Popular Science Monthly/Volume 71/September 1907/Poe as an Evolutionist

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THE career of Edgar Allan Poe was a puzzle to his contemporaries and has been a puzzle to students of his life ever since. Though the mythology with which Griswold and others helped to embellish the poet's biography has been cleared away, the correct summing up of his life seems still far off, and in seeking to find the principle of unity in that strange personality we can but confess ourselves baffled and perplexed. Yet, in estimating Poe's character, one portion of his work may be pointed out on which too little attention has been bestowed. Crude as Poe's philosophic speculations sometimes were, yet foremost among them he entertained, in its broad outlines, that idea of the changes and development of the world which goes, nowadays, by the name of the theory of evolution. To show in what way a recognition of this fact would affect our estimate of him will not be attempted in this paper. It is here proposed simply to exhibit Poe's views on this matter and to point out his place in the list of evolutionary thinkers.

The history of the idea of evolution has been studied by Professor Sully,[1] by H. F. Osborn[2] and by Edward Clodd,[3] but none of them mentions Poe's name in connection with the subject. To "Eureka," the epitome of his thought on this matter, Poe himself attributed the highest value, but his biographers have shown scarcely an inkling of its importance in judging its author. Griswold in his "Memoir of Poe"[4] remarks on the resemblance of "Eureka" to the once famous anonymous work "The Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation," and Professor Irving Stringham, of the University of California, has a critique on the work inserted in Woodberry's "Life of Poe"[5] and also in Woodberry and Stedman's edition of Poe's works.[6] The only article of value, however, on the subject that the present writer knows of is an essay referred to by Mr. Ingram in his "Life of Poe"[7] by Wm. Hand Browne, entitled "Poe's Eureka and Some Recent Scientific Speculations," which appeared in The New Eclectic Magazine in 1868. It appears to have produced no permanent impression. Poe seems to have put certain of his ideas before scientific men during his lifetime, but received no encouragement. Commenting on a letter from the present writer on "Eureka," published in the Times Book Review, of Philadelphia, Mr. Henry Newton Ivor of that city wrote, under date August 21, 1901, to that periodical:

My father, who knew the poet during his connection with William Burton, often told me that Poe had met with rebuffs from scientific men to whom he undertook to explain his belief in the development of things.

To get to the starting point of Poe's speculations we should perhaps, go back to his youth, when we find him under the double influence of the eighteenth-century French philosophers and of Coleridge and Schlegel.[8] But how far these two streams of thought colored Poe's philosophy is not easy to say. Most of his speculations seem determined by the facts of contemporary science and his own intellectual activity. Not till his later years do we find any extensive expression of his views. "The Colloquy of Monos and Una,"[9] "The Island of the Fay,"[10], and "Mesmeric Revelation"[11] are some of the pieces in which he appears as a speculative thinker. But not till 1847, two years before his death, does he appear to have tried to form a definite system for himself. Early that year his dearly-loved wife died and her death seems to have impelled his mind towards attempting to unravel "the riddle of the universe." Throughout the fall and winter of that year he elaborated his thoughts,[12] and on February 3, 1848, an abstract of his speculations was delivered as a lecture at the Society Library of New York.[13] Shortly afterwards it was published by Putnam under the title "Eureka."

Nothing better exhibits the intense belief of Poe at the time in the truth of his theories than the account given by Mr. George Putnam of their strange interview in regard to the publication of the work. According to this account, a gentleman one day entered the publisher's office in a nervous and excited manner and requested his attention to a matter of the greatest importance.

