Text: Carroll Dee Laverty, “Chapter 04,” Science and Pseudo-Science in the Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (1951), pp. 99-121 (This material may be protected by copyright)


[page 99:]

Chapter IV


Two pseudo-sciences are important in Poe’s works. Phrenology is one of them. It is used extensively both in his short stories and in his literary criticism. The fact that phrenology was of interest to the reading public was one thing that attracted Poe to it, but also probably the mystery of a study which claimed to delve into secrets of the human mind was congenial to him. Whatever the reason, from the year 1835 until near his death, this pseudo-science found a place in his writings.

Variously known as craniology and bumpology, phrenology was an outgrowth of Dr. Gall’s researches into the anatomy of the brain and observations of human character. Gall held that the mind is made up of marry different individual faculties each located in a certain part of the brain. Phrenologists extended his beliefs to include the tenet that the growing brain shapes the external skull and that consequently an excessively large part of the brain in which a special faculty is localized will be apparent externally. Thus, believed phrenologists the general conformation of the skull is a good indication of the general character of the individual. The theory that each faculty of the brain was indicated by a bump on the skull was denied from the [page 100:] first by phrenologists but nevertheless gained popular acceptance. Hence the name bumpology. Phrenologists by the time of Poe’s active literary career had set up thirty-odd areas of the skull to indicate as many mental, moral, and emotional propensities In man. Such qualities as skill in language, ideality, veneration, and emotiveness are typical of those the phrenologists identified with a specific area of the skull.

Phrenology was in the intellectual atmosphere of this country from the time of Poets first publication to his last, and an omnivorous periodical eider like him could not but become conscious of it in the early 1830s at the latest.

In fact, Poe probably applied phrenological character interpretation to himself.(1) Philadelphia Saturday Museum sketch of his life, for which he almost certainly supplied the material,(2) is a phrenological estimate of himself: “. . . his forehead is extremely broad, displaying prominently the organs of Ideality, Causality, Form, Constructiveness, and Comparison, with [page 101:] small Eventuality and Individuality.”(3) It must be remembered that such words as those in the preceding list are used in a spacial sense — a sense sometimes quite different from the non-technical meaning.

Ideality, almost all the phrenologists asserted, is

an essential requisite in the poet, orator, and artist. Without it, the productions of the mind may be solid, useful and becoming; but they must ever be deficient in grandeur of conception, and splendor of executions, and they will want the glow of fancy which enlivens and adorns every object presented to its touch.(4)

Furthermore, according to this estimate, Poe had causality — a quality essential to a writer of tales of ratiocination, to an analytic critic, and to a man contemplating the very origins — the first causes of the universe. This organ gives man a perception of causes and a knowledge of what we call “came and effect.” But it does considerably more: Causality goes beyond the senses. It creates a feeling, impression or irresistible conviction of truth. leads one to depend on inference and circumstantial evidence. “He in whom Causality is large will often feel that kind of proof to be irresistible.”(5) In other words, Causality is that power — greater than induction and deduction — that Poe several times appeals to as the third and best, as well as quickest way to Truth!(6) Causality is the organ of “metaphysical genius. . . This and the preceding [Comparison] are essential requisites in a philosophical understanding.”(7) In harmony with this phrenological evaluation, [page 102:] Pos thought himself something of a metaphysician.

He also considered himself small in eventuality and Individuality, the to organs the phrenologists contrasted with Causality.

Individuality and Eventuality take cognizance of things obvious to the senses. causality looks a little farther than these, perceives the dependency of phenomena, and furnishes the idea of causation, as implying efficiency, or something more than mere juxtaposition of sequence. It impresses us with an irresistible conviction, that every phenomenon or change in nature is caused by something, and hence, by successive steps, leads us to the great cause of all.(8)

Twice he belittled the quality of mind that the phrenologist called Individuality.

The man who looks at an argument in details alone, will not fail to be misled by the one; while he who keeps steadily in view the generality of a thesis will always at least approximate the truth . . . .(9)

The man of great Individuality is the former; the man of little Individuality and great Causality, as Poe considered himself, is the latter. No wonder, then, that he judged that he himself had small Eventuality and Individuality, and Causality prominent.

The next organ he found in himself was Form. “The function of this faculty is to judge of form.”(11) And obviously a poet, short-story writer, and critic must have a sense of form. According to Sparzheim and Combe,

It is this power which disposes us to Jive a figure to every being and conception [page 103:] of our minds; that of an old man to God; to Death, that of a skeleton, and so on.(12)

“Combined with constructiveness,” the next organ Poe assigned to himself, “it invents patterns. . . . It leads poets to describe portraits and configurations. . . .”(13) And finally

Persons in whom this organ is large declare that they enjoy a perceptible pleasure from the contemplation of mere form, altogether unconnected with ideas of utility and fitness, or of moral or intellectual associations.”(14)

All of those qualities can be found in one or another of Poe’s works — the regard for form; the disposition to give a figure to an abstraction, as in “The Masque of the Red Death” the description of portraits, as in “The Oval Portrait” and “Metzengerstein”; and the subordination of intellectual and moral considerations in the idea of beauty.

