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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 isappropriate 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 Valéry 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 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. Valéry 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."
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 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 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 Greek M[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], "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 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).
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 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....
Excerpted from EUREKA by Edgar Allan Poe Copyright © 2004 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission.
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|Eureka: A Prose Poem||5|
Posted September 27, 2009
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