Text: Robert A. Stewart (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Notes to The Power of Words,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. VI: Tales - part 05 (1902), 6:285-287


[page 285:]



The text follows the Broadway Journal. The text shows one or two verbal changes from the earlier state. Griswold varies in the punctuation only.

Variations of Democratic Review from text.

Page 139 l. 20 — attempt (o. d.) page 140 l. 7 it (it,) l. 15 me! (! —) page 141 l. 22 airy (o. c.) page 142 l. 32 comets (nebulae) l. 33 — he (,) page 143 l. 16 creates? (.) l. 17 must: (—) l. 32 fairy (faery) page 144 l. 2 with (, with).

Variations of Griswold from text.

Page 139 l. 5 ask (, ask) l. 12 all (all,) page 140 l. 7 it (it,) l. 15 me! (I —) page 142 l. 13 interest, (o. c.) l. 27 or (or,) page 143 l. 11 earths — (:) l. 28 weep? (weep) l. 29 why — (,) page 144 l. 1 since (since,).


Note by Prof. W. Le Conte Stevensy Washington and Lee University.

THE gist of this colloquy is contained in the last paragraph of it, where Agathos says, “This wild star — it is three centuries since ... I spoke it — with a few passionate sentences — into birth. Its brilliant flowers are the dearest of all unfulfilled dreams, and its raging volcanoes are the passions of the most turbulent and unhallowed of hearts.”

To compare a flower with an unfulfilled dream, or a volcano with the passions of the heart is entirely legitimate as a poetic simile. But the author wishes to convey some idea about the “physical power”of words, and reminds [page 286:] us that ‘’as no thought can perish, so no act is without infinite result” It would be as easy to deny the proposition that “no thought can perish” as to make the assertion. Neither denial nor assertion is capable of proof. To say that “no act is without infinite result” is equally gratuitous. The author's attempt at physical reasoning on the page which follows is made apparently with no regard to the conservation of energy, and with no knowledge of the limitations of interpretation to be observed in mathematical analysis. He says “We moved our hands, ... and in so doing we gave vibration to the atmosphere which engirdled it. This vibration was indefinitely extended, till it gave impulse to every particle of the earth's air, which thenceforward, and for ever, was actuated by the one movement of the hand. This fact the mathematicians of our globe well know.”

Let us assume that the motion of the hand is accomplished with such energy as to produce a wave, of “vibration,” and that the energy is measurable; that the power exerted is equal, for example, to that of lifting a pound through the height of a foot in one second. This energy is quickly propagated in all directions with decreasing intensity according to a well-known physical law. At a short distance, such as a few miles, or hundreds of miles, the intensity vanishes completely. By this we mean that there is no agency known to human beings by which its existence at any greater distance can be apprehended. Any conclusions about it are based on ignorance rather than knowledge. The intensity becomes an infinitesimal of the second or third or nth order; an infinitely small fraction of what is already infinitely small. Let us grant that an omnipotent being, an omniscient intelligence, can take up any such effect at an infinite distance and trace it back unerringly to its source in the midst of an infinitely large number of other disturbances of infinitely great variety of intensity. Then still we are confronted with the fact that the import of a word has no recognizable relation to the physical process of the propagation [page 287:] of sound through air. The air moreover extends but a few miles above the earth's surface, and there is no physical evidence that sound is propagated through an imponderable ether, as the author assumes, or seems to assume, nor that the “source of all motion is thought.”

The author's idea is hence capable of but a single interpretation. It is the deduction of positive conclusions from negative premises, and hence utterly worthless so far as its relation to science is concerned. But Poe evidently had no more idea that his writings would be subjected to scientific analysis than did “Munchausen.” Between the two there is no comparison, so far as refinement and genius are concerned. But they are about equally independent in neglecting the laws of scientific evidence.





[S:0 - JAH06, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Notes to The Power of Words)