Text: Stuart and Susan Levine, “Introduction,” The Collected Writings of Edgar Allan PoeEAP: Eureka (2004), pp. xi-xxvii (This material is protected by copyright)


[page xi:]


A longing swept him like the wind of the muse to understand and transform his beginnings: to see the indestructible nucleus and redemption of creation, the remote and the abstract image and correspondence, in which all things and events gained their substance and universal meaning. However far from him, however distant and removed, he longed to see, he longed to see the atom, the very nail of moment in the universe.

— Wilson Harris, Palace of the Peacock (London, 1960)

Poe's Eureka is a product of the age that also produced Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, Melville's Moby-Dick and Pierre, Thoreau's Walden, the music of Liszt and Wagner, Whitman's Leaves of Grass, and Humboldt's Kosmos, startlingly unconventional works difficult to confine to convenient categories, works intended, indeed, to dissolve boundaries between categories that their creators felt to be oppressive. To some of their creators Poe has direct intellectual ties, to which this introduction and the notes allude, but the larger context, the milieu in which such explosive artifacts were invented, must be borne in mind lest Eureka appear an isolated anomaly, an inexplicable freak. Mention, no more, is all that is appropriate here. Understand that the list of unconventional and rebellious works of that age is arbitrary; the reader may think of others. That was an era of such things.

These introductory remarks are an attempt to characterize one of this group of strange mid-century works. The reader should keep in mind that these comments were written by an editor who, in the course of annotating Eureka, came to see many aspects of how it had been put together. Knowing its seams and stitches, acutely aware of its patchwork fabric, he is perhaps too close to it, too liable to underestimate its impact on those who come to it with less foreknowledge of Poe's methods. Poe intended that impact to be powerful.

For certainly many readers have been moved by Eureka. Paul Valery said that he was grateful to Poe for the scientific briefing and for a glimpse of the emotion behind scientific discovery. “These sciences,” he wrote, “now [page xii:] taught so coldly were founded and developed by men with a passionate interest in their work. Eureka made me feel some of this passion.” The great underlying unity for which Eureka argues has of course been deeply appealing to many. Valery again put it well: “The universe is formed on a plan the profound symmetry of which is present, as it were, in the inner structure of our minds. Hence, the poetic instinct will lead us blindly to the truth.”(1)

This introduction must stress the strong connections between Eureka, the works that Poe used in preparing it, and the rest of his writing. Explaining these connections, however, does not demonstrate that Eureka is merely a collage of ideas and language assembled from the writings of others and from Poe's own work, for it connects to his poetry, criticism, and fiction in another way as well: in it, as in all his best writing, Poe remembered the importance of dramatic impact, of memorable effect. Poe had selected the largest of topics — matter and spirit, science and inspiration, the nature and meaning of the universe, the history and destiny of the world. He meant to bring it all off grandly. If much of the substance of Eureka comes from borrowings familiar to the specialist in Poe, much of its rhetorical tone and its occasional exaltation come from the same sources as that tone and that mood when they appear in work of Melville, Whitman, Wagner, or other inventors of new forms.

This is not to imply that there were no precedents. When Poe called Eureka a poem, he was placing it in a very long tradition of writings that were poetic and were at the same time attempts to grasp the nature of things. In translation, at first hand or through secondary accounts, Poe was familiar with at least some such works. Humboldt's Kosmos, to whose author Eureka is dedicated but that Poe may not have read thoroughly, was a modern example, at once a scientific treatise and a highly charged emotional poetic response to the cosmic environment. Equally emotional was the religiously moralizing scientific rhetoric of J. P. Nichol, much less important intellectually but very well known to Poe, as we shall see.

What Poe engaged in is an ancient, honorable venture. Parmenides of Elea, for example, around 470 B.C.E. — the date is very tenuous — similarly presented his great findings as a poem. Carried by a chariot “on to the resounding road of the Goddess” of Truth, he reported what the goddess [page xiii:] had spoken, axioms about the nature of existence, spirit, matter, oneness, and the heavenly bodies. Poe would not have accepted Parmenides — paragraph 17 of Eureka, indeed, perhaps even alludes to his dicta as examples of axioms that should be challenged — but like Parmenides he began his truth-giving poem with a dramatized journey in quest of knowledge, dealt with the nature of being, and attempted to tie all understanding to a physics and astronomy that showed unity. “Thought and being are the same,” says Parmenides’ goddess. Poe's, too.

