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Artificial Sensitivity and Artful Rationality:
Basic Elements in the Creative Imagination of Edgar Allan Poe

University of California, Los Angeles; University of New Mexico, Emeritus

Edited by James Barbour, University of New Mexico, and Thomas Quirk, University of Missouri — Columbia

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[When Leon Howard died in 1982, he left behind the manuscripts of two unfinished books and two completed essays on Hawthorne and Poe. The essays were locked in a filing cabinet and were not among his work in progress; consequently they were only discovered recently. The following essay reflects Howard’s life-long interest in Poe’s use of literary personae and his “sensitivity to popular literature and the rational calculation with which he used it.” Howard’s views here may be usefully compared with his discussions of Poe in Literature and the American Tradition (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1960), pp. 99-107, and in “Poe’s Eureka: The Detective Story That Failed,” The Mystery and Detection Annual, ed. by Donald Adams (Beverly Hills, Calif., 1972), pp. 1-14. The text below has been lightly edited, and the title and notes — which quote or paraphrase citations from Howard’s article on Eureka — have been added by the editors, who are grateful to Professor Howard’s family for permission to prepare this work for publication.]

Edgar Allan Poe is unusual among the major American writers of the nineteenth century for two reasons. First, he seems to have had less of that inner assurance, firmness, or whatever it might be that gives character to an individual’s work regardless of how it may vary in its superficial qualities. Second, he appears to have made up his mind more definitely and at an earlier age than any of his contemporaries to become what we would now call a professional writer.

The first of these peculiarities might be attributed to any one of a number of causes or to a combination of them. He was certainly temperamental — moody, impulsive, erratic, and unpredictable. This is the Poe who has so fascinated amateur psychologists that if one reads the books about him one discovers a dozen different people undone by as many imps of the perverse. He was also a socially displaced person, the child of strolling players, taken in but never adopted by a family of social-climbers in a community which placed great stress on family and ancestors — a sensitive, threadbare “Virginia gentleman” [column 2:] who was born in Boston and had no home anywhere. Finally, he was the victim of an extraordinary amount of economic stress and frustration. It began at the University of Virginia when he was seventeen and lasted until he died at the age of forty. He was on the run throughout his life and was never sure whether he was running for the end of the rainbow or away from the deluge.

For such a person to want to be a poet and a man of letters, at a time and in a country of amateurish publishing, might in itself be taken as a symptom of madness. But except for his escapist experiences with the Army, Poe is not known to have attempted anything else. His neatness and perfect handwriting would have enabled him to support himself and his family by a job in a counting house, but in his worst periods of poverty he never got one. His soul was set on being a writer, and, for him, this meant literary journalism.

The demands of literary journalism, however, could not have affected his early verse. His first volume, Tamerlane and Other Poems, was published in Boston (with a rather pathetic “By a Bostonian” on the title page) in 1827 when he was only eighteen, and it is the work of a very young man to whom poetry was a sort of escape into dreamland. The title poem — the longest and most ambitious Poe was ever to write — was an imitation of the confession section of Byron’s The Giaour. In it Poe imagines that Tamerlane has conquered the world, built the city of Samarkand, and realized that something was missing from his life. So he returns to his native mountains and reveals his true self in a deathbed confession to a “holy friar.” Poe’s Tamerlane is about as far removed from the historical original or from the hero of Marlowe’s play as one could imagine: he is, in fact, very much like the adolescent Byronic persona who dominates the whole volume.

That Poe should have imitated Byron in his early years is not at all surprising. Most of the [page 2:] young poets of the time affected a pale and interesting air of secret sorrow, just as their fathers and grandfathers had affected the style of Pope. What is surprising is that the Byronic role is one from which he was never able to escape, even when he had become acutely self-conscious about imitation and tried to avoid it. The Byronic persona became a permanent part of his poetic personality.

