The Challenge of Evaluating Poe’s, Eureka: A Prose Poem

Reprinted with permission from the Richmond, Virginia Poe Museum

In my last column, I discussed the reasons that I decided not to focus my entire Master’s Thesis research on Poe’s Eureka: A Prose Poem. That conclusion became obvious to me after I examined all of the clues that were available to me at the beginning of my investigation of Poe’s culminating and most enigmatic work. First of all, I found that Eureka was extremely technical and too difficult to interpret. It appeared that when Poe was warning critics not to evaluate it during his lifetime, he was also sending out a cautionary note to me that I should not take on such a big project before I was ready.  His work is extremely challenging because it spans several genres and,thus, cannot be compared to any other poetic, literary, historic, scientific, or metaphysical works; however, it is a combination of all of the aforementioned genres. I was left with the impression, that has also been concluded by other researchers, that  it is too literary to be considered a scientific work and too scientific to be considered a literary work. However, Poe described his book as a scientific treatise on the origins and future of the Universe. In Eureka, he writes extensively on the history of science, integrates much of what was already known about science in the nineteenth century, and also proposed several original scientific and metaphysical theories. Therefore, I decided to focus my research inquiry on Poe and Science, even though the book also spans several other genres.

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Edgar Allan Poe

At the 2013 Positively Poe Conference at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, Virginia (see my last Poe and Science Blog), I explained that when miners found gold in the nineteenth century, they needed to assay it against a known gold standard to determine its value. I noted that, perhaps, Poe was inspired to name his book after the exclamation that the miners in his lifetime shouted after they struck gold. Their joyous exclamation, “Eureka” means, “I have found it!”  He wrote that his book was the most profound work about science “since Newton’s discovery of gravity.”  Poe may have believed that he had would become rich and even more famous as a renown science writer after he published his book. Unfortunately, there were few other critics in his lifetime who agreed with him, since there weren’t any established standards to determine the value of his work. Unfortunately, the book is no easier to evaluate today than it was when Poe wrote it 1848. It has been speculated, though, that Poe was defying critics to attempt to write an evaluation of a book that could not be compared to anything else.

Consequently, rather than attempting to deal with the challenges of evaluating Eureka directly, I believed that a more manageable project would be to  determine the extent to which Poe’s final work might have been influenced by the literary, historical, philosophic, and scientific contexts of the nineteenth century. I was also curious to find out if Poe’s interest in science was first initiated in Eureka, or whether he expressed an interest in other scientific topics in his earlier works of poetry, journalism, and fiction.

I concluded that my project would focus on Poe and Science. I would start with examining his poetry and technical training, and then how he wrote about the science as a journalist and a writer of  science-based fiction. It was my hypothesis that if I attempted to examine what Poe wrote about related to science prior to Eureka, it might help me to understand what he was trying to express in Eureka: A Prose Poem. Ultimately, looking at the ways that Poe wrote about science in each of his writing styles, and then discussing the ideas that he was attempting to express about science became the way I organized and reported my research. It also helped me to gain a greater appreciation and understanding of Eureka than I had after my initial reading of Poe’s most misunderstood book. In my future columns on Poe and Science, I will reveal what I discovered about Poe and Eureka. I hope you will join me and share your reactions about this topic.

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 Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education at Temple University (1973), a Master’s of Arts in English Literature at VCU (2015), and  a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech in 1987. He is married and has three adult employed daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. Currently, he serves as a literature teacher, board member, and curriculum advisor for the Lifelong Learning Institute in Chesterfield, Virginia, and is the founder and chief editor of the literary blog, www.LitChatte.com. He is an editor for the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and editing a book of poetry written by an Indian mystic. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and all-around helper at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. You can write to Murray by leaving a Comment or at ellisonms2@vcu.edu

Murray Ellison at the Richmond Poe Museum

Murray at the Poe Museum

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