Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. T. O. Mabbott), “The Power of Words,” The Collected Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. III: Tales and Sketches (1978), pp. 1210-1217 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 1210, continued:]


This latest of Poe's three imaginary dialogues of blessed spirits in heaven is usually considered the best. Like “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion” (see p. 451) it is laid in the future, after the destruction of the world. The piece was discussed enthusiastically by C. Alphonso Smith (Poe: How to Know Him, pp. 333-334) who explained that Agathos inducts Oinos “into the methods of creation” by “a leap of fantasy over the walls of analytic reason.”

Briefly, “The Power of Words” is a prose poem with various philosophical concerns, perhaps best synopsized by Quinn (Poe, p. 469).

Poe faced in this story the problem of creation and took the position that God created only in the beginning. Through the conversation of Oinos and Agathos, he depicted the future life where the soul's unquenchable desire to know is recognized as its greatest happiness, and therefore the soul's search for knowledge is never ceasing. He also expressed the idea of the conservation of force in poetic terms. As no thought can perish, so no act is without infinite result. Since every vibration once set in motion is eternal, the power of the word once spoken is also everlasting.

As the Cosmos is unified, every atom is related to every other atom. Poe said in Eureka (paragraph 67):

If I venture to displace, even by the billionth part of an inch, the microscopical speck of dust which lies now upon the point of my finger, what is the character of that act upon which I have adventured? I have done a deed which shakes the Moon in her path, which causes the Sun to be no longer the Sun, and which alters forever the destiny of the multitudinous myriads of stars that roll and glow in the majestic presence of their Creator.

In his Drake-Halleck review (SLM, April 1836), referring to “the sense of the beautiful, of the sublime, and of the mystical,” he had said, “Thence spring immediately admiration of the fair flowers, the bright valleys and rivers and mountains of the Earth — and love of the gleaming stars and other burning glories of [page 1211:] Heaven — and, mingled up inextricably with this love and this admiration of Heaven and Earth, the unconquerable desire — to know.” This desire he made an integral part of the action in three of his tales. Twice at least the narrator is saved by his mind's activity, by his “curiosity to penetrate the mysteries,” but salvation is more in the nature of a by-product than a goal — “not in knowledge is happiness, but in the acquisition of knowledge,” Agathos says.

Poe did not need a source for the desire to know any more than for the love of Heaven, but he must surely have read in The Loves of the Angels by his favorite Moore the lines from the “Second Angel's Story”:

The wish to know — that endless thirst,

Which even by quenching is awaked,

And which becomes or blest or curst,

As is the fount whereat 'tis slaked —

Still urged me onward, with desire

Insatiate, to explore, inquire.

It may be relevant to recall that Poe's interest in “the Future Condition of Man” mentioned in his letter to George Bush, January 4, 1845, was of long standing. “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion” (Burton's, December 1839), “The Colloquy of Monos and Una” (Graham's, August 1841), and “Mesmeric Revelation” (Columbian Magazine, August 1844) would reappear in the small volume of Tales (1845) before the end of July. “The Power of Words” was probably completed by the early spring of 1845, for it must have been in the editor's hands in April for publication, about the middle of May, in the Democratic Review for June.


(A) Democratic Review, June 1845 (16:602-604); (B) Broadway Journal, October 25, 1845 (2:243-244); (C) Works (1850), II, 271-275.

Griswold's text (C) which is verbally like (B) is followed.

THE POWER OF WORDS.   [C]   [[n]]

Oinos. — Pardon, Agathos, the weakness of a spirit new-fledged with immortality!

Agathos. — You have spoken nothing, my Oinos,(1) for which [page 1212:] pardon is to be demanded. Not even here is knowledge a thing of intuition. For wisdom, ask of the angels freely, that it may be given!(2)

Oinos. — But in this existence, I dreamed that I should be at once cognizant of all things, and thus at once happy in being cognizant of all.

Agathos. — Ah, not in knowledge is happiness, but in the acquisition of knowledge!(3) In for ever knowing, we are for ever blessed; but to know all, were the curse of a fiend.

Oinos. — But does not The Most High know all?

Agathos. — That (since he is The Most Happy) must be still the one thing unknown even to HIM.

Oinos. — But, since we grow hourly in knowledge, must not at last all things be known?

Agathos. — Look down into the abysmal distances! — attempt to force the gaze down the multitudinous vistas of the stars,(4) as we sweep slowly through them thus — and thus — and thus! Even the{a} spiritual vision, is it not at all points arrested by the continuous golden walls of the universe? — the walls of the myriads of the shining bodies that mere number has appeared to blend into unity?

Oinos. — I clearly perceive that the infinity of matter is no dream.

