Text: Harriet R. Holman, “Hog, Bacon, Ram, and Other ‘Savans’ in Eureka, ” Poe Newsletter­, October 1969, Vol. II, No. 3, 2:49-55


[page 49, column 1:]

Hog, Bacon, Ram, and Other “Savans” in Eureka:
Notes toward Decoding Poe’s Encyclopedic Satire

Clemson University

The precise relationship of the Eureka that Poe published in 1848 to the lecture he gave on a similar subject in New York, or the relationship of both to his letter on the lecture written to George W. Eveleth on 29 February 1848, may never be known. It has been assumed that Poe was perfectly serious in his claim that he had solved the riddle of the universe, and his letter to Eveleth seems to be straightforward. But Poe also seems to have intended Eureka as part of the plan for his projected magazine, The Stylus; and because James Russell Lowell was of the opinion that Poe intended to devote at least part of his magazine to criticism in the slashing manner of John Wilson, the Scottish editor of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, the possibility of wide-ranging satiric intent in Eureka presents itself. Certainly satire is suggested by Poe’s odd introductory section to Eureka, which he incorporated into the satiric tale “Mellonta Tauta.” And satire is suggested by his startling catalog of seeming praise for discredited “scholars” and for men he had attacked in other works — the Scottish philosopher-economists Hume, Mill father and son, and Bentham; and Humboldt, Carlyle, Emerson, and other Transcendentalist metaphysicians. It is these matters I wish to explore here as a kind of prolegomenon to further study of this strange work.

The preface merits careful attention as evidence of satire:

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.

What I here propound is true: — therefore 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.”

Nevertheless it is as a Poem only that I wish this work to be judged after I am dead (1).

Taken at his word, these three paragraphs constitute an almost perverse denial of the literary theories which Poe had been evolving over a period of time and which he reaffirmed elsewhere at the same time he was writing Eureka — the 1846 “Philosophy of Composition” and the 1847 Hawthorne review, for example. He once declared that for him poetry was not a purpose but a passion (Works, VII, xlvii), and later insisted that poetry, even his poetry on death and bereavement, is a product of rationality (Works, XIV, 193-208). He customarily had short patience for those who feel rather than think, who do not submit emotion to the discipline of either art or logic (Works, XI, 186; cf. XII, 153-154; XIII, 130; XVI, 37-38). Moreover, beauty, he maintained, is the sole province of poetry, whereas truth is the province of the short tale [column 2:] (Works, XIV, 198); a long poem, he said, is a contradiction in terms (Works, XIV, 196). If the reader assumes that these statements genuinely represented Poe’s beliefs when he wrote them, then he must explain why Poe vacillated from them in Eureka. But taken as a kind of half-satiric twisting, these three paragraphs become an extension of his literary theories, and the troublesome request to judge them appears a droll reference to both Plato, who banned poetry from his republic, and Hume and James Mill, Scottish philosopher-economists who shared this belief that poets are not “tellers of truth.”

The satirist customarily offers his audience clues to his intention, as Poe apparently does when he asks the reader to consider the author “not in the character of Truth-Teller.” The discourse itself begins: “It is with humility really unassumed — it is with a sentiment even of awe — that I pen the opening sentence of this work. . . . . What terms shall I find sufficiently simple in their sublimity — sufficiently sublime in their simplicity — for the mere enunciation of my theme?” (Works, XVI, 185). This statement of abject humility made in inappropriately swelling periods places Poe in the satirist’s classical role of eiron, the unpretentious little fellow who takes on the alazon, the imposing forces of those ranked against him, both those who misjudge their own abilities and the pretenders who try to appear other than they are (2). “I design,” Poe went on, “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. ” Continuing the game of eiron, Poe humbly apologizes for being “so rash . . . . as to challenge the conclusions, and thus, in effect, to question the sagacity of the greatest and most justly reverenced of men” (Works, XVI, 185).

These “great” and “reverenced” men number well over two dozen. In some instances, references to individuals can be deleted without much damage to the work (3). They are impressive ornamentation in the fashion of Poe’s Signora Psyche Zenobia, who followed instructions from Dr. Moneypenny of Blackwood to lard her writing with learned references in order to achieve “the Tone metaphysical.” The editor advised her:

If you know any big words this is your chance for them. Talk of the Ionic and Eleatic schools — of Archytas, Georgias and Alcmaeon. Say something about objectivity and subjectivity. Be sure and abuse a man called Locke. Turn up your nose at things in general, and when you let slip anything a little too absurd, you need not be at the trouble of scratching it out, but just add a foot-note, and say that you are indebted for the above profound observation to the ‘Kritik der reinen Vernunft, ’ or to the ‘Metaphysische Anfangsgründe der Naturwissenschaft. ’ This will look erudite and — and — and frank. (Works, II, 275-276)

It is not hard to conceive that Poe must have taken ironic pleasure in adding such window-dressing to Eureka, piling up names like shoddy goods half-displayed in a thieves ’ market to gull the unwary, for at the same time that Poe was evolving the stubborn grandiloquence of Eureka, he was producing other works with his customary incisive skill, clarity, and vigor — for example, the second Hawthorne review (1847), “The Poetic Principle” (written 1848, revised 1849, published 1850), “Hop-Frog” (1849), “Mellonta Tauta” (written 1848), installments of Marginalia, and letters to E. H. N. Patterson and Frederick [page 50:] W. Thomas. It would be difficult to explain, furthermore, how he could have lost temporarily the critical and analytical habit of mind which made him detest “the concentrated essence of rigamarole” (Works, XI, 138), that “most detestable species of cant — the cant of generality “ (Works, XI, 3), because, he said:

although quaintness, employed by a man of judgment and genius, may be made auxiliary to a poem, whose true thesis is beauty, and beauty alone, it is grossly, and even ridiculously, out of place in a work of prose. . . . . Either a man intends to be understood, or he does not (4).

