Text: Burton R. Pollin (and E. A. Poe), “A Chapter of Suggestions,” The Collected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe — Vol. II: The Brevities (1985), pp. 465-474 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 465:]


The Opal


[11 items]

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A Chapter of Suggestions [1]

In the life of every man there occurs at least one epoch, when the spirit seems to abandon, for a brief period, the body, and, elevating itself above mortal affairs just so far as to get a comprehensive and general view, makes thus an estimate of its humanity, as accurate as is possible, under any circumstances, to that particular spirit. The soul here separates itself from its own idiosyncrasy, or individuality, and considers its own being, not as appertaining solely to itself, but as a portion of the universal Ens. All the important good resolutions which we keep — all startling, marked regenerations of character — are brought about at these crises of life. And thus it is our intense sense of self which debases, and which keeps us debased.


Note: Poe chooses to start his article rather grandiosely, implying some kind of moral crisis in May, 1844, when he was preparing this for publication in the Opal of 1845 (to be published at the end of 1844). Two months later his letter of 7/2/44 to Lowell asserts that “spirit . . . is unparticled and therefore is not matter. . . . Man exists . . . clothed with matter (the particled matter) which individualizes him” (Ostrom 257). Poe touches upon this subject in M 126 and in several tales: e.g., Schelling’s “Doctrine of Identity” and Locke’s proof of identity through “sameness” in “Morello” (TOM 231), and in “Mesmeric Revelation” the individual beings as “incarnate portions of the divine mind” (1036). Eric W. Carlson discusses this phase of Poe’s notions as “the psychotranscendental” in “Vision of Man” (Papers on Poe 1972, 7-20, especially, p. 14). The definition of “ens” is not helpful to Poe’s phrase: “Something which has [page 466:] existence, a ‘being,’ entity as opposed to an attribute, quality, etc,” or “an entity regarded apart from any predicate but that of mere existence.” Poe’s capitalization suggests the attribution of deity, as in his “tale” contexts.

A Chapter of Suggestions [2]

The theory of chance, or, as the mathematicians term it, the Calculus of Probabilities, has this remarkable peculiarity, that its truth in general is in direct proportion with its fallacy in particular.


Note: This single sentence derives from Poe’s “Mystery of Marie Rogêt” of 12/42, which begins with a ref. “to the doctrine of chance, or, as it is technically termed, the Calculus of Probabilities. . . in its essence, purely mathematical” (TOM 724) and ends with a long para. on the misconception to which the nonmathematical layman is subject who anticipates “an extension of the parallel” of circumstances previously observed. He cites throws of the dice and the false inferences about future throws of the average player — probably the “fallacy in particular” that he here mentions. With an air of profound learning, Poe here is alluding to the great Theory of Probabilities (Paris, 1812) of the world-renowned French astronomer and mathematician Pierre Simon Laplace (17491827), whose Nebular Hypothesis is cited frequently in Eureka. (see PD 54 for loci of 10 passages). Poe’s acquaintance with Laplace’s works must have been indirect and was superficial (see Regis Messac, Le ‘Detective Novel’ et les influences de la pensée scientifique [Paris, 1929], ch. IV, esp. p. 355), but in claiming to be constructing his detective tales logically and scientifically along the lines of the “calculus” he captivated the critic Edouard Laforgue in the 10/15/1846 Revue des Deux Mondes (see Sidney Moss, ESQ, 1970, 60.4-13; and W. K. Wimsatt, PMLA, 1941, 56.23048). For other refs. by Poe to Laplace, for either of these two areas of his expertise, see TOM 4800, 1022n9, 1321 at n10, 1323n1, some of which reflects the content of Eureka.

A Chapter of Suggestions [3]

We may judge of the degree of abstraction in one who meditates, by the manner in which he receives an interruption. If he is much startled, his reverie was not profound; and the converse. Thus the af fectation of the tribe of pretended mental-absentees, becomes transparent. These people awake from their musings with a start, and an air of bewilderment, as men naturally awake from dreams that have a close [page 467:] semblance of reality. But they are, clearly, ignorant that the phenomena of dreaming differ, radically, from those of reverie — of which latter the mesmeric condition is the extreme.


Note: For an attempt to differentiate between dreams and swoons see M 126; between dreams and fancies, M 150. The latter relates to “psychal impressions” (the adjective coined by Poe), q. v., for loci in PCW 35, 91. Frequently Poe connects such states of dreams while “waking” (cf. sleep-waking” [cf. PCW 64]) with the subject of Mesmerism, which loomed large in his works, and about which he seemed to change his opinion toward complete disbelief, save as simple hypnotism (see many refs. in TOM’s Index).