Next in Poe was Constructiveness, the faculty that most phrenologists thought makes a person want to create something, including works of art.(15) Although the organ pertains chiefly to mechanics who work with machines and material mediums, “Constructiveness is an element in the art of painting.”(16) Constructiveness, according to the phrenologists, is a propensity, a drive to create. It is the power that motivates artistic creation.

And lastly, Poe marked Comparison large on his own phrenological map. It gives a man the power of analogy, shows him resemblances between relations, and makes his language highly figurative. “From giving power of illustration [page 104:] and command of figures, this faculty is of great importance to the poet. . . .” NWA to Comparison, again, a large Ideality,” which Poe had, “and its similes will now twinkle in delicate loveliness like a star, now blaze in meridian splendor like the sun. . . .”(17) Here is Poe at once the impassioned poet and the cool analytical critic and writer of tales of ratiocination! Poe, the philosopher and metaphysician, must have Causality plus Comparison. This combination, according to Combe, will “give scope, depth, and force of intellectual conception, the power of combining means to an end, and the natural tendency to keep means in their appropriate place, as subordinate to the main design.”(18)

Such, then is the phrenological portrait of Poe, authorized and probably created by himself.(19) One can find in it some revealing information about [page 105:] his estimate of himself as a writer. He thought he possessed the qualities necessary to write the kind of literary masterpiece he wanted to create and lacked the qualities which he scorned as beneath his genius.

His first unmistakable reference to phrenology in his published works is March, 1836, in a review of Mary L. Miles’s Phrenology, and the Moral Influence of Phrenology: Arranged for General Study, and the Purposes of Education.(20) From that time on, his works abound in phrenological allusions. In May of 1836 he objects, in a review of Robert Walsh’s Didactics, to that author’s attempt to ridicule phrenology. Poe asserts:

The only paper in the Didactics, to which we have any decided objection, is a tolerably long article on the subject of Phrenology,. . .we are sorry to see the energies of a scholar and an editor (who should be, if he be not, a man of metaphysical science) so wickedly employed as in any attempt to throw ridicule upon a question, (however much maligned, or however apparently ridiculous) whose merits he has never examined, and of whose very nature, history, and assumptions he is most evidently ignorant.(21)

That remark is spoken like a true phrenologist defending his faith, as many a one did both before and after Poe made the statement. Such mentions phrenology are typical of many which appeared in his works throughout the rest of his writing career. They reach a climax, perhaps his “Literati” articles, which might have been described as critical and phrenological essays on contemporary American writers.

Since Poe lived at a time when phrenology was a popular enthusiasm which getting a good deal of publicity, it is no wonder that e made use of it in his short stories and literary criticism. Phrenologists emphasized the practicality of their science in helping a person to judge character — his or some one else’s. And for an author it is only a short step from [page 106:] judging someone’s personality on the basis of phrenology to using the principles of the pseudo-science to tell his readers something of the nature of dramatis personae in his writings. Accordingly Poe used it to depict character in his stories.

Dr. Charles Caldwell, whose book on phrenology appeared in 1827 and who was a minor literary man himself, gives the creative writer and critic specific suggestions as to the use of phrenology in their work.(22) The literature of phrenology contains literary criticism that might inspire a writer or other artist to use such criticism. The Scots Magazine for May, 1824, contains a “Phrenological Criticism on Ballads of the Olden-Time”(23) and mentions recent criticisms attempting to prove that Shakespeare was a phrenologist.(24) An example of phrenological literary-criticism is George Combe’s “Phrenological Analysis of some of the Maxims of La Rochefoucault.”(25) The [page 107:] phrenological reviewer, so asserts Dr. Combe, can judge the aphorisms “from a more liberal field of observations. . .and reduce them to their proper value.(26) Other similar passages suggest the very practice that Poe used in rtain of his literary works.

Beginning as early as March, 1836, he employed phrenology in his literary criticism. He adopted some of the terms of the pseudo-science, used some of its ideas, and acted or pretended to act according to certain of its principles.(27)

His first clear-cut reference to it is in the review of Mrs. Miles’s• book already mentioned, which appeared in March of 1836. In it he writes: “Phrenology is no longer to be laughed at. . . . It has assumed the majesty of a science. And he seems to show a further knowledge of the subject by adding t pages later, “it would require no great degree of acumen to show that to mere perspicuity points of vital importance to the science have been sacrificed.”(28) In the next issue of the Southern Literary Messenger there is an editorial note by Poe, disagreeing with an essay on “Genius, and [page 108:] commenting: “Our correspondent is evidently no phrenologist.”(30)

As if fired with enthusiasm for the doctrine he has embraced, he makes it the basis of a long criticism in the same (April, 1836) number of the Southern Literary Messenger — his review of The Culprit Fay, and Other Poems by Joseph Rodman Drake and Alnwick Castle by FitzGreene Halleck. The review, which contains Poe’s discussion of the faculty of Veneration in man, also comments on Ideality, the poetic sentiment, in terms echoing Combs on the subject. For example, Combe says: “Hence those only on whom it is largely bestowed can possibly be poets and hence the proverb, ‘Poeta nascitur, non fit.’”(31) Poe says: “Hence the Poeta nascitur, which is indisputably true, if we consider the Poetic Sentiment. . . .”(32) He then suggests that Causality, metaphysical acumen, would enable a man to excite the poetic feeling in mankind more surely than would Ideality. He distinguishes between poetic sentiment and the means of exciting it.(33) He cites Coleridge as a poet who created poetic effect by means of his metaphysical powers, saying he “gave no great phrenological tokens of Ideality, while the organs of Causality and [page 109:] comparison were most singularly developed.”(34)

