Text: Carroll Dee Laverty, “Appendix,” Science and Pseudo-Science in the Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (1951), pp. 355-361 (This material may be protected by copyright)


[page 355:]


The plan of this study has been to treat separately the various sciences that Poe used as a literary artist. Such a plan has made it possible to show the place of each science among the various elements that he employed as the materials for literature. In such a view of his works, however, one may lose sight of the variegated pattern of any one story or poem, since the various sciences involved in it are treated in various chapters. For that reason it seems advisable to deal briefly with two stories and a poem, showing how facts and ideas from different sciences are blended with other materials.

“The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade” will illustrate two fundamental uses of science in Poets tales. The voice of criticism for the last one hundred years has pronounced “The Fall of the House of Usher” one of his finest stories. It may stand as a representative of his artistic tales. And some of the artistry of it is dependent on the thought and materials of science. Traditionally, short stories have been considered as organic entities involving such elements as setting, mood, theme, plot and character. In “The Fall of the House of [page 356:] it the setting, the theme, the plot, and the character are an important degree dependent upon science for their fullness of beauty. The mood is referable largely to Poe’s own temperament and genius. Four of the five factors involve science.

The gloom of the background is emphasized by scientific data. The au- thorns literary genius created the mood in such phrases as “the vacant eyelike windows.” But it was the artist with a knowledge of science who opened the story with a description of “a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre.” The lustre is due to a phosphorescent glow, for the clouds hanging oppressively low in the sky shut out any lingering sunlight. The entire character of the Usher family, it is suggested, may be due partly to the pestilent and mystic vapour, dull, sluggish faintly discernible, and leaden-hued.” Only where decay of animal and vegetable matter takes place could there be the phosphorescence and. the miasmatic vapor. This feature of the setting is in accord with the scientific knowledge of Poe’s day. Minute fungi overspreading the stones of the House of Usher suggest its great age and condition of decay. The very arrangement of the stones suggests to the narrator, whose mind is excited by the preternatural surroundings, that those sane stones may be endowed with sentience — an idea which might never have entered his head if he had not known that some earlier scientists and philosophers believed that all matter, even stones, had feeling. The closing scene of the story is likewise enacted against a symbolic background the storm. A rising tempest grows in fury as the stormy human actions of the last night come to a climax, and the final destruction of the physical House of Usher is effected by “the fierce breath of the whirlwind” as the last human member of the House of Usher is destroyed by the fiery [page 357:] breath of fear-created madness. Even the last symbolic touch, “the radiance. of the full, setting, and blood-red moon” bursting through the fissure of the falling house, is scientifically sound. In the autumn, toward morning the full moon would be setting, and only at rising or setting, as here, does the moon sometimes appear red.

The theme of the story is disintegration. The House of Usher so completely disintegrates that it disappears, “and the deep and dank tarn . . . closed sullenly and silently over the fragments. . . .” Just as complete is the disintegration of Roderick Usher. To Poe a perfect disintegration was just as much a work of art as a perfect synthesis. As the universe would one day return to nothingness, according to his theory set forth in Eureka, the House of Usher returned into nothingness — into its originality with all other matter. The rhythm of the universe, integration and then disintegration, is displayed in “The Fall of the House of Usher which deals with that part of the cycle which is disintegration. Such a conception is a part of Poets scientific thinking. The theme of disintegration, which is closely allied to analysis, may have come to him from his scientific speculation. In his essay “Edgar Allan Poe,” D. H. Lawrence shows a fine appreciation of this fact: “But Poe is rather a scientist than an artist. He is reducing his own self as a scientist reduces a salt in a crucible. It is almost chemical analysis of the soul and consciousness. Whereas in true art there is always the double rhythm of creating and destroying.”(1)

The entire plot of “The Fall of the House of Usher” is planned to create [page 358:] the climactic scene in which the human and to non-human House of Usher disintegrate. Every detail leads to the climax and is necessary to the ultimate effect. It was the author’s theory that the best plot will have complete interdependence of all parts as all units influence and are affected by all others in the physical universe, which, be said, is a plot of God. His rigorous conception of plot as a creation of essential, interdependent components is one of the factors contributing to the ultimate artistry of “The of the House of Usher.”