There is philosophical precedent as well for Poe's idea of multiple universes and multiple gods ¶87) in the thinking of the presocratic philosopher Anaximander (ca. 610-ca. 546) as his ideas have been transmitted by later Greek and Roman compilers and doxographers. Simplicius (sixth century C.E.), for example, reported, “Those who believed in an unlimited number of worlds, as Anaximander and his associates did, regarded them as coming-to-be and passing away throughout unlimited time” (Wheelwright, The Presocratics, 57). Cicero, in De Natura Deorum, said, “It was the opinion of Anaximander that the gods come into existence and perish, rising and setting at long intervals, and that there are countless worlds” (ibid., 59). In St. Augustine's Civitas Dei, Anaximander is said to have “believed that the worlds, ... are indefinite in number, and they contain everything that would grow upon them by nature. He held further [as Poe would, too] that those worlds are subject to perpetual cycles of alternating dissolution and regeneration” (ibid., 59).

Poe scholars quarrel about how well he knew the classics. Perhaps he knew very little about other than major figures. The matter of parallels with ancient Anaximander, however, suggests several points. First, it shows that Eureka, although strange, was by no means isolated; there is a long tradition of similar works that unify poetic, religious, and scientific approaches to truth. Sometimes they are even congruent in major details. Comparison also suggests that Poe may have had a sense that the Greek philosophy he knew (even his knowledge of Plato seems suspect to some modern scholars, in part because in Poe's era Plato was read differently) was only a flawed remnant of a direct visionary truth that people once had enjoyed intuitively. Poe seems to have toyed with the idea of the existence of a golden age. The ideal creative artist Ellison, in Poe's “The Domain of Arnheim” (1842-47), speaks of how nature as we see it now shows but the flawed remnant of the ideal beauty it once might have embodied. Monos, in the visionary story “The Colloquy of Monos and Una” (1841), says that seer-poets “ponder piningly, yet not unwisely, upon [page xiv:] the ancient days,” when Nature spoke directly. The passage moves, appropriately, to a wistful call for “the pure contemplative spirit and majestic intuition of Plato” (Short Fiction, 108-9, 119-24, esp. 120, 146-47)

It is unlikely that Poe knew what is known or believed of the early Milesian philosopher and cosmologist Anaximander. His name is never mentioned in Poe's work, although there is an allusion to the Ionic school of philosophers to which Aniximander belonged in Poe's satire “How to Write a Blackwood Article” (1838). But because Eureka is dedicated to Humboldt, whose Kosmos is a beautiful and poetic modern scientific work that attempts to unify diverse fields of knowledge, and because Poe seems to have felt that the “proper spirit” for scientific inquiry existed once in ancient Greece, it is worth noting places in which Eureka for whatever reason actually intersects ancient speculative thought. This is because, although available evidence will not support claims of influence or knowledge, it seems likely that Poe had the “ancients” in mind as he wrote Eureka. Monos, in the story just mentioned, explains how occasionally in human history “the poetic intellect — that intellect which we now feel to have been the most exalted of all” has revealed truths that were not available to “the unaided reason” (Short Fiction, 120). The motto of this story is the Mέλλοντα ταûτα, “Mellonta Tauta,” the title of the story Poe incorporated into the opening portions of Eureka (¶11 and ¶174n).

There is no question, then, of at least the association of ideas. Ancient Greece suggested the unity of poetic and scientific vision. The same passage in “The Colloquy of Monos and Una,” incidentally, alludes to “the mystic parable” of the tree of knowledge. Poe had at hand a part of Humboldt's Kosmos; he was cobbling together evidence to support a cosmological insight. Perhaps, to mix metaphors, the ancient vein was open again.

Poe's calling Eureka a prose-poem gives some readers pause. Several overlapping explanations might justify the term. Eureka could be called a poem, first, for reasons that Poe states very plainly in the course of it: “Man cannot long or widely err, if he suffer himself to be guided by his poetical ... instincts.” Moreover, “the Universe ... is ... the most sublime of poems ... . Poetry and Truth are one” (¶237). Supernal beauty and supernal truth are identical, and they are identical with us, because we are made of the stuff of the eternal unity: the particles that constitute us and all the universe began as “unparticled” matter. Mankind carries in its being, then, knowledge of its origin and destiny; Poe's universe is even now returning to unity. Through the ages, Poe writes, occasional sages [page xv:] have brilliantly sensed the nature of reality. He created fictional sages of his own, who speak in some of his visionary stories. They, like the scientists he admires and like all of Poe's truth-givers, are poetically inspired.

Poetic truth-givers appear in stories other than visionary tales as well. Thus in the detective story “The Purloined Letter” (1844) Poe pointedly reveals that the detective Dupin is also a poet. It is he, using poetic gifts, who can solve mysteries that elude the dead and unpoetic logic of the prefect of police. In “The Domain of Arnheim” (1842-47), Ellison can transform the environment to make it embody the Edenic beauty that was the earth's in remote times past. Ellison is a landscape architect because, the narrator explains, the creation of landscape provides the freest scope for the poet. So because poetic inspiration gives truth and is in itself founded in the essence of the universe, Eureka, a book that offers inspired revelation of the true nature of the universe, is a poem.

