Text: Thomas Ollive Mabbott (E. A. Poe), “The Conversation of Erios and Charmion,” The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe — Vol. II: Tales and Sketches (1978), pp. 451-462 (This material is protected by copyright)


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[page 451, continued:]

THE CONVERSATION
OF EIROS AND CHARMION

This is the first of what may be called Poe’s Platonic Dialogues between spirits in Heaven; the others are “The Colloquy of Monos and Una” and “The Power of Words.” They have been much admired by some critics. Duyckinck included all three among the dozen stories he chose for Poe’s Tales of 1845. And C. Alphonso Smith (Poe: How to Know Him, 1921, p. 295) called them “soaring [page 452:] meditations that compass . . . life and death . . . the natural and the supernatural. . . . the . . . arches that span the spaces between.”*

“The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion” was popular enough to be translated into French in Poe’s lifetime (by Isabelle Meunier as “Le Colloque d’Eiros et Charmion” in La Démocratie pacifique, Paris, July 3, 1847). The subject, the destruction of the world by fire as prophesied in the Bible, has often occupied both serious divines and fanatics. In the 1830’s it was of especial interest to Americans: William Miller of Low Hampton, Washington County, New York, announced in 1831 that the world’s end would occur in 1843, and impressed increasing numbers of followers throughout the decade. In 1833 there were showers of meteors, and later a succession of comets. Many people in all ages have regarded comets with fear, and perhaps as forerunners of the world’s end. Poe speculated about how the comet might be its cause. (He apparently took his own ideas fairly seriously when he wrote this tale, for in his little sketch called “A Prediction” in 1848, he remarks on changing his earlier hypothesis.)

In Poe’s day comets aroused far greater popular interest than in the last half century, when no really important comet has appeared. In the early nineteenth century several were seen. There was a very brilliant comet in 1811. The famous Halley’s Comet returned in 1835. And there was much discussion of Encke’s comet because, although it has no tail and is so small that it can be seen with the naked eye only under the most favorable conditions, its periodicity had been calculated, and it had returned in 1833 and 1838, and was expected again in 1842.

The excitement of 1838 called forth a story that almost certainly set Poe to thinking. This is “The Comet” by S. Austin Jr. in [page 453:] The Token and Atlantic Souvenir for 1839. In it Austin describes the discovery of a comet; the disputes of astronomers; the excitement of press and people; and philosophical discussions when it becomes known that the visitant must strike the earth. At last the comet is seen as of huge size, and stirs up tremendous tides that overwhelm humanity.

Poe decided that Austin’s “machinery” would not work. In view of the known tenuosity of comets, it is doubtful if one ever stirred a tide commensurable by man. Furthermore, the Biblical prophecies promise that there will be no second flood, but call for the destruction of the world by fire. (Poe in 1829 called comets “carriers of the fire” in “Al Aaraaf,” I, 94.) He must have read in proof a review in the Southern Literary Messenger, April 1836, called “Slavery in the United States” in which Judge Beverley Tucker wrote of a comet that it might “prove the messenger of that dispensation which, in the end of all things, is to wrap our earth in flames.”§

Poe also seems to have consulted Thomas Dick’s Christian Philosopher (1823), from which the following extracts are pertinent:

The atmosphere is now ascertained to be a compound substance, formed of two very different ingredients, termed oxygen gas and nitrogen gas. Of 100 measures of atmospheric air, 21 are oxygen, and 79 nitrogen. The one, namely, oxygen is the principle of combustion and the vehicle of heat, and is absolutely necessary for the support of animal life, and is the most powerful and energetic agent in nature; the other is altogether incapable of supporting either flame or animal life. Were we to breathe oxygen air, without any mixture or alloy, our animal spirits would be raised, and the fluids in our bodies would circulate with greater rapidity; but we would soon infallibly perish by the rapid . . . accumulation of heat in the animal frame. If the nitrogen were extracted from the air, and the whole atmosphere contained nothing but oxygen or vital air, combustion would not proceed in that gradual manner which it now does, but with the most dreadful and irresistible rapidity. . .