There were also to be other personae. He was to read Milton before he published Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems in 1829, and he probably read Tom Moore and Thomas Campbell as soon as he read Byron. Their words were caught in his unconscious memory, but their personalities did not catch his imagination. Keats’ may have. The “Sonnet — To Science” suggests that the author Of “Lamia” had taught him the answer to the question “Do not all charms fly / At the mere touch of cold philosophy?” He certainly had obtained a copy of Galignani’s pirated edition of the poems of Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats before he composed the new pieces for the 1831 Poems. Shelley’s Platonism is in his poem about the angel Israfel (“the shadow” of whose perfect bliss “Is the sunshine of ours”), and he was to return to Shelley and his Platonism many years later in “The Poetic Principle.” Coleridge was the new poet, however, who insinuated himself into his imagination almost as much as Byron did. He borrowed heavily from Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria for the critical introduction to the 1831 volume, of course, and echoed Coleridge in “Irene” (later to be retitled “The Sleeper” ). But he became a sort of morbid Coleridge in “The Doomed City” or “The City in the Sea.” The poem is hardly an imitation of “Kubla Khan” so much as it is a continuation: when “Alph, the sacred river, ran / Through caverns measureless to man / Down to a sunless sea,” Poe built a city of sin on its “hideously serene” shores. Coleridge, too, was to remain a part of the poetic as well as the critical Poe.

The young man — now twenty-two, out of West Point, and turning to literature for a living while staying with his aunt Maria Clemm in Baltimore — may already have been trying his hand at short stories. For the poem “To Helen,” despite its possible autobiographical significance, appears to have been extracted from the Byronic story later published as “The Visionary” or “The Assignation.” He did not begin publishing stories, though, until 1832. All of these early stories — all, in fact, that he did publish before he began writing for the Southern Literary Messenger in 1835, and some that were published there — belonged to the group he [column 2:] called “Tales of the Folio Club.” Poe’s manuscript notes on this group are of unusual interest because they show that the characteristics of literary chameleon which he inadvertently revealed in his early poems were deliberately assumed for his early tales. He used his ability to identify himself with another author as a conscious means for inventing or conceiving a narrative. “The Tales of the Folio Club” were, in effect, nearly all parodies.

Poe identifies them as such by attributing them to members of the Folio Club, who are all given humorous or satiric names, and if he had published them in a volume (as he hoped to do), he probably would have made clear to contemporary readers what he was doing. The nature of the parody, however, varies. Mr. Chronologos Chronology, the author Of “A Tale of Jerusalem” and “who admired Horace Smith,” got his incident and about a third of his actual phrases from one of Smith’s novels. At the other extreme, the “stout gentleman who admired Sir Walter Scott” and who was the probable author Of “King Pest,” was more influenced by antagonism toward President Jackson and his “kitchen cabinet” than he was by any particular work of Scott’s. Between these extremes were such members as “Mr. Horrible Dictu, with white eyelashes, who had graduated at Gottingen,” whose “Metzengerstein” seems to have been an imitation of the German gothic story in general, and “Mr. Solomon Seadrift who had every appearance of a fish” and who may have been an artificial creation for the purpose of bringing “MS. Found in a Bottle” into the scheme.

Poe was not striving for originality in his early fiction. For that reason the letter he wrote to T. W. White concerning “Berenice,” his first contribution to the Southern Literary Messenger, may be taken seriously. It is the story of a young man whose love for a girl had settled upon her perfect set of teeth and who had dug her up after premature burial and pulled them. In response to White’s horrified reaction to it, he reluctantly admitted that “it approaches the very verge of bad taste” but, before doing so, cited specific examples of similar “articles” in popular British magazines as the means by which they had “attained celebrity.“(1) Their similarity he described in a general formula as consisting Of “the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque: the fearful coloured into the horrible: the witty exaggerated into the burlesque: the singular wrought out into the strange and mystical.”

These examples of Poe’s youthful lack of originality [page 3:] and of his indifference to it are not cited in order to condemn him but to show the remarkable range of his ability to absorb popular literature, good or bad, and reproduce it for better or worse. Poe could not have become the writer he was to be without it. Nor could he have developed much further beyond this had this power not been accompanied and usually controlled by an even more remarkable quality of critical detachment. The Poe who is read and remembered actually was a sort of William Wilson with a double whose “distasteful supervision” he had to endure but in whom he existed.

