Text: Carroll Dee Laverty, “Chapter 08,” Science and Pseudo-Science in the Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (1951), pp. 211-220 (This material may be protected by copyright)


[page 211:]

Chapter VIII

Geology and Meteorology

Geology and meteorology are probably of least importance among all the sciences that appear to any appreciable extent in Poe’s writings. Nevertheless, references to these two sciences appear often enough to merit consideration. They indicate no deep knowledge on Poe’s part, but do help illustrate his method of using scientific data in the creation of literary art. Of the two, meteorology is probably the less important.

Both sciences were still in their infancy when Poe lived. geology was just emerging from the struggle between two rival schools of thought — the Neptunian defended by Werne and the Vuicanian defended by Hutton. The publication of Sir Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-1833) signalized the end of the conflict and the beginning of modern scientific geology. Meteorology is even younger as a science. Its first serious claim to be ranked as an accurate science was made by Baron von Humboldt (1769-1859), whose major work in mapping the Earth’s surface in isothermal lines and in studying the origin of storms was done during Poe’s youth.

His first mentions of geological material appear in works published in the 1830s. Among the many lions in “Some Passages in the Life of a Lion” [page 212:] is Ferdinand Fitz-Feltspar.

He informed us all about internal fires and tertiary formations; about aero-forms, fluidiforms, and solidiforms; about quartz and marl; about schist and schorl; about gypsum and trap; about talc and calc; about blende and hornblende; about mica-slate and pudding-stone; about cyanite and lepidolite; about haematite and tremolite; about antimony and chalcedony; about manganese and whatever you please.(1)

In a review in the Southern Literary Messenger of February, 1836, Poe alludes to a report of William B. Rogers, young geologist and professor of natural philosophy of the University of Virginia “The report of Professor Rogers, on the Geology of Virginia, made to the present Legislature, will shed much light on the mineral resources of the State. . . .”(2) Such a reference shows some awareness of a subject that in 1836 was in its infancy as a science.

His longer Narrative of A. Gordon Pym occasionally describes a geological formation to make the locale of the action seem as real as possible. For example, in order to create an atmosphere of mystery around an island visited by the adventure-bound ship, he writes: “The very rocks were novel in their mass, their colour, and their stratification. . . .”(3)To create an impression of a real but strange land, Poe describes such a formation. Toward the end of this story, the adventurers cut steps in the soap-stone side of a chasm;(4) and the author introduces black granite, black marl, and [page 213:] abundant scoria(5) in an effort to give apparent reality to the strange land ppm and Peters are trapped in. Throughout the last part of this narrative he describes the geologic formation,(6) as well as vegetable growth and animals, to give an air of actuality to his account.

In much the same way he attempts to make the fictional seem real “The Journal of Julius Rodman.” He describes hills in detail:

The hills in this vicinity are rough and jagged, showing irregular broken masses of rock, some of which tower to a great height, and appear to have been subject to the action of water.(7)

He calls attention to “one extensive bed of a thick bituminous nature which ry much discolored the water for some hundred yards below it.(8) In describing bluffs he tells of their composition: “The face of these bluffs generally was composed of a light yellowish freestone intermingled with burnt earth, pumice-stone, and mineral salt.”(9) Other geological data are scattered throughout this story — all used to give an impression of reality. Poe mentions “ragged alluvia,”(10) “a succession of large black-looking stones, apparently made up of loam, sand, and quartz, and absolutely symmetrical in figure,”(11) and the weird natural architecture of the Black Hills.”(12) [page 214:]

In “Mellonta Tauta” he describes the disastrous earthquake of the year 2050 to explain who so little is known of old civilizations of the nineteenth century:

The disastrous earthquake, however, of the year 2050, so totally uprooted and overwhelmed the town (for it was almost too large to be called a village) that the most indefatiguable of our antiquarians have never yet been able to obtain from the site any sufficient data (in the shape of coins, medals or inscriptions) wherewith to build up even the ghost of a theory concerning the manners, customs, &c. &c. &c., of the aboriginal inhabitants.(13)

These references show no great knowledge of geology, but they do demonstrate Poe’s practice in using facts from science to give verisimilitude to he scene of the actions he is narrating. In his only two comparatively long stories of outdoor adventure, he uses scientific data to impart to his setting an appearance of nature.