A Chapter of Suggestions [4]

There are few thinkers who will not be surprised to find, upon retrospect of the world of thought, how very frequently the first, or intuitive, impressions have been the true ones. A poem, for example, enraptures us in our childhood. In adolescence, we perceive it to be full of fault. In the first years of manhood, we utterly despise and condemn it; and it is not until mature age has given tone to our feelings, enlarged our knowledge, and perfected our understanding, that we recur to our original sentiment, and primitive admiration, with the additional pleasure which is always deduced from knowing how it was that we once were pleased, and why it is that we still admire.


Note: This Wordsworthian article seems almost anomalous in the canon of Poe’s general criticism and observation — with its vindication of the “truth” of intuition in the naive response. It seems more akin to the sentimentalism of the educationists of the late 18th century, believing in natural piety and goodness and the “rightness” of the untutored impressions. It is true that Poe’s general respect for method, logical analysis, and rigorous experimentation is implicit in the judgment he ascribes to “mature age” and in the essays he left on the “how” and “why” of poetic appreciation — e.g., “The Rationale of Verse.” Nor does he explain the birth and development of the “poetic sentiment” or taste for the beautiful, so often mentioned. But he never indicates children as having great, although untrained insight matching that in the educated appreciant — in the tales that have glimpses, at least, of children: “Metzengerstein,” “Morella” (a rather unnatural young character here!), “Devil in Belfry,” “Never Bet,” “William Wilson,” and “Thingum Bob.” Moreover, there is an anomaly in the implication that in the heyday of our lives — manhood, our responses are less “true” than in “mature age” [page 468:] (verging on old age?). Rarely does Poe tend to glorify this stage of life at the expense of early maturity.

A Chapter of Suggestions [5]

That the imagination has not been unjustly ranked as supreme among the mental faculties, appears, from the intense consciousness, on the part of the imaginative man, that the faculty in question brings his soul often to a glimpse of things supernal and eternal — to the very verge of the great secrets. There are moments, indeed, in which he perceives the faint perfumes, and hears the melodies of a happier world. Some of the most profound knowledge — perhaps all very profound knowledge — has originated from a highly stimulated imagination. Great intellects guess well. The laws of Kepler were, professedly, guesses.


Note: This article is perhaps the basis for a section of Eureka (1848) which expresses an important view of Poe, both poet and scientific analyst: “By its means” — the proposition “that a perfect consistency can be nothing but an absolute truth” — “investigation has been taken out of the hands of the ground-moles, and given . . . to the only true thinkers — to the generally — educated men of ardent imagination. These later — our Keplers — our Laplaces — speculate — ‘theorize‘. . . until at length there stands apparent an unencumbered Consistency. . . an absolute and unquestionable Truth. . . . Kepler admitted that these laws he guessed. . . . He imagined them.” (paras 22-23, H 16.196). Likewise, in “Mellonta Tauta,” an offshoot of Eureka, we find: “Kepler admitted that his three laws were guessed at. . . . Kepler guessed — that is to say, imagined” (TOM 1297).

Poe’s division of the “mind” into “mental faculties” is standard 18th century psychology, tinctured also by the terminology and concepts of phrenology from which he was now sharply veering after earlier acceptance (see M 20). Heaven or the “happier world” is similarly suggested in “The Raven”: “Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer / Swung by seraphim” (11. 79-80); “Eleonora”: “perfume from the censer of the angels” (TOM 642); and “Ligeia”; “in the . . . rich lustre thrown from the censer, a shadow.. . of angelic aspect” (325).

A Chapter of Suggestions [6]

