Text: James A. Harrison, “Chapter 13,” Life and Letters of Edgar Allan Poe (1903), pp. 269-280


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[page 269:]

CHAPTER XIII.

1848.

“EUREKA.”

OWING to Mrs. Shew’s untiring efforts, Poe’s friends (including General Winfield Scott) raised about $100 and helped to pay the debts incurred by long illness. He himself seems to have been desperately ill and unnerved for a long time after Virginia’s death and never really recovered from the shock. A famous New York physician (Dr. Mott) diagnosed the case, apparently agreeing with Mrs. Shew (who had been medically educated and was a doctor’s only daughter), that Poe was suffering from a lesion of one side of the brain which would not permit him to use stimulants or tonics without producing insanity.

“I did not feel much hope,” says the lady in her diary,(1) “that he could be raised up from brain fever brought on by extreme suffering of mind and body — actual want and hunger, and cold having been borne by this heroic husband in order to supply food, medicine, and comforts to his dying wife — until exhaustion send lifelessness were so near at every reaction of the fever, that even sedatives had to be administered with extreme caution.”

He clung pathetically to the little Dutch cottage, went out little and wrote less; and yet this year of trouble [page 270:] is the one — 1847 — in which his great prose-poem of “Eureka” began to down on him as he walked the piazza, looked out on the immeasurable “field of the cloth of gold” of stars, and speculated eagerly and philosophically about its future. Again “The Stylus” — his teasing evil genius — crops up and impels him to lecture and work for funds for its resuscitation.

That he was not wholly idle this almost fatal year, in spite of the long and depressing illnesses that repeatedly brought him to death’s door, may be seen from the following unaddressed MS. letter in possession of the University of Virginia

NEW YORK, August 10, 1847.

DEAR SIR, — Permit me to thank you, in the first place, very sincerely, for your considerate kindness to me while in Philadelphia. Without your aid, at the precise moment and in the precise manner in which you rendered it, it is more than probable that I should not now be alive to write you this letter. Finding myself exceeding ill — so much so that I had no hope except in getting home immediately — I made several attempts to see Mr. Graham, and at last saw him for a few minutes just as he was about returning to Cape May. He was very friendly — more so than I have ever known him, and requested me to write continuously for the Mag. As you were not present, however, and it was uncertain when I could see you, I obtained an advance of $10 from Mr. G. in order that I might return home at once — and thinking it, also, more proper to leave you time in which to look over the articles.

I would be deeply obliged if you could now give me an answer respecting them. Should you take both, it would render me, just now, the most important service.

I owe Mr. G. about $50. The articles, at the old price ($4 per page), will come to $190 — so that, if you write [page 271:] me that they are accepted, I propose to draw on Mr. G. for $40 — thus squaring our account.

P. S. — I settled my bill with Arbuckle before leaving Phil., but am not sure how much I owe yourself for the previous bill, etc.

Please let me know.

Very gratefully your friend,  
EDGAR A. POE.

The same “immemorial year” was sealed, in December, with the anonymous publication, in “The American Whig Review,” of the mystic “Ulalume,” reprinted by Willis, at Poe’s request, in “The Home Journal,” with remarks on its “exquisitely piquant and skilful exercise of rarity and niceness of language,” “a curiosity in philologic flavor.” The “Union Magazine” had rejected the poem, as other magazines or publishers had rejected or held up many of Poe’s best things — “The Sleeper,” “The Gold-Bug,” “The Bells,” etc., and the “Tales” in volume form.

Poe’s work was so strange, so extraordinary, so original as it towered and sparkled in columnar beauty amid the flat commonplace of the time, that it is no wonder if editors were startled and looked askance, as they looked askance at “Jane Eyre,” at Carlyle’s “French Revolution,” at Lamartine’s ” Jacqueline.” Willis was one of the few editors of the time who appreciated Poe at his exact value, and gave him unstinted praise to the last. The rest gazed at him — Graham, and, it may be, Lowell excepted — as one might imagine the aborigines of Nubia gazing at the gorgeous bark of Cleopatra as it swept flashing down the Nile with all its oriental splendor and paraphernalia, a vision of light, perfume, and beauty. [page 272:]