As the annotations make clear, Eureka is closely intertwined with both Poe's prose and his poetry. The notes point to numerous echoes of his poems, but there are also echoes of his poetic theory. In his criticism, Poe explains how poets deliberately play upon readers’ minds, making associations and constructing effects. In paragraph 188 and elsewhere, he confesses that Eureka is built the same way, poetically, through “graduated impression” rather than through a “merely natural ... arrangement.” One more sense, then, in which it is a “poem,” despite Poe's famous dictum that a long poem is impossible.

At a stage at which Poe seemed not yet to have devised the subtitle A Prose Poem, the notion that Eureka was a poem occurred to a journalist. Hence it is also possible that Poe did not think to call Eureka a poem until the idea was given him by a reviewer in the New York Express, who said, “The work has all the completeness and oneness of plot required in a poem” (Pollin, “Contemporary Reviews of Eureka,” 27).(2)

The notes locate and discuss those sections in Eureka that refer to its poetic nature. This essay, however, seems the proper place to mention a famous contradiction: Poe says emphatically in his criticism that a long poem cannot exist, for no reader can remain for long in the state of high [page xvi:] elevation of soul that is (to Poe) the nature of true poetic response. Eureka cannot be read in one sitting. Yet Poe called it a poem. No matter. If his entitling Eureka a poem is inconsistent with such statements in his criticism, the criticism itself is sometimes contradictory, too. Indeed, Poe's arguments are frequently contradictory throughout his writings.

Yet while the major criticism is sometimes contradictory, it consistently makes use of the same allusions, references, citations, quotations, pet sayings, and turns of phrase. Eureka does as well. Poe's criticism, his other nonfiction prose, and his fiction as well are built from a single storehouse of material. Indeed, Poe sometimes uses the same “example” in different places to support opposite sides of an argument. The relationship between Eureka and Poe's statements of literary theory is especially close, as the notes show.

Four characteristics unite most of Poe's work: the presence of a body of reusable ideas, phrases, allusions, and quotations; an apparent belief in supernal inspiration; a craftsmanlike concern with strong effect; and high intelligence. The first is not substantive, the second is sometimes undercut or parodied. The third and fourth are almost always in evidence. All four are present in Eureka, and their interaction needs to be assessed.

Poe complains in various pieces about transcendentalism in general and about Ralph Waldo Emerson in particular, but he is often philosophically very close to Emerson. Paragraph 22 provides a convenient illustration. In it, Poe's narrator speaks of “the great thoroughfare — the majestic highway of the Consistent. “In his great poem “Blight,” Emerson uses “same” to mean just about what Poe does in paragraph 22 by “consistent”:

The old men studied magic in the flowers,

And human fortunes in astronomy,

And an omnipotence in chemistry,

Preferring things to names, for these were men,

Were unitarians of the united world,

And, wheresoever their clear eye-beams fell,

They caught the footsteps of the SAME. Our eyes

Are armed, but we are strangers to the stars ... .

(Poems, ed. Emerson, 140)

Emerson in fact deals with science just the way Poe does. The complaint of “Blight” is the complaint of Poe's “Sonnet — To Science.” Specialized research by itself is sterile. It lacks the unifying poetic vision that Humboldt and other visionary scientist-artists share. The sources of the vision [page xvii:] are in the nature of the universe itself: we poets sense sameness or consistency because all matter is also spirit, part of the original oneness.(3) Indeed, even Emerson's famous comment about consistency and hobgoblins is worth comparing to Poe, as are the equally famous lines from Emerson's poetic disciple Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes).” Both are matched in paragraph 22; Poe reserves to his poet-scientist the right to be inconsistent, as “our Keplers — our Laplaces” sometimes are. But he is sure that the universe itself is consistent.

To the extent that it is serious, Eureka is a transcendental treatise. If it sounds in passages more like scripture than like scientific exposition, that is just the point. Emerson's scholar, scientist, priest were all the same enlightened person. Poe's, too.

Eureka contains a good deal of satire, but it would not be accurate to call it “a satire”; it has too many other purposes for that label to be appropriate. Much of the material in the early portion of Eureka is used both here and in Poe's satirical story “Mellonta Tauta,” but the satire is by no means limited to the material which Eureka shares with the story. Poe remains playful even in what one would imagine were the most serious passages in Eureka.

