Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. E. C. Stedman and G. E. Woodberry), “Notes,” The Works of Edgar Allan Poe, New York: Stone and Kimball, vol. IX, 1895, pp. 293-317


[page 293:]




EUREKA: | A Prose Poem. | By Edgar A. Poe | New York. | G. P. Putnam, | 155 Broadway | 1848. Issued in boards.

Collation: titlepage, with copyright and imprint on verso, pp. 1-2; Dedication with blank verso, pp. 3-4; Preface, with blank verso, pp. 5-6; Eureka, pp. 7-143.

The text of “Eureka” adopted in this edition is that of Poe’s annotated copy, upon the margin of which he had made a thorough and minute revision.

The following Addenda to “Eureka” was enclosed to G. W. Eveleth, Esq., in a letter, Feb. 29, 1848, summarizing the lecture (Ingram’s “Life of Poe,” ii. pp. 139-142). It is now published from a copy of the manuscript. A few words at the end of the letter introduce it.


“By the bye, lest you infer that my views, in detail, are the same with those advanced in the Nebular Hypothesis, I venture to offer a few Addenda, the substance of which was penned, but never printed, several years ago, under the head of —


“As soon as the beginning of the next century it will be entered in the books that the Sun was originally condensed, at once, not gradually according to the supposition [page 294:] of Laplace, into his smallest size; that, thus condensed, he rotated on an axis; that this axis of rotation was not the centre of his figure, so that he not only rotated, but revolved in an elliptical orbit (the rotation and revolution are one, but I separate them for convenience of illustration); that, thus formed and thus revolving, he was on fire and sent into space his substance in the form of vapor, this vapor reaching farthest on the side of the larger hemisphere, partly on account of the largeness, but principally because the force of the fire was greater here; that, in due time, this vapor, not necessarily carried then to the place now occupied by Neptune, condensed into that planet; that Neptune took, as a matter of necessity, the same figure that the Sun had, which figure made his rotation a revolution in an elliptical orbit; that, in consequence of such revolution — in consequence of his being carried backward at each of the daily revolutions — the velocity of his annual revolution is not so great as it would be, if it depended solely upon the Sun’s velocity of rotation (Kepler’s third law); that his figure, by influencing his rotation — the heavier half, as it turns downward toward the Sun, gains an impetus sufficient to carry it by the direct line of attraction, and thus to throw outward the centre of gravity — gave him power to save himself from falling to the Sun (and, perhaps, to work himself gradually outward to the position he now occupies); that he received, through a series of ages, the Sun’s heat, which penetrated to his centre, causing volcanoes eventually and thus throwing off vapor, and which evaporated substances upon his surface, till his moons and his gaseous ring (if it is true that he has a ring) were produced; that these moons took elliptical forms, rotated, and revolved ‘both under one,’ were kept in their monthly orbits by the centrifugal force acquired in their daily (moon-day) orbits, and required a longer time to make their monthly revolutions than they would have, if they had had no daily revolutions. [page 295:]

“I have said enough, without referring to the other planets, to give you an inkling of my hypothesis, which is all I intended to do. I did not design to offer any evidence of its reasonableness; since I have not, in fact, any collected, excepting as it is flitting in the shape of a shadow to and fro within my brain.

“You perceive that I hold to the idea that our Moon must rotate upon her axis oftener than she revolves round her primary, the same being the case with the moons accompanying Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus.

“Since the penning, a closer analysis of the matter contained has led me to modify somewhat my opinion as to the origin of the satellites — that is, I hold now that these came, not from vapor sent off in volcanic eruptions and by simple diffusion under the solar rays, but from rings of it which were left in the inter-planetary spaces after the precipitation of the primaries. There is no insuperable obstacle in the way of the conception that meteoric stones and ‘shooting-stars’ have their source in matter which has gone off from volcanoes and by common evaporation; but it is hardly supposable that a sufficient quantity could be produced thus to make a body so large as, by centrifugal force resulting from rotation, to withstand the absorptive power of its parent’s rotation. The event implied may take place not until the planets have become flaming suns — from an accumulation of their own Sun’s caloric, reaching from centre to surface, which shall in the lonesome latter days melt all the elements and dissipate the solid foundations out as a scroll.

