Text: Burton R. Pollin (and E. A. Poe), “Marginalia - part 10,” The Collected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe — Vol. II: The Brevities (1985), pp. 315-324 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 315:]


Graham’s American Monthly Magazine of Literature and Art

January 1848 XXXII, 23-24


By Edgar A. Poe.

[8 items, nos. 189-196]

  * * * * * * * * * * * * * *  

Marginalia 189

We mere men of the world, with no principle — a very old-fashioned and cumbersome thing — should be on our guard lest, fancying him on his last legs, we insult, or otherwise maltreat some poor devil of a genius at the very instant of his putting his foot on the top round of his ladder of triumph. It is a common trick with these fellows, when on the point of attaining some long-cherished end, to sink themselves into the deepest possible abyss of seeming despair, for no other purpose than that of increasing the space of success through which they have made up their minds immediately to soar.


Note: The implied background of this article suggests ironically a welter of conflicting experiences during 1847, such as the death of Virginia Poe (1/30/47), the unfortunate and damaging publicity of the libel suit against Fuller and Clason of the Mirror, during the actual trial (1847), even though it led to an award of damages to Poe, marked variations in spirits and health, bouts of drinking, and the intensive work on Eureka, which Poe considered his claim to immortality. It must have been the widespread gossip, newspaper accounts, and alternations of support and condemnation along with what TOM calls his “manic and depressive periods” (Poems 563n 12) that led to this comment, which also ties in with M 187 on the motives of genius. [page 317:]

Marginalia 190

All that the man of genius demands for his exaltation is moral matter in motion. It makes no difference whither tends the motion — whether for him or against him — and it is absolutely of no consequence “what is the matter.”


Note: In this further comment on genius (cf. MM 187, 189) is a hint of the basic concerns of Eureka, matter attracted or repelled, diffused or concentrated (para. 102, for example). Poe’s love of puns is evidenced in the last clause.

Marginalia 191

In Colton’s “American Review” for October, 1845, a gentleman, well known for his scholarship, has a forcible paper on “The Scotch School of Philosophy and Criticism.” But although the paper is “forcible,” it presents the most singular admixture of error and truth — the one dovetailed into the other, after a fashion which is novel, to say the least of it.(a) Were I to designate in a few words what the whole article demonstrated, I should say “the folly of not beginning at the beginning — of neglecting the giant Moulineau’s advice to his friend Ram.”(b) Here is a passage from the essay in question:

“The Doctors [Campbell and Johnson] both charge Pope with error and inconsistency: — error in supposing that in English, of metrical lines unequal in the number of syllables and pronounced in equal times, the longer suggests celerity (this being the principle of the Alexandrine:) — inconsistency, in that Pope himself uses the same contrivance to convey the contrary idea of slowness. But why in English? It is not and cannot be disputed that, in the Hexameter verse of the Greeks and Latins — which is the model in this matter — what is distinguished as the ‘dactylic line’ was uniformly applied to express velocity. How was it to do so? Simply from the fact of being pronounced in an equal time with, while containing a greater number of syllables or ‘bars’ than the ordinary or average measure; as, on the other hand, the spondaic line, composed of the minimum number, was, upon the same principle, used to indicate slowness. So, too, of the Alexandrine in English versification. No, says Campbell, there is a difference: the Alexandrine is not in fact, like the dactylic line, pronounced in the common time. But does this alter the principle? What is the rationale of Metre, whether the classical hexameter or the English heroic?”(c)

I have written an essay on the “Rationale of Verse,” in which the whole topic is surveyed ab initio, and with reference to general and immutable principles. To this essay (which will soon appear) I refer Mr. Bristed. In the meantime, without troubling myself to ascertain whether Doctors Johnson and Campbell are wrong, or whether Pope is wrong, or whether the reviewer is right or wrong, at this point or at that, let [page 318:] me succinctly state what is the truth on the topics at issue.

And first; the same principles, in all cases, govern all verse. What is true in English is true in Greek.

