).

Marginalia 178

One of the most singular styles in the world — certainly one of the most loose — is that of the elder D‘Israeli. For example, he thus begins his Chapter on Bibliomania: “The preceding article [that on Libraries] is honorable to literature.” Here no self-praise is intended. The writer means to say merely that the facts narrated in the preceding article are honorable, etc. Three-fourths of his sentences are constructed in a similar manner. The blunders evidently arise, however, from the author’s preoccupation with his subject. His thought, or rather matter, outruns his pen, and drives him upon condensation at the expense of luminousness.(a) The manner of D‘Israeli has many of the traits of Gibbon — although little of the latter’s precision.(b)

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luminousness) a. Poe was devoted to reading, excerpting, and citing, invariably without acknowledgment, the learned and quaint compendia of observations and facts, Calamities of Authors, Literary Character, and especially, the Curiosities of Literature repeatedly issued (from 1791) by Isaac D‘Israeli or Disraeli (1766-1848), the wealthy scholar and anti-Jacobin novelist, who is the most quoted author in Poe’s Brevities (see my Intro, of “Sources,” Pin Intro., Pin 89, and M 79). Poe’s dozens of verbatim borrowings from Disraeli’s best known work make it particularly inapposite for Poe to omit the second part of the sentence which clarifies the reprehended statement: “. . .literature, yet even a passion for collecting books is not always a passion for literature (1835 ed., 1.7; 1865, 1.57). Poe offers no further evidence of Disraeli’s lax handling of meaning and would be hard put to it to prove his charge fairly, against a lucid, articulate, linguistically knowing, classically adept author with a fine ear for the nuances of style in many tongues. Nor is the expansive [page 300:] and leisurely English writer hurried or condensed, since he invariably writes for persons in the study at their ease and savoring enjoyable, often recherché topics.

precision) b. Just as the literary aims of Gibbon and Disraeli differ markedly, so do their style, which Poe labels for the former: “Dignity, Modulation, Laconism” (M 29) There he denies to Gibbon “precision” because of his “terseness.” In Part II of LST (para. 5) Poe had reflected on Gibbon’s excessive terseness rather than his “precision.” As with Disraeli, Gibbon’s wide scope of curious information attracted Poe into numerous, usually unacknowledged borrowings. Many readers of this passage would expect “lucidity” in place of “luminousness,” a quality scarcely needed for Disraeli’s subject matter.

Marginalia 179

If need were, I should have little difficulty, perhaps, in defending a certain apparent dogmatism to which I am prone, on the topic of versification.

“What is Poetry?” notwithstanding Leigh Hunt’s rigmarolic attempt at answering it, is a query that, with great care and deliberate agreement beforehand on the exact value of certain leading words, may, possibly, be settled to the partial satisfaction of a few analytical intellects, but which, in the existing condition of metaphysics, never can be settled to the satisfaction of the majority; for the question is purely metaphysical, and the whole science of metaphysics is at present a chaos, through the impossibility of fixing the meanings of the words which its very nature compels it to employ.(a) But as regards versification, this difficulty is only partial; for although one-third of the topic may be considered metaphysical, and thus may be mooted at the fancy of this individual or of that, still the remaining two-thirds belong, undeniably, to the mathematics. The questions ordinarily discussed with so much gravity in regard to rhythm, metre, etc., are susceptible of positive adjustment by demonstration.(b) Their laws are merely a portion of the Median laws of form and quantity — of relation. In respect, then, to any of these ordinary questions — these sillily moot points which so often arise in common criticism — the prosodist would speak as weakly in saying “this or that proposition is probably so and so, or possibly so and so,” as would the mathematician in admitting that, in his humble opinion, or if he were not greatly mistaken, any two sides of a triangle were, together, greater than the third side. I must add, however, as some palliation of the discussions referred to, and of the objections so often urged with a sneer to “particular theories of versification binding no one but their inventor” — that there is really extant no such work as a Prosody Raisonnée. The Prosodies of the schools are merely collections of vague laws, with [page 301:] their more vague exceptions, based upon no principles whatever, but extorted in the most speculative manner from the usages of the ancients, who had no laws beyond those of their ears and fingers. “And these were sufficient,” it will be said, “since ‘The Iliad’ is melodious and harmonious beyond any thing of modern times.” Admit this: — but neither do we write in Greek, nor has the invention of modern times been as yet exhausted. An analysis based on the natural laws of which the bard of Scios was ignorant, would suggest multitudinous improvements to the best passages of even “The Iliad” — nor does it in any manner follow from the supposititious fact that Homer found in his ears and forgers a satisfactory system of rules (the point which I have just denied) — nor does it follow, I say, from this, that the rules which we deduce from the Homeric effects are to supersede those immutable principles of time, quantity, etc. — the mathematics, in short, of music — which must have stood to these Homeric effects in the relation of causes — the mediate causes of which these “ears and fingers”(c) are simply the intermedia.(d)

