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Author's Note

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Introduction
William Wilson--Part I: The Fractured Will
William Wilson--Part II: Conscience Grim
William Wilson--Part III: The Demise of Conscience
William Wilson--Part IV: A Critical Analysis
"The Cask of Amontillado": Critical Interpretations
Foreshadowings of Nietzsche's Superman
The Enigmatic Man of the Crowd
Conclusion
Related Information
Works Cited

Complete Text of "The Man in the Crowd"
Complete Text of "The Cask of Amontillado"
Complete Text of "William Wilson"


My previous essay focused on Roderick Usher, a Poe character who literally dreams his life away in a once-resplendant, moldering house. His twin sister Madeline represents the waning, but stubbornly enduring physical reality that Roderick wishes to transcend. Madeline also represents the last vestige of the intact, though fissured, and haunted palace of Usher--the House, the race of Ushers, and the mind of Roderick. While she lives, Roderick's visionary mind must jangle its discordant improvisations. Likewise, Roderick and Madeline depend upon one another as does soul depend upon body; they form a double relationship, a volatile unity devised by Poe to portray his own dichotomous psychic tendencies, as well as to confess his enchantment with the perverse. Several similar double relationships from Poe's tales will be explored in this study which purposes to reveal Poe's doppelganger as yet another tryst of the perverse.

 

Poe's expansive imagination is manifest in a decidedly modern story called "William Wilson." First published in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine in 1839, it presents another of Poe's excitable characters, William Wilson, who narrates the tale. We learn that the narrator's appellation is actually a pseudonym, for the narrator elects not to burden his family by revealing his true identity, which "has been already too much an object of scorn--for the horror--for the detestation of my race." In addition, the narrator reveals that he dwells in alienation, "outcast of all outcasts most abandoned!" William Wilson laments that a "dense, dim, and limitless" (Poe 156) cloud hangs between himself and heaven.

The narrator further recounts his rapid descent into "unspeakable misery and unpardonable crime," a sudden dropping, as of a mantle, of all virtue, and with a solitary "stride of a giant," entrance into the realm of the incorrigible. Also, early in the tale we learn Poe's rationale in choosing the pseudonym, for the narrator is, as Daniel Hoffman suggests, William, the "son of his own Will." (209) William Wilson explains, "my voice was a household law; and at an age when few children have abandoned their leading-strings, I was left to the guidance of my own will, and became, in all but name, the master of my own actions." In addition, we learn that the narrator adjudges himself weak-minded, "addicted to the wildest caprices, and a prey to the most ungovernable passions." (Poe 157)

The reader also learns early on that the narrator will soon perish, and that "the shadow [Death] which foreruns him has thrown a softening influence over" his spirit. (Poe 156) We learn from the epigram atop the story that Poe intends for "William Wilson" to portray conscience. Yet Poe manufactures within his tale a decidedly humanistic context--no religious proselytizing, no sermonizing--just conscience stripped bare. For a reader of Poe, contemplation of conscience and of evil beyond inculcated religious context can be problematic since religious code commonly resides at the core of one's belief structure. Nonetheless, in the stark voice of "'CONSCIENCE grim,'" the narrator begins his account.

William (as I shall call him for now) first encounters his double (I shall call him Wilson) at Dr. Bransby's Academy. William and Wilson own the same name, happen to have been born on the same day, are of equal height and of strikingly similar features. They also enter the Academy on the same day. Two affectations of Wilson's character plague William, preying upon his soul. First is a singular peculiarity of his double's speech, for Wilson cannot speak above a whisper. Secondly, Wilson counterfeits all of William's pranks. No other student seems to notice Wilson's imperious judgment of William, nor the resultant crescendo of William's hatred for Wilson.

Near the end of his fifth year, William designs to carry through with a cruel prank on the sleeping Wilson, which would "make him feel the whole extent of malice" that he harbored him. However, as he draws back the draperies, which surrounded the bed, William was

    possessed with an objectless yet intolerable horror. Gasping for breath, I lowered the lamp in still nearer proximity to the face. Were these--these the lineaments of William Wilson? I saw, indeed, that they were his, but I shook as if with a fit of the ague in fancying they were not. What was there about them to confound me in the manner? I gazed;--while my brain reeled with a multitude of incoherent thoughts. Not thus he appeared--assuredly not thus--in the vivacity of waking hours. The same name! the same contour of person! the same day of arrival at the academy! And then his dogged and meaningless imitation of my gait, my voice, my habits, and my manner.... Awe-stricken and with a creeping shudder, I extinguished the lamp, passed silently from the chamber, and left, at once, the halls of that old academy, never to enter them again. (Poe 163)

 

After several months, the narrator enrolls at Eton, where he plunges to "the vortex of thoughtless folly." (164) Three years of "miserable profligacy" pass. One night during an all-night revel of debauchery and card playing, a servant informs William that a person wishes audience with him. The first tinges of dawn provide inadequate light for immediate recognition of his nemesis. But he sees the identical habiliments, the similar height and contour of person; then the form approaches, whispers in his ear "William Wilson," and takes his leave. Afterward, the narrator learns little about Wilson's whereabouts, only that his nemesis had left Bransby's Academy the afternoon of the same day that he himself had flown.

Finally, William succeeds in his efforts to enroll at Oxford, but continues his hedonistic habits. With the generous support of his parents, he continues his extravagances, attesting that he "out-Heroded Herod," increasing his impressive allowance by cheating his gullible mates at cards.

One day, Glendinning, a student of prodigious wealth, enrolls at Oxford. William humors him at cards, allowing him to win considerable sums before he engages the "gambler's usual art." (Poe 165-66) An evening is planned in which, late in the night, Glendinning would become the narrator's "sole antagonist." Earlier in the evening, Glendinning has been induced to drink heavily. Soon he incurs heavy losses as William practices the art of the cheat. Oddly, Glendinning displays an unexpected, nervous agitation; but after a deep draught of port, wagers a bet of double or nothing, which William welcomes in cool anticipation. Glendinning's odd behavior becomes more exaggerated, expressing itself in his change of pallor from florid to frightful. Soon William realizes that the wager had been sufficient to effect Glendinning's financial ruin.

Then as welcome interruption to "the many burning glances of scorn or reproach" from those who had remained to watch the spectacle, an intruder throws open the double doors, and a rush of air extinguishes every candle in the room. In the darkness stood a figure who began

    in a low, distinct, and never-to-be-forgotten whisper which thrilled to the very marrow of my bones, "Gentlemen, I make no apology for this behaviour, because in thus behaving, I am but fulfilling a duty. You are, beyond doubt, uninformed of the true character of the person who has tonight won at ecarte a large sum of money from Lord Glendinning. I will therefore put you upon an expeditious and decisive plan of obtaining this very necessary information. Please to examine, at your leisure, the inner linings of the cuff of his left sleeve, and the several little packages which may be found in the somewhat capacious pockets of his embroidered morning wrapper." (Poe 167)

 

Once again, Wilson has appeared to counterfeit the exploits of William. At the very moment when William should have been counting his winnings, Wilson enters dramatically to reveal William's character. Glendinning offers William his coat, which he accepts, though he already carries his coat on his arm. Turns out the coat was Wilson's-- identical in every particular to his own. In horror, William flees Oxford to reside on the Continent, but Wilson hounds him as he makes his way first to Paris, then Rome, Vienna, Berlin, and Moscow. But the narrator notes that in no case did he ever encounter Wilson, "except to frustrate those schemes, or to disturb those actions, which, if fully carried out, might have resulted in bitter mischief." (Poe 168) Further, William realizes that since his flight from Bransby's, he has never seen his tormentor's face.

But it is in Rome when the tale's fateful final episode ensues at a masquerade party of Duke Di Broglio. An intoxicated William begins to make his way across the room to the costumed figure of the beautiful wife of the Duke, when he feels a hand upon his shoulder. Turning, William encounters Wilson, garbed in a costume identical in every particular to his own, since as the reader has by now guessed, the two comprise one fissured personality. He then drags Wilson, unresisting, to an adjoining antechamber where he put his nemesis on his guard, then stabs him repeatedly. But as William turns to a large mirror of the antechamber, he finds Wilson there, dabbled with blood, approaching his own reflection "with a feeble and tottering gait."

     It was Wilson; but he spoke no longer in a whisper, and I could have fancied that I myself was speaking while he said: "You have conquered and I yield. Yet henceforward art thou also dead--dead to the World, to Heaven, and to Hope! In me didst thou exist--and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself." (Poe 170)

 

Yet William Wilson must still live in some form to have narrated the story. If his mortal heart does still beat, it beats in the chest of one who has killed his conscience, one who might as well be dead, but one who survives in the tomb of his own flesh. The theme of the living dead was frequented by Poe, exemplified by both Roderick and Madeline in "The Fall of the House of Usher," by the narrators of "The Premature Burial" and "The Cask of Amontillado," and by the desperate, maniacal figure in "The Man of the Crowd." In Poe we find that time itself proves distendable. It should not amaze us that Poe reaches into the gloaming with the narrative voice. In addition, readers should not be surprised that an author who posits words into the mouths of astral spirits such as Monos and Una, who sends narrators into maelstromic time-tunnels, who contemplates time as a pendulous, universal quaver, that an author such as Edgar Poe, in other words, should leave the reader wondering from whence the narrative voice issues.