Secondly; in a series of lines, if one line contains more syllables than the law of the verse demands, and if, nevertheless, this line is pronounced in the same time, upon the whole, as the rest of the lines, then this line suggests celerity — on account of the increased rapidity of enunciation required. Thus in the Greek Hexameter the dactylic lines — those most abounding in dactyls — serve best to convey the idea of rapid motion. The spondaic lines convey that of slowness.(d)

Thirdly; it is a gross mistake to suppose that the Greek dactylic line is “the model in this matter” — the matter of the English Alexandrine. The Greek dactylic line is of the same number of feet — bars — beats — pulsations — as the ordinary dactylic-spondaic lines among which it occurs. But the Alexandrine is longer by one foot — by one pulsation — than the pentameters among which it arises. For its pronunciation it demands more time, and therefore, ceteris paribus, it would well serve to convey the impression of length, or duration, and thus, indirectly, of slowness. I say ceteris paribus. But, by varying conditions, we can effect a total change in the impression conveyed. When the idea of slowness is conveyed by the Alexandrine, it is not conveyed by any slower enunciation of syllables — that is to say, it is not directly conveyed — but indirectly, through the idea of length in the whole line. Now, if we wish to convey, by means of an Alexandrine, the impression of velocity, we readily do so by giving rapidity to our enunciation of the syllables composing the several feet. To effect this, however, we must have more syllables, or we shall get through the whole line too quickly for the intended time. To get more syllables, all we have to do, is to use, in place of iambuses, what our prosodies call anapaests.* Thus, in the line,

Flies o’er the unbending corn and skims along the main,

the syllables “the unbend” form an anapaest and, demanding unusual rapidity of enunciation, in order that we may get them in the ordinary time of an iambus, serve to suggest celerity. By the elision of e in the, as is customary, the whole of the intended effect is lost; for th‘unbend is nothing more than the usual iambus. In a word, wherever an Alexandrine expresses celerity, we shall find it to contain one or more anapæsts — the more anapæsts, the more decided the impression. But the tendency of the Alexandrine consisting merely of the usual iambuses, is to convey slowness — although it conveys this idea feebly, on account of conveying it indirectly. It follows, from what I have said, that the common pentameter, interspersed with anapaests, would better convey celerity(e) than the Alexandrine interspersed with them in a similar degree; and it unquestionably does.

* I use the prosodial word “anapœst [[anapæst]],” merely because here I have no space [page 319:] to show what the reviewer will admit I have distinctly shown in the essay referred to — viz.: that the additional syllable introduced, does not make the foot an anapæst, or the equivalent of an anapaest, and that, if it did, it would spoil the line. On this topic, and on all topics connected with verse, there is not a prosody in existence which is not a mere jumble of the grossest error.


least of it) a. George H. Colton, twenty-seven year old graduate of Yale like his friend, the author of this paper, Charles Astor Bristed (1820-74), was one of the organizers of the new monthly, the American Review: A Whig Journal of Politics, Literature, etc. (1845-1852), initially sponsored by Wiley and Putnam. He had published Poe’s “Raven” and other writings (see Mott, p. 751), but did not always incur Poe’s favor (see letter to Eveleth of 2/29/48, Ostrom 360). Bristed, son of the somewhat eccentric ex-Englishman John Bristed (see MM 80, 83, 100), was even then a highly reputed classicist, winner of honors at Yale and at Cambridge, England, magazine writer often under the name of “Carl Benson” and author of numerous, varied books from 1849 on (see DAB), and he was the great-grandson of John Jacob Astor. Hence this Poe article appears rather surprisingly forthright, even deprecatory, although Quinn, p. 566, and Ostrom, p. 369, consider it “somewhat favorable.” Poe’s first letter, that of 1/17/47, thanks Bristed for the ten dollars sent him through “Mr. Colton,” probably because of Willis’ press appeal during the last days of Virginia’s illness (Ostrom 339-40). After her death on 1/30/47, Poe sent a calling card, black-bordered, requesting “a few minutes of private conversation,” undoubtedly about another money gift (Quinn 567). Finally, Poe, on 7/7/48, “desperately circumstanced — in very bitter distress” asks him for a “loan” for an urgent trip to Richmond — which he soon took, probably with Bristed’s gift (Ostrom 268-69).

