Text: John Milton Emerson, Review of Eureka, The Indicator (Amherst College), vol. 1, no. 7, February 1849, pp. 193-199


[page 193, unnumbered:]




This is the very modest title of a book written by Mr. Edgar A. Poe of “Raven” notoriety. Like the sage of Samos he comes forth shouting ‘Eureka.’ Not seldom is it nowadays that we hear this cry. Even now it is ringing in our ears from the distant Californian El Dorado.

But what is it that Mr. Poe has found? Is it the fountain of youth, the elixir of life, the philosopher's stone?

None of these. Mr. Poe's discovery is one before which, all other discoveries of all time must “hide their diminished heads.” Mr. Poe has found the key, hear him announce it, of the “Physical, Metaphysical, and Mathematical, of the Material and Spiritual Universe, of its Essence, Origin, Creation, Present Condition and its Destiny.” Shades of Pythagoras, Kepler, and Newton! We conjure you, leave not the Elysian bowers, revisit not the “glimpses of the moon,” if ye would not see your glories eclipsed in the splendor of this new luminary.

To be candid and serious now, we have always considered Mr. Poe to be the most conceited, impudent fellow in existence. His works all “thunder in the index,” and strut in the preface. We have had from him one or two short poetical pieces of superior excellence, as “Dream Land” and the “The Raven,” but by far the greater portion of his writings, consists of the most harsh and bitter criticism, of monstrous tales and hoaxing stories. His genius delights in whatever is outre and extravagant. He has not that simplicity and naturalness about him, which ever belongs to the highest order of intellect. Mr. [page 194:] Poe has once or twice before, deliberately hoaxed people, (witness the story about the case of Monsieur De Somebody, that came out in the Whig Review, a year or two since,) and it was not without some suspicions therefore, that we took up ‘Eureka.’ We have read it quite through, and it is our conviction that this time, Mr. Poe has egregiously hoaxed — not his readers — but himself. His iniquities have returned upon his own head.

However, the book shall speak for itself. We have done our best to extract the kernel of the nut, and will endeavor to serve it up to our readers, in such a way as to save them the inconvenience of smashing their fingers in getting at it.

The subject is The Universe.

The general proposition, the leading idea is this, “In the Original Unity of the First Thing, lies the Secondary Cause of All Things, with the Germ of their Inevitable Annihilation.”

Before proceeding with his subject proper, the author favors us with an extract or two, from a remarkable letter said to have been found floating in the “Mare Tenebrarum” and bearing date of A. D. 2848. “Long ago” says the letter writer, “in the night of time, the prevailing notion was, that there are only two roads to knowledge, the Deductive and Inductive, as they were called. Now Science as we have ascertained in later ages progresses by intuitive leaps, but in either of these roads she could only creep or crawl. A virtual stop was put to all true thinking. Philosophers looked at the road merely, and not the result.”

“The vital taint of the Baconian method was, that it threw all the power into the hands of mere diggers and peddlers of facts.”

“A greater set of bigots then these same Baconians, never existed. Their creed Text and Sermon was ‘Fact.’”

“No such thing as an axiom can exist.”

The writer is at some pains to prove this assertion about axioms. Take for example the axiom, ‘A tree cannot be a tree and not a tree.’ Now why can it not? The only possible answer to this question is that we find it impossible to conceive such a thing. But according to Mr. Mill, one of the cleverest of the ancient logicians, ability to conceive, is no criterion of axiomatic truth. Angels and Devils may be able to see how a tree can be a tree and not a tree at the same time. Q. E. D. Poh! Mr. Poe.

“Yet a few of these ancients succeeded in partially declaring their independence of mere words. [page 195:]

Kepler was one who did a little true thinking. He arrived at the great vital laws of the Universe not by Deduction or Induction, but by Intuition, by a triumphant Guess.”

Here end our quotations from this remarkable letter. It is either entirely impertinent or must be considered as embodying Mr. Poe's peculiar views on Philosophic method. Let us follow his speculations and see. He shows at the outset, an indulgent regard for the feeble capacities of his readers. He makes no call upon them to entertain the impossible conception of Infinite Space, but only of a Universe of Space “the centre of which is every where, and the circumference nowhere.” For our starting point, we assume the Deity. Of God we know absolutely nothing except that he is not matter. He, by a volition, created at some point of Space — matter, and this mat- ter was in a state of the utmost conceivable simplicity. All that can be predicated of matter at this stage is Oneness. This will be found, says our author, the sole assumption of the discourse. Nor is it an assumption. An “irresistable intuition” forces him to the conclusion that it is true. Therefore it is true. “Irresistable” certainly is the evidence that Mr. Poe is a great way ahead of his age in Philosophy.