This detachment becomes evident astonishingly early in his revision of “Tamerlane” for the 1829 volume of poems. In its first version “Tamerlane” was logically constructed in accord with the “associationist” theories of David Hartley. The hero’s confession revealed that he had acquired ideas of “sensation” from his rude and stormy environment, that these had combined to form ideas of “imagination,” and that these, in turn, formed the ideas of “ambition” which impelled him to conquer the world and to the “self-interest” that built Samarkand. But there he reached an impasse. He could not develop the ideas of “sympathy,” which represented the next stage of development in the Hartleian scheme, and so returned to seek his childhood sweetheart from whom he thought he could derive them. When Poe revised his poem for the 1831 edition, however, he evidently was sufficiently detached from it to realize that if Tamerlane had never acquired ideas of sympathy he could not have known what he was missing. Consequently he dropped the Hartleian concept of “sympathy” from the poem and attributed the hero’s return to a romantic longing for his lost love.

This sort of revision (which, incidentally, created all kinds of ambiguities within the poem) might have been expected of a shrewd and rather pedantic editor, but it is surprising in an author — especially in such a young and supposedly “dreamy” one as Poe. But it is the same sort of shrewdness found in the “Berenice” letter to White, and it reveals the early existence of that struggle between artificial sensitivity and artful rationality which I believe was the basic element in the creative imagination of Edgar Allan Poe.

The question of which came first, the sensitivity to popular literature or the rational calculation with which he used it, is a teasing one. Did he write his more sensational stories in response to popular taste? Or did he write them in response [column 2:] to some inner inclination which he tried to justify? Was he “telling the truth” in his letter to White? We have no evidence with respect to the composition of “Berenice.” It was the first of his stories after the original “Tales of the Folio Club,” and he might well have been following a new impulse. What we do have evidence of is the continuation of this struggle through Poe’s literary career and the effect of it upon his literary invention.

Poe’s earliest imaginative inclination was certainly toward the sensational in subject matter and the use of sensations to influence the reader’s emotions. One of his Folio tales had been a Blackwood parody in which the author was hanged and his body interred in a public vault. In 1835, when he reprinted it in the Southern Literary Messenger with the title “Loss of Breath,” he added a long description of sensations which included such as these: “My fingers as they lay cold, clammy, stiff, and pressing helplessly one against another, were, in my imagination, swelled to a size according with the proportions of the Antseus. Every portion of my frame betook of their enormity. The pieces of money — I well remember — which being placed upon my eyelids, failed to keep them effectually closed, seemed huge, interminable chariot-wheels of the Olympia, or of the Sun.” Ten years later, when he gave it its final version for the Broadway Journal, he removed all such passages because he felt they violated the effect of absurdity the story was designed to create.

For within these ten years Poe had fully explored the artistic use of sensations. In “Berenice” he had been merely sensational when he let Egaeus reveal his monomania: “The teeth! — the teeth! — they were here, and there, and everywhere, and visibly and palpably before me; long, narrow, and excessively white, with the pale lips writhing about them, as in the very moment of their first terrible development.” When he used the same story idea of a woman’s premature burial and a man’s reaction to it in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” in 1839, his technique was quite different. The often-praised unity of effect in this story is largely achieved by making the reader share the sensations of the narrator from the first moment he crosses the “singularly dreary tract of country” and with asn iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart” approaches the “mansion of gloom” until his brain reels and he hears the along tumultuous shouting sound” which accompanies its fall. Furthermore, the imagined sensations of Roderick Usher play an important part in the narrative. “He suffered much from a morbid acuteness of the senses; the [page 4:] most insipid food was alone endurable; he could wear only garments of certain texture; the odors of all flowers were oppressive; his eyes were tortured by even a faint light; and there were but peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with horror.” It is his hyper-sensitivity, we learn in the denouement, which has kept the narrative going: Roderick’s peculiar behavior was caused by the acuteness of hearing which made him aware that the Lady Madeline had been buried alive and the morbid acuteness of sensitivity which prevented him saying so.

The year before, in a satiric piece, Poe had verbalized the inventive device he used to control the effect and provide some of the narrative for “The Fall of the House of Usher.” In it he had Signora Psyche Zenobia, of Philadelphia, call on the most popular of Edinburgh publishers for advice on how to write a Blackwood article. “Sensations are the great things after all,” Mr. Blackwood told her; and all she had to do was to get herself ainto such a scrape as no one ever got into before” and record her sensations. Her success in following this advice was recorded in a companion piece originally called “The Scythe of Time.” In it she climbed the tower of a gothic cathedral, stuck her head out through the face of the clock, and contemplated the view until, to her “extreme horror,” she perceived athat the huge, scimetar-like minute hand of the clock” had descended on her neck. She described her sensations as the sharp steel gradually cut through her flesh, one of her eyes popped out and blinked at her, and her severed head rolled into the gutter.

