Text: Anonymous, “E. A. Poe — The Raven and Eureka,” Virginia University Magazine, April 1860, vol. IV, no. 7, pp. 383-388


­[page 383:]


Of the subject of this review, much has been both said and written. Indeed, the name of Edgar A. Poe has already headed more than one contribution to this magazine — while the eminence to which its bearer attained, among critics, poets and philosophers, (though he is not generally ranked among the latter,) has entitled him to the notice of the literary world at large.

Notwithstanding this, however, his writings still afford a wide field for criticism, and his philosophy a broad margin for speculation.

It will not, I hope, be unacceptable or inappropriate to preface our remarks with a brief reference to such of his characteristics as most directly influenced him in his writings. In this, I shall, of course, make no effort to enumerate all, even the most prominent elements of his character. It is with the author, not the man, that we are now concerned. We would first remark, that Poe was possessed of genius, rather than talent. For talent “dwells in heads replete with thoughts of other men;” genius “in minds attentive to their own.” Hence we find, that in his most masterly achievements, he has totally abstained from all improvements on the thoughts of others. His ideas originated with himself, as did also his style, or manner of expressing them. His subjects were generally of a nature to correspond with his temperament, which was sad and desponding, rather than morose or misanthropic. His mind seemed perpetually shrouded in shadow. In his “Dream within a Dream,” “Annabel Lee,” [[“]]Ulalume,” &c., we easily recognize the bereaved lover of the “Lost Lenore.”

The acuteness of his perception of the beautiful, and the readiness with which he detected the slightest departure from its laws, have never been surpassed. In addition to this, Poe possessed in an unusual degree the power of analysis.

Hence we find that a large majority of his works may be classed under two general heads — the Pathetic, and the Abstruse. Of the first of these divisions, “The Raven” is the representative, while “Eureka” stands as the type of the second. In the narrow limits of a magazine, we must content ourselves with synecdochiziny Poe’s writings, using “The Raven and Eureka” to illustrate the classes to which they respectively belong. ­[page 384:]

First, then, “The Raven.” My remarks here shall be few, and of a general character; for so frequently has this masterpiece of poetic genius been the theme of the ablest critics, that, in alluding to its beauties, we encounter no little difficulty in avoiding the charge of plagiarism.

The poem has been universally read. The narrative is too generally known to demand, or even to admit of recapitulation. Taken as a simple narrative, it will be found to contribute but little to the interest of the whole. Still, this interest is intense, ’tis all-absorbing, ’tis paralyzing! On the first perusal, all ideas of criticism are necessarily banished. An attempt to criticise would be vain. As well gaze for the first time on Niagara, and as its plunging waters and deafening roar greet your bewildered senses, commence a metaphysical analysis of your emotions. The attempt would not only be vain, but would, itself, be impossible. The soul is entranced. The faculties are all merged into one, which is monopolized in the contemplation of the beautiful and the sublime! We leave the waterfall, bearing on our minds the indelible impress of the scene — with our bosoms still heaving with the emotions its grandeur has awakened! So with the poem. The heart-strings long continue to vibrate after the master-hand has ceased to touch them — to fill the soul with music, “at once pleasant and mournful.” The liquid melody of its harmonious rhythm, and the sombre grandeur of its imagery, remind us alternately of the voice of the lisping Zephyr, as when, in soothing accents, it lulls to silence the whispered murmurs of the plaintive pine; and of the raging Boreas, as, when holding the ghastly orgies of its midnight revels, in the deserted corridors of some ancient, crumbling pile, it howls the sad requiem of departed grandeur.