Ram) b. One of Poe’s favorite concepts, greatly developed in various refs. to proper composition, was taken from “Le Bélier” in Contes de Féerie (1730-49; English tr. 1760) by Anthony Hamilton (1646-1720), whose Mémoires du comte de Grammont, i.e., his brother-in-law, was also known to Poe (H 11.40). Twice in differing French and often in English Poe alluded to the dialogue of the giant Moulineau and his friend, the Ram (or Bélier): “Bélier, mon ami. . . . Si to voulois commencer par le commencement to me ferois plaisir. . . . . . (Contes, Paris, 1730, p. 88). For its general importance, here is the English by M. G. Lewis, of the entire context:

“My worthy friend, said the giant . . . if you would have the kindness to begin by the beginning, I should feel obliged to you, for I have always found that stories which begin thus in the middle have no other effect than that of throwing the mind into a state of hopeless confusion.” [page 320:]

“Well,” said the ram, “I consent, though it be against custom to put everything in chronological order; the beginning of my story, therefore, shall be placed foremost.”

Poe used this often, as in the preface to “The Folio Club” tales (TOM 204) for which TOM’s note records two instances — of 1841 and 1848 (see H 10.189 in Poe’s French and another, 10.165, in English). See also MM 33, 109, 268, 273. For a ref. to the Mémoires see rev. of Barnaby Rudge in 2/42 Graham’s (H 11.40).

heroic) c. This para. is correctly quoted from the American Review of 10/45, 2:386-97 (specifically, 394). Bristed here refers to Samuel Johnson and George Campbell (1714-1796), minister and professor at Aberdeen and friend of Thomas Reid, leader of the “Scotch School of Philosophy.” It is to the former’s Lives of the Poets and the latter’s Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776) that he alludes. Pope’s alexandrine line in the Essay of Criticism (1.357) is: “That like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along.”

slowness) d. The “imminent” appearance of the “Rationale of Verse” was only in 10, 11/48 in the SLM, but it would scarcely have convinced the classicist Bristed, since Poe persisted in misapprehending the difference between the quantity system of the classical poets and the English stress system in his search for “general and immutable principles.”

celerity) e. In citing Pope’s line (1.373) (perhaps from Bristed, p. 396) thus — a rewrite, so to speak — Poe ignores the extra foot inserted by Pope and the light, short vowel sounds that hasten the reading. In para. 6 Poe’s use of “bars” as equivalent to “feet” or “beats” indicates the confusions in his “musical metrics.”

Marginalia 192

To converse well, we need the cool tact of talent — to talk well, the glowing abandon of genius. Men of very high genius, however, talk at one time very well, at another very ill: — well, when they have full time, full scope, and a sympathetic listener: — ill, when they fear interruption and are annoyed by the impossibility of exhausting the topic during that particular talk. The partial genius is flashy — scrappy. The true genius shudders at incompleteness — imperfection — and usually prefers silence to saying the something which is not every thing that should be said. He is so filled with his theme that he is dumb, first from not knowing how to begin, where there seems eternally beginning behind beginning, and secondly from perceiving his true end at so infinite a distance. Sometimes, dashing into a subject, he blunders, hesitates, stops short, sticks fast, and, because he has been overwhelmed by the rush and multiplicity of his thoughts, his hearers sneer at his inability to think. Such a man finds his proper element in those “great occasions” which confound and prostrate the general intellect.(a)