It might seem absurd to relate this grotesque satire to Poe’s serious work were it not for the fact that the formula given in “The Psyche Zenobia” and exemplified in “The Scythe of Time” was to be used to perfection in “The Pit and the Pendulum” in 1842.(2) Its hero was certainly in “such a scrape that no one ever got into before.” Tried before the Spanish Inquisition, he was sentenced to death and eventually bound to the floor of a metal-walled, rat-infested dungeon with a painted figure of Time at the top, holding a sharp-edged pendulum instead of a scythe. The main action of the story consists of the hero’s minute record of his sensations from the time he is unbound to hear his sentence until he is released by the French capture of Toledo. No other story in literature presents such a variety of horrors and such a carefully imagined representation of the sensations they evoke; the hero’s shocked inability to hear the sentence of death (though he can read the lips that pronounce [column 2:] it), the long period of alternate coma and consciousness which followed, the anxious exploration of his dungeon, the smell of decay from the pit he escapes, the clammy disgust at the rats, the suffocation of red-hot walls closing in on him, and, above all, the slowly inevitable descent of the pendulum until aft swept so closely over me as to fan me with its acrid breath.” Mr. Blackwood never received a contribution from so apt a pupil.

Poe had used this technique in “The Colloquy of Monos and Una” and was to use it in a number of later stories — most notably in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains,” “The Premature Burial,” and “The Imp of the Perverse“ — but was never again to use it so exclusively as a stimulus to his imagination. Indeed, by the time he wrote “The Pit and the Pendulum” he had already discovered another inventive device which was to be even more productive.

This was the device of using intellectual processes in much the same way that he used feelings, representing them and also deriving the substance of a narrative from them. The steps toward this discovery are probably too complex to follow. Poe always seems to have had an undue admiration for his own mental processes and made a great display of intellectuality in some of his book reviews, his criticism, and in such articles as those on Maelzel’s chess-player in the Southern Literary Messenger and cryptography in Graham’s. It probably bore some relation to his interest in phrenology, which had provided an allusive, pseudo-intellectual strain running through “Ligeia” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and which may have suggested to him some of the categorical areas of literary effectiveness he was beginning to mention in his reviews and would soon discuss in his review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales. His first explicit use of this device in fiction — the first of his “tales of ratiocination,” as he called them — was in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in Graham’s Magazine for April, 1841.

Poe began his story with a careful attempt to define the intellectual processes with which he was concerned. He called them “analytical” and drew a distinction between analysis and calculation and between analysis and ingenuity. The analyst makes aa host of observations and inferences,” knowing precisely “what to observe,” and the superiority of one such thinker over another depends “not so much in the validity of the inference as in the quality of the observation.” He next created a character to exemplify the perfect analyst — C. [page 5:] Auguste Dupin, withdrawn from the world, a man of the night, whose manner became frigid and abstract, his eyes vacant, and his voice shrill when he exercised the “peculiar analytic ability” in which he took an “eager delight.” He gave a demonstration to his companion by following the latter’s chain of thoughts through fifteen silent minutes and verifying each link by observing his behavior. Later, by a similar process, he solved the extraordinary murder case which had baffled the Prefect of Police who was merely a man of “ingenuity,” “too cunning to be profound.”

“A Descent into the Maelstrom,” published the following month, is a related story because its hero, unlike the narrator of “MS. Found in a Bottle,” analyzes his situation and makes inferences which enable him to escape it. But the next story of analysis was “The Mystery of Marie Roget” in the autumn of 1842. This was based upon a real murder committed in New York, and Poe revived Dupin in order to criticize the handling of it by the newspapers and police. Consequently the story is mostly a long monolog on irrelevant observations and irrational inference, although Poe tried to point out the murderer by supplementing the analytic method by a “calculus of probabilities.” He continued to assert the validity of the method, however, and deny that it included any use of intuition. He was more purely analytical in “The Gold-Bug” in June 1843, and although his powers of cryptanalysts have not been admired by experts, this has proved to be the most popular of all his stories.

