Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Poe on the Cosmogeny of the Universe

In New York, at 7:30 p.m., Edgar A. Poe stood before a group of some sixty audience members at the Society Library at the corner of Broadway and Leonard Street. It was a miserable night, but Poe persisted on his topic — "The Universe" — for two and a half hours. We can only imagine how Poe felt (exhilarated? nervous? self-assured?) but we can certainly speculate on how the audience felt. They had come to see Poe, the famous poet and the sharp critic, only to hear the man, who was already rumored to be insane, go on and on about, of all things, the mysteries of God and Nature.

Many left the lecture hall confused. One called it "hyperbolic nonsense." Friend and editor Evert A. Duyckinck found it boring and "full of dryness of scientific phrase — a mountainous piece of absurdity." Another attendee, Maunseell B. Field, wrote: "His lecture was a rhapsody of the most intense brilliancy... he kept us entranced." The New York Tribune praised Poe's analytical powers coupled with his intense imagination.

The lecture would eventually reshape into a pamphlet called Eureka: A Prose Poem. Published in March 1848, Poe prefaced the work with a poetic and poignant plea: "To the few who love me and whom I love – to those who feel rather than to those who think – to the dreamers and those who put faith in dreams as in the only realities – I offer this Book of Truths, not in its character of Truth-Teller, but for the Beauty that abounds in its Truth; constituting it true. To these I present the composition as an Art-Product alone: let us say as a Romance; or, if I be not urging too lofty a claim, as a Poem."

The essay, which Poe asked to be judged as a poem, is full of satire, religion, comparisons of God as a writer, and some amounts of blasphemy. Poe explained the nature of souls, humanity, and the birth of the universe based on no scientific experimentation, but entirely on his intuitive or "gut" feelings. He made scientific errors and he challenged contemporary definitions of God. He lost at least one friend because of this, and it goaded on quite a few of his awaiting critics and detractors. Poe, however, steadfastly believed it was his masterpiece and that 2000 years hence people would have learned it to be all true.

Today, Eureka remains one of the most hotly-debated aspects of Poe's oeuvre. How seriously are we meant to take it? Is it science? Is it poetry? Some modern critics have dismissed it entirely, others call it the description of a fictional universe which is the key to unlocking meaning in all of Poe's fiction, and many say that Poe predicted black holes, the Big Bang/Big Crunch theory, and other important scientific breakthroughs of the 19th century. Eureka ("I have found it!") remains one of the oddest pieces in Poe's collected works.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a great post. "Eureka" is such an odd work but I think it really is the key to understanding Poe's line of thinking. By now, it should be considered one if his most important works.