More central to the theme of this story is the device of the doppelganger. The similarities between William and Wilson--the same date of nativity, same height, similar features, similar gait, identical garb--indicate that they reside in the same body, that they are one person, a double entity corresponding to Poe's expanded, and therefore "unnatural" universe. Poe employs the device of the double to expose the conscience, a psychological judging half who, in censuring the pranks of William, brings to fruition the dissolutionary agent of perversity.

Because the conscience is an agent of perversity, "William Wilson" is much more than a moral tale. It pales Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which the moral imperative wins over the bestial. In fact, Poe's story does not involve good and evil, but rather, evil and self-judgment. Because the will of a Poe character is not subject to ordinary morality, his primal conscience looses itself on the character's intemperance, not for performing societal evil, but rather, for violating his own spiritual vitality. Crime in Poe can always be distilled to this: An act that violates the spirit is committed; the spirit of the violator creates a judgmentive spectre which betrays the initiator of the act. The character William Wilson rages against this spectre, and in his madness, externalizes it. In this story, Poe illustrates the possible consequences for the man who chooses incorrigibility--frustration, horror, madness, and finally, the annihilation of conscience, which constitutes spiritual death.

Perversity in man occurs in two stages: first, the impulse to perform an act; then, a judgment of the psyche and recognition by the conscience that the committed act would be damaging to the spirit or to the organism. Only when this particular cause and effect of mind has been recognized can the singular thrill of committing the act be experienced--only accompanied by the cognizance that indulging in the event would be self-destructive. Only when the narrator of "The Imp of the Perverse" intones "I am safe--I am safe--yes--if I be not fool enough to make open confession!" (Poe 275) could the exhilaration of succumbing to his daemonic double be fully achieved. Poe's protagonists possess this daemon, this judging conscience. Though they have become crazed by the irresistibility of their own perverse desires, they return to the rational to attempt explanation of the horror that has destroyed their lives.

In his prologues to "The Imp of the Perverse" and "The Black Cat," Poe describes perverseness as the elemental seed of annihilation that resides within the psyche. In "William Wilson," Poe demonstrates that if perverse impulses are continuously unchecked, they can portend psychological collapse. William Wilson's assertion that he was master of his own will at a young age brings to my mind the tribulations of many of my students, especially those who seem "masters of their own lives," deprived of the discipline of responsible adults. They love their freedom, but have never been taught the responsibilities which should attend it. Like William Wilson, they often get into a lot of trouble. The worst become incorrigible. They externalize conscience, blaming "the others," since all of their troubles are someone else's fault. The visage of that spectre in their path they never see, though, ironically, the countenance is their own.

Another spectral face which some critics are loath to recognize is Poe's own in his writing. But what is a reader to do when Poe ascribes to William Wilson his own birth date, albeit moving the date forward four years to make himself appear younger; when Dr. Bransby's boarding school where William Wilson received part of his education is an actual academy which Poe himself attended for five years; when gambling, William Wilson's most detestable vice at Oxford, was Poe's own worst habit at the University of Virginia. Thus, one must acknowledge that the line that separates Poe and his characters is at most, intermittent, and that the fissure that ran through the minds of his characters represents the writer's own doppelganger. When he causes his character William Wilson to turn to the mirror in the antechamber, whom does Poe see, do you suppose?

 

Among Poe's most intriguing tales is "The Cask of Amontillado," first published in Godey's Lady's Book in November of 1847. A surface reading of that story reveals only a simple description by Montresor (the narrator) of how he kills another man who was called, ironically, Fortunato. Montresor exploits Fortunato's vanity concerning the connoiseurship of wine; specifically, Montresor pretends to want a wine cask of Amontillado verified as genuine. Montresor chooses a time when Fortunato is drunk to dupe him into going down the spiral stairs into the catacombs, which serve as a sort of family burial grounds for the race of Montresors. But rather than a mere cask of wine, Fortunato finds his death; for Montresor bricks him into a niche of the catacombs which has remained undisturbed for the fifty years since the murder was performed. How simple!

How simple, indeed--at least until we examine a group of irreconcilable paradoxes in the story. To begin with, the names Montresor and Fortunato are synonymous. (Hoffman 223) Secondly, we find that the motive for the crime was some unnamed insult. Motives for killing someone should be important enough to detail. Why does Poe have Montresor gloss over the motives? One view is that Montresor relates the details of the murder not to justify his actions, but as a form of confession. But if this be confession, where is the regret? Again, Poe leaves his readers mystified concerning the time and location for issuance of the narrative voice. If Montresor still lives, he must be a very old man. If so, the phantasms of his deed may have horrified him all of his life. Then why does he not seem horrified? If this be confession, then why does he seem not penitent?

Perhaps Montresor is coerced to confess his crime by his own imp, like the narrator of Poe's tale "The Imp of the Perverse," who lives for a time in apparent peace with his conscience, only to spill all the beans when his perverse spectre grabs hold of his will. One of the beauties of "The Cask of Amontillado" is that it will bear many interpretations. I do not lay claim to the definitive analysis of this tale. Instead I shall present diverse theories that support my general thesis: that Montresor and Fortunato represent a doppelganger illustrative of perversity.

Consider this explanation which springs from Poe's choosing synonymous names for the story's two characters. Montresor has become so alienated from his physical reality that he must murder that side of himself. The fact that Fortunato easily succumbs to the pleasures of the flesh would seem to reinforce the view that Montresor and Fortunato constitute another of Poe's divided personalities; they are actually but one person divided against himself. In addition, we have Montresor, the judging side of the personality, emblematic of the Imp of the Perverse. So far, so good. Montresor preys upon Fortunato's tendency to drink, as well as upon his vanity. Fortunato, representative of the flesh, dons the fool's cap and is led by Montresor to a pitiful death. He walls Fortunato [the fool in himself] into a niche in the catacombs; the voice that speaks to us comes from beyond the grave. Yet still it must confess--only to suicide!

The suicide thesis would preclude that Poe has purposefully encoded the story. This encoding would suggest that he has deliberately diddled his readers, or that he wants the story to serve as litmus for the intuition, or both. So, are there more clues to support the suicide thesis? We have Montresor's coat of arms, a foot crushing "a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel." What symbol could better suggest the action that Montresor has taken. The foolish side of his nature plants its fangs in his heel; thus he must destroy it, lest it destroy him. Very similar is Montresor's situation to that of William Wilson--except that the narrators are reversed. William, who narrates that tale, resembles Fortunato. Both are tempted by the follies of the flesh. Wilson, on the other hand, is a dead ringer for Montresor, the ever-judging agent of the perverse.

But what of the serpent? Do not its fangs, too, represent perversity? According to Daniel Hoffman, "each side of the split ego has its own Imp of the Perverse." (213) Further, "What makes Wilson fail but the betrayal of his impulse to do evil by his equally uncontrollable impulse to judge himself?" Applying Hoffman's hypothesis to "The Cask...," one can speculate that no matter which side of Montresor's nature acts, the other will counter perversely to spoil the action of that side. Thus, both the fangs of the serpent and the crushing action of the foot suggest self-immolation. Did someone say this story is simple?

In his study The Measure of Poe, Louis Broussard claims that Montresor represents the voice of Death, that Death is the actual narrator of the story. Broussard buttresses his assertion by pointing out that most of the story's action takes place in a burial vault which is strewn with skeletal remains. "Man's fate is death, not life, not the Amontillado he seeks with such joyful eagerness. Life is a jest, man's hope is as illusory as the wind, his real nature surmounted with cap and bells, his role no more real than that of a jester in carnival time." (97-98) This interpretation seems attractive when compared to the previous one because of its simplicity, though at first blush it seems a bit light on the doppelganger. But perhaps not. After all, the common denominator of a living human is Death. If Poe intended for the narrator to personify Death, Montresor would indeed serve a spectral purpose. Broussard's postulates also make much sense, when considered coincident with Poe's cosmic theory. The seed of annihilation secreted within every particle of the universe leads all matter and spirit to oblivion in the unity of the primary particle. For humans, what can this constitute but Death? Broussard's view also allows for a valid interpretation of the coat of arms. The foot is Death; thus the serpent's bite cannot save the serpent's life, just as in "Ligeia," man's feeble will cannot save him from "the conqueror worm." His interpretation also accounts for the synonymous names, both of which mean "fate," and makes good use of the image of the fool. Many of our actions seem quite foolish when one considers that all humans meet the same fate.