In the same review Poe later distinguishes between Ideality and Comparison, likening Ideality to imagination and Comparison to fancy. He finds “The Culprit Fay” not great poetry because it abounds in “Comparison — which is the chief constituent of Fancy or the powers of combination,” but does not exercise “the Poetic Sentiment, which is Ideality, Imagination, or the creative ability.”(35) To show what he means by Ideality, he quotes a passage from Shelley’s “Queen Mab” and names eleven poems which are examples of “entire poems of purest ideality.”(36) Throughout the rest of the review he cites Lines and passages which he judges to show ideality. The whole review is based on the phrenological faculties of Ideality, Causality, and Comparison and on the Wordsworth-Coleridge theory of fancy and imagination.

Speaking of the growth of phrenology, a writer of the 1880s asserted: “Literature has almost imperceptibly imbibed its spirit and adopted its nomenclature of the faculties.”(37) This process of imbibing began with Poe not War than 1836 and lasted for more than ten years. Throughout that time, he mentions Ideality the Poetic Sentiment. The phrenological description of this mental faculty seemed to please him, and he mentions it more often than any other.(38) In his review of R. H. Horne’s Orion, he describes ideality as

. . . the sentiment of the beautiful — that divine sixth sense which is yet so [page 110:] faintly understood — that sense which phrenology has attempted to embody in its organ of

ideality — that sense which is the basis of all Cousin’s dreams — that sense which speaks of God through his purest, if not his sole attribute which proves, and which alone proves his existence.(39)

Only in the last two years of his life did he begin to drop Ideality his critical vocabulary and substitute imagination, a fact possibly indicating that he thought less of phrenology in his later than in his earlier years.(40)

He picked up other ideas from phrenology ideas, for example, on memory, taste, and genius. In 1836 he writes that memory is not a primitive or independent faculty, a fact which might readily be ascertained even without the direct assistance of Phrenology.”(41) That statement contains a phrenological idea stated in phrenological terminology, although it is also related to the psychology of the time.

Six years later Poe acknowledges another indebtedness to phrenology by declaring in his important review of Longfellow’s “Ballads and Other Poems” in Graham’s Magazine for March and April, 1842:

Not the least important service which, hereafter, mankind will owe to Phrenology, may, perhaps, be recognized in an analysis of the real principles, and a digest of the resulting laws of taste. These principles, in fact are as clearly traceable, and these laws as really susceptible of system as are any whatever.(42)

Actually, Dr. Caldwell, a prominent phrenologist a prolific publisher of books and articles whom he must have known of, had already written on “Taste [page 111:] and Criticism” in terms congenial to Poe. “Good taste, in intellectual productions. . .,” he wrote in 1824, “is the result of a well-adjusted balance, and harmonious action of all the faculties. It is a prompt and correct perception of aptitude and elegance.”(43) Poe agrees. “In the production of poetry, Dr. Caldwell continues, “that is the most excellent which ministers nest to the gratification of the higher sentiments, and the intellectual faculties, without offending them by incongruity of combination, inaptitude at language, or extravagance of figure.”(44) Poe speaks often of exciting the highest sentiments by Poesy, and asserts that “taste contents herself with displaying the beauty: waging war with vice merely on the ground of its inconsistency with fitness, harmony proportion in a word with [[blank . . . Greek text]].”(45)

He divides the mind into “pure intellect, taste, and the moral sense,” and asserts that taste “is the connecting link in the triple chain.”(46) This idea he could have obtained from phrenology.(47) But perhaps he owes his knowledge of this division of mind to Kant who was the first modern philosopher to emphasize this threefold classification. According to phrenology, [page 112:] the intellect is made up of the knowing and reflecting faculties. And the feeling faculties are those that have to do with morals.

In at least two places Poe discusses a combination of characteristics, the phrenologists habitually did. In his review of Professor Wilson’s Genius and Character of Burns, he discusses Wilson’s ideality in combination with energy and audacity, concluding that Wilson is most indebted to “sheer audacity.(48) And in his brief sketch of George Bush in “The Literati,” Poe speaks like an experienced phrenologist: “The forehead, phrenologically, indicates causality and comparison, with deficient ideality — the organization which induces strict logicality from insufficient premises.”(49)

In the “Literati” sketches generally the men he likes have favorable phrenological characters and ones he dislikes have unfavorable. For example, he notes of Professor Charles Anthon, his friend, “forehead remarkably broad and high. . .”(50) — indicating great intellect and ideality. But in Charles F. Briggs, with whom Poe had quarrelled before he wrote “The Literati,” Poe sees a “narrow and low forehead.”(51) which would indicate a lack of great intelligence. To make clear that he is speaking scientifically, Poe occasionally puts the word phrenologically into his estimates. Per example, of Lewis Gaylord Clark, with whom he was not on the best of terms, he writes: “His forehead is, phrenologically, bad — round and what is termed ‘bullety ‘”(52) [page 113:] Here then he brings phrenology to the aid of literary criticism — partly, one may think, because his readers will be interested in phrenological estimates of a well-known writer.