In the opening of the story “The Imp of the Perverse” (1845), Poe has a reliable-sounding narrator explain the logical danger of imposing upon reality — in this case, the nature of the human mind — properties that it would be reasonable to expect to find, instead of beginning with properties that can be observed. Poe says in the passage following paragraphs 238 and 239 in Eureka that astronomers make a similar mistake. His rhetoric [page xviii:] in this section strongly reminds one of the argument in the short story: it seems reasonable that there exists a resisting ether; by analogy, one ought to exist. But there is none. In “The Imp of the Perverse,” the plausible narrator who explained the fallacy to us turns out to be insane, a homicidal maniac. Now, the parallel logic in two passages on the nature of scientific assumptions does not prove anything; it would be rash to claim, dogmatically, that Poe gleefully inserted this argument in order to undermine everything he was advocating in Eureka. But one cannot entirely rule out the possibility that the parallel situation was in his mind, either. The notes to Eureka identify so many places where Poe quotes literally from his criticism, his fiction, or his satirical prose or reuses allusions or quotations that had for him connotations that seem foreign to their contexts in this work, that one wonders about his attitude.

To put it differently: one can prove that Poe is playing private literary games in so many places in Eureka that one questions whether to trust anything in the book. Poe played such games throughout his career. It seems to have tickled him to deck out some old trouper of a passage in new clothes and send it onstage in a fresh role. This practice is further evidence of the complexity of his attitude toward Eureka. It should make the reader wary.

Indeed, Poe's practices as a writer raise fundamental questions about his attitude. One has the right to ask whether sometimes his sleight of hand implies a certain underlying contempt for the reader. Was Poe thinking, “The fools will never notice that my great scientific-philosophic-poetic Eureka is really a collage, pasted together from scraps lifted from other writers and my own miscellaneous writings on totally different, mostly inappropriate, subjects”? That is too simple, however. No one such explanation will account for the strangeness of Eureka.

Portions of Eureka, moreover, are simply wild. Paragraph 185, for example, begins with an extended sexual metaphor and ends with a deliberately obscure sentence on genius and madness. This is interesting, for Poe is normally very precise in syntax. When he is not, his “error” is intentional, as when he makes up a syntactically ambiguous title for a work on duelling in his story “Mystification” (Short Fiction, 469). The writing error is deliberate; it is there to “say” that justifications of duelling are nonsense. The plot says the same. Poe is very different in this from the early Melville, whose syntax in the novels published between 1846 and 1852 was splendidly enthusiastic and energetic but not always correct, abounding especially in dangling sentence elements. Melville's prose becomes almost [page xix:] bookishly correct in his magazine work during the 1850s and in the posthumous and incompletely revised Billy Budd. Perhaps this later Melville is instructive for Eureka. One suspects that the few dangling modifiers that remain in Billy Budd are deliberate because they come in places at which Melville had philosophical reasons for obscuring meaning. That may be what is going on in paragraph 185 of Eureka. Caveat lector.

Eureka also contains some bad writing. Poe is so good a craftsman that only readers who know him well will remember comparable lapses.(4) Sometimes the sloppy sections in Eureka deal with issues that seem important to him. Poe's comments on the size of the universe, for instance, are revealing. At the close of the book, in paragraph 266, he says that he feels the universe to be finite in size but that there may be infinite numbers of other universes. That seems consistent with his philosophical stance. In the earlier discussion of the enormous size of the universe (see ¶193, ¶194, and the passages surrounding them), however, Poe was plainly padding, reworking material of only journalistic interest. A sentence or two would have said as much and not have so impeded the flow of the argument. The reader thinks of similarly nonfunctional padding: the pages of deadwood in “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” or the section in Poe's only completed novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1837-38), wherein he goes on for pointless pages explaining the proper method of stowing cargo in the hold of a ship and then fails to use the exposition in his plot. On the subject of cosmic size, Poe could have said that it is hard to visualize such immense distances and let it go at that. The passage he included might be reasonably effective as a popular magazine article or a Sunday feature-section filler but strikes one as inappropriate in a visionary “Poem.” We wonder again about seriousness and intention.

Questioned about the target of some of his fictional satires, Poe responded that the satires did not have just one target but that he was rather hitting out in a number of directions. It is enlightening to bear that in mind in reading Eureka. Poe was likely doing a number of things.

It is impossible ever to be sure when Poe is truly committed to an idea. Eureka comes with serious credentials; Poe made a number of statements about how deeply he believed what he had found. One senses perhaps that to some extent the satire and play are present because they serve to [page xx:] “protect him,” to allow him to say, in effect, “I’m just kidding,” in case what he had done seemed foolish in the eyes of readers and authorities.