the “Sun forms, in rotating, a vortex in the ether surrounding him. The planets have their orbits lying within this vortex at different distances from its centre; so that their liabilities to be absorbed by it are, other things being equal, inversely just according to those distances, since length, not surface, is the measure of the absorptive power along the lines marking the orbits. Each planet overcomes [page 296:] its liability — that is, keeps in its orbit — through a counter-vortex generated by its own rotation. The force of such counter-vortex is measured by multiplying together the producing planet’s density and rotary velocity; which velocity depends, not upon the length of the planet’s equatorial circumference, but upon the distance through which a given point of the equator is carried during a rotary period. Then if Venus and Mercury, for example, have now the orbits in which they commenced their revolutions — the orbit of the former 68 million miles, and that of the latter 37 million miles, from the centre of the Sun’s vortex; if the diameter of Venus is 2 2/3 times the diameter, and her density is the same with the density of Mercury; and if the rotary velocity of the equator of Venus is 1,000 miles per hour, that of Mercury is 1,900 miles per hour, making the diameter of his orbit of rotation 14,500 miles — nearly five times that of himself. — But I pass this point without farther examination. Whether there is or is not a difference in the relative conditions of the different planets sufficient to cause such a diversity in the extents of their peripheries of rotation as is indicated, still each planet is to be considered to have, other things being equal, a vortical resistance bearing the same proportion, inversely, to that of every other planet which its distance from the centre of the solar vortex bears to the distance of every other from the same; so that, if it be removed inward or outward from its position, it will increase or diminish that resistance, accordingly, by adding to or subtracting from its speed of rotation. As the rotary period must be one in the two cases, the greater or less speed can be produced only by the lengthening or the shortening of the circumference described by the rotation.

“Then Mercury, at the distance of Venus, would rotate in an orbit only 37/68 as broad as the one in which he does rotate; so his centrifugal force, in that position, would be only as great as it is in his own position; so his capability, while there, of resisting the forward pressure of the [page 297:] Sun’s vortex, which prevents him from passing his full (circle) distance behind his centre of rotation and thus adds to his velocity in his annual orbit, would be but 37/68 what it is in his own place. But this forward pressure is only 37/68 as great at the distance of Venus as it is at that of Mercury. Then Mercury, with his own rotary speed in the annual orbit of Venus, would move in this orbit but 68/37 as fast as Venus moves in it; while Venus, with her rotary speed in Mercury’s annual orbit, would move as fast as she moves in her own — that is, 68/37 of 68/37 as fast as Mercury would move in the same (annual orbit of Venus); it follows that the square root of 68/37 is the measure of the velocity of Mercury in his own annual orbit with his own rotary speed, compared with that of Venus in her annual orbit with her rotary speed — in accordance with fact.

“Such is my explanation of Kepler’s first and third laws, which laws cannot be explained upon the principle of Newton’s theory.

“Two planets, gathered from portions of the Sun’s vapor into one orbit, would rotate through the same ellipse with velocities proportional to their densities — that is, the denser planet would rotate the more swiftly; since, in condensing, it would have descended farther toward the Sun. For example, suppose the Earth and Jupiter to be the two planets in one orbit. The diameter of the former is 8,000 miles; period of rotation, 24 hours. The diameter of the latter is 88,000 miles; period, 9 1/2 hours. The ring of vapor out of which the Earth was formed, was of a certain (perpendicular) width; that out of which Jupiter was formed, was of a certain greater width. In condensing, the springs of ether lying among the particles (these springs having been latent before the condensation began) were let out, the number of them along any given radial line being the number of spaces among all the couples of the particles constituting the line. If the two condensations had gone on in simple diametric proportions, [page 298:] Jupiter would have put forth only 11 times as many springs as the Earth did, and his velocity would have been but 11 times her velocity. But the fact that the falling-downward of her particles was completed when they had got so far that 24 hours were required for her equator to make its rotary circuit; while that of his particles continued till but about 2/5 of her period was occupied by his equator in effecting its revolution; shows that his springs were increased above hers in still another ratio of 2 1/2, making, in the case, his velocity and his vortical force (2 1/2 X 11 =) 27 times her velocity and force.

“Then the planets’ densities are inversely as their rotary periods; and their rotary velocities and degrees of centrifugal force are, other things being equal, directly as their densities.

“Two planets, revolving in one orbit, in rotating, would approach the Sun, therefore enlarge their rotary ellipses, therefore accelerate their rotary velocities, therefore increase their powers of withstanding the influence of the solar vortex inversely according to the products of their diameters into their densities — that is, the smaller and less dense planet, having to resist an amount of influence equal to that resisted by the other, would multiply the number of its resisting springs by the ratios of the other’s diameter and density to the diameter and density of itself. Thus, the Earth, in Jupiter’s orbit, would have to rotate in an ellipse 27 times as broad as herself, in order to make her power correspond with his.

“Then the breadths, in a perpendicular direction, of the rotary ellipses of the planets in their several orbits are inversely as the products obtained by multiplying together the bodies’ densities, diameters, and distances from the centre of the solar vortex. Thus, the product of Jupiter’s density, diameter, and distance being (2 1/2 times 11 times 5 1/4 =) 140 times the product of the Earth’s density, diameter and distance, the breadth of the latter’s ellipse is about 1,120,000 miles; this upon the foundation, of [page 299:] course, that Jupiter’s ellipse coincides with his own equatorial diameter.