Occasionally Poets general critical judgment conflicts with his phrenological opinion of an author or his work. Thus he writes of N. P. Willis, neither his nose nor his forehead can be defended; the latter would puzzle phrenology.(53) He writes in a similar vein of Dickens:

Mr. Dickens’ head must puzzle the phrenologists. The organs of ideality are small; and the conclusion of the “Curiosity Shop” is more truly ideal (in both phrenological senses) than any composition of equal length in the English language.(54)

A sympathetic critic could say of Poe what he wrote of Thomas Moore — “perhaps, a slight modification at birth of that which phrenologists have agreed to term temperament, might have made him the truest and noblest votary of the muse of any age or clime.”(55)

Not only in criticism did Poe use phrenology. He also used it in several of his short stories. He gave phrenological faculties to his characters in conformity with their modes of action and in so doing made them more understandable. He also inserted into two of his stories brief essays or corn-meats on a phrenological characteristic in an effort to make a point of character-portrayal more clear. He used phrenology much as a 1951 writer would use psycho-analysis, taking for granted that a pointed allusion to a belief of the “science” would be understood and appreciated by his readers.

“Von Jung, the Mystific,” published in 1837, uses phrenology to help describe [page 114:] the main character. Poe refers to “the organs of ideality over the temples, as well as those of causality, comparison, and eventuality, which betray themselves above the os frontis. . . .”(56) Here he is displaying his technical knowledge of the subject. Professor Edward Hungerford suggests that a reference to an immense head containing a good many brains is prompted by phrenology,(57) as it may well be, but a non-phrenologist might also make the same remark.

In Poe’s mention of a lunatic who supposes himself to have two heads, one of Cicero, the other a composite of Demosthenes’ and Lord Brougham’s heads, professor Hungerford, not improbably sees a reference to phrenology; for as he points out,(58) the phrenology books of the time printed busts of famous men emphasizing the fine forehead of one, the ample crown of another, etc. Phrenology here than would afford Poe4chance to belittle Lord Brougham. “Some Words with a Mummy,” Poe uses phrenology for humorous effect, causing [page 115:] the revivified mummy to state that much of the new sciences like phrenology and mesmerism was known to the ancients under another name.(59)

In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” Poe discusses some of the phrenological characteristics of a successful police official skilled in catching criminals by outwitting them. In addition to Ideality or imagination, a good detective needs analytical power.(60) Poe distinguishes between true analytical power and mere ingenuity, and says “The constructive or combining power, by which ingenuity is usually manifested, and which the phrenologists (I believe erroneously) have assigned a separate organ . . . has been . . . frequently seen in those whose intellect bordered upon idiocy. . . .” But not so the analytical pave “It will be found, in fact, that the ingenious are always fanciful, and the truly imaginative never otherwise than analytic.”(61)

In another story, he explains phrenologically a favorite idea — that some hidden, irrational force drives certain men to commit acts they be unwise and possibly harmful to themselves. “The Imp of the Perverse” opens with a five-page essay on the subject, discussing the phrenologists’ failure to take cognizance of a faculty of perverseness and showing considerable knowledge of the various phrenological propensities.(62) To a reader of 1845 the discussion would have been exciting and timely. The story shows, that Poe used phrenology in an effort to understand mankind. The opening sentence suggests as much:

In the consideration of the faculties and impulses — of the prima mobilia of the human soul, the phrenologists have failed to make room although obviously existing as a radical primitive, at, has been equally overlooked by all moralists who have prima 2obtlia of for a propensity irreducible senti-preceded them.(63) [page 116:]

That is, perverseness.(64)

In the later version of this story, as in the later version of “Von Jung the Mystific,” Poe suppressed an obvious reference to phrenology. One can the only wonder concerning the reason why. It may have been that by 1845 he was beginning to realize that phrenology was not the true science he had earlier thought it. Perhaps more likely is the explanation that he supposed the obvious reference to phrenology less subtle and more inartistic than the veiled allusion.

Phrenology offers a more satisfactory interpretation of four other stories than can be obtained without it. “Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences,” “The Business Man,” “The Colloquy of Monos and Una,” “The Devil in the Belfry” are narratives with an important phrenological bent.

In “Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences” the hero is a man whose constructiveness is emphasized throughout. “Your diddler is ingenious. He has constructiveness large.”(65) The story, then, is composed of instances of his ingenuity or constructiveness.