A suggestion for this procedure probably cane from Daniel Defoe, whose Robinson Crusoe Poe admired for its verisimilitude. His practice in the Narrative of A. Gordon Pym and “The Journal of Julium Rodman” is probably a compound blended of scientific observation and literary realism. So effective was this blend that it deceived the brother of Oliver Wendell Holmes, a lawyer and a Ha graduate. Of him, Robert Carter, his friend and also a friend of James Russell Lowell, wrote to Poe:

. . . he is so completely deceived by the minute accuracy of some of the details. . .that, though an intelligent and shrewd man he will not be persuaded that it is a fictitious work, by any arguments drawn from the book itself . . .(14) [page 215:]

Some of the curiosities of geology are fitted into that mosaic of scientific wonders “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade.” The first of them is ..an island, many hundreds of miles in circumference, but which, nevrtheless had been built in the middle of the sea by a colony of little things like caterpillars.”(15) Like many of the subjects of Poets stories, coralites were much written about in the first half of the nineteenth century.(16) Other geological curiosities are petrified forests in Texas and South Dakota.(17) The next geological wonder he mentions is the Mammoth Cave [page 216:] of Kentucky,(18) which was widely publicized before 1845.(19) He says some of the rivers of the cavern are “swarming with fish that have no eyes.”(20) Such fish, in fact, were found there.(21) Next is “a lofty mountain, down whose sides there streamed torrents of melted metal, some of which were twelve miles wide and. sixty miles long. . . .”(22) This information Poe took from Murray’s Encyclopaedia of Geography,(23) which he cites as the source of his next two oddities — volcanic eruptions and a forest flourishing [page 217:] beneath the sea.(24)

In the “Introduction” to The Conchologist’s First Book, the author(25) defends the study of conchology against attacks calling it frivolous by pointing out its value to geology. He writes:

But it is, beyond all doubt, in a geological point of view that Conchology offers the most of interest to the student; and here, by reference to the fair pages of a profound and mighty knowledge, to which it has pointed out the searcher after truth, are triumphantly refuted all charges brought against it of insignificance or frivolity.(26)

Subsequent quotations from De Blainville and Parkinson re-enforce the opinion. The introduction closes with this statement: “Fossil, wood, coral, and shells, are, indeed, Bergman very forcibly observes, the only true remaining ‘medals of Creation.’”(27) In this introduction the author gives evidence that he may have sensed the importance of geology in studying the evolution of the earth to its present form and the evolution of animal species, but he does not fully grasp the implications of the subject he is dealing with.

Besides the larger references in the works already discussed, Poe refers to geology elsewhere. Hans Pfaal is interested in geological disturbance erupting volcanoes) on the moon;(28) “The Domain of Arnheim” in a discussion [page 218:] of landscaping, it is suggested that “known geological disturbances” frustrated the original intention of nature to present a perfect picture on the earth’s surface;(29) in “Mellonta Tanta” the narrator asserts that “the Northern and Southern Kanadaw continents were once united. . . ..”(30)

Two reviews of books on geology appeared in a magazine that Poe edited. They were published during his editorship and may be his work. Popular Lectures on Geology, by H. C. Von Leonhard, was reviewed briefly in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine,(31) and Elements of Geology, etc., by W. S. W. Ruschenberger, was reviewed in the Broadway Journal.(32) Both reviews are short and and signify little more than awareness of the subject although they do mention other writers or works of geology.

For the most part, Poe uses geological lore in an attempt to make the fictional background of his longer narratives seem real and to arouse curiosity by describing odd and unusual geological formations. He expresses the opinion that geology can help man know the history of the earth and that conchology contributes to this knowledge. But he does not show so much knowledge of geology or its significance as he demonstrates with respect to astronomy.

Poe’s writings contain some meteorological data. One passage in “Hans Pfaal” sounds very much like a modern book on meteorology. It concerns the [page 219:] decrease in atmospheric pressure as the height above the surface of the earth increases:

The next point to be regarded was one of far greater importance. From mdications afforded by the barometer, we find that, in ascensions from the surface of the earth we have, at the height of 1000 feet, left below us bout one-thirtieth of the entire mass of atmospheric air; that at 10,600, we have ascended through nearly one-third; and that at 18,000, which is not far from the elevation of Cotopaxi, we have surmounted one-half the material, or at all events, one-half the ponderable body of air incumbent upon our globe.(33)