Agathos. — There are no dreams in Aidenn(5) — but it is here whispered that, of this infinity of matter, the sole purpose is to afford infinite springs, at which the soul may allay the thirst to know which is for ever unquenchable within it — since to quench it, would be to extinguish the soul's self.(6) Question me then, my Oinos, freely and without fear. Come! we will leave to the left the loud harmony of the Pleiades, and swoop outward from the throne into the starry meadows beyond Orion, where, for pansies and violets, and heart's-ease, are the beds of the triplicate and triple-tinted suns.(7)

Oinos. — And now, Agathos, as we proceed, instruct me! — speak to me in the earth's familiar tones!(8) I understood not what [page 1213:] you hinted to me, just now, of the modes or of the methods of what, during mortality, we were accustomed to call Creation. Do you mean to say that the Creator is not God?

Agathos. — I mean to say that the Deity does not create.

Oinos. — Explain!

Agathos. — In the beginning only, he created. The seeming creatures which are now, throughout the universe, so perpetually springing into being, can only be considered as the mediate or indirect, not as the direct or immediate results of the Divine creative power.

Oinos. — Among men, my Agathos, this idea would be considered heretical in the extreme.

Agathos. — Among angels, my Oinos, it is seen to be simply true.

Oinos. — I can comprehend you thus far — that certain operations of what we term Nature, or the natural laws, will, under certain conditions, give rise to that which has all the appearance of creation. Shortly before the final overthrow of the earth, there were, I well remember, many very successful experiments in what some philosophers were weak enough to denominate the creation of animalculæ.(9)

Agathos. — The cases of which you speak were, in fact, instances of the secondary creation — and of the only species of creation which has ever been, since the first word spoke into existence the first law.

Oinos. — Are not the starry worlds that, from the abyss of non-entity, burst hourly forth into the heavens — are not these stars, Agathos, the immediate handiwork of the King?

Agathos. — Let me endeavor, my Oinos, to lead you, step by step, to the conception I intend. You are well aware that, as no thought can perish, so no act is without infinite result. We moved our hands, for example, when we were dwellers on the earth, and, in so doing, we gave vibration to the atmosphere which engirdled it. This vibration was indefinitely extended, till it gave impulse to every particle of the earth's air, which thenceforward, and for ever, was actuated by the one movement of the hand. This fact the mathematicians of our globe well knew. They made [page 1214:] the special effects, indeed, wrought in the fluid by special impulses, the subject of exact calculation — so that it became easy to determine in what precise period an impulse of given extent would engirdle the orb, and impress (for ever) every atom of the atmosphere circumambient. Retrograding, they found no difficulty, from a given effect, under given conditions, in determining the value of the original impulse. Now the mathematicians who saw that the results of any given impulse were absolutely endless — and who saw that a portion of these results were accurately traceable through the agency of algebraic analysis — who saw, too, the facility of the retrogradation — these men saw, at the same time, that this species of analysis itself, had within itself a capacity for indefinite progress — that there were no bounds conceivable to its advancement and applicability, except within the intellect of him who advanced or applied it. But at this point our mathematicians paused.

Oinos. — And why, Agathos, should they have proceeded?

Agathos. — Because there were some considerations of deep interest beyond. It was deducible from what they knew, that to a being of infinite understanding — one to{b} whom the perfection of the algebraic analysis lay unfolded — there could be no difficulty in tracing every impulse given the air — and the ether through the air — to the remotest consequences at any even infinitely remote epoch of time. It is indeed demonstrable that every such impulse given the air, must, in the end, impress every individual thing that exists within the universe; — and the being of infinite understanding — the being whom we have imagined — might trace the remote undulations of the impulse — trace them upward and onward in their influences upon all particles of all matter — upward and onward for ever in their modifications of old forms — or, in other words, in their creation of new — until he found them reflected — unimpressive at last — back from the throne of the Godhead. And not only could such a being do this, but at any epoch, should a given result be afforded him — should one of these numberless comets,{c} for example, be presented to his inspection — he could have no difficulty in determining, by [page 1215:] the analytic retrogradation, to what original impulse it was due. This power of retrogradation in its absolute fulness and perfection — this faculty of referring at all epochs, all effects to all causes — is of course the prerogative of the Deity alone — but in every variety of degree, short of the absolute perfection, is the power itself exercised by the whole host of the Angelic Intelligences.

Oinos. — But you speak merely of impulses upon the air.

Agathos. — In speaking of the air, I referred only to the earth: but the general proposition has reference to impulses upon the ether — which, since it pervades, and alone pervades all space, is thus the great medium of creation.