“The Business Man” is a satire on the exaggerated method of some business men. The hero is dropped in his childhood, and as a result there arises on his head — Poe, to make it technical and farcical, has the narrator say “on my sinciput” — “as pretty an organ of order as one shall see on a [page 117:] summer’s day. The story is a sketch, satirical in import, of a person who does everything in an orderly manner and whose “organ of order revolted” at every lack of system or method.(67)

“The Colloquy of Monos and Una” contains a description of life after death during which Monos finally experiences only a sense of Time, which ultimately is succeeded by a sense of Locality only. The functions of the organs of Locality and Time are described by phrenologists in terms parallel to tome used by Poe. For example, in his story, Monos notices the slightest deviation from accuracy of the time-pieces in the chamber.(68) Combe, in his discussion of the organ of Time, quotes a description of a man in whom the organ was large, who “possessed a kind of internal movement, which indicates minutes and seconds with the utmost exactness.”(69) This internal movement be paralleled with Monos’s keen perfect, self-existing sentiment of duration.”(70) Combe also says that “when the other faculties are quiescent, Time seems to become ascendant,”(71) which is exactly what happens in the story.

Finally, “The Devil in the Belfry” can be considered as a story portraying a whole city of people who are obsessed with the sense of Time. Their whole life runs by clock. They are doing what a phrenologist says one must [page 118:] do to cultivate his sense of Time:”periodize everything; rise, retire, prosecute your business, everything by the clock; appropriate particular times to particular things, and deviate as seldom as possible.”(72) The story portrays what happens to such Time-struck people when the Devil makes the standard clock strike thirteen. In these four stories phrenology has furnished the entire theme or a significant part of it.

The most artistic use of phrenology is found in two of Poe’s best stories — “Ligeia” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Here he uses the pseudo-science to suggest characteristics of his dramatis personae that could not so accurately be portrayed in any other way. Phrenology is only a part of each story, but it adds depth to the portrayal of Ligeia and of Roderick Usher.

The significant features of Ligeia’s personality are great learning, super-human will, deep love and devotion, and inordinate love of life. Ligeia has unusually large eyes; according to phrenology, such eyes indicate facility in language. There is in her a “gentle prominence of the regions above the temples”:(73) the phrenology of Poe’s time indicates this to be the region of ideality, hope and firmness.

That Poe understood the region above the temples to be the region of ideality is corroborated by the fact that Roderick Usher in “The Fall of the House of Usher” has an excessive expansion above the temples and is there characterized by excessive ideality. Combined with a facility for languages, ideality would help make one learned, as Ligeia was. Most phrenologists of this time believed that there was an organ of Vitativeness, or Love of Life — [page 119:] an organ not visible to the human eye. But it is situated at the base of the brain with the other selfish propensities — (74) not with the intellectual faculties.(75) Ligeia has love, another propensity, large, which would be a tail combination with Love of Life; according to the phrenology of Poe dat person who has Vitativeness very large, “however wretched, shrinks tromp and shudders at the thought of dying and being dead; feels that he cannot give up existence.” And with Vitativeness large, a person “loves, and clings tenaciously to, existence, for its own sake; craves immortality and dreads annihilation, even though miserable.”(76) Ligeia had an intensely “wild desire for life,” a “wild longing,” an “eager vehemence of desire for life — but for life.”(77) “Words are impotent to convey any just idea of the fierce-!less of resistance with which she wrestled with the Shadow.(78) Yes, Ligeia had Vitativeness large, and the sophisticated reader of the day who had read the speculations of Combe, Spurzheim, and Fowler on the probability that an organ of the Love of Life existed at the base of the brain(79) would have a clear conception of Ligeia’s love of life which the narrator’s mere words were unable to convey.(80) [page 120:]

In the same story the narrator himself displays the faculty of Comparison to a large degree. How else explain the “circle of Analogies” to the strange expression in Ligeia’s eyes that he found “in the commonest objects of the universe.” But an amply developed organ of Comparison would lead one, nay almost require one, to see such analogies as the narrator saw in “a stream of running water” or “in the falling of a meteor,” and elsewhere.(81) Combs says of the Organ of Comparison:

Comparison thus takes the widest range of nature within its sphere. “It compares,” says Mr. Scott, “things of the most opposite kind, draws analogies, and discovers resemblances between them, often the most unexpected and surprising. It compares a light seen afar off in a dark night to a good deed shining in a naughty world; it compares the kingdom of heaven to a grain of mustard seed. . . . It finds analogies between the qualities of matter of mind.(82)

Phrenology helps create the mood of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Knowing it, one better understands the character of Roderick Usher. If one realizes that “an inordinate expansion above the regions of the temple”(83) indicates, among other things, an excessive amount of ideality, one can better interpret Usher’s actions and mental states. The narrator himself had come to “conclusions deduced from his peculiar physical conformation and temperament”(84) by phrenology. Roderick Usher has “lofty and spiritual ideality,”(85) and, as Professor Hungerford points out, fits well the person of “nervous temperament” described by both physiognomists and phrenologists. [page 121:] His general nervousness, his “hair of a more than web-like softness and tenuity”(86) fit the description.

Much of Roderick Usher’s trouble stems from a diseased ideality — consonant with the inordinate expansion of the temples. “An excited and highly distempered ideality threw a sulphureous lustre over all.”(87) The phrenologists describe the results of an excess of ideality. According to Combe:

Ideality may be abused. When permitted to take the ascendancy over the other polders, . . .to so great an excess as to produce a finical and sickly refinement — it becomes a source of great evils.(88)

Combe asserts that ideality is often found with insanity and may lead to the production of poetry — (89) as it did in Roderick Usher.