Should the Creator issue forth his Almighty Fiat — “Let the nitrogen of the atmosphere be completely separated from the oxygen, and let the oxygen exert its native energies without control, wherever it extends;” — from what we know [page 454:] of its nature, we are warranted to conclude, that instantly a universal conflagration would commence throughout all the kingdoms of nature.*

Poe’s imagination supplied a comet with an affinity for nitrogen. Like Dick, he calls the atmosphere a compound, where the word mixture is proper.

Poe’s story was presumably written about October or November 1839. A few years after its first printing, it became timely for republication. The Great Comet of 1843 was first observed on February 28, and was kept under observation until April 19. It was extremely bright in March, and passed less than one solar radius above the Sun’s surface. Its tail was the longest on record, two hundred million miles — about twice the distance between the Earth and the Sun.

Poe inserted his story, with a new title, in the Philadelphia Saturday Museum of April 1, 1843 — the date may be significant. On another page of that paper was a short article about the story:

DESTRUCTION OF THE WORLD.

We invite attention to the singular article, on another page, entitled “The Destruction of the World.” It details an imaginary conversation supposed to occur between two departed spirits, at a period subsequent to the Great Catastrophe which few doubt will, at some future epoch, take place.

The views embodied in this conversation are in strict accordance with philosophical speculation. The danger to be apprehended from collision with a comet is, to be sure, very little, and, from the gaseous nature of these erratic bodies, it has been contended that even actual contact would not have a fatal result; but the purport of the article in question seems to be the suggestion of a mode in which, through the cometary influence, the destruction of the earth might be brought about, and brought about in accordance with Prophecy.

From the celestial visitant now present, we have, of course, nothing to fear. It is now receding from the earth with a rapidity absolutely inconceivable, and, in a very short period, will be lost, and perhaps forever, to human eyes. But it came unheralded, and to-morrow its counterpart, or some wonder even more startling, may make its appearance. A firm reliance upon the wisdom and goodness of the Deity is by no means inconsistent with a due sense of the manifold and multiform perils by which we are so fearfully environed. [page 455:]

This piece I consider Poe’s own. It is reproduced here from the unique exemplar of the original paper in the library of the University of North Carolina, where I discovered it in 1940.

TEXTS

(A) Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, December 1839 (5:321-323); (B) Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840), II, 213-222; (C) Philadelphia Saturday Museum, April 1, 1843; (D) Tales (1845), pp. 110-115; (E) Works (1850), II, 286-291; PHANTASY-PIECES, title only.

The text of Tales (D) is followed. Griswold’s version (E) was taken from it, without verbal change. The motto introduced in the Philadelphia Saturday Museum version (C) was adopted in later texts but the change of title was not. A number of verbal changes in (C) were not followed when Poe prepared his text for Tales (D).

THE CONVERSATION
  OF EIROS AND CHARMION. [D]  [[v]]   [[n]]

Πυρ σοι προσισω

I will bring fire to thee.

Euripides — Androm:  [[v]]   [[n]]

EIROS.

Why do you call me Eiros?

CHARMION.

So henceforward will you{a} always be called. You must forget, too, my earthly name, and speak to me as Charmion.

EIROS.

This is indeed no dream!

CHARMION.

Dreams are with us no more; — but of these mysteries anon. I rejoice to see you looking life-like and rational. The film of the shadow has already passed from off your eyes. Be of heart, and fear nothing. Your allotted days of stupor have expired; and, tomorrow, I will myself induct you into the full joys and wonders of your novel existence. [page 456:]

EIROS.

True — I feel no stupor — none at all. The wild sickness and the terrible darkness have left me, and I hear no longer that mad, rushing, horrible sound, like the “voice of many waters.”(1) Yet my senses are bewildered, Charmion, with the keenness of their perception of the new.

CHARMION.

A few days will remove all this; — but I fully understand you, and feel for you. It is now ten earthly years since I underwent what you undergo — yet the remembrance of it hangs by me still. You have now suffered all of pain, however, which you will suffer in Aidenn.(2)

EIROS.

In Aidenn?

CHARMION.

In Aidenn.

EIROS.

{bb}Oh God! — pity me,{bb} Charmion! — I am overburthened with the majesty of all things — of the unknown now known — of the speculative Future merged in the august and certain Present.

CHARMION.