Seated at my desk, says Mr. Putnam, and looking at me a full minute with his "glittering eye," he at length said, "I am Mr. Poe." I was "all ear," of course, and sincerely interested. It was the author of "The Raven" and of "The Gold Bug." "I hardly know," said the poet, after a pause, "how to begin what I have to say. It is a matter of profound importance." After another pause, the poet seeming to be in a tremor of excitement, he at length went on to say that the publication he had to propose was of momentous interest. Newton's discovery of gravitation was a mere incident compared with the discoveries revealed in this book. It would at once command such unusual and intense interest that the publisher might give up all other enterprises, and make this one book the business of his lifetime. An edition of fifty thousand copies might be sufficient to begin with, but it would be but a small beginning. No other scientific event in the history of the world approached in importance the original developments of the book. All this and more, not in irony or jest, but in intense earnest—for he held me with his eye like the Ancient Mariner. I was really impressed, but not overcome. Promising a decision on Monday (it was late Saturday), the poet had to rest so long in uncertainty, upon the extent of the edition, partly reconciled by a small loan meanwhile. We did venture, not upon fifty thousand, but five hundred."[14]

This account, which was written twenty years after the events it relates, seems more or less colored;[15] it exhibits, however, sufficiently well, the value attached by Poe to his work.

At the opening of "Eureka" Poe thus states his purpose:

I design to speak of the Physical, Metaphysical and Mathematical—of the material and spiritual universe,—of its Essence, its Origin, its Creation, its Present Condition and its Destiny. I shall be so rash, moreover, as to challenge the conclusions, and thus, in effect, to question the sagacity, of many of the greatest and most justly reverenced of men.[16]

Following this, comes a satire on the exclusive use of either the deductive or inductive methods in the search for truth, purporting to be written by a student of our logic, a thousand years hence.[17] The skit is clever and is not wanting in some telling hits, but it is out of place and has probably caused many a reader to put down the whole essay. Then after some acute criticisms of a few metaphysical terms, such as "Infinity" and a "First Cause,"[18] Poe proceeds to his main theme. "In the beginning," from "his spirit or from nihility," "by dint of his volition," God created a single material particle in a condition of the utmost possible unity and simplicity.[19] "The assumption of absolute unity in the primordial particle includes that of infinite divisibility. Let us conceive the particle, then, to be only not totally exhausted by diffusion into space. From the one particle, as a center, let us suppose to be radiated spherically—in all directions—to immeasurable but still definite distances in the previously vacant space—a certain inexpressibly great yet limited number of unimaginably yet not infinitely minute atoms."[20] Differences of size and form taken conjointly cause differences of kind among these atoms.[21]

The natural tendency of these subdivisions of matter is towards the unity whence they sprang. On the fulfilment of the radiation, the diffusive energy being withdrawn, to avert this tendency, and the consequent absolute coalition of the atoms, repulsion makes its appearance.[22] These two principles, attraction and repulsion, being the "sole properties through which we perceive the universe," "we are fully justified in assuming that matter exists only as attraction and repulsion—that attraction and repulsion are matter, there being no conceivable case in which we may not employ the term "Matter," and the terms "Attraction" and "Repulsion," taken together, as equivalent, and therefore convertible, expressions in logic."[23] The nature of repulsion Poe refuses to attempt to determine, but he states it to be identical with electricity. To it we should probably refer the various physical appearances of light, heat and magnetism, and still more so the phenomena of vitality, consciousness and thought. Attraction is the material, repulsion the spiritual principle of the universe.[24] As Poe declares that both together constitute matter, he thus states a sort of crude monism.

Since the diffused matter was radiated in a generally equable manner, we may conceive it as arranged in concentric spherical strata about its origin. This at once leads us to the explanation of the mode in which attraction acts—the reason, that is, why gravitation varies inversely as the square of the distance between the attracting masses. For, since the surfaces of spheres vary as the square of their radii, the number of atoms in each concentric spherical stratum is proportional to the square of that stratum's distance from the center. But as the number of atoms in any stratum is the measure of the force that emitted that stratum, that force itself is directly proportional to the square of its stratum's distance from the center. Now, on the fulfilment of the diffusion, the modus operandi of the attractive force is, of course, the converse of that of the diffusive; in other words, each particle of matter seeks its original condition of unity by attracting its fellow-atoms with a force inversely proportional to the square of the distances between them.[25] Matter being thus distributed, attraction causes it to aggregate in nebulous patches, which proceed to undergo a development similar to that described in Laplace's "Nebular Hypothesis." Our solar system, beginning in the form of a nebula, assumed a spherical shape and, as its constituent atoms sought its center, began to revolve. As the velocity of the revolution increased, the "centrifugal force" got the better of the centripetal, and a ring of matter was detached from the nebula's equator; this ring finally condensed into the planet Neptune. Shrinking in size, the nebula, in like manner gave birth to the other planets, including the earth, and finally arrived at the size in which we now know it as the sun. Similarly, during their condensation, several of the planets threw off satellites.[26]