Phrenology, then, supplied Poe with ideas and vocabulary for his lit-my criticism, furnishing important suggestions about ideality or the poetic sentiment and about taste and genius. Furthermore, this “science” gave him as an artist an interesting and timely subject to discuss in certain of his tales, the themes for others, and the means of making psychologically abstruse individuals more readily understood by the informed reader. Phrenology, as the new science of his day, aided Poe in his artistry.



[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 100:]

1.  For other phrenological estimates of Poe, see Lewis Chase, “A New Poe Letter,” American Literature, VI (March, 1934), 67; Edward Hungerford, “Poe and Phrenology,” American Literature, II (Nov., 1930), 209-231; Sarah Helen Whitman, Edgar Poe and His Critics (New York, 1860), p. 17; George E. Woodberry, ed., “The Poe-Chivers Papers,” Century Magazine, LXV (Jan., 1903), 442; Samuel R. Wells, New Physiognomy, or, Signs of Character, etc. (New York, 1894), p. 527; and O. S. and L. N. Fowler, New Illustrated Self-Instructor in Phrenology and Physiology, etc. (New York, 1884), pp. 34-36. Among prominent American authors of the time who were “phrenologized” were Whitman, Holmes, and Bryant. See Edward Hungerford, “Walt Whitman and His Chart of Bumps,” American Literature, II (Jan., 1931), 363; Hjalmar O. Lokensgard, “Oliver Wendell Holmes’s ‘Phrenological Character,’” New England Quarterly, XIII (Dec., 1940), 711; and O. S. Fowler, Practical Phrenology, etc. (New York, 1849), pp. 345-348.

2.  “The Poets & Poetry of Philadelphia Number 11. The Portraits Engraved, and the Biographies written, especially for the Philada. Saturday Museum. Edgar Allan Poe,” Philadelphia Saturday Museum, I (Mar. 4, 1843), 1. In his “Edgar Allan Poe,” R. W. Griswold asserted that Poe “prepared with his oun hands a sketch of his life for a paper called “The Museum.” — The International Monthly Magazine, I (Oct., 1850), 341. This life is generally attributed to Henry B. Hirst, Poe’s friend, but Poe probably furnished the material for it.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 101:]

3.  March 1, 1843, p. 1.

4.  Transactions of the Phrenological Society (Edinburgh and London, 1824), p. 75.

5.  George Combe, A System of Phrenology (New York, 1855), p. 343. This edition is merely a reprint of the edition of 1836.

6.  For example, “Eureka,” Works, XVI, 189, 195, 196, 197.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 101, running to the bottom of page 102:]

7.  Review of “On Phrenology, or the study of the Intellectual and Moral [page 102:] nature of Man. By John Bell, M. D. Read before ‘The Central Phrenological Society, established at Philadelphia,’ at its meetings on the 4th and 18th of March, 1822.” — The Philadelphia Journal of the Medical and Physical Sciences, IV (1822), chart between pages 72 and 73.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 102:]

8.  Combe, A System of Phrenology, p. 348.

9.  Works, X, 158.

10.  Ibid., XI, 100.

11.  Transactions (1824) p. 78,

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 103:]

12.  Combe, A System of Phrenology, p. 281, and J. G. Spurzheim, Phrenology, or The Doctrine of Mental Phenomena, second American edition (Boston, 1833), 311.

13.  Spurzheim, II., 311-312.

14.  Combe, Phrenology, p. 283.

15.  Combe, The Constitution of Man, fifth American edition (Boston,1835), 52.

16.  Combe, Lectures on Phrenology, third edition (New York, 1854), p. 171.

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17.  Combe, Phrenology, p. 337. Combs’s discussion of the difference between Ideality and Comparison is much like Poe’s discussion of the difference between Imagination and Fancy — both likely going back to Coleridge. Combe writes: “By common observers, indeed, the metaphors, amplifications, allegories and analogies, which Comparison supplies, are frequently mistaken for the products of Ideality, although they are very different. Ideality, being a sentiment, when greatly excited, infuses passion and enthusiasm into the mind, and prompts it to soar after the magnificent, the beautiful, and the sublime, as objects congenial to its constitution. Comparison, on the other hand, being an intellectual power, produces no vivid passion, no intense feeling or enthusiasm; it coolly and calmly plays off powers with which it is combined.” — Ibid., p. 337. Compare with Poe’s Works, XII, 37-39.

18.  Combe, Phrenology, p. 409. Much of the information about the principles and facts of phrenology that appears in this chapter is taken from one or another of George Combe’s writings on the subject. Poe also read other Phrenologists. It is certain that he read Combe, In Graham’s Magazine for June of 1841, in his review of Macaulay’s “Critical and Miscellaneous Essays,” compares Combe with Macaulay, to the advantage of Combes “than whom,” he says “a more candid reasoner never, perhaps, wrote or spoke.” He “reasons to discover the true.” Four years later he again mentions Combe favorably lathe Broadway Journal, of June 21, 1845: “For our own parts, we vastly prefer even the noises of Bacon, the laws of Combe, or the nebula star-dust of Nichols to what Dr. Lewis will insist upon terming ‘the clear, simple, common-Moo philosophy of Plato. . . .” — Works, XII, 165.

