Text: Edgar Allan Poe, “Literary Small Talk (part II),” American Museum (Baltimore), vol. II, no. 2, February 1839, pp. 133-134


[page 133, unnumbered:]



GIBBONS “splendid and stately but artificial style,” is often discussed; yet its details have never, to my knowledge, been satisfactorily pointed out. The peculiar construction of his sentences, being since adopted by his imitators without that just reason which, perhaps, influenced the historian, has greatly vitiated our language. For in these imitations the body is copied, without the soul, of his phraseology. It will be easy to show wherein his chief peculiarity lies — yet this, I believe, has never been shown. In his autobiography he says — “Many experiments were made before I could hit the middle tone between a dull chronicle, and a rhetorical declamation.” The immense theme of the decline and fall required precisely the kind of sentence which he habitually employed. A world of essential, or at least of valuable, information or remark, had either to be omitted altogether, or collaterally introduced. In his endeavours thus to crowd in his vast stores of research, much of the artificial will, of course, be apparent; yet I cannot see that any other method would have answered as well. For example, take a passage at random:

“The proximity of its situation to that of Gaul, seemed to invite their arms; the pleasing, although doubtful, intelligence of a pearl-fishery, attracted their avarice; and, as Britain was viewed in the light of a distant and insulated world, the conquest scarcely formed any exception to the general system of continental measures; after a war of about forty years, undertaken by the most stupid, maintained by the most dissolute, and terminated by the most timid of all the emperors, the far greater part of the island submitted to the Roman yoke.”

The facts and allusions here indirectly given might have been easily dilated into a page. It is this indirectness of observation, then, which forms the soul of the style of Gibbon, of which the apparently pompous phraseology is the body.

Another peculiarity, somewhat akin to this, has less reason to recommend it, and grows out of an ill-concealed admiration and imitation of Johnson, whom he styles “a bigoted, [page 134:] yet vigorous mind.” I mean the coupling in one sentence matters that have but a very shadow of connexion. For instance —

“The Life of Julian, by the Abbé de la Breterie, first introduced me to the man and to the times, and I should be glad to recover my first essay on the truth of the miracle which stopped the rebuilding of the temple at Jerusalem.” This laughable Gibbonism is still a great favourite with the stellæ minores of our literature.

In the historian's statements regarding the composition of his work, there occurs a contradiction worthy of notice. “I will add a fact” — he in one place says — “which has seldom occurred in the composition of six quartos; my rough MMS. without any intermediate copy, has been sent to press.[[”]] In other passages he speaks of “frequent experiments,” and states distinctly, that “three times did he compose the first chapter, twice the second and third” — and that “the fifteenth and sixteenth chapters have been reduced, by successive revisals, from a large volume to their present size;” upon every page of the work, indeed, there is most ample evidence of the limæ labor.


Voltaire betrays, on many occasions, an almost incredible ignorance of antiquity and its affairs. One of his saddest blunders is that of assigning the Canary Islands to the Roman empire.


There is something of naivete, if not much of logic, in these words of the Germans to the Ubii of Cologne, commanding them to cast off the Roman yoke. “Postulamus a vobis” — say they — “muros coloniæ, munimenta servitii, detrahatis; etiam fera animalia, si clausa teneas, virtutis obliviscuntur.”




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.”

It is interesting to note that this item does not fill the two pages it occupies, even with the insertion of additional space and short lines between items, lines which are not used to divide items in the first installment of “Literary Small Talk.” It is possible that some item was omitted at the last moment, or that Poe was unable to provide sufficient material to fill out the page.


[S:1 - AM, 1839] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Misc - Literary Small Talk (part 02)]