To proceed — this Oneness will account for all the phenomena of matter, and is the germ of its annihilation. By a volition of God, matter thus existing is diffused into space. The normal one is forced into the condition of the abnormal many. A reaction is of course implied. On the withdrawal then of the diffusive energy, there is a tendency to return from the abnormal to the normal state. This tendency we recognize as the Newtonian Gravity. But in order that this tendency may not be immediately gratified, that is to say, in order that gravity may be lasting, another principle is brought in — that of Heterogeneity. In their state of diffusion, difference is the character of these particles, just as no-difference was the essentiality of their source. An attempt to bring any two particles together developes this principle. Here then we have Electricity, and on Electricity depend the phenomena of vitality, consciousness, and thought, since all these proceed in the ratio of the Heterogeneous. Thus clearly, the two great laws Attraction and Repulsion are accounted for. Now for the modus operandi. And here our author in the plenitude of his self-complacency, indulges in a little glorification. “I design,” says he, “to suggest, and to convince through the suggestion. I am proudly conscious that there exist many of the most profound and cautiously discriminative human intellects, which cannot help being abundantly content [page 196:] with my suggestions.” Great philosophers, like Newton and Laplace, while boldly grasping the law of attraction, shrunk from the principle. They were content to regard it as out of the domain of Philosophy — as an ultimate fact. Not so Mr. Poe. “I here declare the modus operandi of the Law of Gravity to be an exceedingly simple and perfectly explicable thing,” says he. Now for it. Matter as we have seen, has been diffused, irradiated into space, and the supposition, nay the truth is, that it has been irradiated, not as light is, but so as to have a generally equable distribution, i. e. so as to be no more crowded, near the centre, than at a distance. How then could matter have been diffused so as to fulfill at once the conditions of irradiation, and equable distribution? The explanation is perfectly simple. We have only to suppose that it was not by a single continuous volition of the Deity, but by a series of volitions, constantly lessening in energy, that matter was diffused.

The first ejection would deposite a stratum of matter in the form of a hollow sphere. The second ejection, with a force just adequate to the effect, would deposite a second layer, on the inside of this hollow sphere.

The third, of less energy, because less would be needed, would deposite another stratum, and so on till the space was all occupied.

Here then we have matter equably distributed, in a series of concentric strata, and of course the quantity of matter in any stratum is directly as its superficies. Now the surfaces of spheres are as the squares of their radii.

Hence the quantity of matter in any stratum, is as the square of its distance from the centre. But the quantity of matter in any stratum, is as the force which emitted it.

Therefore generally, the force of the irradiations, has been directly as the squares of the distances. Gravity is the reaction of this force.

Therefore Gravity is inversely as the square of the distance. Thus most conclusively is the Newtonian Gravity shown to be in harmony with the hypothesis of this discourse.

To be sure a few unimportant objections might be urged, as for instance, the ascertained principle of Dynamics, that bodies when once set in motion, will continue in motion forever, unless stopped. Thus matter irradiated from a centre in the way described, would continue its onward motion forever. This objection is disposed of very summarily.

“It arises,” says Mr. Poe, “from an unwarrantable assumption on the part of the objector, of a principle in Dynamics, at an epoch, when [page 197:] no principles in anything exist.” We see at once how idle it is, to urge any objections to his theory, drawn from the ascertained nature of things. We might however question the propriety of assuming the principles of mathematics, and reasoning from them, “at an epoch when no principles in anything exist.” We could also if we were so disposed, adopt his own method of argumentation, and declare that an “irresistable intuition” forces us to the conclusion, that Mr. Poe's speculation is thus tar at least a very great humbug.

At this point however, he seems to emerge partly from the mist, and to come if not within the bounds of common sense, “at least, into the more beaten track of speculation.

On the withdrawal of the diffusive force, or the Divine volition, there arise at once, throughout the Universe, innumerable agglomerations of matter. Here we shall find ourselves met and borne onward for a time by that most magnificent of theories, the Nebular Cosmogony of Laplace, a theory perhaps too well know n to need explanation here.

In connection with this theory, our author gives us rather incidentally, a solution of a question which has puzzled the Geologists not” a little — how to account for the tropical vegetation, of which we find traces in high Northern latitudes. The planets according to this theory are formed of the crusts thrown off successively, as they cooled, from the Sun's surface. When the Sun threw off that crust which forms the planet Venus, it was of course left, a naked orb of melted matter. The Earth at once enjoyed a great increase of heat, and what are now the polar regions, basked a few centuries in the rays of a tropical sun.