These tales of sensation and ratiocination do not reflect any serious conflict between Poe’s sensitivity and rationality. In them each quality of his mind was used to reinforce the other. The best of his stories of sensation are the most carefully calculated, and it is doubtful whether he could have perfected the genre in “The Pit and the Pendulum” had he not committed himself to the importance of knowing precisely awhat to observe” and applied his commitment introspectively. On the other hand, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is one of the most sensational stories he ever wrote in its subject matter. It is not gruesome in its effect, despite the gruesomeness of the murders, because incidents are presented as pieces in a rational puzzle; and it is this trick of handling sensational material in a nonsensational way that enabled Poe to redirect the mysteries of the gothic romance toward the modern detective story.

Yet, as time went on, the split between sensitivity [column 2:] and rationality did occur, and Poe was stimulated to new literary achievements through his efforts to reconcile the two. The split is exaggerated, perhaps, but demonstrable in the contrast between “The Raven” and his account of how he wrote it in “The Philosophy of Composition.” “The Raven” is his most nearly perfect exhibition of the literary sensitivity he revealed in his early poems and paraded in his earliest tales. Its hero is a composite persona, made up of a melancholy Byron and a dejected Coleridge. Like the Byronic hero, he is the wandering outlaw of his own dark mind, old in deeds but not in years, and made melancholy by the lost love of someone whose name he will not reveal but whom “the angels call Lenore.” Like the Coleridge of “Dejection: An Ode,” he is finding surcease from sorrow by abstruse research in volumes of forgotten lore. His haunted mind projects itself into the grotesque figure of the raven, and its croaking refrain, until it transforms it from a bird to a symbol with the cry “Take thy beak from out my heart” and the realization that his soul will never be lifted from that shadow on his floor. He is a perfect exemplification of belated, decadent Romanticism.

When “The Raven” was published early in 1845 it became Poe’s first widely popular work, and he exploited its popularity to the hilt, giving readings at which he appeared as “pale and interesting” as its hero presumably was. “The Author of the Raven” became better known than “E. A. Poe” had ever been. But by this time he was becoming a full-fledged member of the small group of literary professionals who were free-lancing in New York, and he must have become self-conscious about the attitude of his hard-boiled associates toward his anachronistic pose. In any event, during the following year, he protected his reputation as a literary journalist by publishing a hard-boiled account of how he wrote the poem. The “hero” of “The Philosophy of Composition” (and I think we are justified in thinking of him as such) bears a remarkable resemblance to C. Auguste Dupin. He has used his analytic powers to discover what a perfect poem should be, and he solves the problem of constructing one as readily as Dupin solved the mystery of the Rue Morgue.

Although there is no working manuscript of “The Raven” to be offered in evidence, we can be sure that Poe did not decide on what to do and then do it in the matter-of-fact way he professed. Whether or not the stories about earlier rough versions are true, the poem is too full of literary memories (of which Poe seems to have been completely [page 6:] unconscious) to be the product of carefully calculated originality. Aside from the Byronic and Coleridgean origins of its romantic hero, the raven probably was recollected from Dicken’s Barnaby Rudge and the meter and at least a couple of lines were from Elizabeth Barrett’s “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship.” The most important recollection of all was of Dr. Thomas Holley Chivers, whose poems Poe had admired in manuscript and whose “Isadore” and “To Allegra Florence in Heaven” would have sounded like parodies Of “The Raven” had they not been written earlier. Internally, the poem provides more evidence of the author’s powers of absorption than that of calculation.

Poe (who had just changed the title Of “The Scythe of Time” to “A Predicament” in order to disguise its relationship to “The Pit and the Pendulum” when he republished them both in the Broadway Journal) was probably too shrewd to have exhibited two such contrasting literary personalities in public had he not already attempted to reconcile them. He had done so by the spring of 1844 in “The Purloined Letter,” which revived Dupin and gave him a different cast of mind. This time he was a poet as well as an analyst, who could match wits with the minister who had “written learnedly of Differential Calculus” but was also a poet. “As poet and mathematician, he would reason well; as a mere mathematician,” Dupin said of him, “he could not have reasoned at all, and thus would have been at the mercy of the Prefect.” In the same dual capacity, Dupin could out-think the Prefect and recover the letter because the Prefect believed all poets to be fools.