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employ) a. James Henry Leigh Hunt (1787-1859), poet, editor, essayist and friend of major Romantic British poets, took up the question in the long Intro. to his 1844 collection of selections from English poets called Imagination and Fancy, included in Wiley and Putnam’s “Library of Choice Reading (No. IV)” in 1845; an uncollected rev. by Poe is in the 4119145 BJ (1.252-53), with a derisive para. by Poe in the 12120 issue (2.376). The first sentence serves to justify Poe’s coinage of the word “rigmarolic”: “Poetry, strictly and artistically so called, that is to say, considered not merely as poetic feeling, which is more or less shared by all the world, but as the operation of that feeling, such as we see it in the poet’s book, is the utterance of a passion for truth, beauty, and power, embodying and illustrating its conceptions by imagination and fancy, and modulating its language on the principle of variety in uniformity.” Yet the expansion of the concept of “poetry as passion” in a series of paras. (e.g., 2): “Poetry is a passion, because it seeks the deepest impressions” and “It is a passion for truth . . .” and (para. 3) “It is a passion for beauty. . .” probably led to Poe’s final sentence in the Preface to The Raven and Other Poems of 1845: “With me poetry has been not a purpose, but a passion; and the passions should be held in reverence. . . .” Rarely does Poe show much respect for the loose thinking and inflated rhetoric of the original of Harold Skimpole of Bleak House (see PD 47 for loci).

demonstration) b. Poe’s deprecation of metaphysics was characteristic, appearing too in his derision of Schelling’s and Coleridge’s “Metaphysicianism” (Poe’s coinage; see four examples in PCW 31 and M 213). “Median” comes from Dan. 6:8: “the law of the Medes and Persians, which altereth not.”

fingers) c. Poe’s 1848 “Rationale of Verse” was an inceptive attempt at a “Prosody Raisonnée.” Despite his casual listing of authors of [page 302:] prosodies and related grammars, e.g. in this essay (H 14.212), it may be true that Institutes of English Grammar . . . (N. Y., 1833, 239 pp.) by Goold Brown is “the only work on prosody or versification that Poe can be proved to have read” (as alleged by J. A. Greenwood, p. viii).

intermedia) d. The island birthplace of Homer, Chios, off the coast of Asia Minor, leads to the Italian form Scio, given an unconventional final “s” by Poe. There is no good study of the role of Homer in the works of Poe, despite its importance in view of the troublesome length of the epics which could not be read at one sitting. The large number of refs. to Homer (see PD 45-46) need study.

Marginalia 180

A book* which puzzles me beyond measure, since while agreeing with its general conclusions,(a) (except where it discusses prévision,) I invariably find fault with the reasoning through which the conclusions are attained. I think the treatise grossly illogical throughout. For example: — the origin of the work is thus stated in an introductory chapter:

“About twelve months since, I was asked by some friends to write a paper against Mesmerism — and I was furnished with materials by a highly esteemed quondam pupil, which proved incontestably that under some circumstances the operator might be duped — that hundreds of enlightened persons might equally be deceived — and certainly went far to show that the pretended science was wholly a delusion — a system of fraud and jugglery by which the imaginations of the credulous were held in thraldom through the arts of the designing. Perhaps in an evil hour I assented to the propositions thus made — but on reflection I found that the facts before me only led to the direct proof that certain phenomena might be counterfeited; and the existence of counterfeit coin is rather a proof that there is somewhere the genuine standard gold to be imitated.”

The fallacy here lies in a mere variation of what is called “begging the question.” Counterfeit coin is said to prove the existence of genuine: — this, of course, is no more than the truism that there can be no counterfeit where there is no genuine — just as there can be no badness where there is no goodness — the terms being purely relative. But because there can be no counterfeit where there is no original, does it in any manner follow that any undemonstrated original exists? In seeing a spurious coin we know it to be such by comparison with coins admitted to be genuine; but were no coin admitted to be genuine, how should we establish the counterfeit, and what right should we have to talk of counterfeits at all? Now, in the case of Mesmerism, our author is merely begging the admission. In saying that the existence of counterfeit proves the existence of real Mesmerism, he demands that the real be admitted. Either he demands this or there is no shadow of force in his proposition [page 303:] — for it is clear that we can pretend to be that which is not. A man, for instance, may feign himself a sphynx or a griffin, but it would never do to regard as thus demonstrated the actual existence of either griffins or sphynxes. A word alone — the word “counterfeit” — has been sufficient to lead Mr. Newnham astray. People cannot be properly said to “counterfeit” prévision, etc., but to feign these phenomena.(b)

Dr. Newnham’s argument, of course, is by no means original with him, although he seems to pride himself on it as if it were. Dr. More says: “That there should be so universal a fame and fear of that which never was, nor is, nor can be ever in the world, is to me the greatest miracle of all. If there had not been, at some time or other, true miracles, it had not been so easy to impose on the people by false. The alchemist would never go about to sophisticate metals, to pass them off for true gold and silver, unless that such a thing was acknowledged as true gold and silver in the world.”