Yet such a conclusion is hardly congruent with an important characteristic of this unusual book, its skill and accuracy as scientific summary. Valery was right — Poe is very good at briefing lay readers on the state of knowledge in several fields. Throughout Eureka Poe makes a reasonably conscientious effort to bring his book into line with the latest available information about the nature of the cosmos. This was a difficult job, because in 1848 there was a great deal of “late-breaking news,” even about such seemingly elementary matters as the number of planets and moons in our solar system or in such basic information such as whether nebulæ existed.

Poe attempts also to stake out a little factual and interpretive scientific turf he can call his own. This accounts for the occasional quibbling with authorities and with the popularizer J. P. Nichol. Were Eureka more unified in intention, the quibbling would be unnecessary; Poe could confine himself to a main argument and not bother with fussbudget points on which, as often as not, he is wrong. The “main argument,” we take it, is the one about the essential underlying unity of creation and the rhythm of universal expansion and contraction. Poe argues that gravity is the force by which all matter tries to return to its “normal” state of oneness. Only God's “Volition” caused matter to “radiate” in the first place. So the universe of matter is finite in size and in age and is currently in its second, final, contracting phase. (There may, however, be other universes, other “gods” as already noted — see the very end of Eureka.) Given the grandeur of this scheme, there is inconsistency of tone whenever Poe feels compelled to insist, somewhat shrilly, that he can hold his own with anyone in explaining and interpreting physics and astronomy.

Poe's summary of scientific matters is in general excellent; he understood most available astronomical theory. His summaries of the arguments of different scientists, as the notes indicate, are very competent. The scientific speculation and theorizing are consistently intelligent and no more rhetorically overblown than other comparable statements of the era: Nichol gushes, and Humboldt is very florid. There exists a literature by Poe fans about how Poe predicted twentieth-century physics and astronomy. This does not strike us as a fruitful argument; Poe did not magically predict Einstein or intuit subatomic physics. One can, however, at least say that Poe knew the sorts of basic questions that science was going to face. He did think through intelligently the implications of what [page xxi:] was known in his day. Our notes compare the hypotheses and data in Eureka with contemporary (2004) theory.

Poe had a strong sense that nature would turn out to be unified by some very basic principle. So did Einstein, but that conviction seems to have betrayed Einstein when it came to quantum mechanics. Moreover, at the present writing, the characteristics of the strange new particles being discovered make scientists unsure whether in fact one is going to be able to make broad statements about the ultimate “unity” and nature of either basic processes or of matter. Certainly, Poe does not anticipate “Super-string” theory, the controversial ten-dimensional hypothesis we read about today. But in paragraph 57 he does say that science has not yet named what is most basic to the makeup of the cosmos.

Poe is surprisingly good on some issues. Bruce Twarog, our scientific consultant, says that Poe's understanding of space and time is unusually advanced for his day. His notion that electricity is only part of a complex of forces is also prescient.(5) As Poe's general scheme may loosely be said to be equivalent to the “Big Bang” theory, so his notion of the “reciprocity” of matter and energy (see ¶¶252-53 especially, where Poe is explicit) is roughly akin to the modern understanding of the relationship represented by Einstein's e = mc2. In paragraph 251, Poe even says that if all matter came together, it could not continue to exist: a reader inclined to press the issue could claim that Poe was intuiting something roughly like a black hole.(6) Poe comes close to anticipating astrophysical speculation that the universe is ultimately going to coalesce because it lacks sufficient energy to escape its own gravity. But in general, one cannot take his science and project it literally toward the present. One is not saying [page xxii:] anything very bad about Poe in pointing out that some of his predictions and generalizations are wrong. His well-informed contemporaries, including those in the sciences, made errors as gross as his. Poe's universe contracts; ours is still expanding. But Eureka is very successful as a brief introduction to good mid-century knowledge of the cosmos. Poe was a solid journalist and knew how to gather and splice material of this sort.

Poe also speaks of something he calls the “spiritual ether,” which includes electricity and other forces. Poe's idea of seeing electricity as one among several other forces, as yet not well defined, is an interesting guess or projection; it is not totally unlike what is being learned about the functions of sub-atomic particles. At the present writing, science is more than a little uncertain about whether research is indeed going to find one clear and underlying particle, principle, or unity or whether “first causes” will turn out to be ambiguous, relativistic, and changeable, depending on how the scientist approaches them. Such ambiguity seems to run counter to Poe's assumptions, for he equates God with unity and regularity. On this subject, then, one cannot say, “Poe loosely predicted our present understanding.” At best, one can say, “Poe loosely predicted much of what science believed a few years ago.”

All things considered, it is fair to say that Poe, despite the bunko in Eureka, was thinking in the right directions, certainly speculating creatively.