Hoffman opts for one of Freudian psychoanalyst Marie Bonapart's theses in his interpretation of "Amontillado":

    She finds the wine-cellar--the long, dark, dark tunnel of human remains--to be an obvious.... symbol of the maternal womb and the entrance thither, and Montresor, leading Fortunato ever deeper to effect this execution, is committing the murder of his father-figure in the act of possessing the mother's body.... So by interring Fortunato, Montresor at once has symbolically slain his own father and the rival for his mother's affection, and forever interred his own passion, his own fertility, his own vitality. (224-25)

Interesting assertions! They even fit Poe's biographical profile: the love of the mother closely associated with the images of death, Poe's interment of his own vitality, Poe's need to avenge the abuses of John Allan. In fact, Kenneth Silverman calls "The Cask of Amontillado" a "meditation on the art and passion of revenge" (316). Silverman believes that it is no accident that the Montresor family motto "Nemo me impune lacessit" is Scotland's national motto, and that as one of her son's, "'Scotch' John Allan, much resembled Fortunato in being a man 'rich, respected, admired, beloved,' interested in wines, and a member of the Masons." (316-317) Poe likely had Allan in mind when formulating the vengeance motif for the tale. Placing the cap and bells on Fortunato may have tickled Poe at the root.

 

Perhaps "The Cask of Amontillado" anticipates Nietzsche's explorations of the concept of the Superman--that some people because of their inherent superiority, are justified in "taking out" those of lesser capability. Montresor's taunting reflects his belief that Fortunato is his lesser, and that he is, therefore, justified in killing him. Poe did make in his Marginalia a lengthy note regarding those of strikingly superior intellect. He writes,

    I have sometimes amused myself by endeavoring to fancy what would be the fate of any individual gifted, or rather accursed, with an intellect very far superior to that of his race. Of course, he would be conscious of his superiority; nor could he (if otherwise constituted as man is) help manifesting his consciousness. Thus he would make himself enemies at all points. And since his opinions and speculations would widely differ from those of all mankind--that he would be considered a madman, is evident. How horribly painful such a condition! Hell could invent no greater torture than that of being charged with abnormal weakness on account of being abnormally strong.

    In like manner, nothing can be clearer than that a very generous spirit--truly feeling what all merely profess--must inevitably find itself misconceived in every direction--its motives misinterpreted. Just as extremeness of intelligence would be thought fatuity, so excess of chivalry could not fail of being looked upon as meanness in its last degree: --and so on with the other virtues. This subject is a painful one indeed. That individuals have so soared above the plane of their race, is scarcely to be questioned; but in looking back through history for traces of their existence, we should pass over all biographies of "the good and the great," while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows. (199-200)

Yes, indeed, Poe did consider the issue of the Superman, and drew conclusions which seem to carry an underlying pain that he himself endured. Perhaps his belief in such gifted/accursed individuals helped him characterize the madmen who narrate some of his stories. Yet trying to force his stories to fit this imprint simply does not do Poe justice. In "The Cask of Amontillado" many elements from the plot of the story have obviously been designed for other purposes than mere portrayal of a superman figure. In fact, the next story finds Poe examining a man of the crowd, a man lost among the many.

 

The narrator of "The Man of the Crowd" describes the various types of people who pass in front of the London club in which he sits. A rehabilitating invalid, he watches through a large window, describing insightfully the manners and idiosyncrasies of the assorted people of the street. The narrator's analytic mind proves itself quite capable in describing behaviorally the actions of all segments of society, or, at least all segments except for the one to which the peculiar Man of the Crowd belongs. He alone arrests, and then captivates, the attention of the narrator. So interested is the narrator in this old man that he follows him about the streets for a night. However, at the close of the piece, we find that the narrator has been able only to observe the old man; he does not speak to him, but does look him once in the face. The narrator concludes his description of the old man by saying that he is like a book that cannot be read.

    There are some secrets which do not permit themselves to be told. Men die nightly in their beds, wringing the hands of ghostly confessors, and looking them piteously in the eyes--die with despair of heart and convulsion of throat, on account of the hideousness of mysteries which will not suffer themselves to be revealed. Now and then, alas, the conscience of man takes up a burden so heavy in horror that it can be thrown down only into the grave. And thus the essence of all crime is divulged. (Poe 475)

In "The Man of the Crowd," the reader feels the tension created by the singularity and mystery of the old man. In contrast to the narrators of his other stories, the old man does not narrate. His secrets cannot be told; his "terror is of a man's own thoughts." (Quinn 310) What crime the old man has committed we cannot know, except for his open confession which he has not rendered. He cannot bear to be alone because his "ghostly confessors" pursue him unceasingly. His clothes, though dirty, are quite fine, indicating that he might be a fallen gentleman, another of Poe's sinking heroes, a man who has become maddened by the ghastly spectres in his path.

One can only speculate about the character of the narrator himself. Could he have been of similar psychic constitution to have deduced that a horrible conscience plagued the old man? He seems strangely able to empathize with the old man, for he too is a man of the crowd. Perhaps the narrator perceives a part of himself in the old man, a certain madness in his own heart--another double relationship, one can be sure. The old man pursues the crowd; the narrator pursues the old man who pursues the crowd. "The Man of the Crowd" seems much more modern, even existential, than Poe's other works, perhaps because it is subtler. The crimes that he has committed against his spirit, his perverse enormities, remain unspoken; yet their portent seems every bit as powerful as in Poe's other stories.

 

Finally, did Edgar Poe think himself guilty of heinous crimes to have written all of these variations upon the theme of perversity? I think so. I am not saying that his crimes were crimes in the ordinary sense of the word, but rather, crimes against the spirit, crimes purely in Poe's terms. In "William Wilson" and "The Cask of Amontillado," Poe creates characters that exhibit both the follies of the flesh and a spiritual repugnance for those follies. The resulting duality fractures the characters into William and Wilson, Montresor and Fortunato, just as Poe himself was fractured by his own intemperance and self-deprecation. On the other hand, "The Man of the Crowd" portrays a crazed, broken character who seems to flee his undivulged crimes. Perhaps as the Man of the Crowd agonizes on his deathbed, he, too, like William Wilson and Montresor, will throw down to his "ghostly confessors" the crimes he has committed against his soul.

In reading Poe and in writing about him, I sometimes fancy that, like the recovering invalid in Poe's tale, I pursue a haunted man in strangely populated, desolate and meandering streets of the poet's own imagination. Along the way I find interwoven strands of Poe's life--his several deaths, his vengeance, his exhilaration, his deliverance. I also ponder Poe's homage to those geniuses who rose above the ordinary plain of intelligence, then died in Bedlam, in prison, or on the gallows. Then, once again, I return to the primary source, Poe's own stories, realizing that tohis readers, Poe confesses himself.


Other essays by David Grantz

"I Have Found It"
"I Am Safe"
"A Fissure of Mind"
"The Stricken Eagle: Women in Poe"
"The Moment: A Space-Time Singularity"

"The Cask of Amontillado" - by Martha Womack

Twins in Literature

Poe Perplex on William Wilson


Broussard, Louis. The Measure of Poe. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969.

Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1972.

Poe, Edgar Allan. Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1966.

Poe, Edgar Allan. Marginalia. Charlottesville, Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 1981.

Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar Allan Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. New York: Harper Collins

 

 

Edgar Allan Poe's Eureka: I Have Found It!

Poe's Startling discovery of current modern theories of the formation and destiny of the universe and the symbolic presentation of those theories in "MS Found in a Bottle" and "A Descent into the Maelström"
- By David Grantz




Introduction
Epistle from the Future: The Philosophical Foundation for Eureka
Poe's Universe I: Black Holes
Poe's Maelström: A Space-Time Singularity
Poe's Obsession: The Dissolution of Matter and Mind
Cataract of the Waters: From Manuscript Found in a Bottle
Perversity: the Universal Tendency to Psychic Dissolution
Poe's Universe II: The Cosmic Spirit
Poe's Universe III: The Big Bang
Conclusion: The Heartbeat of God
Related Information
Works Cited

Complete Text of Eureka available



"What is now proved was once only imagined."

"The hours of folly are measur'd by the clock; but of wisdom, no clock can measure."

"No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings."

William Blake -- proverbs from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Occasionally down the corridor of history, a solitary individual, through dint of his own leaps of logic and intuition, produces a work so astounding and compelling that it shakes an entire community of scholars, indeed the entire human village. We reserve such honors for a Plato, for a Kepler, or a Newton or an Einstein. But consider for a moment the following scenario. What if a great mind, one of the most profound in human history, completes what he considers his penultimate achievement, the acme of his spiritual and intellectual searching; but alas, the revelations presented in his works fall on deaf ears. He arrives at greatness, but has arrived too soon.