This is precisely the same idea as that of Dr. Newnham, and belongs to that extensive class of argumentation which is all point — deriving its whole effect from epigrammatism. That the belief in ghosts, or in a Deity, or in a future state, or in anything else credible or incredible — that any such belief is universal, demonstrates nothing more than that which needs no demonstration — the human unanimity — the identity of construction in the human brain — an identity of which the inevitable result must be, upon the whole, similar deductions from similar data.(c)

Most especially do I disagree with the author of this book in his (implied) disparagement of the work of Chauncey Hare Townshenda work to be valued properly only in a day to come.(d)

* Human Magnetism: Its Claim to Dispassionate Inquiry. Being an Attempt to show the Utility of its Application for the Relief of Human Suffering. By W. Newnham, M.R.S.L., Author of the Reciprocal Influence of Body and Mind. Wiley & Putnam.

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conclusions) a. The six paras. of this article are taken chiefly from Poe’s review of Newnham’s book in the 4/5/45 BJ (1,209-10; H 12.12123), with seven paras. slightly different, as follows (M given first): para. 1 / para. 5; paras. 2 (to “begging the admission”) / paras. 2-4; rest of para. 3 through para. 5 (end) / not present in Bf; par,. 6 / part of para. 5. The chief change is to omit his disbelief in Newnham’s advocacy of magnetism (i.e., hypnotism) “to relieve many and to cure some maladies” (p. 59 of the 1845 London ed.) — exempting the pain of surgery, of course (para. 7). Poe’s removal of this reservation of the BJ article logically implies that he accepts this capacity of mesmerism, but there is little reason to assume that he gave credence to this widespread notion, although using it as the basis for three tales: “Ragged Mountains,” “Mesmeric Revelation” and “Valdemar,” all extensively discussed by Sidney E. Lind, PMLA, 12/1947, 52:1077-94, with the conclusion that Poe enjoyed [page 304:] using mesmerism for hoax presentations in the last two, asserting this despite widespread public credulity (see BJ, 2.174, 359; M 200), and also his support of Townshend (below). William Newnham (1790-1865) was a British medical and religious writer, who clearly wished to employ both medical science and the pseudosciences, as in Essay on Superstition (1830), The Reciprocal Influence of Body and Mind considered (1842) and Human Magnetism (1845; N. Y., 1845).

phenomena) b. Poe was interested in numismatics and the question of forgery, perhaps a concomitant to the problem of plagiarism; see Pin 162 and 168, for example. He could, much more simply, have made a distinction between forged coins and “feigned” spiritualistic conditions — mesmerism, without the pedantry of the verbal distinction; the OED, in fact, fails to separate “counterfeit” and “feign,” as he wishes, for the two are virtually interchangeable. One suspects that Poe read the book hastily and allowed “prévision” to supplant the larger term “mesmerism” as in the last sentence of para. 3. Newnham devotes ch. xi (pp. 325-373) alone to this term, which he retains, he says, to distinguish it from ordinary foresight or the spirit of prophecy. It is a “rare faculty” of foreseeing things that will happen to oneself. Joan of Arc had it. It is, apparently, very far from the simple trance into which the ill or suffering are placed by the mesmerists. Poe’s use of “animal magnetism” in “Mesmeric Revelation” is well handled by TOM 1024-28.

data) c. This addition (to the BJ rev.) seems to show a source for Newnham’s “argument” without sufficient identification. Is it from Henry More (1614-87), the English divine, with slight modernization of the text (“sophisticate” for “adulterate” is still being used in the 19th century)?

Poe was no admirer of terse, epigrammatic writing (see MM 6, 47) although this quality in Newnham’s statements, as quoted, is hard to find. Poe’s peculiar justification of innate ideas on the grounds of identical brain structure in mankind seems irrelevant to the discussion.

come) d. Early in Newnham’s book (p. 6, N. Y. ed.) he makes a glancing ref. to Facts in Mesmerism by Chauncey Hare Townshend (17981868). He was a poet, amateur painter, inactive clergyman, contributor to magazines, good friend of Dickens; his Facts . . . had five more appearances in London or America by 1844 and was used intrinsically by Poe in his last two “mesmeric” tales (TOM 1024, 1229), although without the praise and implied devotion to his doctrines of this para. Newnham, believer in mesmeric clairvoyance, says that as a nonscientific clergyman Townshend would not examine the “laws of evidence” and could “easily be deceived by the designing.”

 

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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - BRP2B, 1985] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Collected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (B. R. Pollin) (Marginalia - part 08)