Poe’s conviction that the poetic imagination combined with analytic powers produced a superior kind of thinking was soon to become an obsession with him. Only one of the stories published after “The Purloined Letter” was a carefully designed narrative-although in this one, “The Cask of Amontillado,” he achieved one of his finest effects by carefully avoiding any representation of sensations or reasoning. Most of the others show Poe’s mind wandering through scientific subjects from no fixed point of view. In “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade” the king puts his wife to death because of her unbelievable account of Sinbad the Sailor’s visit to nineteenth-century America, and “Some Words with a Mummy” attacks the trustworthiness of historical knowledge. Both point toward the satiric section of Eureka which was revised for that lecture from a text published in 1849 as “Mellonta Tauta.” “The Imp of the Perverse,” “The Facts [column 2:] in the Case of M. Valdemar,” and “The Sphinx” deal respectively but not seriously with phrenology, mesmerism, and microscopic vision. They reveal an area of interest into which Poe was moving with a somewhat querulous mind.

Only in “The Power of Words,” published in June, 1845, does he seem to be focusing upon anything serious. It was a short dialog between two spirits (one anew-fledged with immortality” after the recent destruction of the world) in the manner of his earlier dialogs between Eiros and Charmion and Monos and Una, but it shows Poe’s interest in the theory of creation, in the influence of every particle of the universe on every other, and in the possibility of knowing everything through “analysis.” It reveals the germ of ambition which was to unfold three years later in Eureka.

Eureka is by far the greatest of Poe’s imaginative efforts, and in the more than Miltonic grandeur of its conception it is an astonishing effort from a man who had, in the past, risen only occasionally above the level of literary journalism. Although it was called “A Prose Poem” on the title-page and dedicated to the scientist Alexander von Humboldt, it was accurately described in its subtitle as “An Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe.” In it Poe attempted nothing less than an account of the origin of the universe, a description of its existing state (along with extensive criticism of current astronomical and cosmological theories), and a prophetic anticipation of the way it would eventually destroy and renew itself. According to him, the two great principles which explained the universe were those of repulsion or irradiation and of attraction, which he identified with spirit and matter. The original divine act of creation consisted of repulsion — the explosion of “unparticled matter” (which was nothingness, because it was unparticled) and its irradiation to the limits of space. With that, divine creation was over. What followed was natural. The principle of attraction took over as each atom was attracted to every other until enough joined to form suns, which by centrifugal force (created by electricity) threw off planets which in turn threw off moons. The attractive force of gravity, however, would continue to pull each atom toward a common center until the whole “universe of stars” would collapse into “unparticled matter” which would eventually explode again with the beating of the divine heart.

As an imaginative conception, this was stupendous. Nothing like it is to be found in the astronomical lore that had been accumulated by [page 7:] Poe’s time or in the cosmological poets. Various passages in Eureka appear, out of context, to anticipate some of the more imaginative twentieth-century representations Of “the expanding universe”; but the existing state of Poe’s universe was, in fact, a collapsing one, and his view of it was an imaginative act rather than an imaginatively presented inference from available evidence.

The imaginative process by which Poe professed to have achieved it is indicated in the introductory section which was adapted from “Mellonta Tauta.” After satirizing human dependence upon Aristotelian deduction or Baconian induction as the only two possible roads to truth, he announced (from a point of view a thousand years in the future) the “vitally momentous consideration” by means of which “investigation has been taken out of the hands of the ground-moles, and given as a duty, rather than as a task, to the true — to the only true, thinkers — to the generally-educated men of ardent imagination.”

This “momentous consideration” was the discovery “that a perfect consistency can be nothing but an absolute truth.” Poe was explicit in insisting that the starting point was imagination rather than an “intuition,” which he defined as a logical conviction reached by processes so shadowy as to have escaped the consciousness. The great thinker imagined something, used his analytic powers to clear it of all inconsistencies, and announced it as absolute truth. He was the sort of thinker Poe had already described in the person of the Dupin of “The Purloined Letter.”