Turgid writing from a writer, an editor, thus contemptuous of obscurity and himself demonstrably capable of clarity offers further evidence of satire. As case in point, Poe’s use of surnames in the jumbled way of Eureka is at the very best suspect. The reader who tries to fit his own scattered recollections of the eighteenth century philosopher David Hume into what Poe wrote is jolted to discover himself coping with someone named Joe Hume. And Joe Hume, he learns after grubbing in the library, was Sir Joseph Hume, a member of Parliament who insisted upon sound fiscal policy but himself encountered financial troubles. Confusion of such proportions could hardly have been unintentional from the writer of “The Purloined Letter” and “The Gold-Bug.” In addition, there is recurring word-play of a kind too meaningful surely to be happenstance, like the reiterated puns on Kant and cant and Hogg and Bacon. Who can take seriously discussion of the theory of Laplace — that is, the Nebular Theory — juxtaposed to mention of “the Cloud-Land of Metaphysics” (Works, XVI, 260-261) ? And can it be coincidence that what Poe calls the theory of Laplace was initially propounded by Kant? Poe’s use of words denoting fog, mist, cloud, miasma in Eureka needs thorough annotation (5). Most obviously suspect is the word nebulists, which in context can be read either as those who believe in the nebular theory or as those artists whose work is marked by indistinctness of outline. (The NED lists only this second definition prior to 1890.) Obscurity, word-play, inappropriate vocabulary, and grandiose bombast from the professional writer-editor who believed that quaintness belongs only in a poem and that a poem is short? These strange contradictions must give notice of satiric intent, if not indeed of a satire as is implied in the preface and the first two paragraphs.

The portion of Eureka most likely to arouse awareness of satiric intent is the introductory “extract,” as Poe calls it, of

a somewhat remarkable letter, which appears to have been found corked in a bottle and floating on the Mare Tenenebrarum — an ocean well described by the Nubian geographer, Ptolemy Hephestion, but little frequented in modern days unless by the Transcendentalists and some other divers for crotchets. (Works, XVI, 187-188 cf. IV, 236)

It was not Ptolemy Hephestion, however, who mapped the Mare tenebrarum, but a medieval Arabian geographer named Edrisi or El Yrisi, and the reader who happens to be in possession of this quaint piece of esoterica may be tempted to put the mistake down to Poe’s own pretentious parade of phoney erudition. But Poe seems to have had a clear purpose in mind. Edrisi, in the Dark Ages, equated the Mare tenebrarum with the encircling sea which the [column 2:] ancient Greeks believed wheeled forever around the earth, ready forever to wash men down into unknown gulfs and abysses of darkness from which no man returned. As for Ptolemy Hephestion, I could find no trace of the existence of such a man, and — what is more significant — neither could the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress (6). In brief, Poe invented a geographer from a desert region who mapped a non-existent ocean which swept men into darkness, in a work conceived as the illumination of man’s understanding of the order of the universe and dedicated to the most distinguished explorer and geographer of his own day. To have done so argues Poe either incompetent or a satirist.

Any “Sea of Darkness” frequented by “Bedlamite, or Transcendentalist” is inevitably metaphorical. The letter fished out of the Sea of Darkness, presumably by the “crotchet” of a Transcendentalist, purported to be the teachings of a Turkish philosopher named Aries Tottle. It was dated 2848, a millennium into the future. A fragment of this letter on Aries Tottle appears as part of the satiric tale “Mellonta Tauta” which Poe intended for the April 1848, issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book (7) but which was delayed until the following February, a year after the Eureka lecture and half a year after publication of the book. The philosopher, however, has now become Hindoo rather than Turk, the reason for the change being the writer of the letter, a bluestocking named Pundita, who was taking instruction from “Pundit himself.” (In the Eureka letter there was a Pundit who praised the Logic of “one Miller or Mill.”) A pundit, be it remembered, is not only a teacher but a Brahmin, hence possibly Emerson himself. This identification of Pundit with the Boston Transcendentalists is corroborated by Poe’s reference to “Frogpondium — the ‘pundits ’ you know” in a letter to Eveleth, 4 January 1848 (8). Moreover, Emerson’s well-known dictum about a “foolish consistency” is conversed in Eureka: “A perfect consistency, I repeat, can be nothing but an absolute truth “ (Works, XVI, 302). Pundita’s journal of a balloon journey among the stars is dated April 1st, giving the reader fair warning of hoax; the year was 2848, the same as that of the letter pulled from the Sea of Darkness. In it, as in the Eureka letter, appear Newton, Kepler, and one Miller or Mill with his millhorse Jeremy Bentham and his principal work Logic. It has in addition a “history” lesson Pundit deduced from a newspaper account recovered from a “cornerstone” and detailing the surrender of Lord Cornwallis, well fed on corn, to be made into little sausages by the savages (9). Early in the account of that lesson appears the exclamation, “Eureka! Pundit is in his glory” (Works, VI, 211). As if to insure that the satiric relationship between “Mellonta Tauta” and Eureka not be overlooked, Poe provided yet one more clue. While the balloon fell from the sky after an accident, Pundita concluded her journal: “Whether you ever get this letter or not is of little importance, as I write altogether for my own amusement. I shall cork the MS. up in a bottle however, and throw it into the sea” (Works, VI, 215). His preface to the tale had already pointed out that he found the MS. of the tale “about a year ago” — that is, almost precisely the time of the first public presentation of Eureka, 3 February 1848, as a lecture.