19.  Walt Whitman similarly was happily conscious of his own phrenological chart. See Hungerford, op. cit.

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20.  Works, VII, 252-255.

21.  Ibid., VIII, 329. See also ibid., XIV, 61.

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22.  He advises: “Is it a dramatic Poem?. In delineating character, there must be maintained the most scrupulous conformity of manifestation and deportment to development. Is one of the Dramatis Personae marked by great strength, brilliancy, and profundity of intellect? His forehead must be broad, elevated, and full. Is another distinguished by great magnanimity, and lofty sentiments of morality and virtue? In the upper and central regions of the head, his developments must be large. Is he particularly prone to piety and justice? Veneration and Conscientiousness must be particularly full. Is a third remarkable for profligacy and vice? — is he irascible, vindictive, intriguing, deceitful, mercenary, selfish, and licentious in his anours? His development of the organs of propensity must predominate. In particular, he must be large in Amativeness, Combativeness, Destructiveness, Covetiveness, Secretiveness, Cautiousness, and Self. Esteem. Some of the counterbalancing organs must be small. Is any one remarkable for splendid eloquence? Ideality, Individuality, Comparison, and Language must be fully developed. Is another distinguished by great strength, elevation and perseverance of character? His whole head must be large, and Firmness, particularly in ample development.” — Charles Caldwell, Elements of Phrenology, second edition, greatly enlarged (Lexington, Ky., 1827), p. 166.

23.  XIV, 543-551.

24.  Ibid., p. 544.

25.  Transactions, pp. 382-392.

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26.  Ibid., p. 383. The New England Magazine for January, 1833, reports in its article on “The Late Dr. Spurzheim”: “Some of the best painters and sculptors of the age have shown in their works that they have profited by his doctrines.” — IV, 40.

27.  As early as September, 1835, Poe used the word Ideality in his criticism, but in a context where one cannot be certain that he meant phrenological ideality, although it seems likely that he did. For one thing, he capitalizes the word as the phrenologists did. More significant, however, is the fact that in the discussion he identifies Ideality with “very marked elevation,” “dignity and grandeur,” and “ideal lofty elevation.” These are the very words the phrenologists used to define Ideality. The question, however, must remain open until further evidence is available. See review of “The Classical Family Library, Numbers XV, XVI, and XVII, Euripides translated by the Reverend R. Potter. . . .” Works, VIII, 44, 46 and 47.

28.  Ibid., VIII, 254.

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29.  The essay had suggested that there may be a special faculty which constituted genius, but Poe held that “. . . . this genius which demonstrates itself [page 108:] in the simplest gesture — or even by the absence of all — this genius which speaks without a voice and flashes from the unopened eye — is but the result of generally large mental power existing in a state of absolute proportion so that no one faculty has an undue predominance.” — “Fifty Suggestions,” Works, XIV, 176-177. Perhaps he drew this idea from phrenologist Charles Caldwell, who had written in 1827, “Instead of being itself, as many have Pronounced it, a distinct faculty of the intellect, genius consists in a condition eminently excellent of a part or all of the knowing and reflecting faculties, fitting them for prompt powerful action.” — Caldwell, Phrenology, 168. See also pages 273-275. Poe adds: “What the world calls ‘genius’ is the state of mental disease arising from the undue prominence of some one of the faculties.” — Works, XIV, 177. For a further discussion of Poe’s thoughts an genius, see the chapter “Psychology.”

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30.  II (April, 1836), 300.

31.  Combe, Phrenology, p. 241.

32.  Works, VIII, 284.

33.  The same distinction is made by Archibald Alison in his Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste, second American edition (Hartford, 1821), p. iv.

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34.  Works, VIII, 285.

35.  Ibid., VIII, 295.

36.  Ibid., VIII, 298-299.

37.  Nelson Sizer, Forty Years in Phrenology (New York, 1882), p. 244.

38.  Three of the most significant of the many discussions of Ideality are found in Works, IX, 94; IX, 302; and IX, 288.

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39.  Works, XI, 255-256.

40.  The opening two pages of “The Imp of the Perverse,” published in 1845, “contain a criticism of phrenology developing the idea that “It cannot be denied that phrenology. . . [has] been concocted à priori.” Works, VI, 145-146.

41.  Ibid., IX, 65-.66.

42.  Ibid., XI, 65.

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43.  Caldwell, Phrenology, p. 163. Both philosophers and critics in Poe’s time were writing on taste and aesthetics. For a discussion of ideas of taste before 1835, see William Charvat, American Critical Thought 1810-1835 (Philadelphia, 1936), pp. 30-52. Again in 1950 aesthetics and psychology are closely related.