Grapple not now with such thoughts. To-morrow we will speak of this. Your mind wavers, and its agitation will find relief in the exercise of simple memories. Look not around, nor forward — but back. I am burning with anxiety to hear the details of that stupendous event which threw you among us. Tell me of it. Let us converse of familiar things, in the old familiar(3) language of the world which has so fearfully perished.

EIROS.

Most fearfully, fearfully! — this is indeed no dream.

CHARMION.

Dreams are no more. Was I much mourned, my Eiros? [page 457:]

EIROS.

Mourned, Charmion? — oh deeply. To that last hour of all, there hung a cloud of intense gloom and devout sorrow over your household.

CHARMION.

And that last hour — speak of it. Remember that, beyond the naked fact of the catastrophe itself, I know nothing. When, coming out from among mankind, I passed into Night through the Grave — at that period, if I remember aright, the calamity which overwhelmed you was utterly unanticipated. But, indeed, I knew little of the speculative philosophy of the day.

EIROS.

The individual calamity was, as you say, entirely unanticipated; but analogous misfortunes had been long a subject of discussion with astronomers. I need scarce tell you, my friend, that, even when you left us, men had agreed to understand those passages in the most holy writings which speak of the final destruction of all things by fire, as having reference to the orb of the earth alone.(4) But in regard to the immediate agency of the ruin, speculation had been at fault from that epoch in astronomical knowledge in which the comets were divested of the terrors of flame. The very moderate density of these bodies had been well established. They had been observed to pass among the satellites of Jupiter, without bringing about any sensible alteration either in the masses or in the orbits of these secondary planets. We had long regarded the wanderers as vapory creations of inconceivable tenuity, and as altogether incapable of doing injury to our substantial globe, even in the event of contact. But contact was not in any degree dreaded; for the elements of all the comets were accurately known. That among them we should look for the agency of the threatened fiery destruction had been for many years considered an inadmissible idea. But wonders and wild fancies had been, of late days, strangely rife among mankind; and, although it was only with a few of the ignorant that actual apprehension prevailed, upon the announcement by astronomers of a new comet, yet this announcement was generally received with I know not what of agitation and mistrust. [page 458:]

The elements of the strange orb were immediately calculated, and it was at once conceded by all observers, that its path, at perihelion, would bring it into very close proximity with the earth. There were two or three astronomers, of{c} secondary note, who resolutely maintained that a contact was inevitable. I cannot very well express to you the effect of this intelligence upon the people. For a few short days they would not believe an assertion which their intellect, so long employed among worldly considerations, could not in any manner grasp. But the truth of a vitally important fact soon makes its{d} way into the understanding of even the most stolid. Finally, all men saw that astronomical knowledge lied not, and they awaited the comet. Its approach was not, at first, seemingly rapid; nor was its appearance of very unusual character. It was of a dull red, and had little perceptible train. For seven or eight days we saw no material increase in its apparent diameter, and but a partial alteration in its color. Meantime, the ordinary affairs of men were discarded, and all interests absorbed in a growing discussion, instituted by the philosophic, in respect to the cometary nature. Even the grossly ignorant aroused their sluggish capacities to such considerations. The learned now gave their intellect — their soul — to no such points as the allaying of fear, or to the sustenance of loved theory. They sought — they panted for right views. They groaned for perfected{e} knowledge. Truth arose in the purity of her strength and exceeding majesty, and the wise bowed down and adored.

That material injury to our globe or to its inhabitants would result from the apprehended contact, was an opinion which hourly lost ground among the wise; and the wise were now freely permitted to rule the reason and the fancy of the crowd. It was demonstrated, that the density of the comet’s nucleus{f} was far less than that of our rarest gas; and the{g} harmless passage {hh}of a similar visitor{hh} among the satellites of Jupiter was a point strongly insisted upon, and{i} which served greatly to allay terror. Theologists, with an earnestness fear-enkindled, dwelt upon the biblical prophecies, and [page 459:] expounded them to the people with a directness and simplicity of which no previous instance had been known. That the final destruction of the earth must be brought about by the agency of fire, was urged with a spirit that enforced every where conviction; and that the comets were of no fiery nature (as all men now knew) was a truth which relieved all, in a great measure, from the apprehension of the great calamity foretold. It is noticeable that the popular prejudices and vulgar errors in regard to pestilences and wars — errors which were wont to prevail upon every appearance of a comet — were now altogether unknown. As if by some sudden convulsive exertion, reason had at once hurled superstition from her throne. The feeblest intellect{j} had derived vigor from excessive interest.

