Eureka: a prose poem by Edgar Allan Poe (1848)

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Eureka (1848) is a lengthy non-fiction work by American author Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) which he subtitled “A Prose Poem“, though it has also been subtitled as “An Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe”. Adapted from a lecture he had presented, Eureka describes Poe’s intuitive conception of the nature of the universe with no antecedent scientific work done to reach his conclusions. He also discusses man’s relationship with God, whom he compares to an author. It is dedicated to the German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859). Though it is generally considered a literary work, some of Poe’s ideas anticipate 20th century scientific discoveries and theories. Indeed a critical analysis of the scientific content of Eureka reveals a non-causal correspondence with modern cosmology due to the assumption of an evolving Universe, but excludes the anachronistic anticipation of relativistic concepts such as black holes.

Eureka was received poorly in Poe’s day and generally described as absurd, even by friends. Modern critics continue to debate the significance of Eureka and some doubt its seriousness, in part because of Poe’s many incorrect assumptions and his comedic descriptions of well-known historical minds. It is presented as a poem, and many compare it with his fiction work, especially science fiction stories such as “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar“. His attempts at discovering the truth also follow his own tradition of “ratiocination“, a term used in his detective fiction tales. Poe’s suggestion that the soul continues to thrive even after death also parallels with works in which characters reappear from beyond the grave such as “Ligeia“. The essay is oddly transcendental, considering Poe’s disdain for that movement. He considered it his greatest work and claimed it was more important than the discovery of gravity.

Overview

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.
— Preface to Eureka, by Edgar Allan Poe

Eureka is Poe’s last major work and his longest non-fiction work at nearly 40,000 words in length. The work has its origins in a lecture Poe presented on February 3, 1848, titled “On The Cosmography of the Universe” at the Society Library in New York. He had expected an audience of hundreds; only 60 attended and were confused by the topic. Poe had hoped the profits from the lecture would cover expenses for the production of his new journal The Stylus.

Eureka is Poe’s attempt at explaining the universe, using his general proposition “Because Nothing was, therefore All Things are”. In it, Poe discusses man’s relationship to God and the universe or, as he offers at the beginning: “I design to speak of the Physical, Metaphysical and Mathematical – of the Material and Spiritual Universe: of its Essence, its Origin, its Creation, its Present Condition and its Destiny”. In keeping with this design, Poe concludes “that space and duration are one” and that matter and spirit are made of the same essence. Poe suggests that people have a natural tendency to believe in themselves as infinite with nothing greater than their soul—such thoughts stem from man’s residual feelings from when each shared an original identity with God.  Ultimately individual consciousnesses will collapse back into a similar single mass, a “final ingathering” where the “myriads of individual Intelligences become blended”. Likewise, Poe saw the universe itself as infinitely expanding and collapsing like a divine heartbeat which constantly rejuvenates itself, also implying a sort of deathlessness. In fact, because the soul is a part of this constant throbbing, after dying, all people, in essence, become God.

Analysis

Eureka presents themes and sentiments similar to some of those in Poe’s fiction work, including attempts at breaking beyond the obstacle of death and specifically characters who return from death in stories like “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “Ligeia“. Similar to his theories on a good short story, Poe believes the universe is a self-contained, closed system. In coming to his conclusions, Poe uses ratiocination as a literary device, through his character C. Auguste Dupin, as if Poe himself were a detective solving the mystery of the universe. Eureka, then, is the culmination of Poe’s interest in capturing truth through language, an extension of his interest in cryptography.

Eureka seems to continue the science fiction traditions he used in works like “MS. Found in a Bottle” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar“.  He further emphasizes the connection between his theory and fiction by saying that the universe itself is a written work: “The Universe is a plot of God”, Poe says, and “the plots of God are perfect”.  Even so, Poe admits the difficulty in explaining these theories comes in part from the limitations of language, often apologizing for or explaining his use of “common” or “vulgar” terms.

Poe’s decision to refer to the piece as a “prose poem” goes against some of his own “rules” of poetry which he laid out in “The Philosophy of Composition” and “The Poetic Principle“. In particular, Poe called the ideal poem short, at most 100 lines, and utilizing the “most poetical topic in the world”: the death of a beautiful woman. Poe himself suggested that the work be judged only as a work of art, not of science, possibly dismissing the seriousness of Eureka. Though he is using mathematical and scientific terms, he may really be talking about aesthetics and suggesting there is a close connection between science and art. This is an ironic sentiment when compared to his message in the poem “To Science” where he shows a distaste for modern science encroaching on spirituality and the artist’s imagination. Poe also discusses several astronomy-related topics in Eureka, including the speed of the stars, the diameters of planets and distance between them, the weight of Earth, and the orbit of the newly discovered “Leverrier’s planet” (later named Neptune).

The work ventures into transcendentalism, relying strongly on intuition, a movement and practice he had despised. Though he criticized the transcendental movement for what he referred to as incoherent mysticism, Eureka is more mystical than most transcendental works. Eureka has also been compared to the theories of Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science and Joseph Smith, founder of the Latter Day Saint movement.

The essay is written in a progressive manner that anticipates its audience. For example, Poe uses more metaphors further into the work in the belief that the reader becomes more interested. Poe’s voice crescendos throughout, starting as the modest seeker of truth, moving on to the satirist of logic, and finally ending as the master scholar.

Allusions

The comical presentation of these well-known historical theorists, including the puns on their names, suggests Poe intended Eureka to be a burlesque. Alternatively, his criticism of these men indicate Poe’s need to challenge their conclusions before making his own.

(via Wikipedia.org)

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