“It will be observed that that process, in its last analysis, presents the point that rotary speed (hence that vortical force) is in exact inverse proportion to distance. Then, since the movement in orbit is a part of the rotary movement — being the rate at which the centre of the rotary ellipse is carried along the line marking the orbit — and since that centre and the planet’s centre are not identical, the former being the point around which the latter revolves, causing, by the act, a relative loss of time in the inverse ratio of the square root of distance, as I have shown back; the speed in orbit is inversely according to the square root of distance. Demonstration — The Earth’s orbital period contains 365 1/4 of her rotary periods. During these periods her equator passes through a distance of (1,120,000 X V- X 365 1/4 =) about 1,286 million miles: and the centre of her rotary ellipse, through a distance of (95,000,000 X 2 X V =) about 597 million miles. Jupiter’s orbital period has (365 1/4 X 22/7 X 12 years =) about 10,957 of his rotary periods, during which his equator courses (88,000 X 22/7 X 10,957 =) about 3,050 million miles; and the centre of his rotary ellipse, about the same number of miles (490,000,000 X 2 X 22/7). Dividing this distance by 12 (3,050,000,000/12 =) gives the length of Jupiter’s double-journey during one of the Earth’s orbital periods = 254 million miles — relative velocities in ellipse (jsvt ==) 5 + to 1, which is inversely as the distances; and relative velocities in orbit (597/254 =) 2 + to 1, inversely as the square roots of the distances.

the “Sun’s period of rotation being 25 days, his density is only T*T of that of a planet having a period of 24 hours — that of Mercury, for instance. Hence Mercury had, for the purpose now in view, virtually, a diameter equal to a little more than TV of that of the Sun (888,000/22 = 35,520; 35,520/3,000 = 11.84; 888.000/11.84 — say 75,000 miles. [page 300:]

“Here we have a conception of the planet in the mid-stage, so to speak, of its condensation — after the breaking-up of the vaporous ring which was to produce it, and just at the taking-on of the globular form. But before the arrival at this stage, the figure was that of a truck, the vertical diameter of which is identifiable in the periphery of the globe (75,000 X 22/7 =) 236 thousand miles. Halfway down this diameter the body settled into its (original) orbit — rather, would have settled, had it been the only one, besides its parent, in the Solar-System — an orbit distant from the Sun’s equator (236,000/2) = 118 thousand miles; and from the centre of the solar vortex (118,000 + 888,000/2 =), 562 thousand miles. To this are to be added, successively, the lengths of the semi-diameters of the trucks of Venus, of the Earth — and so on outward.

“There, the planet’s original distances — rather, speaking strictly, the widths from the common centre to the outer limits of their rings of vapor — are pointed at. From them as foundations, the present distances may be deduced. A simple outline of the process to the deduction is this: Neptune took his orbit first; then Uranus took his. The effect of the coming into closer conjunction of the two bodies was such as would have been produced by bringing each so much nearer the centre of the solar vortex. Each enlarged its rotary ellipse and increased its rotary velocity in the ratio of the decrease of distance. A secondary result — the final consequence — of the enlargement and the increase was the propulsion of each outward, the square root of the relative decrease being the measure of the length through which each was sent. The primary result of course was the drawing of each inward; and it is fairly presumable that there were oscillations inward and outward, outward and inward, during several successive periods of rotation. It is probable — at any rate, not glaringly improbable — that, in the oscillations across the remnants of the rings of vapor (the natural inference is that these were not completely gathered [page 301:] into the composition of the bodies), portions of the vapor were whirled into satellites, which followed in the passage outward. Saturn’s ring (I have no allusion to the rings now existing), as well as that of each of the other planets after him, while it was gradually being cast off from the Sun’s equator, was carried along in the track of its next predecessor, the distance here being the full quotient (not the square root of the quotient) found in dividing by the breadth of its own periphery that to the periphery of the other. Thus, reckoning for Uranus a breadth of 14 million miles and for Saturn one of 14 million miles, the latter (still in his vaporous state) was conducted outward (through a sort of capillary attraction) 14/17 as far as the former (after condensation) was driven by the vortical influence of Neptune. The new body and the two older bodies interchanged forces, and another advance outward (of all three) was made. Combining all of the asteroids into one of the Nine Great Powers, there were eight stages of the general movement away from the centre; and, granting that we have exact the diameters and the rotary periods (that is, the densities) of all of the participants in the movement, the measurement of each stage, by itself, and of all the stages together, can be calculated exactly.

“How will that do for a postscript?”

In lieu of a critical preface to “Eureka,” the following account of its composition, together with a criticism of it, the more technical portions of which were furnished by Prof. Irving Stringham of the University of California, is reprinted from the present writer’s biography of Poe.