Meanwhile, in the century and a half following his death, the concepts presented by the aforementioned great mind gradually occur to a number of other people, the likes of Albert Einstein and George Lemaitre. Unfortunately, the scenario describes the singular contributions, then subsequent neglect of the writer Edgar Allan Poe, who intuited the current modern cosmic theories, yet has never been properly credited for his discoveries. Even today, most people who thrill to Poe's masterfully told tales have never heard of Eureka, the work which Poe believed represented the full flowering of his mind, the precocious prose poem which delivers more modern cosmological theories than any work of the Newtonian era. And beyond scientific import, Poe composes a unified cosmic theory based on his spiritual insight. Unlike many scientific descriptions of the cosmos as a mathematically based machine set in motion, Poe's view of astro-physics resides within, and as a part of God.

Eureka, Poe's essay on, and explanation of the universe, represents his last major work. It is a seldom-read masterpiece, quite scientific in content, especially scientific to have been composed by a writer of short stories and poems. It grew out of a lecture entitled "The Universe," delivered at the Society Library on the stormy evening of February 3, 1848, to a "crowd" of some sixty persons. Reactions to the two-and-one-half hour lecture were mixed. One listener rhapsodized that the lecture constituted "'a nobler effort than any other Mr. Poe has given to the world.'" (Silverman 338) Evert Duyckinck, a friend of Poe's disparaged the effort, calling it "a mountainous piece of absurdity..." (Silverman) By May, Poe had penned Eureka, a 150-page essay based on the lecture. Based on his belief that "all [listeners] absurdly misrepresented" his lecture, Poe seems to have expected his new work to be misunderstood, perhaps even ignored; (Silverman) yet Poe's Eureka is nothing less than a universal model from which many of his tales stem. Eureka presents an astro-physical/spiritual system; many of Poe's tales and poems serve as allegories of the system. This essay, the first in a series, purposes to summarize and discuss the many novel concepts presented in Eureka, then tie those ideas to Poe's symbolic narratives "A Descent Into the Maelström" and "MS Found In a Bottle." Subsequent essays will tie Poe's astro-physical/spiritual concepts to his psychological theories, which he utilized in shaping many of his protagonists.

The publication of Eureka brought Poe a vehement censure, presented anonymously in the Literary Review, a response believed by Poe to have been penned by John Henry Hopkins, Jr., a young theological student, who had previously criticized the work as pantheistic and thus, "'a damnable heresy'" that "conscience would compel him to denounce..." (Silverman 341) Hopkins was also instrumental in convincing Loui Shew, a nurturing female friend of Poe's that she should see less of him for his blasphemy, thus reinforcing the alienation that Eureka brought its author. (Silverman 340)

Poe presents his Eureka as an offering "to those who feel rather than those who think--to the dreamers and those who put faith in dreams as the only realities." (Harrison 183) Also, Poe requests that Eureka be seen as a prose poem, in contradistinction to a study valued for its scientific content alone. In subsequent essays it will become quite obvious that Poe himself was indeed quite a dreamer, but much more than this, he writes Eureka to describe the universe of spirit, as well as the universe of mind.

Poe then embarks upon an introduction and definition of his subject matter. He designs to discuss in Eureka nothing less than "the Physical, Metaphysical and Mathematical--of the Material and Spiritual Universe: --of its Essence, its Origin, its Creation, its Present Condition, and its Destiny." (Harrison 185) Thus Poe invites his readers with an essay topic of ultimate breadth. An English or philosophy professor's nightmare, Poe's chosen topic deals with everything.

Poe's central idea, primary axiom, is then unveiled: "In the original Unity of the First Thing lies the Secondary Cause of All Things, with the germ of their Inevitable Annihilation." (Harrison 185-86) To this proposition the remainder of Eureka correlates, and Poe's universe obeys this primal law. Poe's designation of "Universe" includes "the utmost conceivable expanse of space, with all things, spiritual and material, that can be imagined to exist within the compass of that expanse/" (Harrison 186) Poe also states that his work will speak primarily of the universe of stars, which, in their multiplicity, suggest a sort of "mental gyration on the heel" (Harrison) until every particular blends into oneness. Within that context one might imagine raindrops as the Rain, or as Poe asserts, "a man becomes mankind; mankind becomes a member of the cosmical family of intelligences." (Harrison 187)

Poe next employs a letter dated 2848, allegedly found in a bottle floating in the sea. The letter serves as a vehicle for Poe to introduce a unified cosmological theory which, he believes, is a millennium ahead of its time. Whatever he professed, Poe was not a humble man. And perhaps he needed to make light of his audience, who he knew would not be able to understand his insights. Here we have Poe introducing a fantasy letter from the future into a work which he himself had declared treats the ultimate concerns of the thoughtful man. Several times in Eureka, as the reader shall see, Poe introduces his ideas with similar condescending humor.

The writer of the letter traces what might be called a history of thought, beginning with a Turkish philosopher he calls Aries Tottle (Aristotle), whose fame "depended mainly upon his demonstration that sneezing is a natural provision, by means of which over-profound thinkers are enabled to expel superfluous ideas through the nose." (Harrison 188) The writer quickly adds that Aries became celebrated as the principal propagator of deductive, or a priori philosophy. In his deductive process, Aries began with "self-evident" truths from which he proceeded to "logical" results. The letter writer relates that "it is now [in 2848] a well-understood fact that no truths are self-evident." (Harrison 188)

Then emerged "one Hog" (Francis Bacon) who introduced the world to inductive (a posteriori) thought.

His plan referred altogether to sensation. He proceeded by observing, analyzing, and classifying facts--instantioe Naturoe, as they were somewhat affectedly called--and arranging them into general laws. In a word, while the mode of Aries rested on noumena, that of Hog depended on phenomena; and so great was the admiration excited by this latter system that, at its first introduction, Aries fell into disrepute. Finally, however, he recovered ground , and was permitted to divide the empire of Philosophy with his more modern rival. (Harrison 189)

And so the notion emerged that there were two valid paths to truth.

The letter goes on to say that these primitive ways of thinking confined inquiry, since no longer could man utter truths for which he could thank only his own soul. Any person whose thoughts fell outside the bounds of inductive and deductive reasoning became branded as a theorist, which meant he was not to be taken seriously because he could not be proven in his premises. Twentieth-century man can readily acknowledge what Poe is saying through his letter writer. Certainly, much of what has proven true was first surmised intuitively. Science fiction, a genre which Poe helped to pioneer, reveals many intuitive leaps which point the way to today's science and technology. And presently we are working our way through Poe's own intuitive search to discover the structure and behavior of the physical and spiritual universe. Poe wants the reader of Eureka to give him leave to make the leaps of intuition necessary to make this journey inward and outward to the limits of the cosmos; hence his ridicule of traditional tools of logic and the dedication of his project to those who feel rather than those who think.

According to Poe's letter writer, the basic error in inductive thought is its consideration of minute facts which are brought to light for their own value, without regard to their applicability. On the other hand, the Aristotelians built their philosophies on axioms which have no basis in reality. The letter writer wonders that these primitive thinkers could not see that their conception of what is axiomatic would change, as did the conception of their progenitors.

Next, the letter writer introduces a theory of John Stuart Mill which entirely negates inductive and deductive reasoning: "'Ability or inability to conceive, says Mr. Mill very properly, 'is in no case to be received as a criterion of axiomatic truth.'" (Harrison 193) If this be true, then definitions lose their function. A tree could indeed be "not a tree," though the minds of the ancients could not accept such a possibility because the thought of the thought could not be conceived. But according to Mill's theory, conception of a thought is not necessarily a criterion for the perception of Truth. The main objection the letter writer raises to the thought patterns of the ancients is that their two paths to truth confined the soul, "which loves nothing so well as to soar in those regions of illimitable intuition which are utterly incognizant of 'path.'" (Harrison 195)

An important revelation, the letter writer goes on to say, thrust the moderns beyond the hollow thinking of the ancients. The revelation is this: that "a perfect consistency can be nothing but an absolute truth." (Harrison 196) Poe does not reveal just who might be qualified to judge a consistency as perfect, but one can preclude that Poe believes that he has discovered such truths, or he would not have had his letter writer pen the revelation. Thus, Poe, having extracted from this precocious letter from the future the justification for his undertaking an intuitive discussion of the universe, proceeds to his subject proper.

Poe's Universe I: Black Holes

Poe's description of the universe, even today, is sufficient to boggle the mind. He leaves it to the imaginations of his readers to ascertain their own "utmost conceivable expanse of space" (Harrison 186), and employs Pascal's idea that the universe "'is a sphere of which the center is everywhere, the circumference, nowhere.'" (Harrison 205)

Further groundwork is laid in Poe's initial discussion of the Godhead. Poe surmises that we would ourselves have to be God to understand anything of His nature. One might, at first blush, surmise that Poe is abdicating human responsibility for understanding God. Hardly! Poe believed we are part of a process called God, and so follow the same natural laws which manifest the will of His volition. In addition, Poe believed that all that we can realize about God is intuitive, for He is spirit, and thus eludes rational expression.