Moreover, this aspect of Eureka is fascinating, for it lets the reader see how far a good mind furnished with a decent understanding of the best relevant science of the 1840s, and making philosophical assumptions characteristic of that era, could go. During Poe's lifetime the sciences were, by necessity, becoming specialized; earlier, one informed person could be simultaneously at the forefront of what we now consider several sciences; he might also, like Franklin or Jefferson, be important in fields outside of science. Specialization changed all this as Poe and his contemporaries watched. That Poe was a freshman at Jefferson's university and may well have seen the old man when he visited the campus shows with what terrible speed the world had advanced, for multifacted [[multifaceted]] careers on Jefferson's scale had come to be impossible. Indeed, the Romantic movement in literature was largely a protest against just that specialization, an attempt by artists to reassert the power of the arts as a path not just to beauty but to universal truths as well. Hence Shelley's “A Defense of Poetry” (1822), Emerson's “Blight,” and many of the Poe works cited in the notes. They are cited generally because Eureka shares ideas, phrases, allusions, [page xxiii:] strings of association, and in one case entire pages of prose with them. As already noted, this connection shows how Poe reuses material, but it may indicate more. Many of the works that echo in Eureka are about the nature of inspiration and the perception of truth, beauty, and ultimate knowledge. (Poe, however, is also on the other side; always contradictory, it is he who asserts that “Beauty,” not “Truth,” is a poet's province, thus apparently accepting for the poet the specialized role of producer of pretties and no more.)

Eureka must in part be seen as a component of the movement to reclaim the artist's credentials: the artist alone could see underlying unities. Poe's praise for figures in science history — such as Humboldt — who had the poetic gift and could therefore generalize powerfully is important; Poe unquestionably hopes that Eureka will put him in their number — while at the same time hedging in order to protect his psyche in case Eureka fails.

Poetic insight was indispensable if science were to be creative. But Poe knew that the sciences were bestowing benefits, too. He speaks in Eureka of how spirit and matter are one. It seemed to most informed people in Poe's day that science was in fact providing material proof of spirituality. The popularized embodiments of the idea — quack Mesmerism, spiritualism, and, a little later, Christian Science — suggest how widespread such notions were. That electricity played a large part in the workings of the human nervous system was well known and very suggestive. The telegraph, developed and implemented in Poe's maturity, was understood as an analogous device. The relationship of magnetism to electricity had been long since established. Perhaps “animal magnetism,” studied seriously before it fell to charlatans, was based on a cosmic principle of the greatest importance: spirit and matter indeed would turn out to be the same. The passages in paragraphs 132 and 154, in which Poe repeats his idea about the relationship between gravity and electricity, are important for understanding the sense of educated people in Poe's generation that science would shortly prove spirituality. As Poe writes, “The Body and the Soul walk hand in hand.”

The idea that science provided material proof of spirituality received widespread circulation in the century preceding Eureka. As George Woodberry(7) and Carol Maddison (“Poe's Eureka”) point out, Roger Joseph Boscovich's Theoria Philosophiae Naturalis redacta ad unicam legem virium in [page xxiv:] natura existentium (Vienna, 1758), which speculated about attraction and repulsion in an attempt to reconstruct a godly universe out of hints in Newton, was enormously popular and widely known. Maddison does not establish that Poe knew it; indeed, Poe nowhere mentioned Boscovich's name (Pollin, Dictionary of Names and Titles), and, in point of fact, Boscovich's theory is not very much like the theory of repulsion as “soul” that Poe develops in paragraph 55 and following (see especially ¶58). But it is simply true that romantic intellectuals thought along such lines: Newtonian gravity suggested “holistic” theories for the cosmos; electricity seemed at once physical and spiritual.

The overthrow of the phlogiston theory and its replacement by a chemistry that recognized oxygen serves to symbolize transformations in a number of basic sciences at approximately the turn of the nineteenth century. Modernization theorists point out that that is also the era in which the characteristics of modernization — such as specialization, industrialization, and urbanization — begin to transform our society.(8) Eureka is a document of the first generation in human history to have the new sciences, instantaneous communication, machine-powered transportation. It is an attempt, whatever its seriousness, to generalize broadly and poetically as great science had in the past, to deal with the bewildering torrent of new data in terms that would allow a position of honor and power to the truth-giver, the inspired poet-scientist.

It is thus akin to such diverse attempts to understand the changed world as Humboldt's Kosmos, romantic poetry, transcendentalism, and even the new religions that sprang up in the United States at mid-century. Its contents and its argument would not have been as shocking for many readers as one might suppose; many people were in fact accustomed to encountering the idea that science and spirit might be compatible. What is known of the reception of lecture and book bear this out, as does the fact that Eureka did not cause nearly the sensation that Poe hoped it would.

