Text: Peter C. Page, “Poe, Empedocles, and Intuition in Eureka,” Poe Studies, December 1978, Vol. XI, No. 2, 11:21-26


[page 21:]

Poe, Empedocles, and Intuition in Eureka

University of New Mexico

A significant but hitherto overlooked source of Edgar Allan Poe’s thought in Eureka ( 1848) is the ancient Greek cosmologer, Empedocles Poe not only shaped many of the central features of his cosmology from the fourth-century B.C. philosopher’s thought, but he also reveled in hiding oblique references to his predecessor in the introductory portions of his “Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe.” As with many of the sources and possible butts of Eureka unearthed by such scholars as Harriet R. Holman, Leon Howard, Erich W. Sippel, and Barton Levi St. Armand, the figure of Empedocles in Eureka suggests that Poe’s intentions are ambiguous and perhaps contradictory in his long’’Poem” (1). For, like the real Empedocles, Poe was two-faced in his roles as scientific cosmologer and ecstatic poet, a disparity which suggests that Eureka makes an important statement about the relationship of science to art. In any case, whether one subscribes to a view of Poe as prophetically scientific, intuitively Romantic, calculatingly ironic, or some alloy of these qualities, the addition of Empedocles to Poe’s list of “savans” is likely to fuel further speculation concerning Eureka.

Poe’s fundamental borrowings may have sprung from a long familiarity with Empedocles’ ideas. Poe could have known of Empedocles from a number of encyclopedic works, but he most probably consulted the Lives of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius and the Classical Dictionary (1843) of Charles Anthon (2). He seems to have read Diogenes’ Lives in Latin, often culling miscellaneous tidbits from the work for his early “Pinakidia” and “Marginalia.” In a February 29, 1848, letter to George W. Eveleth in which he purports to “explain” his lecture “On the Universe,” Poe seems to call attention to his classical sources by prefacing his remarks with the observation that “the ‘most distinguished of American scholars’ is Chas. Anthon author of the Classical Dictionary.’”

Poe’s first and only direct mention of Empedocles appeared over a decade before Eureka and probably originated from Diogenes’ brief account of the Greek’s doctrines:

. . . there are four elements, fire, water, earth and air, besides friendship by which these are united, and strife by which they are separated. . . . “And their continuous change,” he says,’ never ceases,” as if this ordering of things were eternal. At all events he [column 2:] goes on: “At one time all things uniting in one through Love, at another each carried in a different direction through the hatred born of strife.”

The sun he calls a vast collection of fire and larger than the moon; the moon, he says, is of the shape of a quoit, and the heaven itself crystalline. The soul, again, assumes all the various forms of animals and plants (3).

The marrow of Empedocles’ scheme may have struck Poe as being remarkably in tune with the Romantic notions of the day, as this 1836 “Pinakidia” installment indicates: “Empedocles professed the system of four elements, and added thereto two principles which he called ‘principium amicitae’ and ‘principium contentionis.’ What are these but attraction and repulsion?” (4). It can hardly be a coincidence that Poe later makes these two forces the only principles of his cosmology in Eureka:

Discarding now the two equivocal terms, “gravitation and “electricity,” let us adopt the more definite expressions, attraction, and “repulsion.” The former is the body; the latter is the soul: the One is the material; the other the spiritual, principle of the Universe. No other principles exist. . . . so thoroughly demonstrable is it that attraction and repulsion are the sole properties . . . by which Matter is manifested to Mind — that, for merely argumentative purposes, we are fully justified in assuming that matter exists only as attraction and repulsion — that attraction and repulsion are matter . . . . (XVI, 213-214)

Whether Poe is making a Romantic synthesis as Paul Valery thought, or whether he is engaging in a form of “protective irony” as David Ketterer has suggested, his equivocal use of Empedocles’ thought goes beyond the borrowing of the principles of attraction and repulsion (5). In fact, Eureka’s crucial cycle of periods of primal unity alternating with periods of diffusion is derived from Empedocles. Poe must have been familiar with Anthon’s elaboration of Empedocles’ system:

Empedocles taught, that originally All was one: God eternal and at rest; a sphere and a mixture, without a vacuum, in which the elements of things were held together in indistinguishable confusion by love, the primal force which unitary the like to like. In a portion of this whole, however, or, as he expresses it, in the members of the Deity, strife, the force which binds like to unlike, prevailed, and gave the elements a tendency to separate themselves . . . . Hence arose the multiplicity of things. By the vivifying counteraction of love, organic life was produced . . .; first single limbs, then irregular combinations, till ultimately they received their present adjustments and perfection. But, as the forces of love and hate are constantly acting upon each other for generation or destruction, the present condition of things cannot persist for ever, and the world, which, properly, is not the All, but only the ordered part of it, will again be reduced to a chaotic unity out of which a new system will be formed, and so on for ever. (pp. 467-470)

Poe enshrines Empedocles’ cosmic cycle in his “general proposition” at the very start of Eureka: “In the Original Unity of the First Thing lies the Secondary Cause of All [page 22:] Things, with the Germ of their Inevitable Annihilation” (XVI, 185-186). Later he elaborates upon this proposition: “This [present] constitution [of the universe] has been affected by forcing the originally and therefore normally One into the abnormal condition of Many. An action of this character implies reaction. A diffusion from Unity, under the conditions, involves a tendency to return to Unity — a tendency ineradicable until satisfied” (XVI, 207). More over, Poe envisions the alternation of unity and multiplicity, love and strife, as a continuous Empedodean cycle: “the processes we have ventured to contemplate will be renewed forever, and forever, and forever” (XVI, 311). Clearly, Poe’s mixture of Newtonian mechanics and Empedodean speculation resembles the “hybrid datum of ancient imagination intertangled with modern inacumen” (XVI, 266) that he finds in the cosmological theory of the Marquis de Laplace.

Despite his references to contemporary science in Eureka, Poe probably was not interested in maintaining an empirical stance any more than Empedocles was. Both cosmologers conceive of God as spirit immanent in matter, an idea made popular by a contemporary Poe generally condemned in print, Ralph Waldo Emerson. As we have seen, Empedocles sees the elements as but “members of the Deity,” while the primal unity is equivalent to God. Likewise Poe states, “What you call the Universe is but His [that is, the Divine Being’s] present expansive existence” (XVI, 314). After the universe has coalesced to become “the final globe of globes,” then, says Poe echoing Empedocles, “God will remain all in all” (XVI, 311). When the universe is in a state of diffusion, however, immanent spirit is given another agency. For Empedocles, it is the element fire which, as Anthon explains, “issue[s] from the central fire, or soul of the world” and inhabits “all sentient and intelligent beings.” For Poe, it is the “spiritual Ether,” a concept evidently concocted from a “hybrid datum” of Empedocles’ “ancient imagination” and “intertangled with modern inacumen.” Poe explains,

through the agency of Matter, and by dint of its heterogeneity — is this Ether manifested — is Spirit individualized. It is merely in the development of this Ether, through heterogeneity, that particular masses of Matter become animate — sensitive — and in the ratio of their heterogeneity; — some reaching a degree of sensitiveness involving what we call thought and thus attaining Conscious Intelligence. (XVI, 309)

Through this splintered prose, one may detect oblique echoes of Emerson’s Transcendental logic in Nature (1836): “There seems to be a necessity in spirit to manifest itself in material forms [which] . . . preexist in necessary Ideas in the mind of God . . . . A fact is the end or last issue of spirit” (8).

Yet another important connection between Poe’s Eureka and Empedocles’ speculations is found in both cosmologers’ reliance upon intuition as a way of knowing. Anthon gives the Greek’s ideas of epistemology:

. . . though man can know all the elements of the whole singly, he is unable to see them in their perfect unity wherein consists their truth. Empedocles therefore rejects the testimony of the senses and maintains that pure intellect alone can arrive at a knowledge of the truth. This is the attribute of the Deity; for man cannot overlook [column 2:] [that is, survey] the world of love in all its extent; and true unity is open only to itself. Hence he was led to distinguish between the world as presented to our senses ([Greek text: xxxxx [:Greek text]), and its type the intellectual world ([Greek text: xxxxx [:Greek text]). (p. 470)