In the following paragraphs Poe sums up the cosmic development and gives an account of the changes on the earth's surface:

In speaking, not long ago, of the repulsive or electrical influence, I remarked that "the important phenomena of vitality, consciousness and thought, whether we observe them generally or in detail, seem to proceed at least in the ratio of the heterogeneous." I mentioned, too, that I would recur to the suggestion; and this is the proper point at which to do so. Looking at the matter, first, in detail, we perceive that not merely the manifestation of vitality, but its importance, consequences, and elevation of character, keep pace very closely with the heterogeneity or complexity of the animal structure. Looking at the question, now, in its generality, and referring to the first movements of the atoms towards mass-constitution, we find that heterogeneousness, brought about directly through condensation is proportional with it forever. We thus reach the proposition that the importance of the development of the terrestrial vitality proceeds equably with the terrestrial condensation.

Now, this is in accordance with what we know of the succession of animals on the Earth. As it has proceeded in its condensation, superior and still superior races have appeared. Is it impossible that the successive geological revolutions which have attended, at least, if not immediately caused, these successive elevations of vitallic character—is it impossible that these revolutions have themselves been produced by the successive planetary discharges from the sun; in other words, by the successive variations in the solar influence on the Earth? Were this idea tenable, we should not be unwarranted in the fancy that the discharge of yet a new planet, interior to Mercury, may give rise to a new modification of the terrestrial surface—a modification from which may spring a race both materially and spiritually superior to man."[27]

The statement of Poe in this passage, that "heterogeneousness, brought about directly through condensation, is proportional with it forever," appears to contain the germ of Herbert Spencer's developed formula: "Evolution is a change from an indefinite, incoherent homogeneity to a definite, coherent heterogeneity through continuous differentiations and integrations."[28] Noteworthy, also, is Poe's statement of the correlation between mental development and physical organization,

The most interesting point about the whole passage, however, is probably that connected with Poe's ideas on the origin of animal organisms. Is he here stating the true theory of the descent of each from lower forms? Or, is his view a revival of that held by several Greek philosophers and in modern times by Duret and Oken, of the direct production of species by natural causes?[29] In Poe's tale "Some Words with a Mummy," published in 1845, the resuscitated Egyptian replies to a query concerning the creation, thus:

During my time I never knew any one to entertain so singular a fancy as that the universe (or this world, if you will have it so) ever had a beginning at all. I remember once, and once only, hearing something remotely hinted, by a man of many speculations, concerning the origin of the human race, and by this individual the very word Adam (or Red Earth), which you make use of, was employed. He employed it, however, in a generical sense, with reference to the spontaneous germination from rank soil (just as a thousand of the lower genera of creatures are germinated)—the spontaneous germination, I say, of five vast hordes of men, simultaneously upspringing in five distinct and nearly equal divisions of the globe.[30]

How far this is jest and how far earnest is hard to say.

Of the mental development of man, Poe does not speak in "Eureka." From passages elsewhere (chiefly in "Marginalia") he seeems to have thought humanity had progressed along religious, scientific and esthetic lines, but pessimistic remarks of an opposite character are not wanting in his writings.