“With the view of raising the money to make a personal canvass for ‘The Stylus,’ Poe advertised a lecture in the Society Library, on the ‘Cosmogony of the Universe,’ and at his request Willis besought public favor for it in his paper, the ‘Home Journal,’ and added a good [page 302:] word for the projected ‘Stylus,’ the founding of which was said to be the ultimate object of the lecture. On February third, in response to these notices, about sixty persons assembled, the night unfortunately being stormy, and, it is said, were held entranced for two hours and a half by an abstract of ‘Eureka.’

the “lecture was imperfectly reported by a few of the city papers, but made no impression. Financially it had failed of its purpose, and therefore Poe, seeing no better means of obtaining funds, determined to publish the entire work, and at once offered it to Mr. Putnam, who many years afterward wrote an account of the interview, which, though doubtless essentially true, seems to be colored. He says that Poe was in a tremor of excitement, and declared with intense earnestness and solemnity that the issue of the book was of momentous interest, that the truths disclosed in it were of more consequence than the discovery of gravitation, and that an edition of fifty thousand copies would be but a beginning. Mr. Putnam confesses that he was impressed, and two days later accepted the manuscript. An addition of five hundred copies was printed without delay and published early in the summer, in good form, under the title ‘Eureka; A Prose Poem,’ and introduced by the well-known preface, which closed with these words — ‘It is as a Poem only that I wish this work to be judged after I am dead.’

the “speculative activity of Poe’s mind grew out of its analytical activity; the metaphysical essays virtually begin when the ratiocinative tales end, in 1845, and thus in the history of Poe’s mental development, ‘Eureka,’ the principal work of his last years, necessarily occupies an important place. The earliest indication that such topics occupied his mind occurs in the review of Macaulay’s ‘Essays’: ‘That we know no more to-day of the nature of Deity — of its purposes — and thus of man himself — than we did even a dozen years ago — is a proposition disgracefully absurd; and of this any astronomer could assure [page 303:] Mr. Macaulay. Indeed, to our own mind, the only irrefutable argument in support of the soul’s immortality — or, rather, the only conclusive proof of man’s alternate dissolution and rejuvenescence ad infinitum — is to be found in analogies deduced from the modern established theory of the nebular cosmogony.’ Shortly after this utterance the metaphysical tales begin, but the speculations of Poe were not fully developed until the publication of ‘Eureka.’

“Poe’s hypothesis is as follows: The mind knows intuitively — by inductive or deductive processes which escape consciousness, elude reason, or defy expression — that the creative act of Deity must have been the simplest possible; or, to expand and define this statement, it must have consisted in willing into being a primordial particle, the germ of all things, existing without relations to aught, or, in the technical phrase, unconditioned. This particle, by virtue of the divine volition, radiated into space uniformly in all directions a shower of atoms of diverse form, irregularly arranged among themselves, but all, generally speaking, equally distant from their source; this operation was repeated at intervals, but with decreased energy in each new instance, so that the atoms were impelled less far. On the exhaustion of the radiating force, the universe was thus made up of a series of concentric hollow spheres, like a nest of boxes, the crusts of the several spheres being constituted of the atoms of the several discharges. The radiating force at each of its manifestations is measured by the number of atoms then thrown off; or, since the number of atoms in any particular case must have been directly proportional with the surface of the particular sphere they occupied, and since the surfaces of a series of concentric spheres are directly proportional with the squares of their distances from the centre, the radiating force in the several discharges was directly proportional with the squares of the distances to which the several atomic showers were driven. [page 304:]

“On the consummation of this secondary creative act, as the diffusion may be called, there occurred, says Poe, a recoil, a striving of the atoms each to each in order to regain their primitive condition; and this tendency, which is now being satisfied, is expressed in gravitation, the mutual attraction of atoms with a force inversely proportional with the squares of the distances. In other words, the law of gravitation is found to be the converse of the law of radiation, as would be the case if the former energy were the reaction of the latter as is claimed; furthermore, the distribution of the atoms in space is seen to be such as would result from the mode of diffusion described. The return of the atoms into their source, however, would take place too rapidly, adds Poe, and without accomplishing the Deity’s design of developing out of the original homogeneous particle the utmost heterogeneity, were it not that God, in this case a true Deus ex machina, has interposed by introducing a repelling force which began to be generated at the very inception of the universal reaction, and ever becomes greater as the latter proceeds. Poe names this force electricity, while at the same time he suggests that light, heat, and magnetism are among its phases, and ascribes to it all vital and mental phenomena; but of the principle itself he makes a mystery, since he is intuitively convinced that it belongs to that spiritual essence which lies beyond the limits of human inquiry. In the grand reaction, then, the universe is through attraction becoming more condensed, and through repulsion more heterogeneous. Attraction and repulsion taken together constitute our notion of matter; the former is the physical element, the Body, the latter is the spiritual element, the Soul. Incidentally it should be remarked that since in a divine design, being perfect, no one part exists for the sake of others more than the others for its sake, it is indifferent whether repulsion be considered, as hitherto, an expedient to retard the attractive force, or, on the other hand, the attractive force as [page 305:] an expedient to develop repulsion; in other words, it is indifferent whether the physical be regarded as subordinate to the spiritual element, or vice versa. To return to the main thread, Poe affirms that repulsion will not increase indefinitely as the condensation of the mass proceeds, but when in the process of time it has fulfilled its purpose — the evolution of heterogeneity — it will cease, and the attractive force, being unresisted, will draw the atoms back into the primordial particle in which, as it has no parts, attraction will also cease; now, attraction and repulsion constituting our notion of matter, the cessation of these two forces is the same thing with the annihilation of matter, or in other words, the universe, at the end of the reaction which has been mentally followed out, will sink into the nihility out of which it arose. In conclusion Poe makes one last affirmation, to wit, that the diffusion and ingathering of the universe is the diffusion and ingathering of Deity itself, which has no existence apart from the constitution of things.