Empedocles’ pre-Platonic idea of the “pure intellect” (Greek: nous) may be rendered as intuition; furthermore, perhaps by chance, his two ways of knowing anticipate Kant’s epistemological problems with noumena and phenomena, terms bandied about by Poe’s satirical letter-writer. Thus, like Poe’s letter-writer and Poe-as-cosmologer Empedocles rejects Baconian “testimony of the senses” and turns to intuition when he reaches a teed end in his pursuit of universal knowledge. Yet, oddly enough, Poe perverts Empedocles’ idea of intuition when he claims that his “intuition altogether irresistible, although inexpressible” allows him to conceive of the primal creation of God as “Matter in its utmost conceivable . . . Simplicity” or “Oneness” (XVI, 206-207). Empedocles, by contrast, realized that “true unity is open only to itself” and is therefore inconceivable. In fact, it is this very problem which led Kant to deny a valid metaphysics in his Critique of Pure Reason. For, as one commentator explains, “the forms of sensibility and understanding cannot be employed beyond experience in order to define the nature of such metaphysical entities as God, the immortal soul, and the World conceived as a totality” (7). Why Poe, whose only literary heroes are ratiocinators, should imbue intuition with such powers in Eureka and, indeed, use Empedocles’ speculations so heavily are matters for further investigation.


Empedocles was fabled to have ended his life by jumping into the volcano of Mt. Aetna. Four years after the appearance of Eureka, Matthew Arnold portrayed him as a broken and aged exile who “nurse[d] no extravagant hope” of man’s transcending the gross physical limitations of life: the soul was hopelessly locked in the four material elements and subject to the restraints of the physical world (8). For Arnold, Empedocles’ plunge into the seething crater is an attempt to transcend human limits by uniting the self with the macrocosmic elemental strife of the volcano while yet paradoxically destroying the self which seeks transcendence. Readers of Eureka may find a similar theme in Poe’s cosmology: in the coalescence of the universe to an “absolute Unity,” we become the “Heart Divine” even as we “sink . . . into that Nothingness which, to all Finite Perception, Unity must be” (XVI, 310-311).

The Empedocles that Poe knew through Diogenes and Anthon, however, was hardly the noble soul Arnold conceived in “Empedocles on Etna.” Rather, Poe’s sources present Empedocles as something of a charlatan whose tricks were calculated to please his worshipping public. For instance, Diogenes records that Empedocles stopped violent winds by catching them in the skins of asses he had flayed for the purpose (II, 375). He further pleased crowds by keeping a woman in an apparently lifeless trance for thirty days (II, 377). Although he was a wealthy aristocrat himself, Empedocles ensured his popularity by abolishing the assembly of the Thousand in favor of a more democratic government (9). Despite such public demonstrations, Anthon writes that Empedocles nevertheless “ventured to assume [page 23:] several of the distinctions of royalty, particularly a purple robe, a golden girdle, a Delphic crown, and a train of attendants” (p. 469). Diogen” even records his words: “‘All hail! I go about among you as an immortal god, no more mortal . . .’” (II, 381). The self-infatuated Empedocles probably did not commit suicide by jumping into Aetna, but feigned to have done so “to confirm the report that he had become a god” (II, 383). As Anthon points out, “The truth probably was, as Timaeus relates, that, towards the close of his life, Empedocles went into Greece and never returned, whence the exact time and manner of his death remain unknown” (p. 469).

If, as Poe urges, it is by examining “such peculiarities — such protuberances above the plane of the ordinary — that Reason feels her way, if at all, in her search fat the True” (XVI, 228), then perhaps Aetna is a protuberance (above the Sicilian plains) worth examining in Eureka. In fact, Poe opens Eureka with the prominent image of a man on Aetna who, like Empedocles and his disciple Poe-the-cosmologer, is trying to comprehend the universe as a whole:

He who from Aetna casts his eye leisurely around is affected chiefly by the extent and diversity of the scene. Only by a rapid whirling on his heel could he hope to comprehend the panorama in the sublimity of its oneness. But as, on the summit of Aetna, no man has thought of whirling on his heel, so no man has ever taken into his brain the full uniqueness of the prospect; and so, again, whatever considerations lie involved in this uniqueness, have as yet no practical existence for mankind. (XVI, 186)

