Text: John H. Hopkins, [Report on Poe’s Lecture on “The Universe”], Evening Express (New York), February 4, 1848, page 1, cols. 3-4


[page 1, column 3:]

Reported for the Express.

MR. POE’S LECTURE on the Universe, at the Society Library Room, on Thursday evening, we regard as beyond all question the most elaborate and profound effort we ever listened to in the shape of a lecture; one evincing a more extensive investigation, a more original train of thought, a greater complexity of detail, all subjected to the one great unity of fundamental thought, than we ever had thought it possible to compress into one evening’s discourse. The work has all the completeness and oneness of plot required in a poem, with all the detail and accuracy required in a scientific lecture. The fundamental conception is one which was generated in the highest regions of the pure imagination, and radiating themes seemed to illumine with its light all the facts that experiment and observation could throw in its ray. Starting from the Deity, as a comet from the Sun, it went careering onward in its march through infinite space, approaching more and more closely the comprehension of man, until bending its course gradually homeward at lenght [[length]], it drew nearer and nearer, grew brighter and brighter until it buried itself in the blaze of glory from whence it had its birth. It would be impossible to give any respectable report of this extraordinary work of Art without devoting several columns to it, and even then justice could not be done. For the immense ground covered by the Lecturer rendered compression and close condensation one fo the leading characteristics of his performance, so that in reality it should be published as delivered in order to present it fairly to the mind of the reader. We can therefore give only a meagre outline, but one sufficient to show to an intellect capable of comprehending such subjects what must have been made of so sublime a theme by the searching analysis, the metaphysical acumen, the synthetic power and the passion for analogical and serial devlopement of ideas according to preconceived law, all which qualities are exemplified by Mr. Poe to a degree unsurpassed in this country, at least, so far as we are acquainted.

He began by remaking that all the cosmical systems hitherto propounded are remarkable for the lack of any one principle of unity which carries the germ of its own perfection or completion within itself. That of Humbolt’s Cosmos was the best, but it was devoted to the relations borne by particular laws of Nature to the whole, and the impression produced was necessarily that of generality, not of individuality or unity. After some general prefatory remarks, he then read what purported to be an extract from a letter taken from a bottle found floating on the waters of the Mare tenebrarum, a sea formerly well known to the Nubian philosophers, and lately visited by our Transcendentalists. This letter, singularly enough, bore the date of A. D. 2848, and was one of the most highly characteristic and original parts of the whole lecture. It was filled with recondite satire, and rich with allusions of deep meaning, and yet a quaint grotesqueness peeped with its knowing winks and smiles through every crack and cranny, and lit up the metaphysicial and logical basis on which rested the structure of every sentence. Its aim was to ridicule the idea that the Aristotelian and Baconian methods are the only two roads by which the mind can arrive at truth, and to exalt intuition as higher and nobler than either; laying down the definition that truth is perfect consistency, and perfect consistency is truth. This singular extract, he said very truly needed no comment.

There were two modes in which his great subject might be treated: the ascending and the descending. He might commence with the satellites, and so mount up through the planets and suns; or start at some high and lofty point, and gradually come down to details. He would combine both, commencing with the descent and ending with the ascent. He then entered into a masterly analysis of the meaning of the word infinity, and an exposure of the fallacies usually maintained concerning it, which he asserted and proved to be but the jargon of those who put forth darkness as dept, and thus obtain a species of cuttle-fish reputation for profundity. Pascal’s definition of the Universe was, on the whole, the best. “It was,” he said, “a sphere of which the centre is everywhere, the circumference nowhere.”

He would commence his theory of the Universe with the Godhead. Of Deity, he said, we knew nothing: — in order to know anything of his essence of his nature, we must be God ourselves. Creation, he said, was the result of the immediate violation [[volition]] of Deity irradiating the original particles of matter, equally through all space, during a limited time. — The interspaces between these particles, was filled by a mysterious something, for which there was no name, but which, for want of a better, he called electricity, and which was the medium of all vitality, consciousness, thought and spirituality. So long as these particles and this electricity remained homogenous and in equilibrio, the electricity remained dormant; it could not be developed but by heterogeneousness, as all experiment proves. But the original action of the Deity, necessarily comprehended within itself the principle of reaction: and every beginning necessarily presupposes an end. The action and the beginning, being by irradiation and diffusion into many, the reaction and the end must be by attraction and condensation, into one; and this is what the universe has been gradually exemplifying ever since the original action of the Deity ceased. These particles, being equal to each other in every respect but distance, their action on each other must be proportional to their distances; thus those nearest each other, come together, by the fundamental laws of gravitation, which are the one principle on which all these operations proceed. They then attracted others, nuclei were formed, these again attracted each other by the further operation of the same laws, and by the increasing rapidity of their motion [column 4:] to join each other, became incandescent and developed electricity. This motion originated the revolution of the glowing orbs on their own axes. When these glowing orbs had reached a sufficient size, and rapidity of rotation, the tendency of the centrifugal force would lead to the throwing off of a ring of matter along the equatorial line of the revolving orb which, as there would naturally be inequalities in its substance, would soon be broken into fragments, which would be projected by the force of the rapidity with which the ring was revolving, to distances corresponding precisely with the size of the respective fragments. Thus were the planets formed from the sun. with these planets again, the same process would be repeated, and we had in our own system two planets, whose rings were yet unbroken, proving the truth of the hypothesis. The rings of the planets, on breaking, formed the moons or satellites, by which they are, most of them, accompanied. And the still further developement of this principle might be made to account for the asteroids and aerolites. — The singular and exact coincidence of the centripetal and tangential forces of the planets and moons, was thus demonstrated to be solely owing to the fundamental laws of gravity, and not to the immediate operation of the finger of God, as usually supposed. It was the peculiar characteristic of the laws of nature, that they cannot but provide for every possible contingency, as soon as it arrives; — in fact, these laws may be all condensed into one law, — they are all consequences of the one volition of Deity, and may all be traced back to the reaction from that first sublime action.