“It is difficult to treat this hypothesis, taken as a metaphysical speculation, with respect. To examine it for the purpose of demolition would be a tedious, though an easy task; but fortunately there is no need to do more than point out a few of its confusions in order to illustrate the worthlessness of Poe’s thought in this field, and to indicate the depth of the delusion under which he labored in believing himself a discoverer of new truth. For this purpose it will be best to take the most rudimentary metaphysical ideas involved. The primordial particle is declared to be unconditional — ‘my particle proper is absolute Irrelation,’ — or in other words it is the Absolute; but this is incompatible with its being willed into being by Deity, to which it would then necessarily stand related as an effect to its cause; on the contrary, it must itself, being the Absolute, be Deity with which Poe at last identifies it. In other words, when Poe has reached the conception of the primordial particle as first defined [page 306:] by him, he is just where he started, that is, at the conception of Deity, and at that point, as has been seen, he had to end. The difficulty which bars inquiry — the inconceivability of creation — remains as insuperable as ever, although Poe may have cheated himself into believing it overcome by the legerdemain of a phrase from physics; in the attempt to describe the generation of the phenomenal universe out of the unknowable, he has been foiled by the old obstacles — the impossibility of making an equation between nothing and something, of effecting a transformation of the absolute into the conditioned. If the primordial particle be material, it is only the scientific equivalent of the old turtle of the Hindoos, on which the elephant stands to support the globe; if it be immaterial, it is the void beneath.

“Such a criticism as the above belongs to the primer of thought in this science; but objections as obvious, brief, and fatal may be urged against every main point of the argument. Without entering on such a discussion, it is sufficient to observe, as characteriztic illustrations of the density of Poe’s ignorance in this department of knowledge, that he regards space not as created but as given, explains the condensation of the universe as being a physical reaction upon the immaterial will of God (for the original radiating force cannot be discriminated from and is expressly identified with the divine volition, just as the primordial particle cannot be discriminated from and is expressly identified with the divine essence), and lastly so confuses such simple notions as final and efficient causes that he contradistinguishes the force of repulsion from that of attraction as arising and disappearing in obedience to the former instead of the later sort. In a word, Poe’s theory belongs to the infancy of speculation, to the period before physics was separated from ontology; in this sense, and in no other, Kennedy’s remark that Poe wrote like ‘an old Greek philosopher,’ was just.

“What Poe himself most prized in this hypothesis was [page 307:] its pantheistic portion. The sentence of Baron Bielfeld — ‘ nous ne connaissons rien de la nature ou de l’essence de Dieu; — pour savoir ce qu’il est, il faut Stre Dieu mSme,’ — had made a deep impression on his mind early in life; it is one of the half-dozen French quotations that he introduces at every opportunity into his compositions; in ‘Eureka’ he translates it, ‘We know absolutely nothing of the nature or essence of God; in order to comprehend what he is, we should have to be God ourselves,’ — and he immediately adds, ‘I nevertheless venture to demand if this our present ignorance of the Deity is an ignorance to which the soul is everlastingly condemned.’ Now after reflection he boldly took the only road to such knowledge that was left open by the apothegm, and affirmed that he was God, being persuaded thereto by his memories of an ante-natal and his aspiration for an immortal existence, and in particular by his pride. ‘My whole nature utterly revolts? he exclaimed, ‘at the idea that there is any Being in the Universe superior to myself!’ On reading so violent an expression of belief one involuntarily examines the matter more closely and pushes home the question whether Poe did actually so fool himself to the top of his bent; and after some little investigation one finds that, if he was his own dupe, the reason is not far to seek. It is necessary here to summarize the speculations which were put forth elsewhere by Poe, especially in the metaphysical tales, and either led up to or supplemented the views of ‘Eureka.’