Dark as the year preceding this had been, it had shot a ray of sunshine athwart the poet’s path before Virginia’s death in the shape of hearty recognition abroad. About the time the Godey sketches were running out, and literary Manhattan began to breathe a sigh of relief, the “Revue des Deux Mondes ” printed a highly appreciative review of the Tales of 1845, which was followed by Mme. Gabrielle Mennier’s translation of the best of them. A disgraceful squabble indeed had arisen between two Parisian papers — “Le Commerce” and “La Quotidienne” — soon after the publication of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” in April, 1841, in which it was shown that “Le Commerce” had stolen Poe’s tale from the “Charivari,” and republished it as an original feuilleton under the title of “L‘Orang-Otang.” This, in turn, was stolen by “La Quotidienne ” and transferred to its columns; whereupon a lawsuit ensued, when the source of the theft was shown to be Poe’s tale published shortly before in I’s Graham’s.”

And, now, recently, a writer in “Notes and Queries” (May 12, 1894) comes forward to show that Poe probably stole his tale from an incident recorded in the “Shrewsbury Chronicle,” apropos of “a ribbon-faced baboon” that had been taught to burgle.” “The Case of M. Valdemar” was traced to one Miss Prevorst, the “William Wilson” to “The Man with Two Lives” (Boston, x B ag), and to Calderon; the germ of “Metzengerstein” was discovered in “Vivian Grey,” “Three Sundays in a Week” comes from Herschel’s “Astronomy,” “Hans Pfaall” is a free paraphrase of current scientific works, and Bulwer and Disraeli have been abundantly plundered for the rest! [page 273:]

Other rays of sunshine that fell before he died into his darkened life were the vogue and republication of some of his tales in England — “The Fall of the House of Usher,” in “Bentley’s,” “The Purloined Letter,” in Chambers’ “Edinburgh Journal,” “Mesmeric Revelation” and “The Case of M. Valdemar,” in the London “Popular Record of Modern Science,” and, of course, the Poems of 1845.

Poe’s transatlantic reputation may, indeed, as Professor Trent(1) justly remarks, be regarded as a test of his value as a writer: “It is quite plain that Poe is considered by competent European critics to be the greatest author America has yet produced. His tales at least have been translated into all the chief languages, and have been widely read and more or less imitated. His poems, if less well known, have perhaps been even more influential,- their melody, their weirdness, their ideality having afflicted in considerable measure most modern lyrical poetry. . . . With the partial exception of Cooper, Poe is practically the only American since Franklin who has been accorded sincere and widespread homage in Europe for intellectual achievements other than scientific — who has, in other words, been recognized as one of the world’s master writers. Irving, Longfellow, Hawthorne, and other American authors have indeed been cordially received by British readers; but this is not the same thing as breaking down the barriers of language and winning the applause of the whole civilized world.”

It is an astounding circumstance that a mind so apparently wrecked as Poe’s was all through the weary months of 1847 — months hyphened together by [page 272:] unalterable gloom from the death of Virginia, in January, to the apparition on the December horizon of the fantastic flame of “Ulalume” — could have recovered vitality or even vivacity enough to meditate upon the deep themes of “Eureka,” of the cosmogony of the Universe, of the destiny of the human soul and the fate of the circumambient matter; but so it was.

Poe’s argumentative faculty attained perhaps its highest expression in “Eureka”: the theme, in itself so abstract, so transcendental, burns and glows with a concrete radiance that seems to convince the reader that it is true light and not quagmire phosphorescence; the suppleness of the poet’s tongue never abandons him as he climbs the empyrean in his Excelsior flight and forces one stronghold after another of retreating Deity, talking volubly of Newton, Kepler, and La Place the while, until at last “Eureka!” bursts from his lips and he fancies he has found the Eternal.

