Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

Volume VI, No. 5    May 1998

Poe's Magnum Opus, Eureka: A Prose Poem
By John Astin

        Until recent years, if you wanted to become one of the scant few who have actually read Edgar Alan Poe's Masterwork, Eureka: A Prose Poem, it would generally have been necessary to purchase not just an anthology of Poe, but his complete works. Otherwise, Eureka didn't make the page. Oh, in the early 1950s, W.H. Auden put out a modest anthology including this astonishing composition, but by the second edition, it was gone, probably yanked by a commercially-minded editor.
        Poe regarded Eureka as his Magnum Opus, the culmination of his life's work. Written out of the tragedy of his young wife's death from consumption in 1847 after an oppressive five years of suffering, Eureka is Poe's inspired view of life and the universe. Amazingly, Poe seems to anticipate some of the theories of modern science: the time/space continuum, the expanding and contracting universe, a general proposition akin to chaos theory and an explanation (still a valid theory) for why the sky is dark at night. Professor Edward Harrison, in Darkness at Night (Harvard University Press, 1987), an astronomy book, devotes a chapter to Poe, saying "The first clear and correct solution to the riddle of darkness, though only qualitatively expressed, came from Edgar Allan Poe, the renowned poet, essayist, critic and amateur scientist...in [his] imaginative masterpiece, Eureka: A Prose Poem."
        Many modern scholars see it as the key to all of Poe's writings: It has been said that if one understands Eureka, one can unlock the mystery of all Poe's work.
        Yet when it was published by Putnam in May of 1848, (the poverty-plagued Poe received a $14 advance) only 500 copies were printed, and barely any of those were actually sold. Why has this "prose poem" been so hard to find and had so few readers?
        Why has it encountered so much derision, even from as August a poet as T.S. Eliot, who, sadly, is prominently quoted in Kenneth Silverman's otherwise generally splendid biography, as saying that Eureka "makes no deep impression...because we are aware of Poe's lack of qualification in philosophy, theology, or natural science?"
        Well, it's a tough read for most, and I would not exclude Eliot from that group of strugglers. Of the few who have started Eureka, I would guess that only a fraction have actually read it all the way through. I am reminded of G.B. Shaw's remark (through the Devil in Man and Superman) describing Milton's Paradise Lost as "a long poem which neither I nor anyone else ever succeeded in wading through." Unlike Milton's great work, however, Eureka is by no means boring. It is a psychal journey through the origin, growth, maturation and death of the universe. It is also a deeply spiritual work (though non-sectarian) and presents an astonishingly sophisticated view of death, particularly when one considers when and where it was written. However, to arrange this journey for us, Poe challenges the limitations of the deductive reasoning of Aristotle, Euclid, and even Kant, along with the inductive reasoning of Bacon.
        "We have attained a point where only Intuition can aid us..." One is reminded of Poe's great detective, Dupin, who employed both logic and intuition in solving his cases, or the gigantic, unfathomable intellect of the Lady Ligeia.
        And here is a possible reason for the heretofore poor treatment of Eureka. Until recently, we in the Western world have been generally dualistic in our thinking, and have often had difficulty with ideas that were not "either this or that." Contrast the ancient Buddhist teaching, the Muryogi Sutra, which, in describing the "true entity of life," begins with what it is not: "The entity is neither existence nor nonexistence; neither cause nor circumstance; neither square nor round; neither blue nor yellow," and so on with over 30 so-called "negatives." Similarly, Poe attacks sole reliance on reasoning.
        He is detailed in his definition of intuition: "...but now let me recur to the idea which I have already suggested as that alone which we can properly entertain of intuition. It is but the conviction arising from these inductions or deductions of which the processes are so shadowy as to escape our consciousness, elude our reason, or defy our capacity of expression."
        In "Marginalia," Poe said, "The intuitive and seemingly casual perception by which we often attain knowledge, when reason herself falters and abandons the effort, appears to resemble the sudden glancing at a star, by which we see it more clearly than by a direct gaze; or the half closing the eyes in looking at a plot of grass the more fully to appreciate the intensity of its green."
        Though he was rather well versed in the science of his day, and though he was expert in reason and logic, in expressing something as profound as the essence of life and death, Poe uses all the tools in his kit, going beyond reason and logic, ultimately to art, to poetry, for his expression. In the brief introduction to Eureka, he gives us the clue to its reading: "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."
        It is through a work of art that the poet expresses the inexpressible. Because Eureka is so pure, and so honest, because it voyages so deeply into the inner world of instinct and intuition, it will resonate with human beings for centuries, as long as they read it not as science, not as theology, but "as an Art-Product alone."
        Poe once wrote that a man could revolutionize the entire world of human thought by writing and publishing a very little book, "its title should be simple - a few plain words - My Heart Laid Bare. But - this little book must be true to its title..." No man could write this book, he says, even if he dared. "The paper would shrivel and blaze at every touch of the fiery pen."
        In considering Eureka, it seems that Poe has written such a book.

Editor's note: We welcome John Astin to this issue of the Caxtonian, which features Edgar Allan Poe, America's important poet, short story writer, and critic. Astin, who holds degrees from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Minnesota, shares in this article his insights into what he considers Poe's most important work, Eureka.

Edgar Allan Poe as portrayed by John Astin in his one-man performance, "Edgar Allan Poe: Once Upon a Midnight," at Chicago's Mercury Theater in the fall of 1997. Astin, the veteran television, film, and stage actor, has been called a "pop-culture icon" from his work as Gomez Addams, television's lovable, slightly-crazed patriarch of the original "Addams Family." He is, as well, a director and writer, and is a specialist in the writings of Poe. He has in his possession one of the original first editions of Eureka (1848).