An excellent Magazine paper might be written upon the subject of the progressive steps by which any great work of art — especially of literary art — attained completion. How vast a dissimilarity always exists [page 469:] between the germ and the fruit — between the work and its original conception! Sometimes the original conception is abandoned, or left out of sight altogether. Most authors sit down to write with no fixed design, trusting to the inspiration of the moment; it is not, therefore, to be wondered at, that most books are valueless. Pen should never touch paper, until at least a well-digested general purpose be established. In fiction, the dénouement — in all other composition the intended effect, should be definitely considered and arranged, before writing the first word; and no word should be then written which does not tend, or form a part of a sentence which tends, to the development of the dénouement, or to the strengthening of the effect. Where plot forms a portion of the contemplated interest, too much preconsideration cannot be had. Plot is very imperfectly understood, and has never been rightly defined. Many persons regard it as mere complexity of incident. In its most rigorous acceptation, it is that from which no component atom can be removed, and in which none of the component atoms can be displaced, without ruin to the whole; and although a sufficiently good plot may be constructed, without attention to the whole rigor of this definition, still it is the definition which the true artist should always keep in view, and always endeavor to consummate in his works.(a) Some authors appear, however, to be totally deficient in constructiveness, and thus, even with plentiful invention, fail signally in plot. Dickens belongs to this class. His “Barnaby Rudge” shows not the least ability to adapt. Godwin and Bulwer are the best constructors of plot in English literature. The former has left a preface to his “Caleb Williams,” in which he says that the novel was written backwards; the author first completing the second volume, in which the hero is involved in a maze of difficulties, and then casting about him for sufficiently probable cause of these difficulties, out of which to concoct volume the first. This mode cannot surely be recommended, but evinces the idiosyncrasy of Godwin’s mind. Bulwer’s “Pompeii” is an instance of admirably managed plot. His “Night and Morning,” sacrifices to mere plot interests of far higher value.(b)


works) a. This article is an important step in the evolution of Poe’s theory of the proper method for constructing a consummate plot, especially for a tale. Key elements are the letter of 3/6/42 sent to him by Dickens, in Philadelphia, in response to Poe’s sending him his books and reviews, one of Barnaby Rudge (H 17.107) and Poe’s discovery (through Dickens) of Godwin’s account of his writing Caleb Williams by planning the stages backwards, i.e., dénouement in vol. 3 first, entanglement in vol. 2, preliminary material finally in vol. 1, but Poe persisted in certain errors about the procedure (e.g., thinking it two, not three volumes, and ascribing the account to the preface to this novel rather than to Godwin’s preface to an 1832 reprint of his novel of 1807 titled Fleetwood). For a full account, see DP, ch. 7, “Godwin and Poe,” 107-127; also the 14 [page 470:] epitomes devoted to Poe in Pollin, Godwin Criticism (Toronto, 1967), p. 574. A third element in the evolution of Poe’s theory is his 4/42 Graham’s review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales in which one para. prelimns the first part of this article in its discussion of “preconceived effect” and “pre-established design” to be considered and respected by the working literary artist (H 11.108). Certainly Poe had written about the problem of gaining unified “effect” in a tale, as in his 4/41 Graham’s review of Bulwer’s Night and Morning (H 10. 120), but without the element of “preconception” and retrogressive planning. The present article was to become the basis for the famous opening of “Philosophy of Composition” of 4146 in Graham’s (H 15.183-95), before he applied the method — Godwin’s method — to his evolution of “The Raven.” Note also that the passage in his 4/42 rev. of Hawthorne’s book is used, almost verbatim, in his more developed review-essay on the same book in the 11/47 Godey’s (H 13.153).

value) b. Poe finds defects in the construction of Barnaby Rudge in his 2/42 Graham’s review (H 11.38-64) and finally compares the book of Dickens and Godwin’s Caleb Williams to the latter’s advantage, as man aging the key motive of “curiosity” better and also for its “construction” (11.64). Poe’s remark about Godwin’s “mode” of proceeding is here deprecatory (“cannot. . . be recommended” and the word “idiosyncrasy”) but in the “Philosophy of Composition” he recommends “a somewhat similar process” as “an advantage” (para. 2). He has thought further about it or perhaps read the preface to Fleetwood (1832) despite his retaining the error about the volumes. In fact, Godwin carefully elaborates his process (pp. vii-ix) in a most detailed and practical fashion. Concerning Bulwer Lytton as a novelist — Poe’s attitude greatly varied. He certainly envied his great popularity, admired his versatility, variety, and sophistication, and also scorned his flashy superficiality. For the Last Days see M 49, LST 4; but for early evaluations of his general traits, showing great respect, see his 2/36 SLM review of Rienzi (H 8.223) and his 4/41 Graham’s review of Night and Morning with its “decidedly excellent” plot and “perfect adaptation of the . . . atoms of a very unusually involute story” (H 10. 117), but still Bulwer “in pathos, humour, and verisimilitude . . . is unequal to Dickens” (10.132).

A Chapter of Suggestions [7]

All men of genius have their detractors; but it is merely a non distributio medii to argue, thence, that all men who have their detractors are men of genius. Yet, undoubtedly, of all despicable things, your habitual sneerer at real greatness, is the most despicable. What names [page 471:] excite, in mankind, the most unspeakable — the most insufferable disgust? The Dennises — the Frérons — the Desfontaines. Their littleness is measured by the greatness of those whom they have reviled. And yet, in the face of this well known and natural principle, there will always exist a set of homunculi, eager to grow notorious by the pertinacity of their yelpings at the heels of the distinguished. And this eagerness arises, less frequently from inability to appreciate genius, than from a species of cat-and-dog antipathy to it, which no suggestions of worldly prudence are adequate to quell.


