By Daniel Stephensen
Across my thoughts drifts a memory of a daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe, one of those silvery impressions of the author. “I have seen no portrait of Poe that does justice to his pale, delicate, intellectual face and magnificent eyes,” wrote Maunsell B. Field, an attendee at a lecture entitled “The Universe” that Poe gave in February 1848, the year before his death. As Halloween approaches, I find myself wondering what else Poe would have written had he not died at age forty, what strange treasures we would have received—and the book of his to make me wonder most in this direction is Eureka: A Prose Poem.
We know Poe’s most famous work, “The Raven,” and his tales of horror, so ingeniously conceived, so economical and elegant in their execution—stories such as “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” in which a man seeks revenge on his friend by luring him into a wine cellar to entomb him alive. And we remember Poe’s detective, C. Auguste Dupin, from his “tales of ratiocination,” three stories which in Poe’s meticulous style survey the unexplored territory that would become modern detective fiction: “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” and “The Purloined Letter.”
Published in 1848, Poe’s final work, Eureka, is less well-known. Expanded from a series of lectures setting forth his theories of the Universe, Eureka is an ambitious metaphysical investigation into the cosmological principles of what Poe calls the “Universe of Stars.” By turns measured and logical, vision-struck and enraptured, Poe intuits a number of cosmological concepts which in the mid-nineteenth century were yet to be clearly described and would not be scientifically established until the twentieth century. His subject, the Universe of Stars, is his conception of a limited, finite Universe. In arguing against an infinite universe, Poe moved against the scientific current: “No astronomical fallacy is more untenable,” he writes in Eureka, “and none has been more pertinactiously adhered to, than that of the absolute illimitation of the Universe of Stars.”
Were the succession of stars endless, then the background of the sky would present to us an uniform luminosity, like that displayed by the Galaxy—since there could be absolutely no point, in all that background, at which would not exist a star. The only mode, therefore, in which, under such a state of affairs, we could comprehend the voids which our telescopes find in innumerable directions, would be by supposing the distance of the invisible background so immense that no ray from it has yet been able to reach us at all.
Curiously, this beautiful passage—its style reminds me of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things—was the first published solution to Olbers’ Paradox, an astronomical problem popularised in the nineteenth century by German astronomer Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers. The paradox addresses the question of why the night sky is dark: why, if the universe has infinitely many stars, is the night sky not crowded with stars at least as bright as the Sun? Poe’s assertion is that the universe is finite and contains a finite number of stars at various distances, many being so far that their light has not yet travelled long enough for us to see it.
Where was Poe’s genius leading him? What might he have written next? He was convinced of Eureka’s world-changing significance. Maunsell B. Field reports that Poe, presenting the manuscript to his publisher George Putnam, claimed to have solved “the whole problem of life.” Indeed Eureka does offer a concept of life’s origin, proposing the spontaneous expansion of the Universe of Stars from a single particle. This anticipated the universe expansion theory presented by Belgian physicist Georges Lemaître, a fan of Poe’s work, in 1927. Poe was also a favourite author of Alexander Friedmann, the Russian cosmologist who first developed the equations governing the expansion of space. These coincidences delight. Concerning the concept that astronomer Fred Hoyle would later term the Big Bang, Poe writes in Eureka:
From the one Particle, as a centre, let us suppose to be irradiated spherically—in all directions—to immeasurable but still to definite distances in the previously vacant space—a certain inexpressibly great yet limited number of unimaginably yet not infinitely minute atoms.
He also proposes that ours is one of many universes in a multiplicity:
Let me declare, only, that, as an individual, I feel myself impelled to the fancy—without daring to call it more—that there does exist a limitless succession of Universes, more or less similar to that of which we have cognizance—to that of which alone we shall ever have cognizance—at the very least until the return of our own particular Universe into Unity.
Eureka has a mystical, spiritual inclination, even as it speaks of the material universe. “For my part, I am not so sure that I speak and see,” writes Poe:
I am not so sure that my heart beats and that my soul lives:—of the rising of to-morrow’s sun—a probability that as yet lies in the future—I do not pretend to be one thousandth part as sure—as I am of the irretrievably by-gone Fact that All Things and All Thoughts of Things with all their ineffable Multiplicity of Relation, sprang at once into being from the primordial and irrelative One.
The book’s subtitle, A Prose Poem, indicates Poe’s idea of its spirit and perhaps his advice on how to approach the work as a poetic rather than a scientific treatise. Dedicating Eureka “to the dreamers and those who put their faith in dreams as the only realities,” Poe writes that “it is as a Poem only that I wish this work to be judged after I am dead.”
In October 1849, he died in Baltimore under disputed circumstances, possibly from an abiding illness, or a brain tumor, or, as opinion came to prevail, as the result of an electoral fraud scam in which people were kidnapped from the street and “cooped” in a room, beaten and stupefied with alcohol, then taken out several times, each time in a different outfit, to cast fraudulent votes. Found on the street heavily intoxicated and dressed uncharacteristically in worn, garish, poorly fitted clothes, Poe was taken to the Washington University Hospital, where, after four days of delirium, he called out repeatedly for an unidentified individual named Reynolds and died.