It is only after we become, in some degree, accustomed to the strange excitement this poem never fails to produce, that we can examine it, and see in what consists its potent charm. Such an examination will reveal to us many of the characteristic excellences of the author. His unusual powers, both as a subjective, and an objective writer, are strikingly displayed. The force and accuracy with which he defines his own emotions, and the extent to which he enlists our sympathies, as well as the propriety of his images, and the vividness of his descriptions, have been, separately, but seldom equalled, and such a combination, I will venture to say, never. But while these excellences prevail to an unusual extent, in “The Raven,” it is to its peculiar rhythm that we must look for certainly ­[page 385:] one of the chief sources of its power. In no poem, of my acquaintance, is the power of musical arrangement so strikingly exemplified. At every step we meet with new and unexpected combinations, producing the most novel — I had almost said, startling — effect, while the solemn, monotonous, ever-recurring refrain, would intimate the nature of the poem, even to one totally unacquainted with our language. On those who can appreciate the harmony between the sound and the sense, the effect is unsurpassed by any composition in the language. But “The Raven,” whatever merit it may possess, is but a poem; “a mere thing of beauty.” Its author could but regard it with justifiable pride. But he was infinitely prouder, to style himself — the author of EUREKA. “Eureka” is an essay on the spiritual and material universe. The proposition it attempts to establish (and does establish, the world to the contrary,) is, that — “In the original unity of the first thing lies the secondary cause of all things, with the germ of their inevitable annihilation.”

The essay is prefaced by a letter, purporting to have been found corked in a bottle, and floating in the “Mare Tenebrarurn” It is dated two thousand eight hundred and forty-eight. The author adopts this method of suggesting what will be the opinions of philosophers of the twenty-ninth century with respect to the bigotry of the present generation.

While the substance of this preface is true, its tone of levity discords harshly with the general tenor of the essay proper, and is entirely out of keeping with the majesty of the subject. A brief, dignified exposition would have answered the purpose much better. The unfavorable impression it produces is, however, speedily dissipated, when we get well into the current of the discourse, and feel ourselves gliding on by easy and imperceptible gradations towards the momentous truth to which our pilot has promised to conduct us. We soon catch a faint glimmering of the beacon-tight towards which he is steering. We repose explicit confidence in his ability to accomplish his undertaking. As we draw nearer and nearer, and the light grows more brilliant, more resplendent, we catch the infatuation, and “glow with a sacred fire.” We go on — on — still on, till we stand at the base of the shrine of Truth. There sits the enthroned Deity, and close beside her, the Goddess of Science, in whose coronet the new-found brilliant shines conspicuous. For a time we stand aghast — mute with wonder — paralyzed with awe. But then — poor, incredulous fools! — instead of prostrating ourselves in worship, we turn away, with the idiotic ejaculation, too good to be true. ­[page 386:]

This is no exaggeration. Ask a philosopher to point you to the fallacy of “Eureka;” he will tell you the arguments are unanswerable; [[sic]] but will appeal to your common sense (!) to prove that though the premises are legitimate, and the deductions logical, still “the conclusion is not true! It is impossible — it is at variance with all established theories.” Does it ever occur to him to enquire how Kepler’s guesses, or Newton’s imaginings, accorded with the then “established theories?” The basis of Poe’s argument is an intuitive truth. It was not reached by either of the narrow roads — induction or deduction — which philosophers have prescribed as the only avenues to truth. They should say, only avenue; for inductive or a posteriori, and deductive or a priori reasoning, differ only in the direction in which they leave us, one from the effect to the cause, and the other from the cause to the effect; they conduct us over precisely the same ground.

The truth on which Poe founded his theory he reached “by mere dint of intuition. He grasped it with his soul!” It is one of those truths which God has incorporated in our nature; and which, coming direct from Him, command our implicit faith, and constitute it blasphemy to call them into question.

But, it may be asked, why is “Eureka” so universally condemned? If it is true, why has it not at least some advocates among the host of philosophers? We would answer this question by asking another. Why was Copernicus deemed a madman? Why was Kepler pitied as a dotard? The same answer will apply to all.

Does it not seem as though God sends among us ‘vaunt couriers to all momentous truths —— messengers, to “make straight the way” of science? And do they not commonly share the fate of him who heralded the advent of God Incarnate?