Readers are familiar with popularized accounts of the appearances of masterpieces that say that contemporary critical reception was hostile because the works ruffled feathers or because reviewers were somehow not ready for or unable to understand them. Herman Melville again provides convenient comparison, for older discussions of Melville generally make such statements about the contemporary reception of Moby-Dick. But [page xxv:] to tell the truth, although the great book of course failed to find a large contemporary audience, a close look at all the reviews that greeted it shows that some were more accurate than one might expect. Although Moby-Dick did receive hostile notices, it also received several that were very favorable; some individual readers, moreover, fully understood what Melville had set out to do. Hawthorne understood, and Melville responded with a supremely exultant letter.

It is by no means clear that Eureka is a comparable masterpiece. But as a matter of fact, although Poe was done an injustice, contemporary reception of Eureka by and large will strike many modern readers as just and accurate. There exists an excellent overview of the contemporary reviews (Pollin, “Contemporary Reviews of Eureka”). The Home Journal said, “Poe boldly disavows induction for his theory of the universe in favor of scientific inspiration. All is attraction and repulsion in this suggestive work of phantasy, sounding like the Vestiges of Creation and close in ideas to Swedenborg's.” A Swedenborgian publication notes ways in which Poe approximates Emanuel Swedenborg but complains about “pantheism.” There is a strongly laudatory review in the New York Evening Express, which Pollin summarizes: “The most elaborate and profound lecture ever heard, unified in thought and ‘in plot’ like ‘a poem’ but with the detail and accuracy of a scientific lecture. Summarizes the theory and argument in florid metaphors and calls it an extraordinary work of ‘Art,’ of searching analysis, metaphysical acumen, and unsurpassed passion for ideals, from a man whose uncommon powers are still growing.” Even a generally condemnatory long review in the Literary World by John H. Hopkins, Jr., is wary because Hopkins thinks that Eureka might “be a scientific hoax from the ingenious narrator of ‘The Maelstrom.’ ” There is similar hedging in a review by an Amherst student, John Milton Emerson, in a college magazine, the Amherst Indicator; the review is snide, but the reviewer confesses uncertainty in matters scientific (Walker, Edgar Allan Poe).

Pollin writes that the space accorded in New York City newspapers to Poe's lecture is small when one compares it to the space awarded to coverage of J. P. Nichol's series of talks on astronomy or to another course of lectures, this on biblical history by a man named Enoch Cobb Wines, running at the same time. Still, looking over the reviews and thinking both of the very peculiar nature of Poe's lecture and book and the spate of puzzling new works that appeared at that time, it is hard not to feel that contemporary reviewers on the whole did a very decent job of describing and assessing Eureka. [page xxvi:]

The Publication of Eureka

A useful article by Burton R. Pollin reviews what is known about how Eureka was published (“Contemporary Views of “Eureka”): what was to have been a lecture tour to promote a magazine that Poe had been trying to found was reduced to a single talk in New York. The content of the presentation perhaps changed from Poe's essay “The Rationale of Verse” to his nearly completed Eureka (or, as Pollin jokes, “from verse to universe”).

Poe enlisted friends to help fund and publicize the event, but dreadful weather, competing lectures, and a colleague's forgetfulness limited the turnout. Still, some hardy journalists who had press passes attended, and there were write-ups in the newspapers. Pollin judiciously calls these “mildly favorable,” but they might have convinced Poe to take the manuscript when he completed it to the publisher, Putnam. There is some epistolary evidence (Poe, Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Ostrom, 361, 363, 364, 365) of Poe's publication plans. The talk came on February 3, 1848, a book contract in May, and the book appeared in late June.

Variations in the title, Pollin figures, reflect first, the lecture title (on the spine, the book is called Eureka or the Universe); and, second, a phrase from one of the reviews — “The work has all the completeness and oneness of plot required in a poem.” (On the half-title page the wording is Eureka: A Prose Poem) (Poe, The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Stedman and Woodberry, 376.)

Moreover, Pollin was correct in saying that if Poe is behind the differences between the full title (Eureka: An Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe) and the title given in the Putnam advertisements (Eureka: A. Prose Poem. Or the Physical and Metaphysical Universe), the difference is important.

The Pollin article also points to the language of a review in the New-World in which the writer speaks of Poe's “select and nervous diction” and “lofty language” (“Empedocles in Poe,” 378). Those phrases very forcibly suggest the famous passage in chapter sixteen of Moby-Dick that includes the phrase “a bold and nervous lofty language.” There is likely a trail running between the two passages, for Melville, like Poe, had strong ties to New York journalism. That issue is beyond the proper scope of this introduction but serves to remind readers again that Eureka is of its time and place.