In an 1839 review Poe passes judgment on another author’s knowledge weather: “The whole account of the hurricane is, we think, monstrous a ear with all the dicta of common sense, as well as all the known principles of natural philosophy.”(34)

The real action of “MS. Found in a Bottle” opens with ominous weather signs which precede a violent storm. A singular cloud, “the dusky-red appearance of the moon,” the sultry atmosphere, a complete calm — all foretell the storm that breaks.(35) The weather likewise is prominent in the Narrative of A Gordon Pym. For example:

A perfect hurricane will be blowing at one moment from the northward or northeast, and in the next not a breath of wind will be felt in that direction, while from the southwest it will come out all at once with a violence almost inconceivable. A bright spot to the southward is the sure forerunner of the change, and vessels are thus enabled to take the proper precautions.(36)

In “The Fall of the House of Usher” Poe similarly describes the whirlwind: [page 220:]

A whirlwind had apparently collected its force in our vicinity; for there wed frequent and violent alterations in the direction of the wind; and the exceeding density of the clouds (which hung so low as to press upon the turrets of the house) did not prevent our perceiving the life-like velocity with which they flew careering from all points against each other, without passing away into the distance.(37)

These two passages are consistent with meteorological theory.

One brief note in his Marginalia” for December, 1846, mentions Professor James P. Espy, probably the best known American meteorologist in the 1840s.(38) Poe writes “The chief portion of Professor Espy’s theory has been anticipated by Roger Bacon.”(39) In a day when meteorolor was still largely in the state of theoretical speculation, Poe read some of the discussions used his knowledge in artistic creation.



[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 212:]

1.  Works, II, 39-40. The earlier version of this story published in May, 1835, had a smaller passage; “(Be talked of internal fires and tertiary formations; of aeriforms, fluidiforms, and solidiforms; of quartz and marl. of schist and schorl; of gypsum, hornblende, micaslate, and pudding-stone. II, 329. In the Farmer’s Register, Edmund Ruffin had much to say about the value of marl as fertilizer.

2.  Ibid., VIII, 213.

3.  Ibid., III, 186.

4.  Ibid., III, 227-228.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 213:]

5.  Ibid., III, 231. Poe coined the adjective scoriac.

6.  For example, ibid., III, 202, 208, 222.

7.  Ibid., IV, 86.

8.  Ibid., IV, 83,

9.  Ibid., IV, 89.

10.  Ibid., IV, 33,

11.  Ibid., IV, 91.

12.  Ibid., IV 89-92.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 214:]

13.  Ibid., VI, 212. In his “Marginalia,” Poe quotes a passage from Gibbon on earthquakes. — Ibid., XVI, 14-17. His purpose is to illustrate Gibbon’s style.

14.  George Woodberry, The Life of Edgar Allan Poe, II, 29-30.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 215:]

15.  Works, VI, 88. See also Poe’s Contributions to Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, p. 30.

16.  For example, Thomas Wyattts Natural History, on which Poe probably worked, mentions coralites. — Pp. 145-146. The Yearbook of Facts (London, 1839) cites the findings of Charles Darwin with respect to coral isles. — P. 95. See also Timothy Flint, Lectures upon Natural History, p. 284.

17.  Works, VI, 88-89. He attributes information about one of them to Kennedy’s Texas and puts a quotation in a footnote. — Ibid., VI, 89. Though not strictly accurate, his statement is, however, a fair representation of the sense of his source. — William Kennedy, Texas: the Rise, Progress, and Prospects of the Republic of Texas (London, 1841), I, 120. An interesting account of the petrified forest of the Black Hills appeared in the February, 1845, issue of Simmond’s Colonial Magazine, (“The Petrified Forest,” IV (Feb., 1845), 191-193 earlier issues of which he used for information about the Niger River. See Works, VI, 92, and Richard Mouat, “A Narrative of the Niger Expedition,” Simmond’s Colonial Magazine and Foreign Miscellany, II (July, 1844), 311-324; II (Aug., 1844), 446-465; and III (Oct., 1844), 117-126. Poe does not quote this article directly but takes one general idea from it. This story, “The Petrified Forest,” is preceded by a quotation essentially the same as Poe’s footnote on the Texas petrified forest, and its text tells of the forest in the Black Hills that Poe mentions in his notes. — Works, VI, 89. It likewise makes reference to the idea that such a fact of natural history is as unbelievable as the stories of the “Arabian Nights.” The whole of “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade” is an amplification of this idea. But he could not have copied “The Petrified Forest,” nor Poets tale, for both appeared in February, 1845. It seems likely then that both may go back to the same source — probably a story in the St. Louis Reveille, to which “The Petrified Forest” is attributed. See p. 193. The story in the Reveille is in the issue of June 6, 1844, p. 2. A long paragraph in Poets note on a petrified forest near Cairo, Egypt, is attributed to the Asiatic Magazine, (Works, VI, 89) but actually is from the Asiatic Journal and Monthly Miscellany. — Third Series (Aug., 1844), III, 359. The quotation is verbatim, but the punctuation is different.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 216:]