Poe states that God created matter from His spirit. The matter originally assumed its simplest form, without distinct kind, character, nature, size, or form. This primary particle comprised Oneness, which Poe believed to be the "natural" condition of the universe. Poe's Monos, Una, and Israfel are spiritual manifestations of this unified state of being. However, for reasons unknown, the primary particle was willed by God into the "abnormal condition of Many." Atoms irradiated in all directions, spherically creating/occupying space. Because of gravity and according to their proximity, the irradiated atoms coalesced, later becoming suns, galaxies, planets, moons, and other cosmic debris. Finally, differentiation of particles by size, kind, form, character, and nature became possible, awaiting only the dualistic mind required to perceive the differentiations. Today's astro-physicists speak more specifically in their discussion of particles than did Poe, who merely speaks of atoms; but the process of the irradiating universe is the same.

Very important is Poe's idea that the normal condition of the universe can be achieved only in the unity of the primary particle. As a result, all matter longs to return to that which gave it birth. The force which compels all matter to return to simpler forms is gravity. Because of gravity, all atoms lump together in the most comfortable posture possible until the particle proper is completely reassembled.

A Black Hole Revealed

Even before the primary particle becomes completely reassembled, aggregations of "various unique masses" (Harrison 210) are possible, each mass assuming the characteristics of the original One. Today scientists call these particles black holes. They constitute energy and matter in their undifferentiated form, possessing gravity so great that not even light can escape from them. If one could shine a flashlight on a black hole, it would literally absorb the beam, thus rendering invisible the object of one's investigation. A black hole may be described as a space-time singularity, a region of space where ordinary physical laws don't apply, a chunk of energy-matter so dense that it can absorb anything in its proximity. How remarkable that Poe considered such singularities over a century before scientists proved their existence, and Poe's thinking even predates the theories of relativity, which are the building blocks of modern cosmology. How did Poe, of all people, a poet and writer of tales, with a rudimentary understanding of Newtonian physics, postulate the existence of "black holes"? Only Simone-Pierre LaPlace's description predates Poe's; however, the French scientist did not fully understand that primary particles, with their prodigious gravitational fields, rule all matter in the universe. As Poe himself put it when accused of rehashing LaPlace's theories, "'The ground covered by the great French astronomer compares with that covered by my theory as a bubble compares with the ocean on which it floats.'" (Silverman 342) To this cosmic thread my series of essays shall return.

Let us extend our discussion of black holes because they are more nearly similar to Poe's primary particle than any other phenomenon in the universe. Because black holes absorb light, they are impossible to see; yet they profoundly affect proximate bodies. Astro-physicists say that black holes can result from the death throes of a very massive star--a star, say, ten or more times the size of the sun. (Blair and Weaver 619) Upon having expended its atomic fuel, the star finally begins to collapse. But because it possesses sufficient mass, it goes on collapsing until it has crushed itself out of ordinary physical existence. All that remains is a region of space that an astronaut would do well to avoid; for this region will consume all matter and energy falling within its event horizon. (Moore and Nicolson 60-62) Once a body crosses the event horizon of a black hole, it cannot escape being eventually crushed out of objective reality. There is no limit to its appetite. So how may one tell that black holes exist as cosmic phenomena? Black holes are invisible.

But suppose, for instance, that a massive star of a binary star system evolved more rapidly than its companion. Suppose that it collapsed into a black hole while the other star was contentedly beaming away in its main sequence. If the star's orbit about the binary's center of gravity brought it sufficiently close, the black hole would be thus enabled to steal matter away. The stolen matter would then spiral into the nihility of the black hole. Tremendous X-radiation would result as the stellar matter was crushed out of existence. Astronomers have found such a star system, called Cygnus X-1. They believe it contains a black hole. (Blair and Weaver 620)

Astronomers now believe that a black hole resides at the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way. Poe entertained the thought that a primary particle might reside at the center of all galaxies. And further, in describing galaxies, he notes the "volumes of stars, stretching out apparently as if they were rushing towards a great central mass in consequence of the action of some great power." (Markham IX, 136) Of course, Poe believed that the multitude of stars, having spiraled from their source, were bound to return to the Unity from which they were spun.

Volumes of Stars Rushing Towards a Central Mass

Once again, the primary measurable evidence of the existence of a black hole is x-radiation commensurate with the amount of stellar matter being consumed. The center of our the Milky Way, though obscured by clouds of stellar material, is the strongest source of x-radiation in the galaxy. (Moore and Nicolson 107) One can easily discern how, if a black hole indeed resides at the center of our galaxy, that Poe's theories of the universe are corroborated. A primary particle gave birth to our galaxy; to that primary particle must our galaxy return. Furthermore, if all of the matter of the cosmos is destined to return to a primary particle containing everything that was the universe, then can one also say that all matter in the universe lies within the event horizon of that primary particle? Could it be that the space-time continuum which describes our universe is defined by that event horizon? If the universe of galaxies is indeed destined to spiral into that mother of all maelstroms, the answer to the preceding questions must be, unequivocally, yes. And if the universe is actually ruled by such a particle, what happens to time as the matter of the universe is crushed out of existence?

Poe composed a story which symbolically describes the process. It is called "A Descent Into the Maelström." The story has two narrators, a primary and a secondary. The primary narrator has employed the secondary, as a guide to usher him to a mountain top where they shall observe the Moskoe-strom. (Poe 657) The secondary narrator, to all appearances, an old man, is quite familiar with the strom; for he and his two brothers had used to daredevil fish the regions, which at certain times of the day are ruled by the strom's powerful currents. As the two perch atop the highest crag of the mountain Helseggen, small whirlpools begin to subside into larger pools until the maelström assumes "a distinct and definite existence, in a circle of more than a mile in diameter." (Poe 129) The whirl is defined by a circular belt of spray gyrated outward from the strom itself. Narrator One describes the interior of the strom's funnel,

a smooth, shining, and jet-black wall of water, inclined to the horizon at an angle of some forty-five degrees, speeding dizzily round and round with a swaying and sweltering motion, and sending forth to the winds an appalling voice, half shriek, half roar, such as not even the mighty cataract of Niagara ever lifts up in its agony to Heaven. (Poe 129)

The old man, having demonstrated to his younger companion that the gigantic maelstrom actually exists as a phenomenon, requests that he get lee of the crag so that he may relate his harrowing confrontation with that whirling cataract.

Hurricanes, the Maelström of the Winds

Once when he and his brothers were fishing in the vicinity of the maelstrom, they missed the slack time of the currents, were besieged by a colossal hurricane, and then, were caught in the mighty currents that drew their fishing vessel into the maelstrom. The initial blast of the storm claimed Narrator Two's younger brother, for he had been lashed to the mast, which broke off from the boat. He and his elder brother then entered the whirl of the maelstrom. Believing that all was lost, the fisherman transcended the terror which surrounded him. As events unfolded, his acute observations and reflections regarding natural laws which ruled the objects captured by the strom, saved his life. He observed, first, that objects of greatest mass plunged fastest toward the frothy vortex. Also, cylindrical-shaped objects descended more slowly. After endeavoring in vain to shout to his brother the plan for saving their lives, he lashed himself to a barrel and abandoned ship. From the barrel Narrator Two watched their boat, carrying his brother, whirl its way to destruction; but he and his barrel descended more slowly. Before the barrel reached the vortex, the strom abated and his life was spared. But he emerged from the maelstrom an old man. He had related from the story's outset:

Not long ago...I could have guided you on this route as well as the youngest of my sons; but, about three years past, there happened to me an event such as no man ever survived to tell of--and the six hours of deadly terror which I then endured have broken me up body and soul. You suppose me to be a very old man--but I am not. It took less than a single day to change these hairs from a jetty black to white, to weaken my limbs, and to unstring my nerves, so that I tremble at the least exertion, and I am frightened of a shadow. (Poe 126)

The old man's account of his accelerated aging process indicates that the maelstrom which he describes constitutes much more than just a gigantic whirlpool. Here we encounter more of Poe's mystification; we enter the realm of allegory. Poe's strom contains a time warp within its funnel, just as one would expect a space traveler to encounter as he enters the maelstrom of a black hole. As the fisherman approaches the vortex of that watery gyre, he brushes shoulders with Death itself, and in a period of six hours, he ages many years. He also witnesses in the destruction of their boat and in the death of his elder brother, the power concentrated at the vortex, where individuation is lost, just as all matter loses its particularity in the Oneness of the primary particle.

Then, too, in this story the reader witnesses Poe's obsession with the tendency to death; he allows this fisherman narrowly to escape death so that he may return to describe Poe's own concepts of transcendence. The transcendental aspects, within the context of a collapsing cosmos are also manifest both in his choice of the maelstrom as the symbol of destiny and of the vertiginous pattern which the maelstrom assumes. Its form matches precisely what Poe needed for an allegory of the cosmos he envisioned. Evident is the similarity between spiraling universes and galaxies and the swirling motion of a maelstrom. In "A Descent Into the Maelström," Poe has exploited quite well his symbology, describing the affinity possessed by all matter for its own dissolution. We can readily perceive Poe's bias again at work, observations shaded by his belief that unity is the posture which the universe longs to assume.

