Poe and Marginalia

I intended posting today about the book I recently finished, Patrick Kavanagh’s autobiographical The Green Fool, but I’ve been busy on other tasks, such as preparing classes on the Romantics and nature, doing the laundry, supervising the gasman (boiler service) and keeping tabs on delayed trains for my homecoming spouse.

Instead, so that the end of November doesn’t slip quietly into oblivion on Tredynas Days, here’s a little something that I hope will be of interest: the Marginalia of Edgar Allan Poe.

‘In the United States Gazette and Democratic Review of November 1844, volume XV, pages 484-94, Poe published the first of the seventeen installments of the Marginalia, a word that he invented for this collection of observations and brief essays…they took shape as a “farrago”… of remembered bons mots, puns, excerpts from his past reviews, and new observations on matters of literature, social events, personalities, psychology, and the arts in general. Many might be shown to contain the germ of his own creative efforts and sometimes those of his readers, such as Baudelaire and Valéry…The allure of the “form” of the Marginalia for Poe must have been the “abandonnement” as he terms it…, or the relaxed ease of the short discursive essay, so different from the neat and predetermined construction that he had always demanded for the tale and the poem.’ (from the online introduction to his 1985 edition by Burton R. Pollin).

Poe in 1898 (from WikiMedia Commons)

Poe in 1898 (from WikiMedia Commons)

The electronic text contains almost 300 ‘articles’ and many more ‘instalments’. In an old notebook of my own such ‘marginalia’ I found this item, published in the online Works of Poe in the Introduction to his own jottings; the symmetry of sentiment with which I like to make such jottings chimed pleasingly with Poe’s cheerful words:

IN getting my books, I have been always solicitous of an ample margin; this not so much through any love of the thing in itself, however agreeable, as for the facility it affords me of pencilling suggested thoughts, agreements and differences of opinion, or brief critical comments in general. Where what I have to note is too much to be included within the narrow limits of a margin, I commit it to a slip of paper, and deposit it between the leaves; taking care to secure it by an imperceptible portion of gum tragacanth paste.

This making of notes, however, is by no means the making of mere memoranda — a custom which has its disadvantages, beyond doubt. “Ce que je mets sur papier,” says Bernardin de St. Pierre, “je remets de ma mémoire, et par consequence je l’oublie;” — and, in fact, if you wish to forget anything upon the spot, make a note that this thing is to be remembered…

just as the goodness of your true pun is in the direct ratio of its intolerability, so is nonsense the essential sense of the Marginal Note.

I’ve posted before on ‘obiter dicta’ and other such random notes. It’s long been my habit to make such jottings and marginalia, for reasons very like Poe’s stated above. What he whimsically calls their ‘helter-skelter-iness’ is also what appeals to me.

Do you do this? If so, what form do your marginalia or jottings take? Do you revisit them, or, as Poe suggests, do they slip quietly out of mind, never to be revisited? And do you commit the ultimate horror of annotating books in INK not pencil? (let alone glueing in slips of paper, as Poe confesses. I’m reminded of reading about a visitor’s horror at the sight of Wordsworth cutting pages of newly delivered books with a greasy butterknife at the breakfast table.)



10 thoughts on “Poe and Marginalia

  1. Very interesting. Poe had a real fondness for wordplay and literary games, so I look forward to reading through these.

    As for me, I have a love of books as objects in themselves and have a horror of “defacing” them. I’ve only ever written in books that were college textbooks and have never done it since. I don’t even like my sister to borrow magazines and fold back the covers!

    This did bring to mind a YA mystery I read as a kid. A young woman had disappeared, and the clue to finding her had to do with her habit of underlining passages in books with her fingernail — it’s certainly less intrusive than ink, or even pencil!

    • My wife is a corner-folder! Underlining with a fingernail is an odd one. I have seen books in second hand shops which have been defaced with highlighting- the lurid yellow type. Vandalism!

      • Absolutely! I buy a lot of used books and have come across evidence of corner folderers. Not quite so bad as neon pink highlighter, but it still bothers me. Though, if the book is particularly old (and, therefore, on better paper) it’s not so noticeable as more recent (say latter half of the 20th C forward) books where a fold can lead to enough damage to lose the corner entirely.

  2. I use those little tiny postit notes to mark places I want to highlight or revisit in my eventual review or when using a book for study. I used to make pencil notes while at university, and when I re-read a book I had then, my blundering and naive notes always make me giggle!

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