44.  Caldwell, Phrenology, p. 163.

45.  Works, XI, 71. Dr. Caldwell further asserts: “To be tasteful, and to Pas the ordeal of a real critic’s judgment, a production, whether literary or of the arts, must be in harmony with all the intellectual faculties. The test of this harmony is, its being agreeable to the faculties. If it be offensive to any of them, it is out of harmony, unnatural, and destined to condemnation.” — Caldwell, 22. cit p. 164.

46.  Works, XI, 70.

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47.  Caldwell, a phrenologist, in his essay on “Taste and Criticism” writes: rcetr7 is. . .related to the feeling faculties of the intellect. Yet such mast be its harmony with the knowing and reflecting ones, as not to outrage [page 112:] probability, or do violence to common sense. It must so fax keep within the limas of nature, as to draw all its materials from things that exist, and events that are or have been. For the excellency of its peculiar character, it depends, more particularly, on its perfect harmony with certain faculties.” — Caldwell, op. cit., p. 165.

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48.  Works, VII, 239-241.

49.  Ibid., XV, 7.

50.  Ibid., XV,. 36.

51.  Ibid., XV, 22.

52.  Ibid., XV, 116.

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53.  Ibid., XV, 18.

54.  Ibid., XVI, 11.

55.  Ibid., X, 71.

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56.  Works, IV, 281, Notes, and “Von Jung, The Mystific,” The American Monthly Review, III (June, 1837), 567.

57.  “Poe and Phrenology,” p. 218. He also suggests that mention of the great size of Robert’s nose in “Lionizing” may be a slur at Lavater’s physiognomy, (ibid., D. 217) as is likely. In that story Poe may well have combined his knowledge of physiognomy with his knowledge of ancient history gained from Rollin, some of whose volumes he drew from the University of Virginia Library. Rollin tells the story, and Poe mentions it, of Zopyrus, who gained fame and great reward by having his ears cut off. See Charles Rollin, The Ancient History of the Egyptians, Carthaginians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes and Persians, Macedonians and Greeks (New York, n.d.), II, 16-18.

“Ligeia” makes use of physiognomy, too. Ligeia has a Greek nose, which, according to physiognomy, “is the most beautiful nose in woman.” — Samuel R. Wells, New Physiognomy, or Signs of Character, etc. (New York, 1866), p. 194. Her chin has “the gentleness of breadth,” indicative of ardent love and faithfulness. — Ibid., p. 156. Ligeia has large black eyes, which according to physiognomy, touch “chords in your heart which have been untouched before, and can never wake for a lesser power again.” — Ibid., p. 240. The “fair-haired and blue-eyed Lady Rowena Trevanion, of Tremaine” was never able to awake the power of love in the narrator that her black-eyed predecessor of the raven locks had done.

58.  Op. cit., 218-219.

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59.  Works, VI, 132-133.

60.  See also “The Purloined Letter,” ibid., VI, 43.

61.  Ibid., IV, 149-150.

62.  Ibid., VI, 145-150.

63.  Ibid., VI, 145.

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64.  See the chapter “Psychology” for Poe’s discussion of perverseness.

65.  Works, V, 213.

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66.  Works, IV, 123. A similar idea Poe might have found in Christopher North’s “Noctes Ambrosianae,” No. XIII, Blackwood’s, XV (March, 1824), 364-366. This passage tells of phrenologists confusing a bump resulting from a “rap of a shiliela” with one denoting “extraordinary piety.”

67.  Works, IV, 286 note.

68.  Ibid., IV, 209-210.

69.  Combe, Lectures, 254-255.

70.  Works, IV, 210.

71.  Combe, Lectures, 2 4-255.

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72.  O. S. and L. N. Fowler, New Illustrated Self-Instructor in Phrenology and Physiology (New York, 1859), p. 155.

73.  Works, II, 255-256. Other aspects of “Ligeia” are discussed in this thesis in the chapters “Psychology” and “Medicine.”

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74.  See Combe, Lectures, 162-163; Combe, Phrenology, 157; J. G. Spurzheim, op. cit., p. 136.

75.  Professor Hungerford, although he refers to Combo, seems wrong in identifying the region above the temples with the location of Vitativeness. — Op. cit., 228-231.

76.  Fowler, Practical Phrenology, p. 43.

77.  Works, II, 255-256.

78.  Ibid., II, 255.

79.  See O. S. and L. N. Fowler, New Illustrated Self-Instructor in Phrenology and Physiology, p. iii. Also a Also a Phrenological Chart in The Casket, XIII (July 1838), 314, clearly shows this organ — Vitativeness — to be behind the ear — not above the temples. Most phrenologists agreed in locating it with the propensities at the base of the brain — not where Professor Hungerford thought he had located it.

80.  Works, II, 255.

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81.  Ibid., II, 252.

82.  Combe, Phrenology, p. 336.

83.  Works, III, 279.

84.  Ibid., III, 279. The idea of the four temperaments goes back to ancient times, probably to Hippocrates.

85.  Ibid., III, 292.

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86.  Ibid., III, 278.

87.  Ibid., III, 282.

88.  Combe, Phrenology, p. 244.

89.  Ibid., 244-245.



[S:0 - CDL51, 1951] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - Science and Pseudo-Science in the Writings of EAP (C. D. Laverty) (Chapter 04)