Poe's whirling maelstrom displays nature in what would appear to be her ulterior motives. Interestingly, Poe chose also a hurricane, another cyclonic fury, to enhance the maelstrom's intensity. Had Poe lived in the American Midwest, he would probably have been enchanted by tornadoes, which also wreak havoc at the vortex of their writhing funnels.

In his examination of the universe, or, for that matter, of all of Nature (including the human psyche), Poe reveals the horrors of losing individuation. His vision of collapse constitutes a remarkable consistency within the body of his writings. He speaks to his readers' conscious and unconscious fears, which were, too, the poet's own fears--fears, which, in his genius, Poe illumined through the symbology of imagination--fears which occupy the mind of contemporary man much more than did they interest the public of the 1830's and 1840's. "Poe anticipates the special hell of modern man. Poe endows the imagination with Godlike power, but...is...an epitome of our own condition--ahistorical, unfaithed, deracinated, suffering." (Hoffman 17)

In reflecting upon "A Descent Into the Maelström," an image comes to mind--that of the luminous star spiraling into its invisible companion, a black hole. Like Poe's maelstrom, the black hole consumes whatever happens to be within its event horizon, only this on an astronomical scale. In the story, Poe reveals a concentration of matter-energy at the vortex of the maelstrom--as in the vortex of a black hole--the intersection between the natural and the supernatural, between body and soul, between time and space. In the mist above the vortex of the maelstrom "hung a magnificent rainbow,...the only pathway between Time and Eternity." (Poe 137) To traverse that path is to die. Poe believed that no amount of material, intellectual or spiritual scaffolding can prevent the return of all matter to Oneness, our inexorable dissolution.

Poe's Obsession: The Dissolution of Matter and Mind

Inexorable dissolution! What is this but the vortex of Poe's maelstromic universe. His finest works of fiction, in great part, are perhaps not entirely fictional, but rather, poetic representations of the grand consistency of the universe. In this collapsing universe, every particle hungers for its undifferentiated reunion, for its loss of individuation. If we as readers are to take flight with Poe's angels, and if we aspire to comprehend his most challenging characters, we must take with Poe this intuitive leap into the nature of death, the realization that in Poe's scheme, death is the return of spirit to unity and that this return to unity mirrors a grand universal consistency which can not be altered by the feeble efforts of the human will.

The human body and the psyche, thus, follow the same pattern manifested in the birth and death of a flower, a star, a galaxy, or a universe. Although Poe recognized that the motions of the universe are double, he himself seemed obsessed with the return to Unity rather than the springing forth from Unity; in a word, Poe was absorbed by the thought of death. Many biographers believe that Poe's interest in death stems from his own experience. He was not yet three when he lost his mother to consumption, the descriptive nineteenth century name for tuberculosis. What effect might this have had on an impressionable two-year-old to watch his mother slowly perish from this terrible red death. Then he lost his step mother the same way. Then his young wife Virginia, also from tuberculosis. How unfair it seems to judge Poe harshly for his preoccupation with death, when the repetition of death seemed "his avatar." How much more interesting to discern the remarkable conclusions Poe drew from his spiritual and psychological probing into what awaits all of us, our inevitable dissolution.

Cataract of the Waters: From Manuscript Found in a Bottle

Let us explore another of Poe's allegories of nature's primal imprint -- "MS Found in a Bottle." The reader can see that Poe's ploy of introducing ideas from a mysterious bottle floating in the sea was not original in Eureka. Once again, the bottle contains a manuscript that reflects Poe's intuitive leaps. However, the manuscript recovered in "MS Found in a Bottle" also serves a different purpose because Eureka's bottle originates in the distant future, whereas the bottle in "MS.." is thrown overboard by a narrator who, in the next instant, meets his death.

The narrator of the manuscript sails from Batavia on the island of Java in Indonesia, destined for the Sundra islands, when his ship is becalmed. A blood-red moon foreshadows the morrow's storm which swamps the ship and decapitates her masts, but does not sink her. All of the passengers and crew, except for the narrator and an old Swede, are washed overboard by the initial blast of the storm. The ship is borne on a southerly course, caught in the maw of the typhoon. Terror strikes the soul of the old Swede, which presages the collision between them and a gigantic vessel, which falls from the crest of a precipitous wave onto the aft of their boat. The Swede perishes; however, the narrator is hurled "upon the rigging of the stranger." (Poe 152)

At first the narrator hides from the rather odd crew of the vessel, at least until he realizes that they cannot see him.

The crew bore about them the marks of hoary old age. Their knees trembled with infirmity; their shoulders were bent double with decrepitude; their shriveled skins rattled in the wind; their voices were low, tremulous and broken; their eyes glistened with the rheum of years; and their gray hairs streamed terribly in the tempest. Around them, on every part of the deck , lay scattered mathematical instruments of the most quaint and obsolete construction. (Poe 153-54)

The narrator next becomes aware of a strange current that carries the ship southward at an accelerating velocity. The narrator is also awed by the demeanor of the ship's captain, especially "the singularity of the expression which reigns upon the face--it is the intense, the wonderful, the thrilling evidence of old age, so utter, so extreme, which excites within my spirit a sense--a sentiment ineffable." (Poe 154) Oddly, the captain pores intently upon a document which the narrator believes to be a commission bearing the signature of a monarch.

The acceleration of the vessel, now among icebergs, towards the southern pole continues to increase. The narrator believes that he and the crew are hurling "to some exciting knowledge--some never-to-imparted secret whose attainment is destruction." (Poe 155) Finally, through openings in the ice to the starboard and port, the narrator witnesses the entrance of the ship into a "gigantic amphitheatre, the summit of whose walls is lost in the darkness and the distance." (Poe 155) The ship whirls in concentric circles of diminishing circuit. The last written words of the narrator: The "ship is quivering, oh God! and--going down." (Poe 155)

Striking is the resemblance of this immense whirl at the south pole to the maelstrom in "A Descent Into the Maelström." However, the narrator does not survive this time, save through the words of his manuscript.

"MS Found in a Bottle" presents scholars a major challenge. The story's symbolism allows varied interpretations. For the purposes of this study, I will discuss "MS.." as another illustration of Poe's cosmic theories. As in "Descent Into the Maelström," the narrator of "MS.." has encountered natural manifestations mirroring the universal tendency to Unity. Like the fishermen in "Descent Into the Maelström," he has been caught in a cyclonic storm at sea. Next, he is cast aboard a Death Ship inhabited by aged men whose skin rattles like paper. Since they cannot see him, one might assume that either they are already dead, or, at least, that they are dimensionally deviant from himself. The commission of their captain was issued by the Monarch Death. And with its monstrous size, the ship, whose composition seems porous and distended, is also dimensionally deviant. Time itself afflicts the crew. Only the narrator seems materially unaltered; yet he must enter Poe's whirling abyss, which transforms his body and spirit. Now he is "fetterless--but where?" (Poe 275)

So, just what has happened in this story? In Poe's cosmos, gravity represents the force responsible for the swirling galaxies. How similar are Poe's galaxies to his stories' hurricanes, typhoons, and maelstroms, which represent natural phenomena also describing the tendency to Unity! In "MS Found in a Bottle," the narrator's prescience that he is soon to witness "some awful secret whose attainment is destruction," illustrates Poe's spiritual dimension, particularly Poe's obsession with cosmic and psychic collapse. In addition, the dimensional alterations of ship and crew and their outmoded mathematical instruments suggest again Poe's supposition that matter changes form and that time rushes forward as matter approaches its reunion with simpler forms. Material and spiritual man is similarly fated. The secret also reveals the author's anxiety about his own destiny. One can sense this psychological tension in so many of Poe's works. Poe anticipates dissolution so intently that he precipitates his own premature burial.

Perversity: the Universal Tendency to Psychic Dissolution

Thus many of Poe's best writings describe his own psychic tendencies toward dissolution. These tendencies will be subsequently spoken of as Perversity. The counterpart to Perversity is Creativity. Material man, like all other matter in the universe, is subject to both: birth and death, creativity and perversity. The imprint of the universe is upon us. Just as Poe was entranced with death, he was also intrigued by perversity, the psychic tendency of the spirit to do itself harm. Later essays will treat the spirit of perversity, which Poe discussed in "The Black Cat" and "The Imp of the Perverse," and which turned many of his protagonists into their own nemeses.