The only passage elsewhere which alludes to the subject is contained in a letter, written shortly after the publication of "Eureka" to the editor of the "Literary World" in answer to some strictures a correspondent had made on the work. It reads as follows:

"The third misrepresentation lies in a foot-note, where the critic says: 'Further than this, Mr. Poe's claim that he can account for the existence of all organic beings—man included—merely from those principles on which the origin and present appearance of suns and

worlds are explained, must be set down as mere bald assertion, without a particle of evidence. In other words, we should term it arrant fudge.' The perversion at this point is involved in a wilful misapplication of the word 'principles.' I say 'wilful,' because at page 63 I am particularly careful to distinguish between the principles proper, Attraction and Repulsion, and those merely resultant subprinciples which control the universe in detail. To these subprinciples, swayed by the immediate spiritual influence of Deity, I leave, without examination, all that which the student of theology so roundly asserts I account for on the principles which account for the constitution of suns, etc."[31] This passage, it is plain, is as indecisive as the text of the essay. On the other hand, one with Poe's wide knowledge can hardly, it would seem, have lacked knowledge of Lamarck's theories, nor was he ignorant of the then recent work, "The Vestiges," though he had not then actually read it (in a letter to Geo. E. Isbell, he inquires how far "Eureka" is at one with the "Vestiges"[32]). But Poe's interest does not seem to have centered on what would be now termed the biological side of the matter.

Having described the development of the universe, Poe, in passages whose sweep and power remind one of Tennyson's "Vastness," proceeds to set before us its present condition and immensity.[33] Then, finally, he pictures the inevitable dissolution of it all, when stars and planets will at length lapse into the substance of one central orb. Here attraction will finally predominate over repulsion, complete unity obtain, and matter without attraction and repulsion will again sink "into that Material Nihility from which alone we can conceive it to have been evoked, to have been created, by the Volition of God."[34] The outcome of the whole process Poe sums up in the following words, in which he restates the old doctrine of the universe as being in a state of perpetual flux:

On the universal agglomeration and dissolution, we can readily conceive that a new and perhaps totally different series of conditions may ensue; another creation and radiation, returning into itself, another action and reaction of the Divine Will. Guiding our imagination by that omniprevalent law of laws, the law of periodicity, are we not, indeed, more than justified in entertaining a belief—let us say, rather, in indulging a hope—that the processes we have here ventured to contemplate will be renewed forever and forever and forever; a novel universe swelling into existence, and then subsiding into nothingness, at every throb of the Heart Divine?[35]

For, in this everlasting metamorphosis, every "creature"—to use Poe's term—both those we call living, and those to which we deny the name, because we do not perceive the vital operations, are all, in a measure, possessed of life and consciousness. The cosmos is, as it were, composed of cycles of minds within cycles, the less within the greater, and all within the Divine Spirit, unto which all things, on their dissolution, return.[36]

From the preceding sketch, it will be evident that, in its important features, "Eureka" is a prevision of the modern doctrine of evolution. In the statements that the universe is in a perpetual flux, that it is now evolving and will in the future dissolve, that it has developed from a condition of homogeneity, and that our own system sprang from a nebula, Poe is in accord with the Spencerian philosophy and very probably with the actual facts; while in the assertions that the earth has, during successive geological ages, produced a higher and higher organic life characterized by an ascending development of mind, hand in hand with an increasing complexity of the physical organization, he is stating what are now known to be simple scientific facts. Erroneous, of course, the details of his conceptions very frequently are;[37] but this is common to him with the pioneers of every great idea. Only in the course of time does the germ of truth they discover attain its full growth and reveal its time character. To criticize "Eureka" from a contemporary standpoint would be as beside the mark as to treat the "Naturphilosophie" of Schelling or of Hegel in the same way.[38] 'It was a remark of John P. Kennedy, Poe's old friend, that the latter "wrote like an old Greek philosopher" and any one who reads the fragments of the Greek thinkers before Aristotle can easily verify for himself the truth and aptness of the statement. The merits of Poe, in common, more or less, with the other pre-Spencerian evolutionists lie in how far and how truly his genius enabled him to divine the mode of development of the universe.

Owing to the causes pointed out at the beginning of this paper, it is improbable that "Eureka" had any influence in preparing the way for the reception of evolutionary ideas, a little later; at the most such influence must have been of the slightest, for though this work was early translated into foreign languages, the failure to find fitting recognition of its true character, and the general obscurity in which it has lain, seem to preclude any such likelihood. Its interest lies in the light it throws on its author and in the honorable place to which it assigns him in that long line of thinkers from Thales to Darwin.