As Holman has observed, given the fact that Aetna was an active volcano in Poe’s day, the image of the dizzy Romantic seeker is absurd, and yet Poe echoes the image by suggesting that “we require something like a mental gyration on the heel” (XVI, 187) to achieve the “individuality of impression” which cosmology demands.10 In fact, Poe berates Alexander von Humboldt (to whom Eureka is dedicated) for failing to achieve this impossible unity in his encyclopedic Kosmos. By implication, the traditional association of Empedocles with Aetna may suggest that the Greek cosmologer, like his anonymous counterpart in Eureka, probably never “thought of whirling on his heel,” much less of jumping into the caldron atop Aetna. Empedocles was not deluded on this count: the metaphysical unity sought by Poe-the-cosmologer and his dizzy man on Aetna was simply impossible, mental gyrations and intuitive leaps into the crater or no (11). If in these passages Poe is challenging those who do not attempt imaginatively to grasp the whole, he has certainly chosen tantalizingly ambiguous images for the purpose.

Considered verbally, Poe’s cosmological elaborations upon Empedocles’ ideas present numerous possibilities for irony and double-entendre. A particularly suspicious passage concerns Poe-the-cosmologer’s intuition that God must have originally created matter in a state of utmost simplicity: “Here the Reason flies at once to Imparticularity — to a particle — to one particle — a particle of one kind — of one character — of one nature — of one size — of one form — a particle, therefore, ‘without form and void’ — a particle positively a particle at all points . . .” (XVI, 207). On one hand “Imparticularity” would seem to refer to the property of not being divided into discrete particles, while, on the [column 2:] other hand, the word suggests that vague language alone can help us envision the impossible unity which Poe-the-cosmologer has in mind. Even with the august support of Genesis, however, Poe’s stutterings are hard to swallow. How, after all, can a particle “of one form” be “‘without form and void’”? Are such contradictions purposive, or are we to believe with Hervey Allen that Poe was “very ill, mentally and physically, when he wrote” such passages (12)?

If Poe’s verbiage seems odd in the descriptions of the unitary cosmos, it is equally suspicious in the descriptions of the universe in its dispersed stage. Poe finds a modern equivalent of Empedocles’ phase of strife or multiplicity in Laplace’s nebular hypothesis: the present universe is a partial condensation from a cosmic cloud of atoms in space. Although the nebular theory is still credited today, and Poe-the-cosmologer would seem to support it as consistent with the contraction phase of his Empedoclean cycle, there are many passages in Eureka which suggest that “cloud,” “nebula,” and their derivations refer to the ignorance and obscurity associated figuratively with clouds. When Poe is trying to conceive of infinity, for instance, he speaks of “the cloud behind which lay, forever invisible, the object of this attempt” (XVI, 200). Later he refers to “infinity” as a member of a “class [of words] representing thoughts of thought — he who has a right to say that he thinks at all, feels himself called upon, not to entertain a conception, but simply to direct his mental vision toward some given point, in the intellectual firmament, where lies a nebula never to’ be resolved” (XVI, 203).13 The double-entendre is driven home when Poe states that “the finest quality of thought is its self-cognizance; and, with some little equivocation, it may be said that no fog of the mind can well be greater than that which, extending to the very boundaries of the mental domain, shuts out even these boundaries themselves from comprehension” (XVI, 204). When such references to the foggy “intellectual firmament” are juxtaposed with the state of nebular dispersion which characterizes the universe in half its cycle, one begins to question the seriousness of Poe’s cosmological impulse in Eureka. Given his assertions that human perceptions are clouded, how are we to interpret Poe’s overblown “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 Destiny” (XVI, 185)?


Provided one accepts the distinction between Poe and his persona as cosmologer in Eureka, one can distinguish corresponding differences in attitude toward intuition, the agent through which cosmological visions are born. It is of the utmost importance to remember that Poe-as-cosmologer attributes supreme powers to intuition, while his predecessor Empedocles, like Immanuel Kant, could see no way of knowing the universe as a whole, much less its spiritual counterpart in God. Yet while Poe-the-cosmologer expresses the ultimate reliance upon his power to intuit the nature of things, Poe-the-artist would seem to be creating an ironic undertow implying at least some skepticism concerning his cosmologer’s intuition and its uses. On intuition, Poe-the-cosmologer sounds his most enraptured note, while Poe-the-artist [page 24:] may be resorting to his most subtle and covert counter-statements.

