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When You Can’t Find the Perfect Quotation

I’m reading some Edgar Allan Poe tales in anticipation of an outdoor discussion tomorrow in Bryant Park, and I am charmed to discover (in the helpful endnotes) his habit of making up epigraphs. Or at least no one seems to be able to find his sources. Maybe they just didn’t have Google.

I’m a sucker for a good epigraph myself. Every chapter of The Information has one. But I always thought the point was discovering people whose aphoristic talents I can’t match. It seems Poe has no lack of self-confidence in this regard—in English or in Latin.

Here are some of the “quotations” he uses, along with his attributions. Are any of them real? You tell me.

[quote]What ho! what ho! this fellow is dancing mad!

He hath been bitten by the Tarantula. (All in the Wrong)[/quote] [quote]And the will therein lieth, which dieth not. Who knoweth the mysteries of the will, with its vigor? For God is but a great will pervading all things by nature of its intentness, Man doth not yield himself to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will. (Granville)[/quote] [quote]Nothing is more hateful to wisdom than cleverness. (Seneca)[/quote]




  1. Harry Kaplan says

    Line 395 of Euripedes’ The Bacchae, spoken by the chorus, is sometimes translated “Cleverness is not wisdom…” Genuine classical cousin of Seneca’s fabricated quite?

  2. Harry Kaplan says

    Poe, Bob Dylan, and the Tarantula?
    (From Bob Dylan Encyclopedia: a Blog)

    Christopher Rollason has suggested Poe as the prompt for Dylan’s wild 1960s book Tarantula being so-called. He points out that Poe’s story ‘The Gold-Bug’ is prefaced by the epigraph ‘What ho! what ho! this fellow is dancing mad! He hath been bitten by the Tarantula.’ Poe credits these lines to All in the Wrong, a play of 1761 by Arthur Murphy, but Poe editor Thomas Ollive Mabbott says this is untrue; Poe may have made them up. Either way, as Mabbott comments: ‘The bite of the tarantula spider was held responsible for a wild hysterical impulse to dance – tarantism – that affected great numbers of people, especially in Italy, during the later Middle Ages… Rollason adds: ‘the theme of Hamlet-like apparent madness would seem to make sense in the general context of Tarantula, a tragi-comic voyage across a world that refuses to make sense, a crazy extension of the carnival on Desolation Row.’ This seems somewhat less speculative when we note that Poe himself features inside Tarantula: in the section ‘The Horse Race’, ‘edgar allan poe steps out from beside a burning bush’, while in ‘Al Aaraaf & the Forcing Committee’, Dylan writes of ‘New York neath spells of Poe’. The phrase ‘Al Aaraaf’, which refers to a passage in the Koran about a kind of limbo poised between heaven and hell, is itself the title poem of a volume published by Poe in 1829

  3. David Colman says

    The Poe comment makes more sense if you consider that “tarantism” was at the time a supposed mental affliction, characterized by a mad urge to dance and caused — so the story goes — by the bite of the tarantula.

    • Harry Kaplan says

      Absolutely. But the point in question is that Poe made this quote up, as he made up so many quotations throughout his writing and attributed them to other writers. This is a particularly good “quote” with which to demonstrate Poe’s predilection, as it’s attributed to a real play (whose complete text we have) by a real playwright who was a contemporary of Poe’s – but the Tarantula “quotation” appears nowhere in the play.

      • David Colman says

        I apologize — I didn’t see your entry on this very subject!

  4. annie morgan says

    Not apropos your blog, but don’t know where else to put this. I am almost finished your chapter on Babbage, and find it utterly fascinating. I learned nothing of Babbage at school 70 years ago and, until your chapter, he hadn’t crossed my mind to cause me to look him up on Google. As a mathematical idiot, I’m finding so much of interest – it’s all so clear to me (until I leave the page, of course, then I haven’t the faintest idea what you were on about).
    Now, I’ve just watched and listened to your interview on TV Ontario. How fortuitous for my having your book and hearing your comments at the same time. I’m looking forward to the chapter about Shannon – I read something of him a month or so ago that amazed me. One reason for a good long life after 80 is to read more books like yours!

  5. JES says

    A Brit friend writes a blog where he occasionally posts haiku he’s written. A recent cynical entry reminded me (as I said in a comment there) of the line which goes something like, Re-marriage is the triumph of hope over experience.

    Without really thinking about it, I attributed the line to Bierce — it’s so Devil’s-Dictionaryish, right?

    He put me right without hesitation (it came from Samuel Johnson, or at least from Johnson by way of Boswell) and wondered if there were a natural nationalistic bias to mis-remember the sources of favorite quotations. He said that in the UK, anything “clever” tends to be automatically attributed to Wilde or G.B. Shaw.

  6. Gpcritser says

    Have you read the Unparalled adventures of Augustus Pfaaf? Poe’s science masterpiece!

  7. R-Phil says

    As noted by Harry Kaplan, the lines about the tarantula do not appear in Arthur Murphy’s play “All in the Wrong”. However, in the play “No One’s Enemy but his Own,” by the same author, there appears the lines, “He dances about the world, as if he was bit by a tarantula. Dancing is his ruling passion.”

    Was it a conscious or unconscious misattribution? It seems unlikely that Poe would randomly choose a play by an author who, in another play, mentions the link between dancing and the tarantula.

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