30 Mar

E.A. Poe as space invader in verse and prose

By Steve Sneyd

We generally think of Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry as darkly Gothic, obsessively exploring a death-in-life Tombworld or, at best, encountering its doomy messengers like the “Nevermore”-quothing raven…

Yet Poe, who applied the phrase “Out of Space – Out of Time” to his own work (it occurs, for example, in his poem Dreamland), echoing Ralph Waldo Emerson (an 1838 Divinity School address), and earlier users of the concept, like Keats “There is no such thing as time and space” (Letters) or Milton’s time and space-bereft Chaos in  Paradise Lostalso made powerful use of settings beyond our Earth.

In his long early poem Al Araaf(1827), Poe gives us intelligent life Out There – albeit the taint of death does still creep in :  this is after-life intelligence – entities, some of Earthly origin, living in truly extraordinary setting.

Writing to potential publishers to introduce the poem (probably originally written while he was in the army, as an ordinary soldier – enlisting after his adoptive father refused to a the gambling debts, forcing him to leave the University of Virginia, he won promotion to Sergeant-Major, then became an officer cadet at West Point, the American Sandhurst, before being expelled in 1831) Poe explained the title Al Araafas being the Koranic name of the Limbo between Heaven and Hell, and the poem’s setting as the “new star” (nova stella in Latin – it proved to be an example of, and gave its name to, the concept of a nova, the explosive death of an immensely-swollen star) discovered by Tycho Brahe in 1572, in the constellation of Cassiopeia, which became brighter than either Jupiter or Venus, remaining visible for sixteen months.

Poe further explained :  “Even after death, those who make the choice of the star as their residence” (the word ‘choice’ is a curious one in the context!) “do not enjoy immortality… but, after a second life of high excitement, sink into forgetfulness and” (a second) “death”. (As American SF poet and critic Jonathan Vos Post has noted of this passage, reincarnation inside an exploding star would indeed be exciting, if brief!)

The poem is long, full of dreamlike, unexplained transitions (although Poe footnoted the poem extensively, explaining sources of names, etc, he left key matters of intent and meaning wide open to interpretation) and ends abruptly, almost anti-climactically. This has led to frequent suggestions either that a final Book has been lost, or, at any rate, was intended, even if never completed :  it may be that, having strong views as to the maximum publishable length of a poem – in his essay The Poetic Principle he held that “a long poem does not exist… is simply a flat contradiction in terms” -, he, then, realised he was in danger of transgressing his own self-imposed rule. Equally, he may have wished to delay no longer in publishing the work, found himself unable to achieve a satisfactory conclusion amid the distracting changes of his own life-circumstances, or simply have felt it appropriate to make the poem an example of the Romantic tradition of the ‘fragment’ or uncompleted poem, so notable in the works of Keats with Hyperion and Endymion). His view, also, that “the highest poetry… is sense swooning into nonsense” – he replied t a Mrs McKenzie who asked why he did not write poems so everyone could understand them, “Madame, I write so that everybody can not understand them” – could help explain the baffling discontinuities of Al Araaf.

It is clear from the poem that, unlike the actual nova that inspired him, Poe’s Nova is a ‘Daedalion’, ie an artificial construction – a precursor of the planet-sized spaceships of modern science fiction. It is manoeuvrable – prior to the poem’s time-scale, for example, it is described as having made a near-approach to Earth, causing our planet to tremble – undergo orbital disturbance, in modern terms.

Equally science fictional is the way that the flora of Al Araaf is used by its female overlord Nesace – her nature is never clearly described, but she is clearly some sort of angelic superbeing – to transmit silent messages to other, distant spheres in space – precursoring, again, modern ideas of organic communications machines/computing devices.

The story, in essence, is that of a couple on Al Araaf, one of Earth origin  – he reached the planet during its flypast – the other of non-Earth origin but clearly humanoid in appearance – who disobey the world’s injunction against physical love, and, at the end, sink into helpless slumber, although it is unclear whether this is a punishment or the result of contravening the physical laws affecting these limbo intelligences. (A lengthy, coherent, if rather too conclusive-seeming discussion of the poem’s meaning, and expansion of data on sources, etc, beyond Poe’s own exegesis, is given by Thomas Olive Mabbott, editor of the Collected Works of Edgar Allen Poe in Volume One, Poems, Cambridge Massachusetts, the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1969).

In another 1827 poem, Stanzas, Poe speaks of his subject as “what in other worlds shall be”, and he returned to extraordinary elsewheres involving Outer Space on various occasions – in the poem Fairy-Land, for example, a fresh moon is created, then destroyed, each night, the remains serving the population as kind of temporary tent or protective dome.

