Title page of the first edition of Eureka: A Prose Poem by Edgar Allan Poe. 1848
Reproduced in Joseph Wood Krutch’s Edgar Allan Poe: A Study in Genius (1926). Credited to the New York Public Library.
Eureka (1848) is a lengthy non-fiction work by American author Edgar Allan Poe which he subtitled “A Prose Poem”, though it has also been subtitled as “An Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe”. Adapted from a lecture he had presented, Eureka describes Poe’s intuitive conception of the nature of the universe with no scientific work done to reach his conclusions. He also discusses man’s relationship with God, whom he compares to an author. It is dedicated to the German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt. Though it is generally considered a literary work, some of Poe’s ideas anticipate discoveries of the 20th century. Indeed a critical analysis of the scientific content of Eureka reveals a non-causal correspondence with modern cosmology due to the assumption of an evolving Universe, but excludes the anachronistic anticipation of relativistic concepts such as black holes.
Eureka was received poorly in Poe’s day and generally described as absurd, even by friends. Modern critics continue to debate the significance of Eureka and some doubt its seriousness, in part because of Poe’s many incorrect assumptions and his comedic descriptions of well-known historical minds. It is presented as a poem, and many compare it with his fiction work, especially science fiction stories such as “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”. His attempts at discovering the truth also follow his own tradition of “ratiocination”, a term used in his detective fiction tales. Poe’s suggestion that the soul continues to thrive even after death also parallels with works in which characters reappear from beyond the grave such as “Ligeia”. The essay is oddly transcendental, considering Poe’s disdain for the movement. He considered it his greatest work and claimed it was more important than the discovery of gravity.
Eureka is Poe’s last major work and his longest non-fiction work at nearly 40,000 words in length. The work has its origins in a lecture Poe presented on February 3, 1848, titled “On The Cosmography of the Universe” at the Society Library in New York. He had expected an audience of hundreds; only 60 attended and were confused by the topic. Poe had hoped the profits from the lecture would cover expenses for the production of his new journal The Stylus.
Eureka is Poe’s attempt at explaining the universe, using his general proposition “Because Nothing was, therefore All Things are”. In it, Poe discusses man’s relationship to God and the universe or, as he offers at the beginning: “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”. In keeping with this design, Poe concludes “that space and duration are one” and that matter and spirit are made of the same essence. Poe suggests that people have a natural tendency to believe in themselves as infinite with nothing greater than their soul—such thoughts stem from man’s residual feelings from when each shared an original identity with God. Ultimately individual consciousnesses will collapse back into a similar single mass, a “final ingathering” where the “myriads of individual Intelligences become blended”. Likewise, Poe saw the universe itself as infinitely expanding and collapsing like a divine heartbeat which constantly rejuvenates itself, also implying a sort of deathlessness. In fact, because the soul is a part of this constant throbbing, after dying, all people, in essence, become God.
Similar to his theories on a good short story, Poe believes the universe is a self-contained, closed system. In coming to his conclusions, Poe uses ratiocination as a literary device, through his character C. Auguste Dupin, as if Poe himself were a detective solving the mystery of the universe.Eureka, then, is the culmination of Poe’s interest in capturing truth through language, an extension of his interest in cryptography.
He further emphasizes the connection between his theory and fiction by saying that the universe itself is a written work: “The Universe is a plot of God”, Poe says, and “the plots of God are perfect”. Even so, Poe admits the difficulty in explaining these theories comes in part from the limitations of language, often apologizing for or explaining his use of “common” or “vulgar” terms.
The essay is written in a progressive manner that anticipates its audience. For example, Poe uses more metaphors further into the work in the belief that the reader becomes more interested. Poe’s voice crescendos throughout, starting as the modest seeker of truth, moving on to the satirist of logic, and finally ending as the master scholar.
Eureka has been read in many ways, in part because Poe’s sincerity in the work is questionable. It has been considered prophetically scientific, intuitively romantic, and even calculatingly ironic. Lacking scientific proof, Poe said it was not his goal to prove what he says to be true, but to convince through suggestion.
Though modern critics have dismissed Eureka for having no scientific worth or merit, Poe’s work presages modern science with his own concept of the Big Bang. He postulated that the universe began from a single originating particle or singularity, willed by a “Divine Volition”. This “primordial particle”, initiated by God, divides into all the particles of the universe. These particles seek one another because of their originating unity (gravity) resulting in the end of the universe as a single particle. Poe also expresses a cosmological theory that anticipated black holes and the Big Crunch theory as well as the first plausible solution to Olbers’ paradox (the night sky is dark despite the vast number of stars in the universe). In 1987 astronomer Edward Robert Harrison published a book, Darkness at Night, on this Paradox. This book clarified why lack of energy explains the paradox, and lays out how Harrison discovered that Poe’s Eureka anticipated this conclusion.
Many of Poe’s conclusions, however, are speculative due to his rejection of analytic logic and emphasis on intuition and inspiration. Further, Eureka contains many scientific errors. In particular, Poe’s suggestions opposed Newtonian principles regarding the density and rotation of planets. He also says that Johannes Kepler came to his conclusions not through science but through guesswork. For this reason, it has been suggested that what Poe demands is true in Eureka is not actually about this universe, but a parallel fictitious one Poe creates. If this is the case, Poe is criticizing this world, suggesting it has fallen away from God by elevating scientific reason above poetic intuition, as suggested by poet Richard Wilbur.
More modern critics also suggest Eureka is a sign of Poe’s declining mental health at the end of his life. Astrophysicist Arthur Stanley Eddington disputed this notion, declaring that “Eureka is not a work of dotage or disordered mind”. In the text, Poe wrote that he was aware he might be considered a madman. The lecture on which the essay was based was delivered only a few days after the anniversary of the death of his wife Virginia, suggesting a connection between the event and his new theories. Poe seems to dismiss death in Eureka, thereby ignoring his own anxiety over the problem of death.
Some modern critics believe Eureka is the key to deciphering meaning in all Poe’s fiction, that all his works involve similar theories.