Both the fragment of the Aries Tottle letter in Eureka and the portion of it incorporated into the April Fool journal of the affected bluestocking in “Mellonta Tauta” [page 51:] proclaim themselves satiric in their patently ridiculous content, allusiveness, and ranting bombast. The style is in the manner of Diogenes Teufelsdröch, the pedantic narrator of Carlyle’s Sartor, Professor of Things in General (and one would think the quintessence of the “most detestable species of cant — the cant of generality “) at the University of Whoknowswhere. Sartor Resartus, though first published in England in 1831 in magazine form, had its first publication as book in America, where Emerson had prepared an audience for it. And the Aries Tottle MS. sealed up in a bottle and fished out of the Sea of Darkness by the “crotchet” of some Bedlamite or Transcendentalist is surely an allusion to one of Poe’s most famous literary hoaxes, “MS. Found in a Bottle.”

But the reader of a later day needs to be reminded that among the diverse meanings for “crotchet” (besides a hook of some sort and a quirk of character) is the “bracket” of scholar and pedant, which Poe forcibly introduced into the Aries-Hogg-Bacon portion of the letter, as if to satirize the apparatus of scholarship.

The connotations, the word-play, the ornate rhetoric, and the allusions of this letter which Poe considered significant enough to publish twice make some curious suggestions as to the meaning of his enigmatic discourse, as in the portion quoted here:

“Do you know that it is scarcely more than eight or nine hundred years ago since the metaphysicians first consented to relieve the people of the singular fancy that there exist but two practicable roads to Truth? Believe it if you can! It appears, however, that long, long ago, in the night of Time, there lived a Turkish philosopher called Aries and surnamed Tottle.” [Here, possibly, the letter-writer means Aristotle; the best names are wretchedly corrupted in two or three thousand years.] (10) “The fame of this great man 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 (11); but he obtained a scarcely less valuable celebrity as the founder, or at all events as the principal propagator, of what was termed the de ductive or à priori philosophy. He started with what he maintained to be axioms, or self-evident truths: — and the now well-understood fact that no truths are self -evident, really does not make in the slightest degree against his speculations. . . . . From axioms he proceeded, logically, to results. His most illustrious disciples were one Tuclid, a geometrician,” [meaning Euclid] (12) “and one Kant, a Dutchman, the originator of that species of Transcendentalism which, with the change merely of a C for a K, now bears his peculiar name.

“Well, Aries Tottle flourished supreme, until the advent of one Hog, surnamed ‘the Ettrick shepherd, ’ who preached an entirely different system, which he called à posterior) or in ductive. His plan referred altogether to sensation. He proceeded by observing, analyzing, and classifying facts— instantiae Naturae, 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 general disrepute. Finally, however, he recovered ground, and was permitted to divide the empire of Philosophy with his more modern rival: — the savans contenting themselves with proscribing all other competitors, past, present, and to come; putting an end to all controversy on the topic by the promulgation of a Median law, to the effect that the Aristotelian and Baconian roads are, and of right ought to be, the sole possible avenues of knowledge. . . . .” (Works, XVI, 188-189)

A good point at which to lay hold of this turgid mass is “the Ettrick shepherd,” the Scot, James Hogg (1770-1835), least appropriate of men to be placed in a category with Aristotle and Euclid, however wrenched the spelling of their names. Virtually illiterate until after he was [column 2:] grown, Hogg was self-appointed successor to Robert Burns. He wrote passable Scottish lyrics and an interminable Lay Sermon. Though some literary circles in Edinburgh made much of him as the Romantic’s natural man who had tapped the well-spring of feeling, others were offended by the pretentiousness, the pedantry, which led him to set himself up in a literary salon (13). Because of the punning value and the connotations of his name, however, it seems likely that a major consideration for including Hogg was word-play on Bacon.

Poe did not specify which Bacon, though presumably he intended the “Lord Bacon” whose analogy-rich rhetoric Emerson found admirable. Francis Bacon’s On the Dignity and Advancement of Learning with its Philosophia Prima, “a universal science,” suggested a summary philosophy, which treats only the summits of things, including their transcendental conditions. Bacon’s Novum Organum is credited with having demolished the Aristotelian theory of the tri-part nature of the universe, the old basis for Scholasticism and the “science” of the Dark Ages. Poe’s restatement of the Aristotelian theory in the third paragraph of Eureka could hardly have been accidental. Roger Bacon, by contrast, really belongs to Scholasticism; his contemporaries suspected that he had the secretum secretorum, the key to unlock the secrets of the universe. Though Eureka purports to be a synthesis of science and philosophy, it evidences little sympathy with the objectives of science, as the Aries Tottle letter clearly indicates. References to Bacon become contemptuous references to the process of collecting and examining data without attempting to find their significance.