Having worked the book out through the long and hollow hours of 1847 — hollow from the full life of his sweet Virginia having left him — he was ready with it as a lecture in the early months of 1848. His hope was to rent a hall and secure an audience of three or four hundred persons who would pay him sufficiently to start on a lecturing tour in the interests of “The Stylus” — which now again sweeps up to the surface like the drowned face of Delacroix’s maiden. Instead of three or four hundred, sixty persons assembled in the hall of the Society Library, New York, and shivered through three hours of a bleak February night, listening, as one of them reported, to a “rhapsody of the most intense brilliancy. Poe appeared inspired, and his inspiration affected the scant audience almost painfully. His eyes seemed to glow [page 275:] like those of his own “Raven.‘” His true friend, Willis, so often abused as a mere dilettante dandy of literature, helped in this project as in so many others relating to Poe, and did what he could to further it: “My general aim is to start a Magazine [magazines, in that virgin soil and time were burgeoning all over the country] to be called the ’Stylus,‘” he wrote; but it would be useless to me, even when established, if not entirely out of the control of a publisher. With this end in view, I must get a list of, at last, 200 subscribers to begin with: — nearly 100 I have al ready. I propose, however, to go South and West, among my personal and literary friends — old college and West Point acquaintances — and see what I can do. In order to get the means of taking the first step, I propose to lecture at the [New York Historical] Society Library on Thursday, the 3rd of February — and that there may be no cause of squabbling my subject shall not be literary at all. I have chosen a broad text — ‘The Universe.‘”

The Lyceum system of lecturing so entertainingly described by Edward Everett Hale in recent chapters of “James Russell Lowell and his Friends,” was just then beginning its popular and fashionable career in New York and New England, and intelligent men and women were Rocking to the lecture courses with pencil and note-book, eager to take down the words of inspiration as they dropped from the lips of eloquent speakers. The Lowell foundation was one of the results of the movement which, according to Dr. Hale, was a sort of spill-over, protest or expansion from the Sunday lecture, secular topics, however dramatic or useful, not being allowed (as was right) in the Sunday pulpit. [page 276:]

Not disheartened at his poor success nor at the absurdly caricatured accounts of the lecture in the public prints, Poe went bravely to work and wrote out the theory in book form, offering it, with Hashing eyes and exuberant enthusiasm, to Mr. Putnam, the publisher of two of his books. He suggested an edition of 50,000; Mr. Putnam listened attentively, and ventured upon an edition of — 500.

The title, preface, etc., are as follows (we quote from a copy of the original edition): —

Eureka: A Prose Poem, | by | Edgar A. Poe. | New York: Geo. P. Putnam, | of late Firm of “Wiley and Putnam,” | 155 Broadway. | MDCCCXLVII. | With very Profound Respect, | This Work is Dedicated to | Alexander Von Humboldt.

Preface. — To the few who love me and whom I love — to those who feel rather than to those who think — to the dreamers and those who put faith in dreams as in the only realities — I offer this Book of Truths, not in its character of Truth-Teller, but for the Beauty that abounds in its Truth; constituting it true. To these I present the composition as an Art-Product alone: — let us say as a Romance; or, if I be not urging too lofty a claim, as a Poem.

What I here proposed it true: — therefore it cannot die: — or if by any means it be now trodden down so that it die, it will “rise again to the life Everlasting.”

Nevertheless it is as a Poem only that I wish this work to be judged after I am dead. E. A. P.

The book is bound in boards and contains about 136 pages of text, outside of the preface, dedication, [page 277:] and title-page. What Poe himself considered the gist of “Eureka” may be gathered from the following letter: —

NEW YORK, February 29, 1849.

GEO. E. ISBELL, ESQ.

DEAR SIR, — A press of business has hitherto prevented me from replying to your letter of the 10th. “The Vestiges of Creation” I have not yet seen; and it is always unsafe and unwise to form opinions of books from reviews of them. The extracts of the work which have fallen in my way abound in inaccuracies of fact; still these may not materially affect the general argument. One thing is certain; that the objections of merely scientific men — men, I mean, who cultivate the physical sciences to the exclusion, in a greater or less degree, of the mathematics, of metaphysics and logic — are generally invalid except in respect to scientific details. Of all persons in the world, they are at the same time the most bigoted and the least capable of using, generalizing or deciding upon the facts which they bring to light in the course of their experiments. And these are the men who chiefly write the criticisms against all efforts at generalization — denouncing these efforts as “speculative” and “theoretical.”

The notice of my lecture, which appeared in the “New World,” was written by some one grossly incompetent to the task which he undertook. No idea of what I said can be gleaned from either that or any other of the newspaper notices — with the exception, perhaps, of the “Express” — where the critique was written by a gentleman of much scientific acquirement, Mr. E. A. Hopkins, of Vermont. I enclose you his report, which, however, is inaccurate in numerous particulars. He gives my general conception so, at least, as not to caricature it.