Nevertheless, by his conversation, the influence of the conversationist upon mankind in general, is more decided than that of the talker by his talk: — the latter invariably talks to best purpose with his pen. And good conversationists are more rare than respectable talkers. I know many of the latter; and of the former only five or six: — among whom I can call to mind, just now. Mr. Willis, Mr. J. T. S. S. — of Philadelphia, Mr. W. M. R. —— of Petersburg, Va., and Mrs. S——d, formerly of New York.(b) Most people, in conversing, force us to curse our stars that our lot was not cast among the African nation mentioned by Eudoxus — the savages who, having no mouths, never opened them, as a matter of course. And yet, if denied mouth, some persons whom I have in my eye would contrive to chatter on still — as they do now — through the nose.(c)


intellect) a. Two themes seem to be almost obsessively basic to Poe at this time: how to shape a composition from its beginnings and how genius is known and demonstrated; for the latter see MM 187, 189, 190; for the former, see M 191, para. 1, and refs. given there. Poe may here be italicizing “abandon” as equivalent to his favorite French word “abandonnement,” as in para. 4 of the M Intro. where he has a similar design — chit-chat of small consequence versus real “talk” that is “fresh, bold, original” and flowing. In short, these M articles, Poe hopes, are a written form of the talk of a man of “high genius.” Does Poe use quotation marks in the last sentence because of Hazlitt’s prior use or simply for emphasis? He refers once to Table-Talk in the 9/36 SLM (H 9.143) rev. which merely mentions the work: “Great acts grow out of great occasions and great occasions spring from great principles, working changes in society, and tearing it up by the roots” (Pt. i, ser. ii).

New York) b. The word “conversationist” as an alternative form occurs twice in early 19th c. records (OED) before Poe’s use here. Nathaniel P. Willis was almost notorious for making a literary career out of his penchant for charming chatter at literary and social gatherings (see C. P. Auser, Willis [New Haven, 1969], p. 24), later used for his newspaper and magazine columns or books of essays, as in Pencillings by the Way (cf. para. 4 of M Intro., as if Poe then had Willis in mind). Poe’s association with Willis lasted from his early career to the loyal defense of Poe in Willis’ Home Journal after his death (cf. Auser, pp. 56-58). The identification of the others in Poe’s list is more difficult and less fruitful. The identification of J. T. S. S. as “Sullivan” is, presumably, by Poe and not by Griswold, as Harrison gives it, further proof of Poe’s redaction of the Marginalia for a projected book. The man does not occur in Poe biography or other works nor in accounts of the period. [page 322:] The last name momentarily resembles that of Mrs. Margaret St. Leon (Barstow) Loud (1812-89), one of our “finest poets” says Poe in the 12/ 41 Graham’s “Autography” (H 15.230), but this does not correspond to Poe’s abbreviation and she was of Philadelphia and its environs, never of New York. A note left by TOM identifies Mr. W. M. R. as “Robinson — M. E. P.” but this merely compounds the mystery.

nose) c. Eudoxus of Cyzicus (second century B. C.), Greek navigator who was blown down east Africa and consorted with the natives, is discussed by Strabo in his Geography, 2.98-102, a book not unknown to Poe (see M 155 and Pin 141). Poe’s aural sensitivity made him almost querulous abut public voices, for example, that of the dramatic lecturer on Shakespeare, Henry Norman Hudson, q.v. in M 146 (and, BJ, 1.190-91, 216 and 2.359).

Marginalia 193

All in a hot and copper sky

The bloody sun at noon

Just up above the mast did stand,

No bigger than the moon. — Coleridge.

Is it possible that the poet did not know the apparent diameter of the moon to be greater than that of the sun?


Note: Poe’s delight in exposing Coleridge’s error or deliberate assertion (Ancient Mariner, ll. 111-14) is probably no indication of his shifting attitude toward his “anomalous metaphysicianism” (M 213); for “Poe’s Debt to Coleridge” see F. Stovall, Edgar Poe the Poet (1969), ch. 5, pp. 126-174. Poe’s inserted “Just” for “Right” and overlooked the astronomical impossibility in Coleridge’s two lines: “The horned Moon, with one bright star / Within the nether tip” (Part 3, 210-11).

Marginalia 194

If any ambitious man have a fancy to 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 [page 323:] 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.