In the old days, said the letter-writer (that is, back in 1848), inadequate philosophical concepts

retard[ed] the progress of true Science, which makes its most important advances — as all History will show — by seemingly intuitive leaps. These ancient ideas confined investigation to crawling . . . . but . . . . must we clip the wings of eagles? For many centuries, so great was the infatuation, about Hog especially, that a virtual stop was put to all thinking. . . . . No man dared utter a truth for which he felt himself indebted to his soul alone. (Works, XVI, 189-190)

For, as the letter-writer had observed earlier, “ ‘Baconian, ’ you must know, my dear friend, . . . . was an adjective invented as equivalent to Hog-ian, and at the same time more dignified and euphonious” (Works, XVI, 189).

The swinish implications, here inescapable, possibly refer to charges leveled against Utilitarianism as promulgated by Bentham and Mill, both mentioned in the letter. The gist of these charges resembled what the Stoics said about Epicureanism — that it was the philosophy of swine, the full belly and the absence of pain. Among Mill’s contemporaries Carlyle made the most memorable statement in “Jesuitism,” one of his Latter Day Pamphlets, which appeared two years after Eureka. Whether Poe knew that for years Carlyle had referred to Utilitarianism as Jesuitism remains to be explored, but he included in Eureka a warped reversal of the motto ascribed to the Jesuits — the end justifies the means (Works, XVI, 190). The heavy-handed irony of Carlyle’s diatribe on “pig philosophy” restated the Utilitarian creed with his own paraphrase — the more pigs with their feet in the feed trough, the greater the degree of good accruing to all (14). The reasonable assumption is that Poe and Carlyle were reacting, probably [page 52:] independently, in the same way. Yet Poe was fair enough classicist not to need any prompting to recall how Stoics attacked Epicureanism.

Poe obviously knew the 1843 edition of A System of Logic. Whether he could have seen Mill’s refutation of the charges of swinishness is less important than the fact that within fifteen years the charges became serious enough for Mill to need to refute them publicly. In Utilitarianism (1863) Mill carefully stated that Utilitarianism should not be equated with Epicureanism, whose opponents traditionally had considered it a swine philosophy. “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied, than a pig satisfied; better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied,” he insisted. “Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of beast’s pleasures” (15).

Poe’s reason for breaking down Aristotle into Aries Tottle is plainly the English meaning for the Latin Aries, Ram, which Poe capitalizes. Subsequently he made seemingly interchangeable references to the Hog-ish and the Ram-ish. The implications of Aries, the Ram, are varied: Aries is the first sign of the zodiac, spring, April (recalling the April Fool journal of Pundita); the Golden Fleece (mentioned in “Mellonta Tauta,” Works, IV, 212); the ornaments on the Ark of the Covenant; even a scapegoat. Other possibilities include Poe’s Ram, friend of the giant Moulineau, mentioned in Marginalia (Works, XVI, 123). I can find no trace of anyone named Moulineau, nor any folktale of a ram and a giant by any other name. Is it perhaps a bilingual pun on moulin (mill) for one Miller or Mill who rode a mill-horse called Jeremy Bentham? And the Ram perhaps the French theologian-philosopher called Petrus Ramus? At the College of Navarre Ramus defended as his thesis “Everything that Aristotle wrote is false,” and he believed rhetoric more significant than logic; his followers believed in intuition rather than logic; the rhetoric of the New England divines with their heavy use of analogy derived from him, and so presumably did that of the Brahmin teacher, Pundit, whose lessons to Pundita were more rhetorical than factual. Thus there seem to be good reasons for fitting Ramus into the allotted space, especially as Ramus made pretentious claim to have superceded Aristotle by a new and independent system (16).

But conceivably Poe could have implied topical allusion to Ram Mohan Roy (1774-1833), who in the words of the Eleventh Edition of the Britannica established the Brahma Samaj “for the worship and adoration of the Eternal, Unsearchable, Immutable Being who is the Author and Preserver of the Universe.” Bentham called him his “intensely admired and dearly beloved collaborator in the service of mankind.” Ram died of brain-fever just before he was to have sailed for America (17).

An arm-chair explorer looking at the porcine-Ram portion of the Aries Tottle letter might hazard a guess that the quarry Poe stalked through the length of the unmapped morass of Eureka was the unlikely combination of the Mills, father and son, and the intuitive Transcendentalists who partook of the Oversoul, with bluestockings, “professors,” and all fellow-travellers of Emerson — the Pundit who admired Logic — most particularly Thomas Carlyle, friend of both groups, author of Sartor, whom Poe had stigmatized as no man of genius (Works, XI, 177), the instructor of Emerson in the craft of obscurity (Works, [column 2:] XV, 260). In brief, it is the same quarry that he was pursuing in his letters and literary criticism of the period. “When I consider the true talent — the real force of Mr. Emerson, I am lost in amazement at finding him little more than a respectful imitation of Carlyle,” he had written in 1846 (18). But, he admitted again that year,