I often wonder what Poe’s literary reputation would be today if he had achieved an art sufficient to have sustained his imaginative achievement. Or if he had presented Eureka as a work of fiction and used what art he had to give it the aunity of effect” he so often advocated. The masterpiece by which he wished to be judged after his death might be more widely read if he had tried to evoke the sensations of awe that the grandeur of his conception justified and it certainly would be if he had created a Kepler-like Dupin to present them with a calmly detached rationality. But he did not. He apparently could not, in fact, make up his mind about his literary aim. In his brief Preface he called Eureka a “Book of Truths” but one presented only “for the Beauty that abounds in its Truth,” a “Romance,” a “Poem,” and — the one thing it certainly was not — ” an Art-Product alone.” Such art as he had acquired was not applied to it. Instead, it is [column 2:] an artistically incoherent mixture of the journalistic style of his burlesque satires, the querulous style of most of his 1845-46 stories and criticism, and the aggressive assertiveness of a person who was not sure of himself or his aims. It has given many people the impression of being the product of a disordered mind. It is actually a brilliant imaginative achievement by a man who never achieved a literary personality firm enough to withstand the destructive influence of jangled nerves.

Believing that Eureka “exemplifies the unalloyed intellection of imaginative creation,” Margaret Alterton has argued that the idea of unity was central to Poe’s art and that his “scientific beliefs are articles of faith with him” which “embrace his activity as a poet and maker.” “He lived his poetic life,” she adds, “and did his poetic work according to them.“(3) Elva Kremenliev, after surveying Poe’s literary use of astronomy, came to the opposite belief athat Eureka is not only a synthesis of borrowed or derivative thought, but is also a synthesis of ideas, hypotheses, and correlations which have been running through Poe’s writing from start to finish.“(4) From his early poem “Al Aaraaf,” from the early “Hans Pfaal” and through many stories to follow (not merely those which were science fiction), and in such sketches as “The Island of the Fay” Poe was noticeably concerned with scientific ideas and speculation, which became especially cosmological after the excitement caused by Halley’s comet in 1835 and Biela’s tailless comet which missed the earth by only a month in 1838. These were gradually assimilated into his literary theories.

One medium of assimilation seems to have been Poe’s Aristotelian concept of “plot” (which

he may have got from Schlegel). It first appeared in his 1841 review of Bulwer-Lytton’s Night and Morning, where he said that plot, “properly defined is that in which no part can be displaced without ruin to the whole. It may be described as a building so dependently constructed, that to change the position of a single brick is to overthrow the entire fabric.” The definition, Poe admitted, was of an “infinite perfection” which was the “unattainable goal” of the artist. But in one of his “Marginalia” in the Democratic Review in 1844 (a criticism of the Bridgewater Treatises) he returned to this idea of unattainable perfection, attributed it to the shortcomings of man, and added: “The plots of God are perfect. The Universe is the Plot of God.” This casual aphorism — combined with the fancy (in “The Power of Words,” which represented the unity of the universe in the same [page 8:] terms Poe used in discussing “plot,”) that words literally possessed creative power — may have provided the germ of ambition which led Poe to attempt what he did in Eureka: combine imagination and analysis in an effort to explain God’s perfect “plot” of the Universe.

The conception of a universe created by an original creative irradiation and existing in a consequent state of collapse, in which the position of every atom was dependent upon each of the others, may have been for Poe much simpler than it has been for his readers — one of those mysteries, like that of the purloined letter, which Dupin suggested was aa little too plain.” In any event, Mrs. Kremenliev has found its missing “source” in the diagram used by Poe to explain the diffusion of light in proportion to the square of the distance from its source. The diagram appears in many books and textbooks, but it was uniquely used by James Ferguson (to whom Poe made a reference elsewhere) to explain both the diffusion of light and the law of gravity. He did so in one of those popular eighteenth-century elementary textbooks, in the form of a dialog, which was called An Easy Introduction to Astronomy for Young Gentlemen and Ladies (1772), in his third dialog “On Gravity and Light.” It may have been that the simple notion of the laws of diffusion and attraction, being perfectly complementary — gravity attracting in inverse proportion to the square of the distance between objects — that caused Poe to exclaim “Eureka! I have found it!” and provided him with both the basic conception and the title for his book.

