Text: Various, “Marginalia,” Poe Studies, December 1985, Vol. XVIII, No. 2, 18:24-25


[page 24, column 2:]


This column is devoted to brief notes, comments, queries. We wish to provide here an outlet for such items as source notes which do note require the extended argument and proof that customarily attends them, and for items of very special or peculiar interest which otherwise might not appear. Contributions to this column should generally be one paragraph in form and less than a page and a half of typescript, though notes of three pages with as many paragraphs are acceptable.

Empedocles in Eureka: Addenda

Peter C. Page’s “Poe, Empedocles, and Intuition in Eureka” [Poe Studies, 11 (December 1978), 21 -26] argues that the cosmology of the Greek philosopher Empedocles was an important source of Poe’s thinking in Eureka, particularly in light of his 1836 reference in “Pinakidia” to Empedocles’ anticipation of the principles of “attraction and repulsion” [see Writings, 11, 93-94]. Burton R. Pollin questions various aspects of Page’s interpretation, suggesting that Poe’s knowledge of Empedocles’ thinking may be far more limited than Page assumes [see “Empedocles in Poe: A Contribution of Bielfeld,” Poe Studies, 13 June 1980), 8-9, and Writings, 11, 93-94]. In general, l find the similarities Page draws between Empedocles’ system and Poe’s convincing, especially those based on the exposition of that system in Chales Anthon’s Classical Dictionary [Pollin documents Poe’s use of this work in other contexts in ‘‘Empedocles,” 9]. My purpose here is to offer two brief, informal contributions to this debate. First, I wish to note additional similarities between Empedocles and Poe which Page overlooks, similarities suggesting that Poe may possibly have read, although necessarily in Greek or in Latin or German translation, one of the flurry of nineteenth-century editions of the fragments from Empedocles’ Nature, on his cosmology, and Purifications, on his conversion to metempsychosis [D. O‘Brien’s Empedocles’ Cosmic Cycle: A Reconstruction from the Fragments and Secondary Sources (London: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1969) provides an extensive list, pp. 337 ff. References to fragment numbers below follow the standard numbering of Hermann Diels, the German editor and translator of Empedocles]. Second, I will argue that Page places Empedocles’ influence in a misleading interpretive context.

At least five aspects of Empedocles’ cosmic cycle can be added to the case that Page makes for Poe’s indebtedness to him. (1) The concept of “ether” in Eureka is paralleled hy the references to “ether” in On Nature which, although usually linked with the element of air, is once linked with that of Qre [fragments 38, 39]. (2) Poe follows Empedocles in believing the universe to be of a determinate extent [fragment 39]. (3)Just as Poe views the present form of the universe as the irradiated condition of God, Empedocles, at one point, identifies the Sphere (the ideal unified form to which the universe periodically returns) as God [fragment 31]. Page does make this point [p. 22], but in citing Anthon as the key source Q~r Poe’s information he neglects ambiguities in Empedocles which also seem to be reflected in Eureka. For example, in Purifications, where the Sphere is identified with consciousness or thought [fragment 135], the sense of an eternally present transcendent entity would appear to contradict, coexist with, or significantly modify, the purely temporal Sphere of On Nature. (4) Empedocles’ description of the period when the heterogeneous influence of Strife is increasing (there is considerable controversy concerning the number of stages that should be distinguished in a completed cycle) recounts how various gargoyle-like monsters or grotesques are created by the haphazard yoking together of separate limbs and organs, an account which illuminates Poe’s use of the term ‘‘grotesque.” [For an overview and citations of relevant criticism, see my The Rationale of Deception in Poe (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979), pp. 36-37.] (5) The concluding human analogy that Poe draws between his pulsating universe and the beat of a heart is in turn comparable to the analogy of a cosmic breath Empedocles apparently uses for the movement of the universe. The basis for this interpretation is [page 25:] his detailed description of the inspiration and expiration of breath as it effects the circulation of blood [fragment 100] and the link he makes between the action of the heart and thought [fragment 105].