Carlyle . . . . has rendered an important service . . . . in pushing rant and cant to that degree of excess which inevitably induces reaction. Had he not appeared we might have gone on for yet another century, Emerson-izing in prose, . . . . Wilson-izing in criticism . . . . and Tom O ’Bedlam-izing in everything. (Works, XVI, 100)

By what seems to be curious chance, a protégé of Emerson and Longfellow who was also a Scot and a clergyman and a professor given to flights of analogy in the Ramsean manner happened to be lecturing on astronomy in New York the same week of Poe’s Eureka lecture. But the skillful distortion of statements from the lecture of John Pringle Nichol, Professor of Practical Astronomy at the University of Glasgow, and the misleading implication that these materials derived from Nichol’s Views of the Architecture of the Heavens in a Series of Letters to a Lady (19) suggests that Poe expected his mixed disparagement and seeming praise of Nichol to implicate his old Boston antagonists or perhaps cause one of them to take issue with what Poe had written.

A year after the Eureka lecture, with “Mellonta Tauta” at last published, Poe tried again to make the issue clear, this time through F. W. Thomas, novelist and editor:

I wish you would come down on the Frogpondians. They are getting worse and worse, and pretend not to be aware that there are any literary people out of Boston. . . . . They are decidedly the most servile imitators of the English it is possible to conceive. I always get in a passion when I think about it. It would be the easiest thing in the world to use them up en masse. One really well-written satire would accomplish the business: — but it must not be such a dish of skimmed milk-and-water as Lowell’s. (Letters, II, 427; my italics)

Yet at least one kind of satiric thrust is consistently developed in Eureka. A high proportion of the individuals named in it either were associated in some fashion with an encyclopedia or attempted to organize knowledge around a central philosophy, as Francis Bacon had done. To put it another way, they were “universalists,” though Poe seems to have avoided that word while playing all the changes on universe and unity. Universalist has two basic meanings. With a religious connotation, a Universalist is one holding the doctrine that salvation is extended to all mankind, not simply the elect. A universalist without the capital, however, is one who is supposed to have, or pretends to have, a knowledge of all things, even a “professor” of skills, a jack-of-all-trades.

Emerson, assuming him Pundita’s “Pundit himself,” had systematized his own philosophical concept, after his fashion, in Nature (1836), which Eureka in many respects seems to parallel. Therefore Emerson too would qualify as a universalist.

Although the name Bacon in the ranting Aries Tottle letter implies Francis Bacon, who also qualifies as universalist through his On the Dignity and Advancement of Learning, the name of Delia Salter Bacon (1811-1859) should here be considered for inclusion in the list. In [page 53:] 1847-48 a topical allusion to Delia or her brother Dr. Leonard Bacon would have reminded many readers of a titillating breach-of-promise hearing brought against a Yale ministerial student by Dr. Bacon in his sister’s behalf. Delia Bacon for a time had made a comfortable living by lecturing to women on world history and literature, especially Shakespeare. So she too was a universalist of sorts. In addition, like Pundita she was a New England Transcendentalist bluestocking. And once a patriotic effusion from her pen had won a prize over Poe’s “Metzengerstein” — a matter which may be relevant.

Among the encyclopedists, the publisher of Eureka, George Palmer Putnam (1814-1872), was also publisher of Emerson and other Transcendentalists. Like Emerson, Putnam at one time sponsored the erratic Delia Bacon. In the process of educating himself by reading, he compiled and subsequently published Chronology, or an Introduction and Index to Universal History (1833). He considered Poe’s behavior in his office strange, especially his elation and his insistence that Eureka was full of scientific truths which merited an initial edition of 50,000 (Putnam published five hundred) (20). But if Poe had set out to hoax the erudite Mr. Putnam, this behavior would have been in keeping with the jest.

The man to whom Poe dedicated Eureka “with very profound respect” also published an encyclopedia with a title that claimed universality. Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), the great nineteenth-century explorer-geographer who gave his name to currents, bays, and rivers around the world, was at that time seeing his seven-volume Kosmos through the press. His idea of the grand unity of all science was in his own day considered sentimentally old-fashioned and general, in the manner of eighteenth-century thought, rather than specific, in the manner of nineteenth-century science. In Eureka Poe, who detested “the cant of generality, ” proclaimed Humboldt “one whose generalizing powers have never, perhaps been equaled” (Works, XVI, 299) — a judgment no more profoundly respectful than the flippant footnote to “Hans Pfaall” (1835), in which Poe used “Mr. Green, of Nassau balloon notoriety, and other late aeronauts” to deny Humboldt’s theory of magnetic declination (Works, II, 67). The reader who assesses Poe’s five recognizable references to Humboldt will have to conclude that Poe considered the geographer an erudite fool.

The Encyclopedia Britannica in Poe’s day was written, edited, and published in Edinburgh, which Thomas Love Peacock ironically called the Athens of the North (21). David Hume (1711-1776), James Mill (1773-1836), and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) had some tenuous association with it. More significantly, as Utilitarians they subscribed to a philosophy which has been called the first systematic effort to evaluate all human activities and institutions. In other words, they too were universalists. Poe distrusted their philosophy as heartily as Dickens did, and probably for much the same reasons. In addition, he may have recognized what W. S. Jevons called Mill’s illogical mind evolving a philosophy of intricate sophistry (22). Poe habitually made what seem to be slighting references to Mill’s A System of Logic (1843). When he mentioned in Eureka those who blinded themselves with the titillating Scotch snuff of detail (Works, XVI, 190), he was showing the same sort of irritation evidenced in earlier work [column 2:] whenever he mentioned the Scottish philosopher-economists or anything else Scottish. So too with the recurring reference — in Marginalia, Eureka, and “Mellonta Tauta” — to one Miller or Mill and his millhorse Jeremy Bentham.

