Science and Edgar Allan Poe's Pathway to Cosmic Truth

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Li, Mo
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Middle Tennessee State University
Poe’s early grievance in “Sonnet—To Science” (1829) against science’s epistemological authority transitioned into a lifelong journey of increasingly fruitful maneuvering. Poe’s engagement with science reached its apogee in Eureka: A Prose Poem (1848), his cosmological and aesthetic treatise published near the end of his life. While exalting intuition and poetic imagination as the pathway to Truth, Eureka builds upon, questions, and revises a wealth of scientific authorities and astronomical works. Many classic and recent studies, however, appreciate the poetic value but overlook or reject the scientific significance of the treatise. In contrast, some scholars assess Eureka by its response and contribution to specific theories and methods of nineteenth-century or contemporary science.
Although some scholars have defended Eureka’s scientific achievements, they rarely investigate the role of science in Poe’s other works, especially his early or enigmatic ones. More importantly, only a few critical studies have attempted to examine the trajectory of Poe’s allegiance with science in his lifelong cosmological interests.
This study scrutinizes a distinctive set of Poe’s works across his literary career to demonstrate how science, astronomy, and related fields, in particular, assisted and motivated Poe to seek the Truth and build a universe. The works analyzed include “Al Aaraaf” (1829), “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” (1835), the extensive endnote (1839) to the tale, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838), “The Power of Words” (1845), and Eureka (1848). Poe incorporated numerous astronomical events, discoveries, and theories, the most significant of which include Tycho Brahe’s supernova, lunar voyages, the United States Exploring Expedition, William Herschel’s and Pierre-Simon Laplace’s Nebular Hypothesis, Newton’s laws of gravity, and Kepler’s law of planetary orbits.
Instead of dismissing these scientific references as springboards for poetic imagination, this study inspects these scientific texts and contexts more closely to uncover their epistemological role in Poe’s cosmos. The study argues that epistemological challenges and problems posed by scientific developments stimulated Poe to investigate the elusive nature of knowledge and develop his method of obtaining Truth. By contemplating the merits and limitations of science, Poe achieved his own fusion of science and poetic invention.
Cosmology, Edgar Allan Poe, Epistemology, Eureka, Science history