Note: Poe may have derived this term in logic (the undistributed middle; see M 160c) from the full context of his source for M 253, q. v. for Stanley (1.132), the novel by H. B. Wallace which he knew and exploited so well; but the term is surely common enough. The three criticasters are famous for their antagonists: John Dennis (1657-1734), author of critical works and tragedies, was satirized by Alexander Pope in Essay on Criticism (3.585-58) and Narrative of Dr. Robert Norris. Voltaire ruthlessly attacked Elie Catherine Fréron (1719-1776), critic and editor of journals opposed to and “killed” by Voltaire. He contributed also to Observations sur les écrits modernes, an anti-Voltaire work of his friend Pierre François Guydot Desfontaines (1685-1745), who bore Voltaire’s rage. The deprecatory word “homunculi” was cited by Poe in a letter from Sulpicius to Cicero (Pin 105).

A Chapter of Suggestions [8]

That intuitive and seemingly casual perception by which we often attain knowledge, when reason herself falters and abandons the effort, appears to resemble the sudden glancing at a star, by which we see it more clearly than by a direct gaze; or the half-closing the eyes in looking at a plot of grass, the more fully to appreciate the intensity of its green.


Note: A fuller explication of the principle of progress by “intuitive bounds” is found in “Mellonta Tauta” of 2/49 (TOM 1295-96). Similarly, we find in the next para., in the sequence of this short article, another ref. to clearer vision through indirect gaze — one of Poe’s fondest observations. For his derivation of it from David Brewster’s Letters on Natural Magic see “Murders” (TOM 572-73, n.30) where we also find refs. to his use of it in Al Aaraaf, “Island of the Fay,” “Hans Pfaall” and “Letter to B ———.” See also Pym, p. 237, n. 3.2A. [page 472:]

A Chapter of Suggestions [9]

There are few men of that peculiar sensibility which is at the root of genius, who, in early youth, have not expended much of their mental energy in living too fast; and, in later years, comes the unconquerable desire to goad the imagination up to that point which it would have attained, in an ordinary, normal, or well regulated life. The earnest longing for artificial excitement, which, unhappily, has characterized too many eminent men, may thus be regarded as a psychal want, or necessity, — an effort to regain the lost, — a struggle of the soul to assume the position which, under other circumstances, would have been its due.


Note: It is difficult to avoid reading self-description by Poe into this article, especially in view of the large number of articles on “genius” (see Index) in the other Brevities, especially the Marginalia: e.g., genius as having special “susceptibility” and “exquisite sensitiveness” in M 187; being “men of passions” in M 221; and in “soaring above the plane of their race” in M 247. We wish that Poe had been specific about “the earnest longing for artificial excitement” of “too many eminent men.” In “psychal want” is another use of Poe’s coinage and favorite adjective (see PCW 35, 91, for almost a dozen instances).

A Chapter of Suggestions [10]

The great variety of melodious expression which is given out from the keys of a piano, might be made, in proper hands, the basis of an excellent fairy-tale. Let the poet press his finger steadily upon each key, keeping it down, and imagine each prolonged series of undulations the history, of joy or of sorrow, related by a good or evil spirit imprisoned within. There are some of the notes which almost tell, of their own accord, true and intelligible histories.


Note: Poe’s sensitivity to music is undoubted and he has written gloriously about it, as in “Israfel” and “Usher” and MM 44, 222, but he is far from clear in this article. Is it the melodic line created by a series of single notes that connotes joy or sorrow, or is it the chord produced by “steady” pressure upon the keys? Neither is exactly what he says, while his imputing separate character to each individual note is anomalous. It seems to correlate with his statement in “Pit and Pendulum” (TOM 682): “There stole into my fancy, like a rich musical note, the thought. . .” but there, a deathlike silence — that of the judgment chamber — had preceded. Is he pursuing too literally the figure of the “imprisoned spirit” or the hamadryad, as in “Island of the Fay” (TOM 604)? [page 473:]

A Chapter of Suggestions [11]