Poe’s Eureka thus represents the climactic struggle between that sensitivity to popular literature (here in the broadest sense of the term) and the artful rationality he used to control it, which, as I said earlier, I believe to be the basic element in his creative imagination. His art succeeded in certain of his stories and in a few of his poems. It failed in Eureka as it had failed in “Tamerlane” and in so many of the journalistic pieces he produced in order to make a living. But the energy of the struggle lurks in all of his writings, giving them a vitality that keeps them alive. It is difficult to read the least of Poe’s journalistic pieces without finding in them implications that cannot be found in others that appear side-by-side with them in the columns of early nineteenth-century periodicals.

It is unperceptive to dismiss Poe, as Aldous Huxley did, as an example of “vulgarity in literature” and unfair to join Yvor Winters in condemning him as a abed writer accidently and temporarily [column 2:] popular” who has been apretty effectually established as a great writer while we have been sleeping.” On the other hand, Baudelaire was certainly excessively enthusiastic when he described Poe as aalways great not only in his noble conceptions but also as a prankster,” and Paul Valery was extraordinarily naive at the time he found Eureka so educational, stimulating, and profound. Perhaps the ultimate judgment was passed upon Poe by T. S. Eliot, the most ultimate of our modern judges, when he said, “Poe is indeed a stumbling block for the judicial critic.”

He is. Poe is the most widely read and the least reread author in the canon of nineteenth-century American literature. Most people have been attracted to him when they were young and embarrassed in their maturity by his affectations, his pretentiousness, and his seeming obviousness. A succession of French symbolists — Baudelaire (who translated his tales), Mallarme (who translated his poems), and Valery — have paid tribute to him, and through them he has had a wider influence than he has ever gained directly. None of these has known English well enough to be sensitive to what Huxley called his vulgarity, and all have been susceptible to his critical doctrine of art for art’s sake and sympathetic toward a poetry in which meaning is subordinate to music. His stories have been widely influential. Auguste Dupin has reappeared as Sherlock Holmes, Philo Vance, Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe, and with innumerable other aliases, and in the creations of Edagawa Rampo of Japan, who did his master the honor of taking his name. Poe created the formula for the story that ended with a awow,” as Ernest Hemingway described it, which was so popular at the end of the last century; and, in another guise, he has been a major influence upon such writers of fantasy as Ryunosuke Akutagawa and Ray Bradbury. More has been written about his personality than about his works, however, and the alcholic Mr. Poe, the addictive Mr. Poe, the impotent Mr. Poe, the abnormal Mr. Poe, and the theatrical Mr. Poe have become a kaleidoscope of highly-colored interpretations.

My final estimate would be that Poe is an important force in the popular literature to which all writers are, in some degree, sensitive. I find a surprising number of his ideas, for instance, reflected in the writing of Mr. Eliot, and suspect that for one judicial critic, at least, he was not so much a stumbling block as an influence which affected [page 9:] him by processes so shadowy as to have escaped the consciousness. The popular power to be read and the intellectual power to affect the unconscious memory is no small power after all.


[page 9, continued:]


1 - This letter was discovered and its significance observed by Napier Wilt, “Poe’s Attitude Toward His Tales: A New Document,” Modern Philology, 24 (1927), 101-105. Arthur H. Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (New York: Appleton, 1941), pp. 210-212, [column 2:] reprinted the MS. fragment at greater length but, like other Poe scholars, ignored the questions Wilt raised.

2 - Poe’s awareness of this seems to be indicated by the fact that when he reprinted all three pieces in close proximity to each other in the Broadway Journal for 1845, he changed the titles of the first two to “How to Write a Blackwood Article” and UA Predicament.” He apparently did not want his use of the phrase “scythe” of “Time” in the serious story to remind his readers of the satiric piece.

3 - This discussion is in her part of the Alterton and Craig Introduction to Edgar Allan Poe: Representative Selection. (New York: American Book Co., 1935).

4 - “The Literary Uses of Astronomy in the Writings of Edgar Allan Poe,” Diss. University of California at Los Angeles 1965. I trust that the following paragraphs will direct attention to Mrs. Kremenliev’s findings and not merely exploit them, for her study is an important one which should be better known. She is in no way responsible for the inferences I have drawn from it.


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]