Edgar Poe was such a messenger. But he will not be recognised as such till man han [[sic]] has reached that high state of intellectual culture in which he will delight in the sublime generalizations of science — till ceasing to deal with particulars only, he will convert his concrete into general and abstract knowledge, and learn to reason on genera rather than individual, or general principles rather than on particular phenomena occurring under them. Newton tells us how gravity acts — Poe tells us why it so acts. La Place explains how the bodies of the solar system were formed from nebulae — Poe, how the nebulae were formed. Poe treats of the general law — Newton and La Place of particular results of that law. ­[page 387:]

I deem it unnecessary to attempt an explanation of what I understand to be the theory of Poe, as set forth in “Eureka.” The attempt would argue presumption, on my part; for if Poe was gifted in anything, it was, beyond question, in the power of analysis; and nowhere is this power so strikingly displayed as in “Eureka.” It needs no explanation — it stands, “simple in its sublimity, sublime in its simplicity.” Nor does it admit of condensation — not a link in the chain can be dispensed with. In stating his theory, Poe has avoided all prolixity. His subject was an intricate one, and he has treated it in a concise and masterly manner.

“Eureka” has been denounced as the pantheistical phantasy of a morbid mind. That there are certain passages which warrant the conclusion that it was penned by a Pantheist cannot be denied; but an attentive examination of the essay will show that it is only where the author gives a loose rein to his imagination, and allows it to lead him off, into the shadowy region of transcendentalism, that these passages occur; they are merely added parenthetically, and pertain to the author, rather than to the work[[.]] These passages might be obliterated, without, in the slightest degree, impairing the validity of the reasoning; on the contrary, Eureka would then stand divested of the single, dark, unsightly stain, which now disfigures it.

That “Eureka” is the fantastic creation of an overwrought imagination — I deny. If the laws of Kepler, of La Place, and of Newton are true, so is “Eureka;” for (philosophers to the contrary) it is perfectly consistent with these laws, and Poe spoke truly when he said, a perfect consistency can be nothing but an absolute truth. Edgar Poe was in advance of the present generation. He anticipated the age in which he lived. He treated the present as the past, and future as the present. He fixed the star of his destiny in the western horizon; it shone there for a while, with a pale, glimmering light, then set — some say — forever. But as sure as the setting is inevitable antecedent to the rising sun, just so surely will that star, which left us, a mere, glimmering point, re-appear in the east; and, as nature hails the august king of day, so will the applause of an enlightened world herald the approach of this, which is destined to become the pole star of the scientific universe.

“Eureka” stands a lasting monument to the genius of its author. It is a towering pile, on which “The Raven” is inscribed, as an epitome of his life. And well does this weird, sombre poem perform its part. Poe describes himself in the raven’s ­[page 388:]

—— “Unhappy master, whom unmerciful disaster,

Followed fast and followed faster, till his songs one burden bore,

Till the dirges of his hope that melancholy burden bore

Of never — nevermore.”

But few roses decked his pathway; it was overgrown, with rank, poisonous weeds, while green and yellow Melancholy bore him constant company, and grim visaged Remorse spared not his victim. “Eureka,” though as beauteous now as it can be in succeeding ages, is shrouded in a cloud of oblivion. But it will not be always thus. Its beauties must remain thus veiled till the star which guards its destiny again appears above the horizon. Then, when it has reached its culminating point in the meridian, and with its flood of mellow, golden light, rolled back the vapory mantle which now canopies its charge, and with a beam of rays, as a magic wand, disenthralled it from the spell which binds it — Eureka will stand forth, robed in all the majesty of Immortal Truth. It will become the Mecca of the learned. Men will gather round its base, to worship at the shrine of truth. For truth is omnipotent, and Eureka is true. “Therefore, it cannot die — or if by any means it be now trodden down, so that it die, it will rise again to ‘life everlasting.’ ” And with its resurrection will revive the memory of him whose mighty mind conceived it. And, while the frailties of the man will slumber in the grave with his mortal remains, and be forgotten, the name of the philosopher will be handed down, in spotless purity, from sire to son, through all succeeding generations, as that by which to designate the age in which he lived. Of those who now deny “Eureka” a place in the category of “probable theories,” it will be said “they lived in the time of Poe.”






[S:1 - VUM, 1860] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - E. A. Poe -- The Raven and Eureka (Anonymous, 1860)