Whoever Miller was, the inclusion of his name is bathetic, obviously diminishing the dignity of scholars in the group. Possibly he was Joe Miller, “encyclopedist” of Joe Miller’s Jests: or The Wits Vade-Mecum (dates various), whom Poe included twenty-six times as Joseph A-to-Z Miller in “Autography.” Or, because of the millennium implied in the date of the letter found in a bottle, the name Miller may well have been a topical allusion to William Miller (1782-1849), who in this country had been proclaiming the millennium — that is, the second coming of Christ and the end of the world — for 1843, 1844, and later; he and his deluded followers, the “Millerites,” were subjects for sharp ridicule. The allusion would have had implications too for the intuitive leap of the metaphysicians, Aries Tottle’s favored method for advancing science. Miller, however, may have been Dr. James Miller (1762-1827), Edinburgh physician who edited the fourth edition of the Britannica and part of the fifth edition, as well as the Encyclopedia Edinensis (1827); a specialist in science, he happened to be author of the Britannica article on conchology. The “Ettrick shepherd” James Hogg, too, is relevant to this encyclopedic motif; his son James (1806-1888) in 1848 was publishing Hogg’s Weekly Instructor; as printer and publisher, he had worked on the seventh edition of the Britannica, to which Poe may have had access at Fordham. So they too were universalists.

Another encyclopedist, Jacob Freidrich, Freiherr von Bielfeld (1717-1770) in Fordham-like rural retirement compiled single-handed, for the benefit of that unclerkly Prince of Wales who became Regent and then George IV, The Elements of Universal Erudition, Containing an Analytical Abridgment of the Sciences, Polite Arts, and Belles Lettres, in three volumes. Though that formidably tedious German pedant had been Secretary of the Legation to the King of Prussia and Chancellor of All the Universities in the Dominions of His Prussian Majesty, Poe Frenchified him into Baron de Bielfeld and quoted him in French, out of context, with significance for the “Poem,” “Romance,” and “Truth” of Poe’s preface: “Let us therefore . . . . say, that poetry is the art of expressing our thoughts by fiction, ” as an eighteenth-century translation worded what Poe quoted in French in Marginalia (Works, XVI, 195), and the sentence referred to in Eureka is in fact Bielfeld’s refusal to probe into any difficult problem (23). The inclusion of Bielfeld the encyclopedist in Eureka is the work of Poe the wag, the hoaxer, the cryptographer.

Speculation on this strange assemblage of encylopedists and universalists suggests not only that the conglomeration indicates satiric intent, but also that the crammed discourse is an omnium gatherum, what is called an encyclopedic satire (24). A fair proportion of the total list of “savans” are encyclopedists of sorts, implying the possibility that Poe used encyclopedists to emphasize the nature of his encyclopedic satire. The common denominator of the group seems to be that they were pretenders to learning, either encyclopedists and universalists or, for contrast, fools. It is tempting to surmise that he may have drawn his material from the very sources he hinted at — Humboldt, the Britannica, Mr. Putnam of Chronology, or an Introduction [page 54:] and Index to Universal History; but that possibility remains still to be investigated.

The problems involving most of the remaining “savans,” however, present confusion confounded. “Enck’s comet,” for example, though given the name of Johann Franz Encke (1791-1865), was the discovery of Jean Louis Pons (1761-1831) (25). Poe showed only partial awareness of the work of Sir William Herschel and his son with nebulae, but at least he exploited the punning value of their nebular work, and the reader who remembers that Poe credited the American editor of Sir John Herschel’s Treatise on Astronomy with providing the impetus for both his hoaxing “Hans Pfaall” and the moon hoax of Richard Adams Locke (Works, XV, 127-128) ought not have expected anything else.

Two additional “savans” not mathematicians or astronomers by that very fact challenge the imagination. Jacob Bryant (1715-1804) was designated by Poe simply as author of Mythology. The title page of that work reads: “A Mythological, Etymological, and Historical Dictionary: Extracted from the Analysis of Ancient Mythology. By William Holwell. London, 1783” or other date. A later edition, under Bryant’s own name, had special reference to Egypt. He published treatises on the authenticity of Homer and, more significantly, Observations on the Poems of Thomas Rowley: In Which the Authenticity of Those Poems Is Ascertained, London, 1781.” A classical “scholar” who derived history from myth and defended literary forgery! The second of these odd “savans” is Champollion, one of two French brothers, both Egyptologists. Why an Egyptologist? Jean François Champollion (1790-1832), founder of the Egyptian museum at the Louvre, had made history when he recognized in the Rosetta Stone the clue to decoding the hieroglyphics of the Egyptians, thereby becoming a luminous example, almost a patron saint, for cryptographers. It was he who, in the words of the Aries Tottle letter, had “stolen the golden secret of the Egyptians” (Works, XVI, 198) by showing how their records could be deciphered thousands of years after their time. Poe must have believed that this incongruous inclusion of Champollion among the astronomers and pedants would alert a knowledgeable reader to hidden meanings within his discourse.