The passage in question marks the beginning of the cosmology proper. In it, Poe-the-cosmologer adopts “the Godhead” as his “starting point” and tries to suppose what He “primarily and solely, created” (XVI, 205-206). As even Poe-the-cosmologer realizes, the epistemological difficulties are staggering: “Of this Godhead, in itself, he alone is not imbecile — he alone is not impious who propounds — nothing. ‘Nous ne connaissons rien,’ says the Baron de Bielfeld — ‘Nous ne connaissons rien de la nature ou de l’essence de Dieu: — pour savoir ce qu’il est, il faut etre Dieu meme’ “ (XVI, 205). But, in his role as cosmologer, Poe does “nevertheless venture to demand if this our present ignorance of the Deity is an ignorance to which the soul is everlastingly condemned” (XVI, 205). Apparently tired of being thwarted by the rules of logic and empiricism, he announces, “We have attained a point where only Intuition can aid us” (XVI, 206). Thus, the path is now open for Poe to envision the previously discussed particle “of one form — a particle, therefore, ‘without form and void’” — and all by dint of “an intuition altogether irresistible, although inexpressible” (XVI, 206-207). The shift from doubting rationalism to ecstatic intuition, the Faustian nature of the challenge, and the ambiguously expressed findings all must raise doubts concerning Poe-the-cosmologer’s integrity.

More startling, and certainly more tenuous, is the possibility that Poe is covertly ridiculing his cosmologer through clever multilingual puns on nous, the Greek word for intuition used by Empedocles and Aristotle. If Poe was as familiar with the classics as his erudite references suggest, he may be using Bielfeld’s “Nous ne connaissons rien,” here oddly repeated, to hide his true feelings on the use of intuition in Eureka, a supposedly serious work: “Intuition (Greek: nous) knows nothing . . . .” One may also speculate that Poe similarly puns on nous through the words of his foolish letter-writer: “‘The fame of this great man [“Aries Tottle”] 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 . . .” (14). “‘Nose’” may be the letter-writer’s “wretched corruption” of nous, which Aristotle, like Empedocles before him, saw as a fallible capacity which actualizes universals in the mind and leads to theoria, the products of nous (15). Perhaps by chance, the intuitive letter-writer despises the inductive Baconians for meeting “‘all attempts at generalization’” with “‘the words “theoretical,” “theory,” “theorist” — all thought, to be brief, was properly resented as a personal affront to themselves’” (XVI, 191). For the letter-writer, as for Poe in his role as cosmologer, the intuitive leap could bring “truth” because, by definition, it defies all proof. For Poe-the-artist, however, it would seem that intuition is not valid as a means of discovering the nature of reality.

While such speculations would have us infer a calculating duplicity in Poe which many are loathe to accept, they help to explain some obvious incongruities in Eureka and, perhaps, in Poe’s oeuvre as a whole. The satirical letter’ for instance, seems to have been placed at the start of Eureka as a warning demonstration of how garbled knowledge can become in the minds of facile intuitionists. Much [column 2:] of the letter’s comic effect derives, in fact, from the intuitive letter-writer’s absurd misrepresentations of the philosophers he ridicules, or from his misunderstanding of those he praises.l6 Although Poe-the-cosmologer would have us doss over the letter as “very unaccountable and, perhaps, somewhat impertinent” (XVI, 198), its pertinence in helping the reader establish Poe-the-artist’s values in Eureka makes it accountable as a key to the tone of the whole.

All of this is not to say that Poe believed only in the coldly rational and empirically verifiable, but rather that he wished the distinctions between art and science, poetry and truth, to be rigorously maintained. “The Poetic Principle” (1850), written soon after the publication of Eureka, makes his stand clear and, in one sense, serves the reader as a guide to understanding his intentions in Eureka. Although the newspaper accounts of Poe’s lecture “On the Universe” were fairly reliable reports of the basics of his cosmology, Poe claimed “all absurdly misrepresented” what he had said. At least a portion of Poe’s dissatisfaction seems to have stemmed from the public’s failure to detect that he was commenting wryly upon the cosmological impulse while engaging in it. For even to the untutored eye, Eureka appears to be an incongruous mixture of scientific speculation and poetic effusion which directly contradicts Poe’s sternest dictates in “The Poetic Principle”:

The demands of Truth are severe; she has no sympathy with the myrtles. All that which is so indispensable in Song, is precisely all that with which she has nothing to do. It is but making her a flaunting paradox, to wreathe her in gems and flowers. In enforcing a truth, we need severity rather than efflorescence of language. We must be simple, precise, terse. We must be cool, calm, unimpassioned. In a word, we must be in that mood which, as nearly as possible, is the exact converse of the poetical. He must be blind indeed who does not perceive the radical and chasmal differences between the truthful and the poetical modes of inculcation. He must be theory-mad beyond redemption who, in spite of these differences, shall persist in attempting to reconcile the obstinate oils and waters of Poetry and Truth (XVI, 272).