What minor evils might arise from the contact were points of elaborate question. The learned spoke of slight geological disturbances, of probable alterations in climate, and consequently in vegetation; of possible magnetic and electric influences. Many held that no visible or perceptible effect would in any manner be produced. While such discussions were going on, their subject gradually approached, growing larger{k} in apparent diameter, and of a more brilliant lustre. Mankind grew paler as it came. All human operations were suspended.

There was an epoch in the course of the general sentiment when the comet had attained, at length, a size surpassing that of any previously recorded visitation. The people now, dismissing any lingering hope that the astronomers were wrong, experienced all the certainty of evil. The chimerical aspect of their terror was gone. The hearts of the stoutest of our race beat violently within their bosoms. A very few days sufficed, however, to merge even such feelings in sentiments more unendurable. We could no longer apply to the strange orb any accustomed thoughts. Its historical attributes had disappeared. It oppressed us with a hideous novelty of emotion. We saw it not as an astronomical phenomenon in the heavens, but as an incubus(5) upon our hearts,{l} and a shadow upon our brains.{m} It had taken, with inconceivable rapidity, the character [page 460:] of a gigantic mantle of rare flame, extending from horizon to horizon.

Yet a day, and men breathed with greater freedom. It was clear that we were already within the influence of the comet; yet we lived. We even felt an unusual elasticity of frame and vivacity of mind. The exceeding tenuity of the object of our dread was apparent; for{n} all heavenly objects were plainly visible through it. Meantime, our vegetation had perceptibly altered; and we gained faith, from this predicted circumstance, in the foresight of the wise. A wild luxuriance of foliage, utterly unknown before, burst out upon every vegetable thing.

Yet another day — and the evil was not altogether upon us. It was now evident that its nucleus would first reach us. A wild change had come over all men; and the first sense of pain was the wild signal for general lamentation and horror. This first sense of pain lay in a rigorous constriction of the breast and lungs, and an insufferable dryness of the skin. It could not be denied that our atmosphere was radically affected; the conformation of this atmosphere and the possible modifications to which it might be subjected, were now the topics of discussion. The result of investigation sent an electric thrill of the intensest terror through the universal heart of man.

It had been long known that the air which encircled us was a compound of oxygen and nitrogen gases, in the proportion of twenty-one measures of oxygen, and seventy-nine of nitrogen, in every one hundred of the atmosphere.(6) Oxygen, which was the principle of combustion, and the vehicle of heat, was absolutely necessary to the support of animal life, and was the most powerful and energetic agent in nature. Nitrogen, on the contrary, was incapable of supporting either animal life or flame. An unnatural excess of oxygen would result, it had been ascertained, in just such an elevation of the animal spirits as we had latterly experienced. It was the pursuit, the extension of the idea, which had engendered awe. What would be the result of a total extraction of the nitrogen? A combustion irresistible, all-devouring, omni-prevalent, immediate; [page 461:] — the entire{o} fulfillment, in all their{p} minute and terrible{q} details, of the fiery and horror-inspiring denunciations of the prophecies of the Holy Book.

Why need I paint, Charmion, the now disenchained frenzy of mankind? That tenuity in the comet which had previously inspired us with hope, was now{r} the source of the bitterness of despair. In its impalpable gaseous character we clearly perceived the consummation of Fate. Meantime a day again passed — bearing away with it the last shadow of Hope. We gasped in the rapid modification of the air. The red blood bounded tumultuously through its strict channels. A furious delirium possessed all men; and, with arms rigidly{s} outstretched towards the threatening heavens, they trembled and shrieked aloud. But the nucleus of the destroyer was now upon us; — even here in Aidenn, I shudder while I speak.(7) Let me be brief — brief as the ruin that overwhelmed. For a{t} moment there was a wild lurid light alone, visiting and penetrating all things. Then — let us bow down, Charmion, before the excessive majesty of the great{u} God! — then, there came a shouting and{v} pervading sound, as if from the mouth itself{w} of HIM; while the whole incumbent{x} mass of ether in which we existed, burst at once into a species of intense flame, for whose surpassing brilliancy and all-fervid heat even the angels in the high{y} Heaven of pure knowledge have no name. Thus ended all.