“According to these other statements, the Universe is made up of gross matter sensibly perceived and of fine matter so minutely divided that the atoms coalesce (this is, of course, a contradiction in terms) and form an unparticled substance which permeates and impels all things. This unparticled substance or imperceptible coalescent matter is the universal mind (into such unintelligible phraseology is the keen analyst forced); its being is Deity; its motion, regarded on the material or energetic [page 308:] side, is the divine volition, or, regarded on the mental or conscious side, is the creative thought. Deity and its activity, being such in its universal existence, is individualized, by means of gross matter made for that end, into particular creatures, among which are men; the human being, in other words, is a specialization of the universal, or is God incarnate, as is every other creature whatsoever. It is superfluous to follow Poe in his fantastic conception of the universe as the abode of countless rudimentary incarnations of the Deity, each a divine thought and therefore irrevocable; the peculiar form of his pantheism would not be more defined thereby. At the first glance one sees that his theory is built out of Cartesian notions, crudely apprehended, and rendered ridiculous by the effort to yoke them with thoroughly materialistic ideas. In fact, Poe’s scraps of speculative philosophy came from such opposite quarters that when his mind began to work on such contradictory information he could not well help falling into inextricable confusion. On the one hand, he had derived, early in life, from obscure disciples of the French philosophes, the first truth that a materialist ever learns, — the origin of all knowledge in experience, and the consequent limitation of the mind to phenomena; on the other hand, he had at a later period gleaned some of the conceptions of transcendentalism from Coleridge, Schlegel, and other secondary sources; from the union of such principles the issue was naturally monstrous, two-natured, like the Centaur. Essentially Poe was a materialist; whether, by gradually refining and subdividing matter, he reaches the unparticled substance, or by reversing the evolution of nature he arrives at the fiery mist and the primordial particle, he seeks to find out God by searching matter; and even in adopting the radically spiritual idea of pantheism, he is continually endeavoring to give it a materialistic form. He persuaded himself, as it is easy for ignorance to do; subtle as his mind was, well furnished for metaphysical thought both by his powers [page 309:] of abstraction and of reasoning, he wrote the jargon that belongs to the babbling days of philosophy because he did not take the pains to know the results of past inquiry and to train himself in modern methods. By his quick perception and adroit use of analogies, and especially by his tireless imagination, he gave his confused dogmatism the semblance of a reasoned system; but in fact his metaphysics exhibit only the shallowness of his scholarship and the degrading self-delusion of an arrogant and fatuous mind.

“It is probable that few readers of ‘Eureka’ ever seriously tried to understand its metaphysics. Its power — other than the fascination which some readers feel in whatever makes of their countenances ‘a foolish face of wonder’ — lies in its exposition of Laplace’s nebular theory and its vivid and popular presentation of astronomical phenomena. In this physical portion of the essay it has been fancied that Poe anticipated some of the results of later science; but this view cannot be sustained with candor. His own position, that matter came from nihility and consisted of centres of force, had been put forth as a scientific theory by Boscovich in 1758-59, had been widely discussed, and had found its way into American text-books. The same theory in a modified form had just been revived and brought to the notice of scientists by Faraday in his lecture in 1844. It has not, however, occupied the attention of first-class scientific men since that time. There may be, in the claim that ‘the recent progress of scientific thought runs in Poe’s lines,’ some reference to Sir William Thomson’s vortex theory of the constitution of atoms; but its resemblance to Poe’s theory of vortices is only superficial, for what he puts forth was merely a revival of one of the earliest attempts to explain the Newtonian law, long since abandoned by science. It is true that in several particulars, such as the doctrine of the evolution of the universe from the simple to the complex, Poe’s line of thought has now been followed out in [page 310:] detail; these suggestions, however, were not at the time peculiar to Poe, were not originated or developed by him, but on the contrary were common scientific property, for he appropriated ideas, just as he paraphrased statements of fact, from the books he read. He was no more a forerunner of Spencer, Faraday, and Darwin than scores of others, and he did nothing to make their investigations easier.

“Poe’s purely scientific speculations are mainly contained in the unpublished Addenda to a report of his lecture on ‘The Universe’ sent to a correspondent, and consist either of mathematical explanations of Kepler’s first and third laws, or of statements, ‘that the sun was condensed at once (not gradually, according to the supposition of Laplace) into his smallest size,’ and afterwards ‘sent into space his substance in the form of a vapor,’ from which Neptune was made; or of similar theories. They exhibit once more Poe’s tenacity of mind, the sleuth-hound persistence of his intellectual pursuit; but, like his metaphysics, they represent a waste of power. They are, moreover, characterized by extraordinary errors. Some of the data are quite imaginary, it being impossible to determine what are the facts; some of them are quite wrong. The density of Jupiter, for example, in a long and important calculation, is constantly reckoned as two and one half, whereas it is only something more than one fifth, and the densities of the planets are described as being inversely as their rotary periods, whereas in any table of the elements of the solar system some wide departures from this rule are observable. Again, it is stated that Kepler’s first and third laws ‘cannot be explained upon the principle of Newton’s theory;’ but, in fact, they follow by mathematical deduction from it Poe’s own explanation of them is merely a play upon figures. A striking instance of fundamental ignorance of astronomical science is his statement at various places that the planets rotate (on their own axes) in elliptical [page 311:] orbits, and the reference he frequently makes to the breadth of their orbits (the breadth of their paths through space) agreeably to this supposition. Such a theory is incompatible with the Newtonian law of gravitation, according to which any revolution in an elliptical orbit implies a source of attraction at the focus of the ellipse. Examples of bodies which have breadth of orbit in Poe’s sense are found in the satellites of all the planets, each of which, however, has its primary as a source of attraction to keep it in its elliptical orbit; the primary by its revolution round the sun gives then the satellite a breadth of orbit. But to make the proper rotation of the planets themselves take place about a focus, which would be merely a point moving in an elliptical orbit about the sun, would be to give them an arbitrary motion with no force to produce it.