By his own standards, Poe would seem to be theory-mad in Eureka. And perhaps this madness is the result of an overused intuition.

Several important conclusions might be inferred from Poe’s apparent duplicity in Eureka. If Poe-as-cosmologer is “theory-mad beyond redemption,” then, perhaps, his cosmology should be taken as an “Art-Product” and “not in its character of Truth-Teller,” as Poe himself would have it in his “Preface” (XVI, 183). One suspects Poe’s stance toward his intuited cosmology is as derisive as his attitude toward Emerson’s Transcendentalism, to which it bears a resemblance. Poe shows disgust for Emerson because he is one of the “mystics for mysticism’s sake” (XV, 260); apparently Emerson should be enlisting his intuitive powers in the creation of art instead of giving them “all authority over experience,” as he puts it in “The Transcendentalist” (1841) . Indeed, Poe’s cosmology is Transcendental, for, in Emerson’s words, “whatever belongs to the class of intuitive thought is popularly called at the present day Transcenden tal” (17). Elsewhere, however, Poe sputters, “The best answer to his twaddle is cui bono? . . . to whom is it a benefit? If not to Mr. Emerson individually, then surely to no man living” (XV, 260). For Poe, the intuitions might produce visions of great beauty — he concedes a certain beauty “by [page 25:] flashes” in Emerson’s poetry — but . they can not be depended upon in the apprehension of truth, especially of universal truths such as those the cosmologer of Eureka purports to give us. Perhaps punning on nous again, Poe writes in his “Marginalia,” “The nose of the mob is its imagination. By this, at any time, it can be quietly led” (XVI, 160). Indeed, claims Poe, “the most preposterous falsities have been received as truths by at least the mens omnium horninum” (XVI, 166).

If Poe is mocking his intuitive cosmologer’s egoistic presumptions, he also appears to be exposing his cosmic ideas by taking them to absurd lengths. Bielfeld’s idea, “Nous ne connaissons rien . . . ,” is literalized in the cosmology when Poe places the void at the end of each Empedoslean cycle. Poe takes the “logic” of his mystical intuition ad absurdum by abandoning the commonsense Epicurean axiom (“Ex nihilo nihil fit ”), and reducing everything, paradoxically, to nothing (18). When All is reduced to One through gravitational attraction, so the argument runs, we become a part of the primal Unity and, therefore, of the God immanent in that Unity. The “Heart Divine,” then, “is our own “ (XVI, 311), as Poe’s ecstatic cosmologer puts it. But this primal Unity is also “irrelative,” having no “attraction” or “repulsion,” and therefore having no manifest relation to anything but itself. Since nothing can be predicated of this Unity, then, for all practical purposes, it does not exist; it is nothing. For Poe, the mystic who intuits this Unity, then, is both “part or parcel of God” (in Emerson’s phrase) and nothing, a paradox apparently calculated to expose the absurdity of all such quests (and questers) after ultimate knowledge (19). Not surprisingly, Poe bluntly makes this point in a June 1849 “Marginalia” piece: “It is laughable to observe how easily any system of Philosophy can be proved false: — but then is it not mournful to perceive the impossibility of even fancying any particular system to be true?” (XVI, 164).

Paradoxically, Poe’s belief that humans are alienated from an ultimately inscrutable world has positive ramifications for art. First, of course, it means that the artist must never commit the “heresy of the didactic,” for it is presumptuous to preach if the cosmos is unknowable. Second, and more important to the reception of Eureka, art has no business in copying nature, for nature has no discernible intrinsic value. As Poe once wryly commented, “if an artist must paint decayed cheeses, his merit will lie in their looking as little like decayed cheeses as possible” (XVI, 28). In the “Marginalia” in which he asserts the futility of philosophy, Poe defines art briefly as “‘the reproduction of what the senses perceive in Nature through the veil of the soul.’” This “veil,” a necessarily value and subjective finer, is “indispensable in Art” (XVI, 164), says Poe. Art, for Poe, can not be didactic or purely imitative precisely because the former is unjustifiable and the latter is both undesirable and subjectively impossible. In Eureka, then. Poe’s cosmological vision like the one he imagines in “Dreamland,” takes us “out of Space, out of Time” by virtue of its freedom from and parody of the limits of human knowing.