I have not yet published the lecture, but, when I do so, will have the pleasure of mailing you a copy. In the meantime, permit me to state succinctly my principal results. [page 278:]

GENERAL PROPOSITION. Because nothing was, therefore all things are.

1. An inspection of the universality of gravitation — of the fact that each particle tends not to any one common point, but to every other particle, suggests perfect totality of absolute unity as the source of the phenomenon.

2. Gravity is but the mode in which is manifested the tendency of all things to return into their original unity.

3. I show that the law of the return — i. e., the law of gravity — is but a necessary result of the necessary and sole possible mode of equable irradiation of matter through a limited space.

4. Were the universe of stars (contradistinguished from the universe of space) unlimited, no worlds could exist.

5. I show that unity is nothingness.

6. All matter, springing from unity sprang from nothingness, i. e., was created.

7. All will return to unity, i. e., to nothingness.

I would be obliged to you if you would let me know how far these ideas are coincident with those of the “Vestiges.”

Very resp‘y yr. ob. st.,  
EDGAR A. POE.

He had opened the discussion with words almost as solemn as the chords which prelude some divine symphony: “Eureka: an Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe.

“It is with humility really unassumed — it is with a sentiment even of awe — that I pen the opening sentence of this work: for of all conceivable subjects I approach the reader with the most solemn — the most comprehensive — the most difficult — the most august.

“What terms shall I find sufficiently simple in [page 279:] their sublimity — sufficiently sublime in their simplicity — for the mere enunciation of my theme?

“I design to speak of the Physical, Metaphysical and Mathematical — of the Material and Spiritual Universe: — of its Essence, its Origin, its Creation, its Present Condition and its Destiny. I shall be so rash, moreover, as to challenge the conclusions, and thus, in effect, to question the sagacity, of many of the greatest and most justly reverenced of men.”

Poe was a great admirer of Humboldt’s “Cosmos,” and he therefore dedicates to its author his famous tract “De Natura Rerum.” Lucretius had written a wonderful poem in Latin hexameters on this topic, astonishing the ancient world by his elevated Epicureanism and passionate enthusiasm for what was true; and there is more than one striking analogy between the Roman and the American. Both, in their poems, were passionate inconoclasts, idealists, dreamers of the speculative philosophies that looked into the causes of things; both set aside what they considered the degrading superstitions, and reinstated Divinity in its rights. What a critic has well called “the impassioned solemnity” of Lucretius, is the religious, the almost reverential, spirit with which Poe approaches the problem of the Universe. Both are refined materialists of an almost spiritual type. Lucretius’s object was to clear the mind from the fear of the gods and the terrors of a future state, endeavoring to “show that the world is not governed by capricious agency, but has come into existence, continues in existence, and will ultimately pass away in accordance with the primary conditions of the elemental atoms which, along with empty space, are the only eternal and immutable substances. That atoms are themselves infinite in number, [page 280:] but limited in their varieties, and by their ceaseless movement and combinations during infinite time and through infinite space the whole process of creation is maintained.” Poe’s object was not far different from Lucretius’s in his abhorrence of superstition; and all that the critic has to say about Lucretius’s power of reasoning — the subtlety and fertility of invention with which he applies analogies, the keenness and clearness of his observation, the consecutive force, precision, and distinction of his style as employed in the processes of scientific exposition, are as if written of Poe. The Roman went mad from a love-philtre and committed suicide in his forty-fourth year; the mixed elements of Poe’s life — his dangerous deliriums, his passionate loves, hates, and adorations — brought him very near to Lucretius’s fate. And both threw their sublime speculations into poem-form, the one into six or seven thousand sonorous Latin lines that roll majestically as ocean-surges on the shore, the other into a brilliant monologue which, but for the ill-judged burlesque element at its beginning, might be an oratorio of the Creation.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 269:]

1.  Ingram, II., 115.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 273:]

1.  “Poe’s Rank as a Writer,” East and West, Aug. 1900.


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - LLEAP, 1903] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - Life and Letters of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Chapter 13)