He had earlier in Eureka implied as much in writing of astronomy and man’s progress by slow creeping and the seemingly intuitive leap:

Now, I have elsewhere observed that it is by just such difficulties as the one now in question — such roughnesses — such peculiarities — such protuberances above the plane of the ordinary — that Reason feels her way, if at all, in her search for the True. By the difficulty — the “peculiarity” — now presented, I leap at once to the secret — a secret which I might never have attained but for the peculiarity and the inferences which, in its mere character of peculiarity, it affords me. (Works, XVI, 228)

But Poe’s “elsewhere” happens to be his own “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (26), and that circumstance added to others by now apparent presents an inescapable conclusion: no nineteenth-century writer striving to find acceptance for serious philosophical and scientific theories could believe his argument strengthened by appeal to a detective story. Poe here is more than satiric; he is revealing both a clue and a method for unraveling his “True” intent. Like the [column 2:] purloined letter, this revelation has been plainly visible, even properly footnoted, but its real significance has gone unremarked, and with courteous silence readers have passed over all these “protuberances” and “roughnesses” which Poe expected would reveal his satiric intention.

The author of “The Gold-bug” had reason to expect readers to recognize references to cryptography and to enjoy with him the wealth of allusion and the pedantic bombast which he had put together at Fordham in the seclusion of his impoverished cottage, working from memory with perhaps the occasional aid of a ready-reference book consulted at Fordham. Like a good satirist, he had warned his readers that he wrote “not in the character of Truth-Teller.” He had assumed with ostentatious humility the role of eiron and deferred “with very profound respect” to the alazon, the pretenders to learning and wisdom and intuitive knowledge who had been the object of his attack since his days with The Southern Literary Messenger (see, for example, Works, IX, 103-106). In the process, he employed the very devices he had mocked in “How to Write a Blackwood Article.” He invented materials when he claimed to be dealing with facts. He praised perpetrators of error. He quoted out of context. He derided when he seemed to praise. He who had declared “quaintness” to be “grossly and even ridiculously out of place in a work of prose” (Works, XI, 177) employed a contorted and bombastic style in Eureka. He loaded it with puns and topical allusions which now call for explication as careful as that accorded Dryden’s Maeflecknoe. He even made references to his own literary hoaxes. Altogether, he had good reason to believe that the method and intent of his carefully constructed Eureka were clear enough to establish it as a masterpiece (cf. Letters, II, 452) and him as the critic whose new journal The Stylus would merit attention on both sides of the Atlantic. There is therefore cause to expect that as scholars move, both by the rare “intuitive” leap and the necessary slow creeping that precedes it, to decode the puzzles of Eureka, they will find the content of this encyclopedic satire similar to the content of Poe’s other work rather than an enigmatic departure from it. More important, the quality of Poe’s ironic and incisive mind will reveal itself more clearly than biographers, critics, and enthusiasts have yet perceived it.



(1)  The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (New York, 1902), XVI, 183. First italics are mine. Subsequent references to Works given in the text of the essay.

(2)  The eiron in his own modest way is a pretender. For comments on eiron and alazon, especially “the learned crank or obsessed philosopher,” see Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton, 1957), pp. 39-40 and passim. For a fuller discussion of the means of recognizing satire, see Gilbert Highet, The Anatomy of Satire (Princeton, 1962); note especially hoax as satire, pp. 92-103.

(3)  Among the names that seem primarily ornamental are Friedrich Wilhelm August Argelander (1799-1875), Prussian astronomer; Francis Baily (1774-1844), English financier and astronomer; Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel (1784-1846), Prussian astronomer who [page 55:] determined the distance to star 61 Cygni; Henry Cavendish (1731-1810), of Cambridge; Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), astronomer and mathematician; Nevil Maskelyne (1732-1811); Johann Heinrich von Mädler (1794-1874); and Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Heavy ornamentation indeed, however supplied.

(4)  “William Ellery Channing,” Works, XI, 177; see also Poe’s comment on the obscurity of Emerson, XV, 260.

(5)  Note also that miasma, a poisonous vapor associated with swamps and frogponds rather than outer space, is akin to the transcendental atmosphere in which Poe said Hawthorne “has so long been struggling for breath” (1847 Hawthorne review, Works, XIII, 155).

(6)  Letter from Mrs. Dorothy W. Bartlett, Acting Chief, Geography and Map Division, the Library of Congress, 29 December 1967, to Miss Marian Withington, Reference Librarian, Robert Muldrow Cooper Library, Clemson University. Edrisi was not Nubian, that is, black — another piece of word-play on darkness (here possibly, in addition, a topical allusion to the great political issue of 1848, the admission of Texas as a slave-holding state).

(7)  See Poe to Godey, 17 January 1848, Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. John Ward Ostrom (Cambridge, Mass., 1948), II, 357-359, including Ostrom’s annotations. A mocking letter included by Harrison (Works, XVII, 329-330), dated February 1849, purportedly accompanied the tale when Poe sent it to Godey (not admitted to the checklist by Ostrom, Letters, II, 618-625).