Apparently by instinct, the author seems to have been attracted to Empedocles who, like some ancient alter ego, had [column 2:] expressed Poe’s feelings over twenty centuries earlier. Like Poe, he denied man the dignity of knowing the ultimate nature of things, and yet, like him, he wrote a cosmology purporting to explain the universe. Like Poe, too, he seems to have been a trickster who often led the uncomprehending public “by the nose.” Just as Empedocles” only pretended to take the leap into cosmic unity atop Aetna, so does Poe parody the intuitive leaps he seems to advocate in Eureka. For both men such leaps could lead only to “material nihility,” to use Poe’s phrase. For Poe, however, it is apparently the dark voids of unknowing that make the innumerable worlds of art possible and necessary. Likewise, through the implied derision of his own pedantic pose in Eureka, Poe may have been making a radical plea for a purer art. Given the subtle reversals of meaning in the cosmology, we must consider the possible seriousness of Poe’s otherwise unaccountable statement prefacing Eureka: “Nevertheless it is as a Poem only that I wish this work to be judged after I am dead” (XVI, 183). Since Empedocles actually did write his cosmology as poetry, perhaps Poe is asking us to judge both his and his predecessor’s cosmologies for their beauty rather than their veracity. At any rate, we must agree with Pundita’s remark, made from her balloon in “Mellonta Tauta”: “How very wonderfully do we see verified, every day, the profound observation of the Hindoo Aries Tottle (as quoted by Pundit) — ‘Thus must we say that, not once or twice, or a few times, but with almost infinite repetitions, the same opinions come round in a circle among men’” (VI, 199-200).



(1) Holman, “Hog, Bacon, Ram, and Other ‘Savans’ in Eureka: Notes Toward Decoding Poe’s Encyclopedic Satire,” Poe Newsletter, 2 (1969), 49-55; and “Splitting Poe’s ‘Epicurean Atoms’: Further Speculation on the Literary Satire of Eureka,” Poe Studies, 5 ( 1972), 33-37; Howard “Poe’s Eureka: The Detective Story that Failed,” Mystery and Detection Annual (1972), 1-14, Sippel “Another of Poe’s ‘Savans’: Edward Tatham,” Poe Studies, 9 (1976), 16-21; St. Armand, “‘Seemingly Intuitive Leaps’: Belief and Unbelief in Eureka,” in Poe as Literary Cosmologer, ed. Richard P. Benton (New Haven: Transcendental Books, 1975), pp. 4

(2) Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, trans. R. D. Hicks, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1925); Charles Anthon, comp., Classical Dictionary (New York Harper and Bros., 1843), subsequently referred to as Lives and Anthon, respectively.

(3) Lives, II, 389-391.

(4)Complete Works, XIV, 67; hereafter references to Poe’s prose and criticism cite this edition parenthetically.

(5) Paul Valery, “Au sulet d’Eureka,” preface to Edgar Poe, Eureka, trans. Charles Baudelaire (Paris: Grimaud, 1921), David Ketterer “Proteaive Irony and ‘The Full Design’ of Eureka,” Poe as Literary Cosmologer, pp. 46-55.

(6) Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Stephen E. Whicher (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1957), p. 36. Hereafter cited as Selections.

(7) O[tto] F. K[raushaar], “Kantianism,” Dictionary of Philosophy, ed. Dagobert D. Runes, et al. (Totowa, N.J.: Littlefield, Adams & Co., 1962),p. 159.

(8) “Empedocles on Etna,” in Poetry and Criticism of Matthew Arnold, ed. A. Dwight Culler (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1961), p. 60.

(9) II, 381. Empedocles’ apparent hypocrisy toward democracy may have relevance to the anti-democratic themes of Eureka suggested [page 26:] by Holman in “Splitting Poe’s ‘Epicurean Atoms,’ “ p. 36. Holman suggests an astronomical pun on the national motto, E pluribus unum.