Note: Poe’s title reminds one of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” in which the writer has yielded completely to his evil propensities. Many of Poe’s tales are confessions of the unvirtuous, presenting themselves as typical, e.g. “The Imp of the Perverse” and “The Black Cat.” Is Poe here propounding his view of the innate corruption of man’s nature or simply the immoral tendency of our “normal” desires and sentiments? This sort of utterance greatly appealed to admirers of Poe, such as Baudelaire and his group. The diabolism of the last sentence reminds us of Poe’s early farces such as “Duc de L‘Omelette” and “Bon-Bon.” Poe ignores books that were frank enough to be written in cipher, like the diary of Samuel Pepys (deciphered by John Smith only in 1825) or stored away for a reading or publication years after the death of the author. Poe pursues the topic tangentially in M 237. His favorite play Hamlet (3.1.65) provides “There is the rub.”

Marginalia 195

For all the rhetorician’s rules

Teach nothing but to name the tools. — Hudibras.(a)

What these oft-quoted lines go to show, is, that a falsity in verse will travel faster and endure longer than a falsity in prose. The man who would sneer or stare at a silly proposition nakedly put, will admit that “there is a good deal in that” when “that” is the point of an epigram shot into the ear. The rhetorician’s rules — if they are rules — teach him not only to name his tools, but to use his tools, the capacity of his tools — their extent — their limit; and from an examination of the nature of the tools — (an examination forced on him by their constant presence) — force him, also, into scrutiny and comprehension of the material on which the tools are employed, and thus, finally, suggest and give birth to new material for new tools.(b)


Hudibras) a. The two lines come from Samuel Butler’s Hudibras (1.1.89-90) which was apparently a Poe favorite (see Pin 39, 93, 94, 108; MM 64, 139, 227). [page 324:]

tools) b. Poe here is a typical 18th century man in believing that poetry can be reduced to rules and these can guide inspiration (hence his “Rationale of Verse”). In consequence he avoids praise of the primitive, unshaped by formal rules, despite M 142 (although the foisted “folk poem” was Cunningham’s work); this may explain his distaste for Burns’ verses. For other comments on rhetoric see MM 179, 212.

Marginalia 196

Among his eidola of the den, the tribe, the forum, the theatre, etc., Bacon might well have placed the great eidolon of the parlor (or of the wit, as I have termed it in one of the previous Marginalia) — the idol whose worship blinds man to truth by dazzling him with the apposite.(a) But what title could have been invented for that idol which has propagated, perhaps, more of gross error than all combined? — the one, I mean, which demands from its votaries that they reciprocate cause and effect — reason in a circle — lift themselves from the ground by pulling up their pantaloons — and carry themselves on their own heads, in hand-baskets, from Beersheba to Dan.(b)

All — absolutely all the argumentation which I have seen on the nature of the soul, or of the Deity, seems to me nothing but worship of this unnameable idol. Pour savoir ce qu’est (sic) Dieu, says Bielfeld, although nobody listens to the solemn truth, il faut être Dieu même — and to reason about the reason is of all things the most unreasonable. At least, he alone is fit to discuss the topic who perceives at a glance the insanity of its discussion.(c)


apposite) a. See Sir Francis Bacon, in his Novum Organum, Bk. I, De Augmentis Scientiarum, Summary “digested in Aphorisms,” Basil Montagu, ed. (Boston, 1863), p. 140, for the eidola. Poe uses the eidolon of the den in M 19 and devises that of “the wit” in M 47.

Dan) b. This comes from 1 Chron. 26:2: “Go, number Israel from Beer-sheba even to Dan” (used also in BJ, 1.5/1). The idea of self-lifting is repeated by Poe at the start of M 200 in “the carrying-one’s-self-in-a-hand-basket logic” — his own word, of course.

discussion) c. This phrase, a favorite with Poe, from Bielfeld’s Traite, was used in M 26 (q.v.) and Eureka, para. 40. It stimulated Poe with regard to the link between the creator of art and the appreciant, as in M 118.






[S:0 - BRP2B, 1985] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Collected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (B. R. Pollin) (Marginalia - part 10)