In his exposition of character Poe draws on the science and pseudo-science of the time — 1839. Roderick Usher’s illness is described as partly hereditary, and his own madness and his sister Madeline Illness could both have been caused in part by the miasmic vapors arising from the tarn, according to medical thinking of that time. Usher’s hypersensitivity and his unusual interest in painting and music are due to excessive ideality, according yn phrenological lore. It is unmistakably indicated by the description of “an inordinate expansion above the regions of the temple. . . .” The whole story, furthermore, is a psychological study using the theme of melancholy and the power of fear that drive a man insane. These concepts are in accord with the psychology of Poe’s time. Even the over-eager physician lurking in the background, hoping for Madeline Usher’s corpse, is made plausible by the fact that in 1839 the snatching of bodies for medical research was fairly common.

A person could read “The Fall of the House of Usher” without knowing anything of the science of that time and still be impressed with the power of the story, but he would miss a wealth of detail and suggestion understood by the informed readers those who knew contemporary science and pseudo-science. [page 359:]

“The Thousand-and Second Tale of Scheherazade” is a tale which has only superficial plot and characterization. Instead it uses a narrative framework the display of approximately half a hundred scientific curiosities. From chemistry and physics, from botany and zoology, from geology and geography, from aeronautics and astronomy, it takes its marvels and dresses them up in colorful garbs of slight exaggeration for parade before a curious public, Almost all the newest mechanical wonders of the year 1845 are there. The steamship is a “vast monster” which leaves “a long line of fire that extended far off Into the distance. This is a description of the phosphorescent streak that a ship sometimes leaves behind it — a phenomenon that interested scientists of the early 1800s. Then before the reader march such wonders as a petrified forest, the Mammoth Cave of Kentucky, parasitic plants, plants that grow underground or live on air alone, geometer-bees and a cloud of pigeons, a balloon and an adding machine. The list is typical of mess more curiosities of science displayed in the tale. The story is not an artistic production in the sense that “The Fall of the House of Usher” is. Rather it is a journalistic story of scientific curiosities.

Although Poe seldom used scientific material in his verse, feeling in certain moods that a “poem . . . is opposed to a work of science, nevertheless the influence of science is discernible in a few of his poems. “Ulalume”(2) may well represent them. In it there is no great mass of scientific data, [page 360:] but there is an occasional bit from science that has been integrated with other elements into the work of art. The time of the action is set astronomically; the narrator’s experience took place “As the star-dials hinted of morn.” And at such a time on an October morning, Astarte — the planet Venus — “arose with a duplicate horn.” The duplicate horns of Venus are not visible to the naked eye, and the fact that they exist is known generally only by astronomers. The planet, from the world of science, is used in this poem as a symbol of a new lover, of recreated hope, of physical passion, according to one’s interpretation. Astarte is contrasted with Dian — the moon. Astarte’s determination is indicated astronomically: she “has coma past the stars of the Lion.” She has passed through danger, symbolized by the constellation Leo. Much of the fifth stanza of this love poem or lament is an elaborate personification from astronomy. And the poem closes on an astronomical figure of speech:

“This sinfully scintillant planet

From the Hell of the planetary souls?”

The entire poem, furthermore, is a study in dynamic psychology, a poetic counterpart In theme of “William Wilson. Into the literary form of the dialogue, Poe has worked a poetic portrayal of a man torn between two parts of his personality. “Ulalume” contains one adjective — scoriac(3) — which is associated chiefly with geology. It is used a seven-line passage which [page 361:] tries to suggest extreme sadness metaphorically by describing rivers of lava restlessly rolling “Their sulphurous currents down Yaanek.” In picturing the torture of the heart, the poet turns to science for his comparison.



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 357:]

1.  Studies in Classic American Literature (New York, 1923), p. 94.

[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 359:]

2.  The name “Ulalume,” as critics have pointed out, resembles in its initial syllables the Latin verb ululare. No one has pointed out an equally significant resemblance between its last syllable “lumen and the Latin lumen. In the poem Astarte is called “this tremulous light!” and “this nebulous lustre.” Is not “Ulalume” then a poem of lament inspired by this “crystalline light?”

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 360:]

3.  This adjective, coined by Poe, is from the fairly common noun scoria. The hard c sound is more effective to suggest strong suffering than the ous ending of the adjective scorious, sometimes used in Poe’s time.

4.  J. O. Bailey sees in “Ulalume” the influence of Poels concern with Symzonia and the conception of a hollow earth therein presented. — “The Geography of Poe’s ‘Dreamland’ and ‘Ulalume,’” Studies in Philology, XLV (July, 1948), 512-523.



[S:0 - CDL51, 1951] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - Science and Pseudo-Science in the Writings of EAP (C. D. Laverty) (Appendix)