(10) Poe’s analogy of whirling on the heights to get a sublime look at things is found throughout his works, almost always in a satirical context. As early as 1832, the protagonist of “Loss of Breach” laments the death of a fat man because, “He can have no idea of the wonder of a pirouette. . . . He has never ascended the summit of a hill. He has never viewed from any steeple the glories of a metropolis” (II, 162). The image is most amusing in “How to Write a Blackwood Article” and “A Predicament” (1838), revised in 1845, perhaps in part to accommodate slaps at Margaret Fuller and her Transcendentalism in The Dial. Here, the silly Psyche Zenobia goes “round and up and round and up and round and up” a Gothic spiral staircase to satisfy her “uncontrollable desire to ascend the giddy pinnacle, and thence, survey the immense extent of the city” (II, 285-286). Although the “prospect [is] sublime,” Psyche literally loses her head when a clock hand decapitates her in the steeple’s dial (II, 288).

(11) If Poe is playing such associative word games, it is possible that the date of his “explanatory” letter to Eveleth, previously cited, has significance: February 29 is, of course, “leap day.”

(12) Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe (1926; rpt. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, Inc., 1934), p. 592.

(13) This passage may also be an oblique reference to the fact that Lord Rosse had recently “resolved” the nebulae in Orion into discrete stars, thus tending to disprove Laplace’s nebular theory. See Holman, “Splitting Poe’s ‘Epicurean Atoms,’” pp. 34-35. Holman notes another apparent coincidence which may be relevant to Poe’s uncredited use of Empedocles: Rosse’s name reminds one of Aetna’s location in the Rossi mountains.

(14) The joke on Aristotle and sneezing first appeared in Poe’s satire of metaphysics in “Bon-Bon” (1835), where the devil claims, “‘. . . it was I who told Aristotle, that, by sneezing, men expelled superfluous ideas through the proboscis.’” In a note to the Harvard edition, T. O. Mabbott points out the source in Aristotle’s Prob1emasica, xxxiii, 9: “Sneezing comes from . . . the head . . . the seat of reasoning.” See Works, II, 108, n. 19. If the nose-nous pun exists here, it is certainly submerged, as Poe’s use of the word “proboscis” indicates. Nevertheless, another Folio Club tale, “Lionizing (1835), may be making extended use of the pun. Poe’s would-be lion has an exceptionally large nose and is called a “Wonderful genius!” when his pamphlet on nosology is printed. Through his nose, Poe’s lion feels “the divine afflatus” and therefore determines “to follow [his] nose.” The protagonist’s patron, a satiric portrait of Lady Blessington, is appropriately named “the Duchess of Bless-my-soul”, in her coterie are recherches whose ideas might please Poe’s cosmologer in Eureka (II, 323-329). If, in “Lionizing,” Poe is using the nous pun, then he is deriding the intuitive prescience resulting in the useless and outre knowledge accepted in literary and philosophical cliques.

(15) John Herman Randall, Jr., Aristotle (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1960), p. 90. In a relevant note Randall adds, “ it can hardly be said that “intuition’ has survived the Romantic movement without falling into association with some very shady characters.”

(16) Some examples of importance here: Euclid and Kant were not disciples of Aristotle, as the letter-writer claims; Champollion’s “readings” of the hieroglyphs were facilitated by the discovery of the Rosetta stone, a proclamation engraved conveniently in Coptic and two other languages; Kepler hardly “guessed” his laws of elliptical motion and, in fact, the quotation included by the letter-writer was written after he had corrected an error in a calculation which had made his third law appear invalid. (On Kepler, see Works, III, 1319, n. 11.) Kepler, like the Baconians derided by the letter-writer, seems to have done a good deal of investigative “creeping and crawling.”

(17) “The Transcendentalist,” Selections, p. 198. This essay, perhaps more than any other, suggests itself as a target of parody in Eureka.

(18) Indeed, when Poe-the-cosmologer speaks of “true Epicurean atoms,” he would seem to be inviting refutation, for Epicurus’ materialist philosophy stresses the indestructibility of matter as a fundamental tenet.

(19) For a more detailed discussion of nothingness in Eureka, see G. R. Thompson, “Unity, Death, and Nothingness — Poe’s ‘Romantic Skepticism,’” PMLA, 84 (1970), 297-300.


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[S:0 - PS, 1978]