“So far was Poe from being a seer of science, that he was fundamentally in error with regard to the generalizations which were of prime importance to his speculations. The one grand assumption of his whole speculation is the universality of the law of inverse squares as applied to attraction and repulsion, whereas it has been known since the beginning of study regarding them that that law does not explain all the forces involved, as, for example, molecular forces; and for this Boscovich himself had provided. Again, to illustrate his scientific foresight, he reproaches Herschel for his reluctance to doubt the stability of the universe, and himself boldly affirms, consistently with his theory, that it is in a state of ever swifter collapse; than this nothing could be more at variance with the great law of the conservation of energy. Undoubtedly Poe had talents for scientific investigation, had he been willing to devote himself to such work; but, so far as appears from this essay, he had not advanced farther in science than the elements of physics, mathematics, and astronomy, as he had learned them at school or from popular works, such as Dr. Nichol’s ‘Architecture [page 312:] of the Heavens,’ or from generalizations, such as the less technical chapters of Auguste Comte’s ‘La Philosophic Positif.’ Out of such a limited stock of knowledge Poe could not by mere reflection generate any Newtonian truth; that he thought he had done so, measures his folly. In a word, for this criticism must be brought to a close,’ Eureka’ affords one of the most striking instances in literature of a naturally strong intellect tempted by overweening pride to an Icarian flight, and betrayed, notwithstanding its merely specious knowledge, into an ignoble exposure of its own presumption and ignorance. The facts are not to be obscured by the smooth profession of Poe that he wished this work to be looked on only as a poem; for, though he perceived that his argument was too fragmentary and involved to receive credence, he was himself profoundly convinced that he had revealed the secret of eternity. Nor, were ‘Eureka’ to be judged as a poem, that is to say, as a fictitious cosmogony, would the decision be more favorable; even then so far as it is obscure to the reader it must be pronounced defective, so far as it is understood, involving as it does in its primary conceptions incessant contradictions of the necessary laws of thought, it must be pronounced meaningless. Poe believed himself to be that extinct being, a universal genius of the highest order; and he wrote this essay to prove his powers in philosophy and in science. To the correspondent to whom he sent the addenda he declared, ‘As to the lecture, I am very quiet about it — but if you have ever dealt with such topics, you will recognize the novelty and moment of my views. What I have propounded will (in good time) revolutionize the world of Physical and Metaphysical science. I say this calmly, but I say it.’ Poe succeeded only in showing how egregiously genius may mistake its realm.”

The reception of the lecture by the audience, as appears from the notice in the “Express,” was encouraging. The [page 313:] lecture, however, was a résumé. It was, nevertheless, sufficient to daze the reporter for the “Express,” as will be clear from the following extract: —

“Mr. Poe’s lecture on the Universe, at the Society Library Room, on Thursday evening, we regard as beyond all question the most elaborate and profound effort we ever listened to in the shape of a lecture; one evincing a more extensive investigation, a more original train of thought, a greater complexity of detail, all subjected to the one great unity of fundamental thought, than we ever had thought it possible to compress into one evening’s discourse. The work has all the completeness and oneness of plot required in a poem, with all the detail and accuracy required in a scientific lecture. The fundamental conception is one which was generated in the highest regions of the pure imagination, and radiating thence seemed to illumine with its light all the facts that experiment and observation could throw in its way. Starting from the Deity, as a comet from the Sun, it went careering onward in its march through infinite space, approaching more and more closely the comprehension of man, until bending its course gradually homeward at length, it drew nearer and nearer, grew brighter and brighter, until it buried itself in the blaze of glory from whence it had its birth. It would be impossible to give any respectable report of this extraordinary work of Art without devoting several columns to it, and even then justice could not be done. For the immense ground covered by the Lecturer rendered compression and close condensation one of the leading characteriztics of his performance, so that in reality it should be published as delivered in order to present it fairly to the mind of the reader. We can therefore give only a meagre outline, but one sufficient to show to an intellect capable of comprehending such subjects what must have been made of so sublime a theme by the searching analysis, the metaphysical acumen, the synthetic power and the passion for analogical and serial development of idea according to a preconceived law, all which qualities are exemplified by Mr. Poe to a degree unsurpassed in this country, at least so far as we are acquainted.”

Another writer in the press gave a somewhat different, if also hospitable, welcome : — [page 314:]

“This lecture, on Thursday evening, at the Society Library Room, was attended by a select audience, composed of the higher order of human intelligencies. The lecture was worthy of a higher sphere of intellectual development. To those who could comprehend its scope and follow closely its train of reasoning, the lecture was profoundly interesting as delivered, and would be still better, to be read, with time to pause and reflect upon some of its portions.

the “fault of the lecture was its length, and shortening would have improved it in one particular, and for a considerable portion of the audience, by omitting those details which are to many so familiar. Two hours is a long session — and that Mr. Poe fastened the attention of his audience for more than that period, to such a subject, is quite significant of the character of his discourse.”