In interpreting Poe’s opening analogy for the visionary stance — the figure spinning on his heel atop Mt. Aetna — Page reasonably links the image to Empedocles’ fabled suicide there [pp. 22-23]; he suggests, however, following the interpretations of Harriet R. Holman, that Poe uses the image to demonstrate Empedocles’ afQnity with the other “savans” apparently alluded to in Eureka as objects of satire and ridicule. But Poe’s image should not be viewed, l would argue, primarily as a satiric undercutting of both Empedocles, the man, and the cosmologies of Empedocles and Poe. The image of a man spinning on the summit of Aetna is the Qre and earth equivalent of Poe’s maelstrom — it represents a unity associated with death. There is a narrow line between the ridiculous and the sublime that Poe was certainly aware of; it is inherent in the nature of his subject matter. But what I have described as Poe’s use of “protective irony,” particularly in relation to an ambiguous concept of intuition [The Rationale of Deception in Poe, pp. 261-63, 265, 268, 269-79, 272], extends to whatever sense of the ridiculous is at work here. Furthermore, there seems little reason to doubt that Poe valued Empedocles’ cosmology as a serious anticipation of his equally serious effort. Readings of Eureka have certainly revealed ironies and contradictions in its text, but Poe would hardly put himself to the trouble of writing his cosmology merely to demonstrate its inauthenticity. Page implies that Poe’s treatment of Empedocles followed sources which presented him “as something of a charlatan whose tricks were calculated to please his worshipping public” [p. 22]; this significantly misrepresents the situation. In fact, in the descriptions by Anthon, Bielfeld, and ‘‘Laertius,” Empedocles emerges as a positive figure. Anthon, for example, describes him as “distinguished not only as a philosopher but also for his knowledge of natural history and medicine, and as a poet and statesman” [Classical Dictionary (New York: Harper and Bros., 1843) p. 469]. Such an attitude of respect seems congruent with what may be viewed as Poe’s homage to Empedocles and his system in Eureka.

David Ketterer, Concordia University


A Possible Source in Dickens for Poe’s “Imp of the Perverse”

In his introduction to ‘‘The Imp of the Perverse” (1845) Thomas Ollive Mabbott states that “Poe’s title and the main theme . . . clearly have their inspiration in a passage in the twenty-second chapter of Lady Georgiana Fullerton’s novel, Ellen Middleton (1844) . . . ”: “A spirit of reckless defiance took possession of me, — and I completely lost my head. A torrent of words burst from my lips, of which I hardly knew the meaning . . . . I was dragging down . . . the ruin which had so long hung over my head.” [Works, III, 1218.] Mabbott classiQes Poe’s rendering of Lady Fullerton’s “spirit of reckless defiance” into the “Imp of the Perverse” as an example of Poe’s imaginative mastery of phrase” [Works, III, 1226]. Although Poe’s phrase is indeed imaginative, its two distinctive words, “imp” and “perverse,” do appear together before Poe’s story in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, the only other place in literature where I have found them in conjunction. The novel in serial form had been irregularly published in Bentley’s Miscellany from February 1837 to April 1839 and appeared in book form in 1838. In the twenty-second chapter of Oliver Twist, the thieves Toby and Sikes force Oliver to drink some liquor before he is introduced feet first into the house they plan to rob. When Oliver refuses the “glass with spirits,” Toby orders, “Down with it, innocence,” and Sikes adds, “Drink it, you perverse imp; drink it!” [Oliver Twist (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), 209-210; my italics]. Although the theme of Poe’s story, the impulse to give oneself away, may come from Ellen Middleton, the precise words of Poe’s title seem to be his imaginative rearrangement of the very words written by Dickens, whose works and verbal originality Poe admired.