The critical mind might be inclined to argue with Poe concerning his insistence that diffusive forces have resulted in the present "unnatural" differentiated universe. How could the universe exist in anything but its natural state? It makes no less sense to postulate that repulsive forces cause the universe to assume its "natural" state of ultimate dispersion. Certainly a flower's coming fully into bloom is no less natural than its eventual return to the soil. But because of his experiences, Poe became enchanted with the unifying forces of the cosmos. Rather than write about flourishing house and psyche of Usher, Poe chooses to examine the disintegration and final dissolution of Usher. Rather than, like Whitman, sing the joys of selfhood, Poe anticipates the loss of selfhood and the reunion of the soul with the Godhead.

Poe's Universe II: The Cosmic Spirit

Even still, it is important not to lose sight of Poe's grand unified theory because of an insignificant quibble, just as we should not dismiss Poe's theory because of the factual and statistical errors drawn from the sources of his day. Actually, Poe presents for his readers of Eureka a wondrous, self-maintaining, double process. Poe recognized that in a differentiated universe, gravity has its counterpart. Poe called it electricity. In the original One there could have been no electricity because electricity is noticeable only when two or more differing particles are brought into proximity. Though the original particle contained no differing particles, the cosmos which has irradiated from that original unity does depend upon the repulsive impulses of electricity. Gravity represents the force of attraction. Poe asserted that attraction is the body, repulsion, the soul;

the one is the material; the other the spiritual principle of the universe. No other principles exist. All phaenomena are referable to one, or to the other, or to both combined. So rigorously is this the case--so thoroughly demonstrable is that attraction and repulsion are the sole properties through which we perceive the universe--in other words, by which Matter is manifested to Mind--that, for all merely argumentative purposes, we are fully justified in assuming that matter exists only as attraction and repulsion--that attraction and repulsion are matter....(Harrison, 214)

Like the resonating strokes of a tuning fork, beings and Being itself depend upon attraction and repulsion, the resonation of the universe. Said another way, in order for our cosmos to exist, attraction and repulsion must be present, for without repulsion (electricity), all matter would collapse in an instant. Without attraction (gravity) all of the atoms comprising the world as we know it would fly apart in all directions. In Poe's terms, "Attraction and Repulsion--the Material and the Spiritual--accompany each other, in the strictest fellowship, forever. Thus The Body and The Soul walk hand in hand." Nature relies upon these dual forces for its very existence. In his insightful study Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe, Daniel Hoffman describes in a chapter called "The Mind of God" this most basic and compelling truth delineating the process of Being.

How attractive is Poe's presumption, and how closer, in truth, to reality; not the inferential reality of the universe of stars and space, but the reality of that more proximate interior universe of feeling. For what have we found this motion to be which Poe imputes to all creation, this expulsion and impulsion, but the instinctual movement of the mind that conceives it? It is an objectification, a brilliant projection outward upon the universe of conflict between Eros and Thanatos, between the life-wish and the will to self-destruction. Between the ego, asserting, exercising, revelling in its individuated powers, and the Imp of the Perverse, ever betraying the assertive self to the instinct that lies most deeply secreted within it. The rhythm imposed upon experience by the conflict between these irreconcilable instincts we recognize in its other manifestations too: in the impulsion and expulsion of breathing (so frequent a motif in Poe's tales!); it is characteristic of the sexual act, as metaphorically, of the entire life history of a species or individual. It is imprinted in nature in the double helix, it is reproduced in art in the shapes of forms. It is the deepest, the simplest, the most unitary truth of our natures. A double truth. The one movement to which all existence corresponds, as we experience it, is expansion and contraction expulsion and impulsion. Life and death. All is double. (295)

Anti-Matter Mist Spouts from the Milky Way's Maelström

Edgar Allan Poe originated a theory of the cosmos which is of such scope that it explains everything that exists, as well as the motions and changes of their existence. Perhaps the breadth of Poe's discussions caused the scientific community of his day to pass over his Eureka. Perhaps his merging the material with the spiritual made them nervous. Or, as Poe hints in the ideas of his letter writer, the scientific community was unable to make the leaps of intuition which Poe required. Today's astrophysicists, who often champion the potential of the imagination, can look to Poe as one of the great minds of history. Even now, discoveries of cosmic import point to his scientific and symbolic representations of the annihilation of matter. For example, above the vortex of Poe's colossal maelstrom in "A Descent into the Maelström," there issued forth a mist, "no doubt occasioned by the clashing of the great walls of the funnel as they all met together at the bottom..." (Poe 118) Similarly, above the galactic center of the Milky Way spouts a cloud of positrons, the anti-matter "fingerprint" of the maelstromic black hole at our galaxy's center (Purcell). The science of Poe's time spoke not of positrons, yet Poe's allegory, amazingly, demonstrates the process in its imagery. Although at least two other theories have been posited which could explain the phenomenon at our galaxy's center, the black hole theory best represents the forces requisite for the quantity of anti-matter being produced. Whatever the case, modern readers, with their expanded science and better awareness of intuitive possibilities, possess a great opportunity. We needn't wait until 2848 to ponder the truths of Eureka and Poe's symbolic tales.

Let us consider more of the astronomical significance of Poe's vision. I have already spoken of black holes and of the emergence of the universe from Unity into differentiated masses. Withheld from detailed discussion thus far is the relation between the universal model which Poe postulated and the universal model described by modern science.

Poe's Universe III: The Big Bang

In Eureka Poe asserts that the universe follows a cycle: first, God's creation of oneness in the primary particle; next, a period of diffusion. "The Thought of God is to be understood as originating the diffusion--as proceeding with it--as regulating it--and finally, as being withdrawn from it upon its completion. Then commences the Reaction," (Harrison 238) the second part of the cycle. The universe, having come fully into bloom, begins to contract, "rushing" in on itself until it is again unified. Once unified, the primary particle again explodes outward because the mind and heart of God forever recreate it. To modern cosmologists, this explosion of the universe has become known as the Big Bang. It is the favored modern theory of the universe, surmised by the Belgian scientist George Lemaitre in the 1920's. Like Poe, Lemaitre supposed that the universe expands from a homogeneous primordial particle into successive phases of differentiation. (Gamov 53-54) Lemaitre's speculations were less theoretical than those of Poe, primarily because the Belgian's conclusions were deduced from Einstein's theories of relativity within a spherical universe.

According to physicists who accept the tenets of the Big Bang, the universe expands to a certain point, then the outward action ceases. Then ensues the contraction, which continues until critical mass has been reached and the particle proper has been squeezed to the point of volatility, initiating another explosion, beginning anew another expansion phase of the universe. In such a universe, all matter is continually changing. Most of us shrink from the thought that we are transitory, and yet we can see that everything is continually transformed--our galaxy, even our universe. We are subject to the process, "to the Conqueror Worm." The great affirmation of such thinking is that something new always springs from the ruins of the old. Nothing can be destroyed without being simultaneously recreated as something else.

The mathematically inclined should read Eureka to see what Poe did with the mathematics and physics of his day. When describing gravity, Poe used his own variant of Newton's law of gravitation, stating that "every atom, of every body, attracts every other atom, both of its own and every other body, with a force which varies inversely as the squares of the distances of the attracting and attracted atom." (Markham IX, 43) The discoveries of the Strong and Weak forces have arrived to aid us in this century; yet within the limits of Newtonian physics, Poe conceptualized the forces which bind the atoms of substances.

Poe applies further ratiocination in his contemplation of gravity, stating that the forces of attraction upon matter exploded spherically outward suggest a "'general tendency to a centre'" since more matter resides nearer the center of the cosmos than at its far reaches. (Markham IX, 45) Poe believed that this tendency marks the integral principle of the law of gravity, which neither Newton nor LaPlace could grasp, being solely mathematicians.