Still another writer, “Decius,” adds details that allow us to reconstruct the scene : —

“This lecture was extraordinary in many respects. In the first place, its delivery lasted upwards of two mortal hours. At the end of an hour and a half, some of us began to be quite sensible of the lapse of time; every minute after that seemed to be possessed of the famous property of matter so conspicuous in his discourse, called gravity. It weighed upon the heart. Still no end was visible; the thin leaves, one after another, of the neat manuscript, were gracefully turned over; yet, oh, a plenty more were evidently left behind, abiding patiently ‘their appointed time.’ I thought of Sig. Blitz, who had lectured in the same place recently, and his miraculous bag of eggs. Leaves were rapidly vanishing to the left, yet others, to a perfect forest, were instantly produced. The supply appeared inexhaustible; but at length the last one made its exit; the bag was emptied; and nothing but a blank remained. And was this ‘the conclusion of the whole matter? Did it end in nothing?’ By no means. There were results; yet it is not an easy task to ascertain precisely what they were.

“It is but a hint, that has been, or could possibly here be given of what occupied some two hours and a half in the delivery. It contained the fruits of much thought and study, preserved in a select and nervous diction, that has rarely been yoked with abstruse disquisitions and philosophical theories; pronounced [page 315:] throughout with a clear and emphatic elocution. Resolved, as it would seem, to bring before the public a work which he evidently felt proudly conscious to be worthy the attention of his audience for the manner, if not the materials of its execution, he unflinchingly marched onward to the close with uniform and stately steps; unmindful whether his hearers were pleased or not; perhaps sometimes unconscious of their presence, as he turned up his cold, abstracted eye, unwarmed even by the fire of invention, not upon the men and women before him, but toward those sublime celestial orbs, about whose origin and destiny he was discoursing in such lofty language.


The notices of the press upon the appearance of the published work were of the same character, — praise diversified with a reluctant humor.


Published in the “Southern Literary Messenger,” April, 1836. The portions other than those pertaining to the analysis of the Chess-Player are from Sir David Brewster’s “Lectures on Natural Magic,” partly in acknowledged quotation, partly by close paraphrase of the sort already illustrated in the Notes, Vol. V. The analysis itself follows closely Brewster’s method, but is more exact and detailed, and adds much to the explanation. The pamphlet, of which the solution is given by Brewster, and which Poe identifies with an article in a “Baltimore weekly paper,” possibly the “Saturday Visiter,” to which Poe contributed, has not been found; but, doubtless, Brewster’s account is accurate, and it would appear probable from Poe’s language that he did not himself write it, although perhaps it directed his attention to the theme.


Published in Burton’s “Gentleman’s Magazine,” May, 1840; and, slightly revised, under the title “House Furniture” [page 316:] in the “Broadway Journal,” i. 18. The text, saving the omission of an initial paragraph, follows the latter. The article belongs with the studies in decoration, natural or artificial, of which the “Domain of Arnheim” and “Landor’s Cottage” are the finest types. The taste here displayed should be compared with that shown in Poe’s other tales, in which a certain Georgian luxury, due to his attachment to the Bulwer and Disraeli styles, is introduced as a background.


Poe’s articles of this sort began with two papers entitled “Autography,” in the “Southern Literary Messenger,” February and August, 1836. A sufficient account of these earlier examples is given in the text, which must be held to replace the briefer notices of such of the authors as were originally dealt with. The paper here given was published in “Graham’s Magazine,” November, December, January, 1841-42. Griswold omitted some half-dozen of the most unimportant names, and it has not been thought necessary to include them in this edition; the number, therefore, falls somewhat short of the “one hundred” promised by Poe. The value of the paper lies in its curious magazine illustration of contemporary reputations, and its side-lights upon Poe’s “Literati.”


Published in “Graham’s Magazine,” July, 1841. Earlier articles on the same topic were contributed to Alexander’s “Weekly Messenger,” Philadelphia, about January, 1840, which there is no occasion to reprint. The subject interested Poe greatly, and contributed to the “Gold Bug;” in his correspondence it continually recurs in these years, inasmuch as public attention was arrested by his claim to be able to solve any cipher that cryptographers might present, and many were sent to him to try his powers. [page 317:] The present article, however, includes all of importance that he had to say on the topic.


Published in the “Broadway Journal,” i. 15. This is an example of a few similar articles, such as “Street Paving” in the same journal, which are not reprinted, as they are of ephemeral nature.


Published in the “Broadway Journal,” i. 7. This article, though, like the preceding, of little importance, has some biographical interest.

G. E. W.








[S:0 - SW, 1895] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Notes (Stedman and Woodberry, 1895)