(8)  Letters, II, 354. Note also: “The Frogpondians (Bostonians) have badgered me so much that I fear I am apt to fall into prejudices about them. I have used some of their Pundits up, at all events, in ‘The Rationale of Verse ’ “ (Poe to Eveleth, 15 December 1846, Letters, II, 333) . Ottavio M. Casale indicates “pundit” to have such implications as “professor of literature” and Cambridge professor, sometimes all Bostonians, “the Frogpondians”; see “Poe on Transcendentalism,” Emerson Society Quarterly, No. 50 (1968), 92. Poe’s essential lack of sympathy with the beliefs of Emerson and the Transcendentalists as evidenced in Eureka has been explored by Frederick W. Conner, “Poe’s Eureka: The Problem of Mechanism,” in Cosmic Optimism (Gainesville, Fla., 1949), pp. 67-91.

(9)  VI, 211-215. Apparently a topical allusion deriding the Washington Monument Association of New York. See William Bittner, Poe: A Biography (Boston, 1962), p. 234.

(10)  Brackets — crotchets — Poe’s.

(11)  Compare with the assertion of his Satanic Majesty in “Bon-Bon” (1831) that “it was I who told Aristotle, that by sneezing men expelled superfluous ideas through the proboscis” (Works, II, 139). Note also subsequent reference in Eureka to those who “blinded themselves with the impalpable titillating Scotch snuff of detail” (Works, XVI, 190).

(12)  Brackets Poe’s. In “Mellonta Tauta” the disciple is Nuclid.

(13)  John Wilson, 1785-1854, Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Edinburgh, himself consistently the object of Poe’s jibes, satirized Hogg in his Noctes Ambrosianae over a long period in Blackwood’s Magazine. Poe consistently satirized that magazine too, most notably in “How to Write a Blackwood Article” and “A Predicament.” Baudelaire did not recognize the Ettrick shepherd as James Hogg, nor did he recognize the “Kant-cant” word-play. Note a letter, possibly ironic, from Poe to Eveleth, 26 June 1849: “. . . . Draper . . . . chief of that very sect of Hog-ites to whom I refer as ‘the most intolerant & intolerable set of bigots & tyrants that ever existed on the face of the Earth. ’ . . . . [a] merely perceptive man with no intrinsic force — no power of generalization — in short, a pompous nobody” (Letters, II, 449).

(14)  “Jesuitism,” in “Latter-Day Pamphlets,” The Works of Thomas Carlyle, Centenary Edition (New York, 1901), XX, 315-317.

(15)  Quoted from The Philosophy of John Stuart Mill: Ethical, Political, and Religious (New York, [1961]), pp. 352-353 (based on the Uniform Library Edition of 1874-75).

(16)  Just as Emerson had called for “a poetry and philosophy of insight . . . . and [an independent] religion by revelation to us”; see “Nature” (1836), in The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Edward Waldo Emerson (New York, 1904), I, 3. [column 2:]

(17)  Quoted from “Ram Mohan Roy,” The Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed. (Cambridge, 1911), XXII, 877. Ram’s testimony before a House of Commons committee on the judicial and revenue systems of India has implications for possible allusions involving Mill at the East India Company.

(18)  In the “Marginalia,” Works, XVI, 122. Note a similar linking of Carlyle with the style of Margaret Fuller, Works, XV, 79. See also “About Critics and Criticism” (1850), Works, XIII, 195.

(19)  See Frederick W. Conner, “Poe and John Nichol: Notes on a Source of Eureka, ” in All These to Teach, ed. Robert A. Bryan (Gainesville, Fla., 1965), pp. 190-208.

(20)  See Putnam’s Magazine, n.s. IV (October 1869), 471.

(21)  Passim Crotchet Castle (1831), in which Peacock, Mill’s superior at the East India Company, went gunning for ignorant scholars, narrow scientists, misapplied education, bluestockings, Scots, economist-philosophers. Similarities suggest that Poe may have made use of Peacock’s satiric novel.

(22)  Cited from “John Stuart Mill,” The Encyclopedia Britannica (Chicago, 1969), XV, 462. Note also: “The à priori reasoners upon government are, of all plausible people, the most preposterous. . . . . The fact is that à priori argument is much worse than useless except in the mathematical sciences, where it is possible to obtain precise meanings. If there is any one subject in the world to which it is utterly and radically inapplicable, that subject is Government” (”Marginalia,” Works, XVI, 37-38).

(23)  Trans. W. Hooper (London, 1770), II, 94. Information on Bielfeld is derived from title page and preface. Poe called him “the German who wrote in French” (Works, XVI, 30).

(24)  I am indebted to both Professor Jay B. Hubbell, formerly of Duke University, and my colleague Professor John L. Idol for recognition of this quality of satire in Eureka, as well as for other suggestions in the development of this paper.

(25)  The spelling may be a typographical error or an indication that Poe was working from memory rather than from books. (At this stage it seems wise to avoid direct confrontation with Poe’s major scientists — Newton, Kepler, Kant, Comte, and Laplace — though the relationship of each to Eureka and to Poe’s other works needs clarification.)

(26)  M. Dupin said that government agents had fallen into the gross error of confounding the unusual with the abstruse. “But it is by these deviations from the plane of the ordinary, that reason feels its way, if at all, in its search for the true” (Works, IV, 169).  


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[S:1 - PSDR, 1969]