18.  Works, VI, 90. A long article on the Cave appeared in the magazine containing Poe’s “Von Jung, the Mystific.” See “The Mammoth Cave of Kentucky,” The American Monthly Magazine, N.S., III (May, 1837), 417-438; and (June, 1837), 525-546. In 1857 Emerson described the cave in his essay “Illusions,” as follows: “Some years ago, in company with an agreeable party, I spent a long summer day in exploring the Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. We traversed, through spacious galleries affording a solid masonry foundation for the town and country overhead, the six or eight black miles from the mouth of the cavern to the innermost recess which tourists visit, — a niche or grotto made of one seamless stalactite, and called, I believe, Serenals Bower. I lost the light of one day. I saw high domes and bottomless pits: heard the voice of unseen waterfalls; paddled three quarters of a mile in the deep Echo River, whose waters are peopled with the blind fish. Atlantic Monthly, I (Nov., 1857), 58.

19.  For example, C. C. Clarke, “The Great Kentucky Cavern,” The Wonders of the World, a new edition, revised and corrected by James G. Percival (Charleston, 1836), pp. 109-114. Poe’s tale has much in common with such books as this. For example, it has articles on the following subjects which Poe mentions in one place or another: At. Hecla, the coral reefs, luminous points in the sea, whirlpools, pestilential winds, the bee, the pyramids, ruins of Balbec, Palmyra, Babylon, the Coliseum, Stonehenge, Herschel’s telescope, the telegraph, air balloons, automatons, Maelzel’s Chess player, the blow-pipe, steam ships, and railroads. As a journalist, Poe chose subjects that appealed to the curiosity of the public.

20.  Works, VI, 90.

21.  Amblyonsis spelaeus.

22.  Works, VI, 90.

23.  Hugh Murray, The Encyclopaedia of Geography, revised with additions by Thomas G. Bradford (Philadelphia, 1839), I, 217. Poe changes Murray’s “twenty leagues in length by four in breadth” to “twelve miles wide and sixty miles long. Poe’s note says “In Iceland, 1783.” Murray says “in Iceland, in 1783.”

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 217:]

24.  Works, VI, 90-91.

25.  It is a question whether Poe is the author of this book. If he wrote any parts of it, it seems most likely that he wrote the preface and introduction. The problem of the authorship of the book is discussed in the chapter “Biology and The Conchologist’s First Book.”

26.  P. 7.

27.  P. 8.

28.  Works, II, 98.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 218:]

29.  Ibid., VI, 184.

30.  Ibid., VI, 207.

31.  V (Aug., 1839), 115.

32.  II (Nov., 8, 1845), 275. In his “Marginalia,” Poe mentions the geologists Charles Lyell, Sir Roderick Lmpey Murchison, and G. W. Featherstonhaug, but the context displays no knowledge of geology on Poe’s part unless his reference to a “transition-thought” be a faint allusion to geological change. Works, XVI, 3.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 219:]

33.  Works, II, 62.

34.  Ibid., X, 55.

35.  Ibid., II, 2-5.

36.  Ibid., III, 150.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 220:]

37.  Ibid., III, 291.

38.  See, for example, George Combo, Notes on the United States of North America, etc. (Philadelphia, 1841), pp. 294-295. Speaking of Espy’s proposed attempt to make rain, Combe states: “This subject has excited much attention in Philadelphia. . . .” This was in 1839, while Poe was there. See also review of Espy’s The Philosophy of Storms, Boston Quarterly Review, IV (Oct., 1841), 520-521, and a similar review in Democratic Review, IX (Nov., 1841), 422 ff.

39.  Works, XVI, 118.



[S:0 - CDL51, 1951] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Articles - Science and Pseudo-Science in the Writings of EAP (C. D. Laverty) (Chapter 08)