Poe also discusses laws of irradiation, as in the case of light, which varies inversely with the squares of the distance from the plane of the light source. He notes that the laws of gravity and of irradiation own a mathematical commonality, which suggests in their kinship the expansion from (irradiation) and contraction into (gravity) unity in the primary particle. Next Poe took the two laws to what would seem their logical conclusion, stating that the matter irradiated from the center is generally equably distributed. And, as one might expect of him, Poe believed gravity to be the stronger of the two forces, ushering the eventual re-concentration of "as it is and ought not to be into the condition of as it was, originally, and therefore ought to be." (Markham IX, 62) Next Poe summarizes his conclusions in the following Law:

Gravity exists on account of Matter's having been irradiated, at its origin, atomically, into a limited sphere of Space, from one, individual , unconditional, irrelative and absolute Particle Proper, by the sole process in which it was possible to satisfy, at the same time, the two conditions, irradiation, and generally-equable distribution throughout the sphere, that is to say, by a force varying in direct proportion with the squares of the distances between the irradiated atoms, respectively, and the particular centre of Irradiation. (Markham IX, 71)

Another alluring scenario traversed by Poe's intellect, and owing much to LaPlace's nebular hypotheses, is planetary formation, which Poe describes from the time that the sun was nebulous matter of "roughly globular form," over the eons, gradually beginning to condense in the direction of its center of gravity, assuming all the while, an accelerating rotation. When the forming sun reached the place now inhabited by the outermost planet (Neptune, in his day),

"the constantly increasing centifugal force, having got the better of the non-increasing centripetal, loosened and separated the exterior and least condensed stratum, or a few of the exterior and least condensed stata, at the equator of the sphere, where the tangential velocity predominated, so that these strata formed about the main body an independent ring encircling the equatorial regions:--just as the exterior portions thrown off by excessive velocity of rotation of a grindstone, would form a ring about the grindstone...The ring thus whirled from the nebulous mass, revolved, of course, as a separate ring, with just that velocity with which, while the surface of the mass it rotated." (Markham IX, 79)

Further condensation of the sun gradually put the ring at great distance. Gravity and irregularity of distribution slowly broke the uniform appearance of the ring, causing its particles to collect about material of greatest density until, finally, the entire planet of Neptune was agglomerated. The process has been repeated, asserts Poe, until, through contraction, the sun has assumed its present size, having deposited rings by the same process, all along the way. All but the asteroid belt, in which no one particle gained ascendancy, have become planets. Further, Poe claimed that the planets, with the exception of earth, deposited rings in their own process of condensation. Poe believed that the material that would become the earth was so irregular that the moon immediately departed from that nebulous mass. This caused the agglomerated masses, which had been the earth and moon rings, to merge about their common gravitational center. (Markham IX, 82)

Poe next explains that over time, the universe has become increasingly "unequable," as the various agglomerations predominate. He then asserts that this crescendo of unequability will eventually reverse, with the number of distributed "objects" decreasing until there exists but One. The One!!

Poe then proceeds to solve what has been called Olber's paradox, this being that the sky should be luminous since at every point, could a person see far enough, there should exist a star in one's line of sight. Poe states that the vast distances between the heavenly bodies account for the sky's being, instead, black. And speaking of vast distances, Poe then projects the likelihood that the universe, comprising a cluster of clusters, is in fellowship with other universes, whose light cannot reach us either because of distance or lack of luminosity. He even suggests that such universes might exist in interminable succession, and that the august imagination seizes the right to imagine even such a possibility, and that each of these universes "exists solely in the bosom of its proper and particular God." (Markham IX, 111)

Man's intellect will be forever boggled in ascertaining his own place in the universe; however, the basic consistencies which Poe imputes in Eureka remain valid. There exist only cycles within cycles, life within life. When a biologist studies an embalmed specimen, he must not forget the cycle from which the specimen was removed. When researchers study degenerative diseases, they must look for the broken or damaged systems which caused the diseases. Scientists who look to the very small, even to the sub-microscopic, should go beyond just the endless categorization of the increasing complexities of their findings, seeking, too, the consistencies which, according to Poe, constitute truth. Even what we call matter turns out to be only tiny atomic solar systems comprised of high energy orbs orbiting and vibrating at near the speed of light. And like our solar system and our universe, they are mostly empty space. To a mind like Poe's, a mind which seeks simplicity and unity, consistencies represent the only valid paths to truth. In their endless categorization, scientists often move down the same paths, but in the opposite direction. Perhaps this is why scientists still have not given Poe his due.

Yet Eureka portrays a universe which Poe believed obeys the double motions of the Godhead. While Poe might see his own works as plots of finite intelligence, endeavoring to point to unalterable truths, he acknowledges that only the plots of God are perfect. "The universe is a plot of God." (Harrison 322) Poe describes for us a novel cosmos swelling into existence, and then subsiding into nothingness, "at every throb of the Heart Divine....this Heart Divine--what is it? It is our own. (Harrison 311)

Above all, this piece of writing endeavors to demonstrate Poe's amazing gift to the those of his own time, as well as to our own. My goal has been to attribute to Poe the credit that he deserves for revealing basic cosmic and spiritual truths as he perceived them. His Eureka is, indeed, a very personal journey into the miasma of his own spirit and intellect. It should serve as part of the foundation for all serious study of Poe, and not be relegated to the realm of the erudite. Eureka, written in the year following Virginia's death, also represents Poe's moment of greatest vulnerability. First he is accused of solipsism, of believing that the Creator is Poe. (Silverman 340) His conception that the individual gradually attains oneness with the Godhead, that the self is Jehovah, flew in the face of the objectivism posed by Christianity of his day. Secondly he is accused of pantheism for having identified God as manifest in the works He had created (Silverman 341). Lastly, Poe is accused of writing his greatest work as a desperate attempt to transmute the death of Virginia (Silverman 340). Yet Poe, frustrated by the attempts of others to label his unique cosmic vision, believed so completely in his Eureka that he proclaimed at its onset that "it cannot die:--or if by any means it be now trodden down so that it die, it will 'rise again to the Life Everlasting.'" (Markham IX, 5)

Poe's fervor propels his contentions into the hearts of his modern readers, hearts which expand and contract in the pattern imprinted upon them, and indeed upon all matter, by the Creator. Poe also recognizes that each personality is its own creator, progressing within God's phases of individuation. Similarly, God exists presently in the diffused matter of the universe; thus, we ourselves possess identity as God within the Godhead. And significantly, Poe suggests that ours is only one Universe of the Many, coexisting as one bubble in the cosmic froth. Poe concludes his Eureka with a profound poetic representation of this Divine Being, the One after whom man is patterned, the One whom man seeks, the One among the infinitely Many. Poe describes

an epoch in the Night of Time, when a still-existent Being existed--one of an absolutely infinite number of similar Beings that People the absolutely infinite domains of the absolutely infinite space. It was not and is not in the power of this Being--any more than it is your own--to extend, by actual increase, the joy of his Existence; but just as it is in your power to expand or to concentrate your pleasures,...so did and does a similar capability appertain to the Divine Being, who thus passes his Eternity in perpetual variation of Concentrated Self and almost infinite Self-Diffusion. What you call the universe is but his present expansive existence. He now feels his life through an infinity of imperfect pleasures--the partial and pain intertangled pleasures of those inconceivably numerous things which you designate as his creatures, but which are really but infinite individuations of Himself...These creatures are all too, more or less conscious Intelligences; conscious, first, of a proper identity; conscious, secondly, and by faint indeterminate glimpses, of an identity with the Divine Being of whom we speak--of an identity with God. Of the two classes of consciousness, fancy that the former will grow weaker, the latter stronger, during the long succession of ages which must elapse before these myriads of individual Intelligences become blended--when the bright stars become blended--into One. Think that the sense of individual identity will be gradually merged in the general consciousness--that Man, for example, ceasing imperceptibly to feel himself Man, will at length attain that awfully triumphant epoch when he shall recognise his existence as that of Jehovah. In the meantime bear in mind that all is Life--Life--Life within Life--the less within the greater, and all within the Spirit Divine. (Harrison 314)

In his cosmic scheme, Poe anticipates man's eventual recognition as that of his creator. Rather than suffer death, the self "instead grows exalted" (Silverman 340) as individual personalities merge with the Divine Heart. For the present, however, man must be satisfied with "faint indeterminate glimpses," achievable, in Poe's scheme, through intuition, dreams, and near-death encounters. Poe also reminds us of our source and of our destiny, among the myriad galaxies; of the bondage of our individual wills to the universal design; and of our psychic and physical predisposition to the unifying forces of that design. Poe pursues us with double truths which reflect the imprint of the Spirit Divine, from the embryonic flowering of a universe, a planet, a child or a seedling, to its eventual reunion in its birthplace. He presents us with knowledge which is rightfully our own, if we can but step from the deluding light of day to ponder the deep truths of Poe's night.

David Grantz

Other Works by David Grantz

"A Fissure of Mind"
"I Am Safe"
"That Spectre in My Path"
"The Stricken Eagle: Women in Poe"
"The Moment: A Space-Time Singularity"

Supplementary Material

Edgar Allan Poe: Quotations from Eureka
Cambridge Cosmology
"Poe on the Soul of Man" -- by Eric W. Carlson


 
Blair, James P. and Kenneth Weaver. "The Incredible Universe." National Geographic, May 1974: 619-20.

Gamov, George. The Creation of the Universe. rev. ed. New York: Viking Press, 1962.

Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1972.

Moore, Patrick and Iain Nicolson. Black Holes in Space. New York: W. W. Norton, Co., 1974.

National Geographic On-line."Star Journey."

NCDC On-line Data."Hurricane Andrew POES Visible 1 (Aug. 23, 1992)."

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (no editor named). New York: The Modern

Library, 1938.

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe. James Harrison, ed. New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell

and Co., 1902.

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Markham, Edwin, ed. New York: Funk and Wagnalls Co., 1904.

Purcell, William R. "Anti-Matter Cloud Discovered Above the Galactic Center."Northwestern University Pages.

Qrisse's Poe Pages, Christoffer Nilsson, ed.

Space Telescope Science Institute Pages. "Pictures."


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