Considering connections, influences, and borrowings should not diminish Eureka but rather make it less strange. It is plainly a product of [page xxvii:] the science of the day and of a moment in the history of science when the promise of science seemed cosmically bright. It is a product of the history of philosophy. It is a product of a critical moment in literary history as well, when the artist felt threatened as never before. If its tone seems to modern readers to run to excess, they should compare it to the contemporary documents to which it refers. The Kosmos of Humboldt is at least as passionate and poetic. Nothing in Eureka approaches the craziness of the writings of E M. C. Fourier. When Joseph Wood Krutch wrote that Poe's “works bear no conceivable relation, either external or internal, to the life of any people” and that “it is impossible to account for them on the basis of any social or intellectual tendencies or as the expression of the spirit of any age,” he was simply wrong (Edgar Allan Poe, 192, 193). Eureka is a window on the 1840s.



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

1. The quotations are from Malcom Cowley's translation of “Au sujet d’Eurêka,” quoted in Carlson, ed., Recognition, 103-10 (quotations on 105 and 106), from Variety 1 (1927): 123-37. Cowley's text was Valery's preface to the Baudelaire translation of Eurêka (1921) from Variété 1 (1923).

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

2. Burton R. Pollin (BRP) also points out a number of passages in Eureka in which Poe uses language poetically. Of the phrase “partial and pain-intertangled pleasures” in paragraph 266, for example, he writes, “This phrase, based on its poignant Poe-created compound, is composed of iambic rhythms and cleverly mingles plosives (e.g., ‘13’ and ‘t’) which help toward the general “prose poem” effect that Poe promised in his subtitle.” Both kindly and conscientious is Barbara Cantalupo's “Eureka: Poe's ‘Novel Universe,’ ” a discussion of reactions to Eureka. It covers this debate about how to classify Eureka and other areas of confusion.

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

3. Speaking of paragraphs 215, 235, and 236, BRP has asked whether the basic mood of Eureka is euphoric or pessimistic because the “ ‘fulfillment’ of God's plan will mean the death of the universe and the extinction of human life. This accords with the frequent tone of despair, with the contemplation of the happiness of man's soul only after death (as in the ‘Heavenly Dialogue’ tales) and with the sickly and morbid nature and tone of many of his characters and settings, both in fiction and poetry. By maintaining an astronomic distance — as the observer in Eureka — he manages to adduce a rapturous appreciation of the divine plot, but it must encompass the termination, as Poe held true also, of man's artistic planning.” BRP wonders why Poe “excludes ordinary human considerations from his contemplation of the ‘perfect plot’ of creation which leads back to the ‘unity’ of the original particle. He therefore ignores the death of all species, including the human, as being a deplorable consummation of the creative plan.” The answer is easy to provide, although, of course, it is not satisfactory to the reader who does not accept Poe's mystical-materialistic premises. If man is of the stuff of the original atom and that atom and the godhead are the same, if matter and spirit are one, then man is not destroyed when the universe returns to its original state; he rather is reunited (“rëunited”?). Matter and spirit “go hand in hand,” as they do in mystical thought and in Poe's apocalyptic tales.

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

4. BRP, who certainly knows Poe well, points out numerous instances in Collected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (e.g., the Introduction to The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, 1:7-8 passim). This is a different matter, probably, from the complaints of critics who simply find Poe's writing overdone, excessive, and vulgar. Aldous Huxley's Vulgarity in Literature is a case in point.

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

5. Might Poe have seen comparable ideas in the writings of Michael Faraday (1791-1861) (BRP)? That is possible, reports Twarog, who adds that because Faraday's “suggestions were quite original and primarily conjecture,” Poe's statements would show an unusual degree of insight even were they in response to Faraday. The mathematical work that carried Faraday's speculation beyond conjecture was done much later, long after Poe's death, by James Clerk Maxwell (1831-79).

6. Black holes in a sense much closer to the modern concept had been postulated before Eureka, as BRP points out. Laplace, in the early editions of The System of the World (Paris, 1796, 1799 and later; in English, London, 1809, 1830, etc.) speculated about the possibility of a star so large and dense that its gravitational field would prevent the escape of its own light: “any light emitted from the surface of the star would be dragged back by the star's gravitational attraction before it could get very far.” We quote the summary of the issue given by Hawking (A Brief History of Time, 82). Hawking points out (81-82) that the idea had been suggested independently by John Mitchell in 1783. But in fact that is not what Poe was saying in paragraph 251; Poe is talking about the end of the universe, the final coalescence with the godhead.

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

7. For Woodberry, see Poe, The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Edmund Clarence Stedman and George Woodberry.

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

8. A full discussion of Poe in terms of Modernization Theory appears in Levine, “Poe and Society,” which includes explanation of relevant aspects of Modernization Theory and a list of introductory works in the field.







[S:0 - SSLER, 2004] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - EAP: Eureka (S. and S. Levine) (Introduction)