Having thus drawn out his theory on the descending scale, the eloquent lecturer then went into a clear and conclusive discussion on the nebular theory, showing that Laplace had here stumbled on the truth without understanding it himself, and that the experiments with Lord Rosse’s telescope only confirm instead of destroying it, an has been supposed. He then went on to illustrate the vast immensity of systems in the universe, representing as composed of suns, planets and satellites, at the stage to which he had brought our system as above described. He described the galaxy, and the situation of our system in it, explaining the apparent inequalities in the distribution of the stars, as owing to the perspective resulting from our point of view. He then went into a more minute description of our system and the distances of the several planets from the sun. he explained the nature of their orbits and the mode of calculating the rapidity of their motions. These sublime laws, which governed the whole universe, were not the result of deduction or induction, but of intuition, or in other words they were guessed at by Kepler, and afterwards demonstrated by Newton.

The lecturer now began, slowly and gradually, but with consummate art and power, to rise on the ascending scale. From the distance between one mile stone and another he proceeded to the view from the summit of a mountain top, to the size of the moon, to that of the earth, to the distance of the moon, to the orb of the sun, which if placed centre to centre over the earth, would have its circumference 200,000 miles beyond the moon; thence he rose to the distance of the various planets, then he leaped to the size of the fixed stars, thence to their distance, thence to clusters of systems, thence to clusters of clusters so distant that a whole galaxy is condensed into an apparently small and dusky nebula; and having brought the mind thus far he began to consider whether these clusters of clusters have any motion as a whole. He discussed the various theories and showed that must go on obeying their original laws of attraction and condensation. Every appearance of the universe betokened gradual collapse into clusters, while these clusters again had a tendency towards each other. He then passed under review the effects of the comets and the theory of an Etter to account for their gradual retardation, so also the doctrine of orbitual variations as established by Leplace. But this, he said, would be a revolting, and an incongruous cause to bring about the consummation of all things. The end must necessarily be a part of the original conception. It were impiety to suppose it otherwise than as the reaction of the original action. This gradual collapse was the actual condition of the universe, which was now in the second circle of clusters. These clusters were already ranging themselves in order preparatory to becoming cluster-atoms, which again in mighty masses, rushing each into their own nucleus, would form orbs of huge and inconceivable bulk. These might again throw off rings and form planets on the same principles as at first, but they would be inconceivably larger and proportionally fewer, and would take less time in coming together again in the constantly progressing process of condensation and consolidation into one body. This would be the great climax of quantity, Man’s consciousness of himself, dependent on heterogeneity, would gradually decrease as the immense mass of creation became more and more homogeneous, while his consciousness of God would increase, until at last he would lose himself in Deity at the time of the great in-gathering of the stars. This great globe of globes, being then without an object, could not exist, would be matter no longer, it would disappear, and God be ALL IN ALL. The point in space where this end should be accomplished might be different from that in which creation took place, but the law of periodicity and analogy, that law by which the human mind was irresistibly impelled to act, could not but lead us to believe that immediately on the dissolution of all matter, a new volition of the Deity would again take place; — there would be a new action and reaction, and so on and on at every return throughout revolving ages, throughout eternity, throughout infinity, a new universe would arise into being at every throb of the heart of God.

The conclusion of this brilliant effort was greeted with warm applause by the audience, who had listened with enchained attention throughout. We regret that the audience was not more numerous, for seldom is there an opportunity to hear a production like this; a production which proves not only that its author is a man of uncommon powers, but that those powers are growing stronger and deeper as they are further developed, and that the goodly tree bids fair to bring forth still nobler fruit than has ever yet been shaken from its flowery and fragrant boughs.



A photocopy of the original article was kindly provided by Ian Walker.


[S:0 - NYEE, Feb. 4, 1848] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Report on Poe's Lecture on the Universe (J. H. Hopkins, 1848)