A precise or clear man, in conversation or in composition, has a very important consequential advantage — more especially in matters of logic. As he proceeds with his argument, the person addressed, exactly comprehending, for that reason, and often for that reason only, agrees. Few minds, in fact, can immediately perceive the distinction between the comprehension of a proposition, and an agreement of the reason with the thing proposed. Pleased at comprehending, we often are so excited as to take it for granted that we assent. Luminous writers may thus indulge, for a long time, in pure sophistry, without being detected. Macaulay is a remarkable instance of this species of mystification. We coincide with what he says, too frequently, because we so very distinctly understand what it is that he intends to say. His essay on Bacon has been long and deservedly admired; but its concluding portions, (wherein he endeavors to depreciate the Novum Organum,) although logical to a fault, are irrational in the extreme. But not to confine myself to mere assertion. Let us refer to this great essayist’s review of “Ranke’s History of the Popes.” His strength is here put forth to account for the progress of Romanism, by maintaining that divinity is not a progressive science. “The enigmas,” says he, in substance, “which perplex the natural theologian, are the same in all ages, while the Bible, where alone we are to seek revealed truth, has been always what it is.” Here Mr. Macaulay confounds the nature of that proof from which we reason of the concerns of earth, considered as man’s habitation, with the nature of that evidence from which we reason of the same earth, regarded as a unit of the universe. In the former case, the data being palpable, the proof is direct; in the latter it is purely analogical. Were the indications we derive from science, of the nature and designs of Deity, and thence, by inference, of man’s destiny, — were these indications proof direct, it is then very true that no advance in science could strengthen them; for, as the essayist justly observes, “nothing can be added to the force of the argument which the mind finds in every beast, bird, or flower;” but, since these indications are rigidly analogical, every step in human knowledge, every astronomical discovery, in especial, throws additional light upon the august subject, by extending the range of analogy. That we know no more, to-day, of the nature of Deity, of its purposes, and thus of man himself, than we did even a dozen years ago, is a proposition disgracefully absurd. “If Natural Philosophy,” says a greater than Macaulay, “should continue to be improved in its various branches, the bounds of moral philosophy would be enlarged also.” These words of the prophetic Newton are felt to be true, and will be fulfilled.


Note: This entire article, save for the last two sentences, is an abridgment of Poe’s 6/41 Graham’s review of Thomas Babington Macaulay’s [page 474:] Critical and Miscellaneous Essays (H 10.156-160). In the original he has a fairly long comparison between George Combe, the phrenologist, and Macaulay — here eliminated, but the wording of the portion retained is very close, with the same emphasis on Macaulay’s 10/40 review of Leopold von Ranke’s . . . History of the Popes of Rome, tr. by Sarah Austin (1840). Newly inserted is the sentence on Bacon, corresponding to Macaulay’s 7/37 review in the Edinburgh Review of Basil Montagu’s Works of Francis Bacon, but there is no attempt at all “to depreciate the Novum Organum.” On the contrary, Macaulay calls it “Bacon’s greatest performance” with “a nicety of observation that has never been surpassed” and with “wit . . . employed only to illustrate and decorate truth. No book ever made so great a revolution in the mode of thinking, overthrew so many prejudices, introduced so many new opinions . . . was ever written in a less contentious spirit” (penultimate para.).

It is doubtful that “luminous writers” of “pure sophistry,” as Poe claims, may long escape detection, nor is Poe’s sharp distinction between proof and analogy so easily maintained in cosmological discussions, such as those concerned with Laplace’s Nebular theory, which Poe cites in his original text (H 10.160) and uses later for Eureka. From para. 8 of Macaulay’s Ranke essay come the two sentences beginning “His strength” — largely using Macaulay’s words verbatim, while from the preceding para. (6) he takes the quotation, slightly changed, about “every beast. . . flower.” The source of Poe’s conclusion is, intermediately, Disraeli’s CL , the article “Discoveries of Secluded Men” (1865 ed., 4.33233), in which Disraeli cites a “hit at the close of” Newton’s Optics (almost exactly as worded by Poe) to show that it is “perhaps among the most important of human discoveries-it gave rise to Hartley’s Physiological Theory of the Mind.” (London, 1718; 2nd ed., p. 381). It is noteworthy that Poe prefers to await the fulfillment of the prophecy.

It is worth noting that Disraeli himself apparently did not see the words of Newton, which scarcely match his citation. In fact, in the first edition of the Opticks (1704) the conclusion does not contain any such sentiment. It is in the revised second edition (1718) and that of 1730 that we find the following, in Book III (1730), pp. 381-82; “And no doubt, if the Worship of False Gods had not blinded the Heathen, their moral Philosophy would have gone farther than to the four Cardinal Virtues; and instead of reaching the Transmigration of Souls, and to worship the Sun and Moon, and dead Heroes, they would have taught us to worship our true Author and Benefactor, as their Ancestors did under the Government of Noah and his Sons before they corrupted themselves.”






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