In The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym (1838, the year of Oliver Twist), Poe showed an interest in the element of the perverse without naming it, when Pym, descending the cliff in (Chapter XXIV, finds his [column 2:] soul “pervaded with a longing to fall; a desire, a yearning, a passion utterly uncontrollable” [Writings, I, 198, see Burton R. Pollin, “The Self-Destructive Fall,” Etudes Anglaises, 29 (1976), 199-202]. Legrand in “The Gold Bug” (1843) is also subject to “perverse moods of alternate enthusiasm and melancholy” [Works, II, 807]. But not until “The Black Cat” (1843) does perversity become the driving force behind the action of a tale; here the “spirit of PERVERSENESS,” of which “philosophy takes no account,” subjects the narrator to “this unfathomable longing of the soul to r~ex itself. . . to do wrong for wrong’s sake only” [Works, III, 852].

In “The Imp of the Perverse” (1845), the title itself seems to direct the procedure by which Poe tells the tale, two-thirds of which read like a philosophical treatise on which the last third depends; it defines the great force that hurries the last third of the tale to its climax. We may speculate that in Poe’s imaginative rearrangement of Dickens’ words, he found a label for what his narrator calls a new category of human behavior, “a radical, a primitive impulse — elementary” [Works, III, 1222], overlooked by “phrenologists” and “the moralists who have preceded them” [Works, III, 1219]. In this way the condensed action of the tale, given as an example of the operation of perversity in the very person of a narrator who can so lucidly explain it, drives home the point of its inescapable nature [see, for example, Eugene Kanjo, ‘’ ‘The Imp of the Perverse,’ ” Poe Newsletter, 2 (1969), 41-44; Sandra Whipple Spanier, ‘‘‘Nests of Boxes’ . . . ,‘’ Studies in short Fiction, 17 (1980), 307].

Adeline R. Tintaer, New York City


Another Source for “The Black Cat”

In the short-lived Baltimore Monument (1836-1839) Poe possibly read in the issue for 22 October 1836 [pp. 21-22] a story entitled “The Black Cat” by “T.H.S.” and incorporated material from it into his famous tale. Both narrators emphasize the veracity of the events they relate. Both tales deal with the occult. In the Monument piece, several youngsters and a servant swap tales concerning witchcraft, ghosts, and devils, which set the mood for a subsequent misadventure with a black cat. In Poe’s tale, of course, the wife mentions that black cats are witches. In addition, the central action of both tales involves a cellar and ‘‘housework.” The Monument raconteur tells about a maid who was performing the “duties of her office” in a basement (22); Poe’s narrator claims to recount a series of “mere household events‘’ (Works, III, 849) and later goes to the cellar on a “household errand” (856).

The stories parallel each other in more significant ways. The love/hate motif dominates both. The Monument narrator confesses that although he presently esteems cats, he once hated and abused them, while Poe’s character admits that his love for felines turned to hatred. In both plots, this love/hate relationship leads to abuse and hangings. In the earlier work two mischievous boys decide to execute a cat in a secluded area of a garden. After they place a noose around their victim’s neck, they stone the cat, using a “flat, sharp, and heavy stone” (22). Not only does Poe’s protagonist hang Pluto in a garden, but he also threatens the second cat with an axe. The cellar episodes in both suggest crime scenes. The Monument maid believes that a thief has entered the basement. Responding to the maid’s ear-piercing screams, a rag-tag posse of amateur detectives — a doctor, the narrator’s father, the narrator, and the doctor’s two sons — hope to expose a miscreant there, only to discover “a great black cat” with “fiery eyes” (22). Poe’s cellar scene contains an actual murder and an attempted cover-up. The police discover the murder when they investigate the “screams” within the wall, unearthing the large black cat with its “eye of fire” (859).

Because of his Baltimore connections, Poe would have easy access to the Monument, which enjoyed a respectable readership. Once again, however, the talented Poe far exceeds his source, drawing on a piece of second-rate buffoonery to produce a psychological masterpiece.

E. Kate Stewart, Worcester Polytechnic Institute


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]