  1. "Encyclopedia Britannica," Art. "Evolution," Part II., Vol. VIII., p. 351.
  2. "From the Greeks to Darwin."
  3. "Pioneers of Evolution."
  4. Page xliii.
  5. Pages 286-301.
  6. Vol. IX., pp. 301-312.
  7. Vol. II., pp. 148, 296. Notice also the first paragraph in the introduction to Vol. XVI. of the Viriginia edition of Poe's works edited by Jas. A. Harrison.
  8. The evidence for these statements is largely based on inferences from the contents and citations of Poe's works, taken in connection with their dates of composition. A fragment of direct evidence in regard to the eighteenth-century writers may be found in Ingram, Vol. I., p. 52. The great influence of Coleridge on Poe is admitted on all hands. Cf. Woodberry's "Life," pp. 91-93.
  9. Published in 1841.
  10. Published in 1841.
  11. Published in 1844.
  12. See the interesting account, derived from Mrs. Clemm, in Didier's "Life."
  13. For contemporary newspaper notices of the lecture see Woodberry and Stedman's edition of Poe's works, Vol. IX., pp. 312-315. "All [the papers] praised it," says Poe in a letter to a correspondent,"—as far as I have yet seen—and all absurdly misrepresented it." Ingram, Vol. II., p. 140. He excepts partially an article in the "Express," Virginia edition. Vol. I., p. 277.
  14. Putnam's Magazine, October, 1869. Quoted by Ingram, Vol. II., p. 145.
  15. Both Ingram (Vol. II., p. 144) and Woodberry (p. 285) are of this opinion.
  16. 'Works,' Vol. IX., p. 5.
  17. Works, edited by Steadman and Woodberry, "Eureka," Vol. IX., pp. 7-18. This edition of Poe's works is referred to throughout the references in the present article.
  18. Ibid., pp. 10-24.
  19. Pages 26, 27.
  20. "Eureka," p. 28.
  21. Pages 29, 30.
  22. Pages 31-33.
  23. "Eureka," pp. 34, 35.
  24. Page 34.
  25. "Eureka,' pp. 35-66. In a MS. note, referring to the diffusion, Poe says: "Here describe the process as one instantaneous flash." (Page 52.)
  26. Pages 66 et seq.
  27. "Eureka," pp. 80, 81.
  28. This is the form in the 1862 edition of "First Principles." In the later editions the formula reads: "Evolution is an integration of matter and concommittant dissipation of emotion: during which the matter passes from an indefinite, incoherent homogeneity to a definite, coherent heterogeneity; and during which the retained motion undergoes a parallel transformation." "First Principles," p. 334. There seems to be considerable correspondence between Poe's "condensation "and Spencer's "integration."
  29. The following extract from Oken deserves to be cited as showing how, in any event, Poe's views were as reasonable as those propounded by one regarded as a forerunner of Darwin: "Man also is the offspring of some warm and gentle seashore, and probably rose in India, where the first peaks appeared above the waters. A certain mingling of water, of blood warmth, and of atmosphere, must have conjoined for his production, and this may have happened only once and at one spot." Quoted by H. F. Osborn, in his work "From the Greeks to Darwin," p. 127. Among the Greeks who propounded the hypothesis of the direct natural production of organisms from the elements were Thales, Anaxagoras and Empedocles.
  30. "Works," Vol. II., p. 301.
  31. Griswold, p. xliv.
  32. Virginia edition, Vol. I., pp. 277, 278.
  33. "Eureka," pp. 81 et seq.
  34. "Eureka," pp. 115-133.
  35. "Eureka," pp. 133, 134.
  36. Ibid., pp. 134 ad fin. lib.
  37. It may be added that 'Eureka' contains some implicit contradictions also, due apparently, to an advance in the author's thought.
  38. Nor is it any exaggeration to say that Spencer's "First Principles" is far from immune from heavy critical attacks (as witness J. Ward's "Naturalism and Agnosticism") and that it is literally true that the scientific eminence of Spencer's work over "Eureka" lies more in its form than in its contents.