Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Literary Small Talk (part I),” American Museum (Baltimore), vol. II, no. 1, January 1839, pp. 60-61


[page 60, unnumbered:]



I HAVE had no little to do, in my day, with the trade of Aristarchus, and have even been accused of playing the Zoilus. Yet I cannot bring myself to feel any goadings of conscience for undue severity. Indeed my remorse lies somewhat the other way. How often, in commendatory reviews of books, whose purpose, whose precision, or whose piety, rendered them equivocal objects of animadversion, have I longed to close in the pregnant words of St. Austin, when speaking of the books of the Manichœans. “Tam multi,” says he, “tam grandes, tam pretiosi codices” — adding, as if aside, “incendite omnes illas membranas.”

I have seen lately some rambling and nonsensical verses entitled “Political Squibs,” in which it appeared to me the author had blundered upon a title most appropriate, and been guilty, without knowing it, of a bit of erudition. Versus Politici, political, that is to say, city verses, was an appellation applied by way of ridicule to the effusions of certain bards (such as Constantine Manasses, John Tzetzes, &c.) who flourished in the latter end of Rome, then so miscalled. Their verses (styled by Leo Allatius from their easiness of composition “common prostitutes”) usually consisted of fifteen feet, but, like those of Peter Pindar, made laws for themselves as they went along.

Even a good Greek scholar might find himself puzzled by the following sentences. Κωνσερβετ Δεονς ’ημπεριουμ βεστρουμ, βικτωρ σης σεμτερ βηβητε Δομηνι ’Ημπερατορες ηγ μσυλτος αννο.

The Greeks of the Eastern empire, in the tenth century, made use of these and similar acclamations upon all occasions of public pomp. As evidence of the unlimited dominion of their emperors, the expressions were repeated in Latin, Gothic, Persian, French, and English. Constantine Porphyrogenitus, who wrote a pompous and silly volume, reducing to form and minutely detailing the ceremonies of the court, gives the above sentences as a specimen of the Latin. If we remember that the want of the v obliged the Greeks to use b [page 61:] as the nearest approach, the words, disregarding quantity, then read — Conservet Deus imperium vestrum — victor sis semper — vivite Domini Imperatores in multos annos. Had Constantine preserved also the words of the English acclamation, we should possibly, to-day, think them a droll specimen of our language.

Bulwer, in my opinion, wants the true vigor of intellect which would prompt him to seek, and enable him to seize truth upon the surface of things. He imagines her forever in the well. He is perpetually refining to no purpose upon themes which have nothing to gain, and every thing to lose in the process. He even condescends to ape the externals of a deep meaning, and will submit to be low rather than fail in appearing profound. It is this coxcombry which leads him so often into allegory and objectless personification. Does he mention “truth” in the most ordinary phrase? — she is, with a great T, Truth, the divinity. All common qualities of the mind, all immaterial or mental existences, are capitalized into persons. That he has not yet discarded this senseless mannerism, must be considered the greater wonder, as the whole head of his little imitators have already taken it up. His “Last Days of Pompeii” is ridiculously full of it. The same work, in its abundant allusions to Egyptian theology, gives also, sufficient evidence of his love of the “far-fetched.” Is it indeed possible that he seriously believes one half of the abominable rigmarole put into the mouth of his philosopher Arbaces? I mean that rigmarole especially, which asserts the brute-worship of Egypt to have been deliberately intended as typical of certain moral and physical truths. If so, how little of the spirit of wisdom is here, with how vast a solicitude to seem wise! I remember, apropos to this subject, that in the year 1096, there thronged to the first Crusade, in the train of Peter the Hermit, and more immediately in that of the fanatic Godescal, a herd of some two hundred thousand of the most stupid, savage, drunken, and utterly worthless of the people, whose genuine leaders in the expedition were a goat and a goose. These were carried in front, and to these, for no reason whatever, save beyond the mad whim of the mob, was ascribed a miraculous participation in the spirit of the Deity. Had this rabble founded an empire, we should, no doubt, have had them instituting a solemn worship of goat and goose, and Mr. Bulwer, with care, might have discovered in the goat a type of one species of deep wisdom, and in the goose a clear symbol of another.




The table of contents for the volume lists: “Literary Small Talk.  By Edgar A. Poe, - - - - - - - - 60, 133.” The running page heading appears only on the non-title pages and reads: “LITERARY SMALL TALK.”


[S:1 - AM, 1839] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Misc - Literary Small Talk (part 01)]