We do not remember to have met with this solution before, and from our entire ignorance of the subject, will not hazard an opinion as to its merits.

It has been mentioned that on the withdrawal of the diffusive force, innumerable agglomerations would take place throughout the Universe. Our own Universe is now to be considered as one of these little assemblages of atoms.

Expanding our conceptions, we find a thousand, ora million systems, under the same ineradicable tendency to unity, forming themselves into one great cluster. The Milky Way, the home of our own system, is one of these clusters of systems. Countless myriads of these clusters make up the great ultimate sphere, the Universe. That the Universe cannot be infinite is evident from the fact, that if it were [page 198:] there could be no such thing as gravitation, the tendency of bodies being always in that direction in which there is the greatest quantity of matter. If the Universe were boundless, there could of course be no more matter in one direction, than in another.

But the human mind has a leaning to the Infinite, and “fondles the phantom of the idea.” May we not then yield to the fancy, that there is existing throughout the wildernesses of space, a limitless succession of Universes, having no part in our origin, no portion in our laws? Their material, their spirit is not ours. They exist apart and independently, each in the bosom of its proper and particular God. As a device for conveying to the mind some notion of the vast extent of our Universe, we are required to conceive of a circle, so ineffably grand, that a flash of lightning, traveling upon its circumference forever, would still forever travel in a straight line. Now think of a thousand or a million such circles!

Mr. Poe gives in passing, a definition of Comets which seems to us novel, not to say lucid. “Comets are the lightning flashes of the Cosmical Heaven.”

But the great Reaction goes slowly on. Attraction is gradually overcoming Repulsion. Moons are precipitated upon planets, planets upon suns, suns upon nuclei, until at length, “with a thousand fold electric velocity, the majestic remnants of the tribe of stars, flash into a common embrace.” The catastrophe is at hand. But what is it? Matter has returned from its abnormal to its normal state. Attraction and Repulsion have ceased. The final orb of orbs is now objectless. It instantaneously disappears and God remains all in all. Nor pause we here. Another creation takes place, another Action and Reaction of the Divine Will; and thus forever and forever, “a novel Universe swells into existence and subsides into nothingness, at every throb of the Heart Divine.”

And now this Heart Divine, what is it?

It is our own!!

To this final conclusion, are we led by this wonderful treatise. And now what shall be the verdict? We have a way of reading the preface of a book, just as the author writes it, — the last thing. We had about decided to call it a Physico Metaphysico Mathematical Rhapsody, when in reading the preface, we came upon these words. “It is only as a poem, that I wish this work to be judged after I am dead.” If the work is to be judged at all after the death of Mr. Poe, we fear that his sands are nearly run. Still, we are good natured [page 199:] enough to hope that he is destined to outlive this, and some of his other works, as well as a good share of his impudence and conceit. But, supposing him dead for a moment, upon what grounds can we call it a poem? He gives us a definition of poetry, himself. “Poetry is truth, and truth is poetry.” This is about as true as it would be to say that all the light God ever made, is moonshine. According to this definition, we might indeed reckon this work a poem, provided that we admitted the truth of another proposition which he advances, viz: “What I here propound is true.” But there's the rub. Martinus Scriblerus in his treatise Περι Βαôνς, tells the world that “Poetry is a morbid secretion from the brain.” Since Mr. Poe wishes to have his book considered a poem, we are bound in courtesy, to force it into that category if possible. Martinus’ definition seems to afford us the only means of doing so, and we avail ourselves of it with thankfulness. That Mr. Poe has talents, we do not deny. The ingenious author of the “Fable for the Critics,” puts him down as “three-fifths genius.” Judging of him by the book before us, we should be inclined to reckon him as three-fifths genius and six-fifths [[two-fifths]] “sheer fudge.” We cherish no ill will towards Mr. Poe, and to prove it, we promise, the very next time he publishes a book, to take no notice of it whatever. He evidently considers himself one of the favored class who according to Coleridge, are blessed with an extra faculty, — the Metaphysical faculty. Whatever may be our opinion as to his Metaphysics, we shall not hesitate long about his Mathematics or his Logic. But the great fault with this as well as with most of his works, is that inordinate vanity and egotism which leads him to be constantly thrusting himself upon the reader, and which so contrary to the intention, has the effect of reminding us constantly that “I one Snug, a joiner am,” and no lion at all.





[S:0 - IND, 1849] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Review of Eureka (John Milton Emerson, 1849)