Oinos. — Then all motion, of whatever nature, creates?{d}

Agathos. — It must: but a true philosophy has long taught that the source of all motion is thought — and the source of all thought is —

Oinos. — God.(10)

Agathos. — I have spoken to you, Oinos, as to a child of the fair Earth which lately perished — of impulses upon the atmosphere of the Earth.

Oinos. — You did.

Agathos. — And while I thus spoke, did there not cross your mind some thought of the physical power of words? Is not every word an impulse on the air?

Oinos. — But why, Agathos, do you weep — and why, oh why do your wings droop as we hover above this fair star — which is the greenest and yet most terrible of all we have encountered in our flight? Its brilliant flowers look like a fairy{e} dream — but its fierce volcanoes like the passions of a turbulent heart.

Agathos. — They are! — they are! This wild star — it is now three centuries since, with clasped hands,{f} and with streaming eyes, at the feet of my beloved — I spoke it — with a few passionate sentences — into birth. Its brilliant flowers are the dearest of all unfulfilled dreams, and its raging volcanoes are the passions of the most turbulent and unhallowed of hearts.(11)

[page 1216:]


Title:  Poe used the phrase in his “Marginalia,” number 150 (Graham's, March 1846, p. 117), in the poem “To Marie Louise,” and in a letter to Helen Whitman, of October 1, 1848, but in these instances he referred only to the power or lack of power of words to embody thoughts. (See Mabbott, I, 408, where the “Marginalia” number is given incorrectly as 149.) The phrase had been used as a title for one of the “Fragments” of Letitia E. Landon, of whose poems Poe was fond in his youth.

1.  Oinos here means “One” as in the tale “Shadow,” where see my comment on the rare Greek word. Agathos means “Good.”

2.  Compare St. Matthew 7:7, “Ask and it shall be given you.”

3.  See the introduction above.

4.  Compare “multitudinous thunders” in Poe's “Lines after Elizabeth Barrett” (Mabbott, I, 377-378).

5.  Compare “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion”: “Dreams are with us no more”; and see n. 2 on that tale for Aidenn.

6.  See the introduction above, and “MS. Found in a Bottle” where at n. 25 the narrator says that “a curiosity to penetrate the mysteries of these awful regions predominates even over my despair.” Also in “A Descent into the Maelström” at n. 16, “in the very jaws of the gulf ... I became possessed with the keenest curiosity about the whirl itself. I positively felt a wish to explore its depths.” Finally, in “The Pit and the Pendulum” on p. 686, the despairing narrator says, “I had little object — certainly no hope — in these researches [into the dimensions of the dungeon] but a vague curiosity prompted me to continue them,” and at n. 17 his “soul took a wild interest in trifles.”

7.  Compare Job 9:9, “Which maketh Arcturus, Orion and Pleiades.” C. Alphonso Smith (in Poe: How to Know Him, p. 33) calls this last sentence “unsurpassed in ancient or modern English prose.” Walt Whitman in youth admired, and wrote sketches in the manner of, Poe's dialogues of angels, and it seems to me possible that he had Poe's phrasing in mind when he wrote in the thirty-third section of the “Song of Myself”: “I visit the orchards of spheres and look at the product, / And look at quintillions ripen’d and look at quintillions green.”

8.  Compare “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion”: “... let us converse of familiar things in the old familiar language of the world ...

9.  The allusion is probably to the reports of mites (of the genus Acarus) found in a solution connected with experiments in electro-crystallization made by Andrew Crosse in 1837. These experiments are mentioned in the article on Ancient Egyptians in the Westminster Review, July 1841, used by Poe in “Some Words with a Mummy” and cited in the introduction to that tale. The following passage from the Westminster, referring to the contest of the Egyptian sophoi with Moses before Pharaoh, is pertinent here:

Three of the miracles of their natural magic (see Sir D. Brewster) the jugglers of the East can and do now perform. In the fourth, an attempt to produce [page 1217:] the lowest form of life, they fail. From the whole statement, one inference is safe, that the daring ambition of the priestly chemists and anatomists had been led from the triumphs of embalming and chicken-hatching (imitating and assisting the production of life) to a Frankenstein experiment on the vital fluid and on the principle of life itself, perhaps to experiments like those correctly or incorrectly ascribed to Mr. Crosse, in the hope of creating, not reviving, the lowest form of animal life.

Compare “Some Words with a Mummy” at n. 31.

10.  Much of the foregoing argument is akin to the argument in “Mesmeric Revelation” following the question “What then is God?”

11.  Compare “Ulalume,” line 13, “These were days when my heart was volcanic”; and see also Poe's letter of October 1, 1848 to Helen Whitman: “It is the most spiritual of love that I speak, even if I speak it from the depths of the most passionate of hearts.”





[S:1 - TOM3T, 1978] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions-The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (T. O. Mabbott) (The Power of Words)