 


VARIANTS

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 455:]

Title:  The Destruction of the World. (A Conversation between two Departed Spirits.) (C)

Motto:  This first appeared in C.

a  will you / you will (C)

[The following variant appears at the bottom of page 456:]

bb . . . bb  Pity me, my (C)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 458:]

c  and these of (A, B, C)

d  it (B) misprint

e  perfect (C)

f  nucleus (A, B, C)

g  its (A, B)

hh . . . hh  Omitted (A, B, C)

i  and one (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 459:]

j  understanding (A)

k  larger and larger (C)

l  heart, (A, C)

m  brain. (A, B, C)

[The following variant appears at the bottom of page 460:]

n  Omitted (A, B, C)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 461:]

o  Omitted (C)

p  its (A, B)

q  and terrible omitted (C)

r  at length (C)

s  immoveably (A, B); omitted (C)

t  a short (A, B)

u  the great omitted (C)

v  shouting and / great (A, B, C)

w  mouth itself / very mouth (C)

x  circumambient (C)

y  great (A, B)

 


[page 461, continued:]

NOTES

Title:  The two speakers are named for Cleopatra’s faithful handmaidens, of whom Lalage reads in Politian, IV, 20-27. They are mentioned in Plutarch’s “Antony,” chapter 85, in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, and in Dryden’s All for Love. Shakespeare used the spelling “Charmian,” Dryden has Charmion, but all call the other girl Iras.

Motto:  This is from the Andromache of Euripides, line 257.

1.  The quotation is from Revelation 14:2. Compare “The Fall of the House of Usher” at n. 34. [page 462:]

2.  Here is Poe’s earliest use of the name Aidenn (from the Arabic Adn, Eden) for Heaven, used later in “The Raven” and in “The Power of Words.”

3.  Compare Charles Lamb’s poem “The Old Familiar Faces.”

4.  See II Peter 3:10, “The earth also, and the works that are therein, shall be burned up.” For the idea that the prophecy refers only to the surface of the earth — “to the crust of this orb alone” — compare Poe’s review (referring the reader to “the excellent observations of Dr. Dick”) of Henry Duncan’s Sacred Philosophy of the Seasons in Burton’s, March 1840. Compare also “Marginalia,” number 21 (Democratic Review, November 1844, p. 487).

5.  Compare “The Fall of the House of Usher” at n. 29 for “there sat upon my very heart an incubus of utterly causeless alarm.”

6.  Compare the excerpt from Dick’s work, above.

7.  Compare “The Man that was Used Up” at n. 10, where Poe uses Vergil’s phrase, horresco referens.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 452:]

*  Lucian of Samosata wrote Dialogues of the Dead, and in Poe’s day Walter Savage Lander’s Imaginary Conversations were much talked about. But Poe’s have no satirical or historical purpose and are, I feel, more in Plato’s manner. Two of Walt Whitman’s early stories seem to be modeled on Poe’s, namely “The Angel of Tears” and “A Spirit Record.”

  It may be remarked here that Quinn’s suggestion (Poe, p. 187) that Poe’s story was to some extent inspired by the famous Leonid meteors of 1833 which aroused great excitement in Baltimore seems to me unacceptable. Poe and his first readers were better acquainted with comets than we are today.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 453:]

  Ingram, Life and Letters, p. 131, pointed out this source.

§  See Harrison’s Complete Works of Poe, VIII, 267; in 1902 the article was thought to be Poe’s work.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 454:]

*  This source was pointed out by Margaret Alterton, Origins of Poe’s Critical Theory (1925), p. 141. Like her, I use the stereotyped edition of Dick’s Complete Works (Cincinnati, 1855), II, 32 and 135.

  See Harrison’s edition, IV, 276, for Professor W. LeConte Stevens’ discussion of what is unscientific in “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion.”

  This I was told by Professor Stanley P. Wyatt Jr.

 


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Notes:

None.


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[S:1 - TOM2T, 1978] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (T. O. Mabbott) (The Conversation of Erios and Charmion)