Poe’s other major venture into outer space is on an epic scale, Eureka, written in 1848, can be seen as an extraordinary attempt – reminiscent of the Roman poet Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, but, in an age where the inrush of new knowledge had made the task even more impossible – to create a coherent overall picture giving understanding of the Universe as a whole. Poe himself insisted Eureka should be considered solely as a poem; although it must be said that, even allowing for the wide, ill-defined borderlands of that hybrid entity, the prose-poem, Eurekareads as prose; so, perhaps, Poe’s insistence that it be judged as a poem owes more to his poetic and imagistic approach to data than its linguistic style. One brief instance will illustrate the prose nature of the text – an extract fascinating, also, for the way it seems to prefigure modern ideas of ostensibly willed behaviour by particles in quantum physics – “ – is it not because originally… they (the atoms) were One that now, in all circumstances – at all points – in all directions… in all relations and through all conditions – they struggle back to this absolutely, this irrelatively, this unconditionally One?”

Written in 1848, not long after the lingering death of his child-wife Virginia (she burst a blood vessel while practising her singing in 1842, but lingered on painfully for another five years), its Outward theme perhaps chosen as a means of escaping the all-too-recent realisation of his Gothic fears of the worm within, this 30,000 word “Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe” embraces an eclectic variety of material. This ranges from sarcastic remarks about Western philosophy, to analyses of the problem of “indeterminacy of the language” (for instance, depending on definition, can “man leaping to the moon” be truly considered impossible?).

As Poe interprets the science of his time for his own purposes – the work began as a lecture on scientific development and understanding, Cosmogony of the Universe, delivered on February 3rd, 1848, in the New York Society lecture hall before its expansion and reshaping into the work Putnam published five months later – he looks with a poet’s eye, although, as said, the text is in prose form throughout. He makes leaps of expressive interpretation which can, from today’s ‘horizon of expectation’, seem to precursor, as well as the modern quantum physics mentioned, aspects of relativity and non-Euclidean geometry we tend to ascribe purely 20thcentury origins.

Indeed, as the protagonist/persona voice of Eurekatakes flight to meditate upon ultimate causes, a passage on derivation of Creation from the splitting of atoms was what the late Sir Arthur Eddington, one of the great pioneers of astronomical physics, tribute as having first aroused his interest in the subject which became a life’s work.

The 96 pages of Eurekaend with a conclusion more mystical than scientific – that the total of all sentences experienced by sentient beings, particularly happiness but also suffering “appertain by right to the Divine Being when concentrated within himself” – which, in science-fictional terms, would imply that these emotions are collected or harvested as some sort of food or fuel for some Universal Mind, a Mind which, on a vaster scale by far than the poet attempting to describe the indescribably vast, thinks “unthoughtful thoughts” and even higher-order “thoughts of thoughts”.

This envisioning of a vast Intelligence in operation upon humans and their environment with which Eureka implicitly ends is a metatheme also of his haunting 1847 story The Domain of Arnheim, later so to inspire the work of the Surrealist artist Magritte and the Scots poet Edwin Morgan – in this story, like Slatti Bardfast in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, but without that being’s displayed humanity, vast distant beings reshape the landscapes of Earth for purposes beyond our understanding.

(A further return to science-fiction-like themes occurs, incidentally, in a story written the year after Eureka, Mellonton Tauta, Poe’s picture of the 29thcentury.)

In a sense, thus, Outer Space for Poe is as darkened by cosmic fear as it was for HP Lovecraft a century later, although Poe’s metaphysical despair is less specific than HPL’s conjuring of the cold vast Old Ones.

The world of Al Araafmay indeed have been paradisal for Nesace, its ‘captain’ – and, for those of its ‘limbonauts’ (to use a modern coinage of term) who obeyed the rules – as it “lay lolling on the golden air / Near four bright suns” at a “temporary rest” in its voyaging – yet, it is also “Dread star!”, disrupter of “a night of mirth” making a red, fearsome flypast of “timid earth”.

Indeed, although Poe thus, also, wrote of realms above and outwith our planet, spacious and star-scattered, as well as dark tomb places within the Earth, there are in Al Araaflines which illuminates the psychic connections, the way in which space, to him, was as much a source of fear, guilt – and horrid attraction – as the more conventionally located lands of death populated by those the writer had failed in life.

It is hard not to feel that, in the way he here personifies a lifeless astronomical phenomenon into an image of fallen angels, he is writing as much about his self-image as he is about the real wanderers of ice and rock Out There :

“…the barrier overgone / By the comets who were cast / From their pride, and from their throne, / To be drudges till the last – / To be carriers of fire / (the red fire of their heart) / With speed that may not tire / And with pain that shall not part.”

Look upward and outward to the stars as he might, it seems, then, that they offered Poe no real escape from the mind-tomb within himself.


Previously published in Ibid #110 (Teaneck, NJ, USA, March 2000); Monas Hieroglyphica #10 (Essex, UK, Spring 2000); Argentus#6 (Springfield, IL, USA, December 2006).


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