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Beyond Concord: Themes of Urban Environmental Discourse in the Works of Edgar Allan Poe

Daniel Soucier, Ph.D. Student, University of Maine

“God, self-existing and alone existing, became all things at once, through dint of his volition, while all things were thus constituted a portion of God.”[i]

Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

This was written not by a Transcendentalist such as Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, or Alcott but instead by Anti-Transcendentalist Edgar Allan Poe. Though we mostly identify Edgar Allan Poe with stories about mystery, death, madness, insanity and horrific gore, he was part of the early nineteenth-century American Romantic movement. He, much like his contemporaries, sought to return to nature in order to achieve a purer less sinful state of life away from the negative influences of cities and society. This may seem surprising since Poe spent most of his life in major cities: he was born in Boston in 1809, taken in as an orphan by a Richmond, Virginia couple at the age of three, and after dropping out of the University of Virginia lived in Philadelphia, New York City, and Baltimore where he ultimately died.

This paper will examine three works of Edgar Allan Poe to highlight a major theme in his work which places him firmly as a nature writer, critic of the hubris of humans in the face of nature, and a figure that should be studied by environmental historians. In these three stories, MS Found in a Bottle, A Descent into the Maelstrom and Sonnet to Science Poe shows that the nineteenth-century idea that human beings can use reason and science to have supreme control, understanding, and mastery over nature was an illusion.

Baltimore Saturday Visiter, October 19, 1833.

Baltimore Saturday Visiter, October 19, 1833.

The first piece of writing under examination is MS. Found in a Bottle. This was a short story Poe submitted to the Baltimore Sunday Visiter for their writers contest. Selected as the winner the story was published in the October 19, 1833 issue of the newspaper and, according to Scott Peeples, Department Chair of English at the College of Charleston, MS. Found in a Bottle was “the story that launched Poe’s [writing] career.”[ii] The story begins with the unnamed narrator establishing the credibility of his story by showing that he is a man of science and reason. He states that he has a “strong relish for physical philosophy” that has “tinctured my mind with a very common error of this age – I mean the habit of referring occurrences, even the least susceptible of such reference, to the principles of science.”[iii] He then recounts a voyage at sea where his shipping vessel was capsized by a typhoon and he was one of only two survivors. Floating adrift on the wrecked ship for five days his surroundings grow cold and complete darkness envelops him. Another storm erupts which heaves the narrator aboard a gigantic black ship. Here he finds the crew unable to see him and the maps and instruments of the ship to be ineffective for navigation. Sailing southwards, the ship is eventually pulled into a whirlpool at the South Pole and sucked into a black hole of the sea.

This story is often compiled with Poe’s other works concerning the grotesque and arabesque. The horror of this story comes from the inability for an experienced sailor, a man of reason and science, to control and have mastery over the unpredictable forces of nature on the high seas. The ability for the whirlpool to in essence end the narrative as well as the narrator’s life shows the limits of human rationality and science in the face of the unknown and raw nature of the South Pole. Here, Poe transforms nature in the story from something that is merely passively present to an active agent. The narrator’s underestimation of nature’s power is reflective of the hubris of American’s attitudes concerning mastery and control of the natural world during the nineteenth-century. One scholar argues that the chief lesson learned in MS Found in a Bottle is that “Poe shows that scientific reasoning is not always a reliable guide.”[iv]

The second story under analysis is A Descent into the Maelstrom. Here an old man tells the narrator about a story that once occurred on the mountain that unnerved him and weakened his limbs. Wanting to tell the story from a powerful vantage point the old man asks the narrator to look beyond the clouds and into the sea. The narrator hears a loud roar from the sea and sees a furious current that pulls smaller whirlpools into a vast mile-long funnel that he recognizes as “the great whirlpool of the Maelstrom.”[v] Though the old man attempts to describe the Maelstrom the narrator acknowledges that the description does not sufficiently describe the power of the whirlpool. The narrator is also unsatisfied both by descriptions of the Maelstrom as being forty fathoms deep and by the explanation that it is a phenomenon created by water colliding in a circular motion. Instead, he seems more convinced by fantastic stories of the Maelstrom being the entrance to the abyss in the middle of the Earth. Though the old man disagrees the narrator insists that the size of the vortex defies understanding.

The old man proceeds to tell of his experience with the Maelstrom. He tells of fishing with his brothers and their ability to watch the water and always successful navigate the Maelstrom. However, one day in July a hurricane temporarily submerges the boat and by the time it recovers it had drifted into the Maelstrom. As the boat descends, the old man notices that smaller objects are brought down slower than larger object and he attaches himself to a cask and cuts it free from the boat. Despite the deaths of his two brothers, he is able to survive although his experience caused him to age rapidly. He does not expect the narrator to believe his tale.

In the end, the old man saved himself due to his presence of mind under pressure and a bit of luck. However, it was his hubris of crossing the maelstrom to fish, which eventually led to the deaths of his two brothers. The characters in the story struggle with what is happening not because of supernatural events, but rather because the forces of nature on the sea are occurring so strongly around them that their interface with raw nature is far beyond anything science and reason can explain. Poe writes, “The ways of God in Nature, as in Providence, are not as our ways: nor are the models that we frame in anyway commensurate to the vastness, profundity, and unsearchableness of His works.”[vi] As a result of this powerful role of nature in this story the basis of an existence reliant on the rules of reason and science is no longer applicable and God’s workings in the natural world itself is the only beacon which can provide an explanation of strange occurrences when dealing with raw nature on the high seas.

The final work to be analyzed is the 1829 poem Sonnet to Science. In this poem, Poe asks science why it preys on the poet. He feels that science is peering, destructive, and interested only in cold realities. It does not allow the poet to either soar in fantasy or to sit peacefully dreaming beneath a tree. Poe feels that scientific development, as well as the progress of the enlightenment and the industrial revolution were corruptive forces in both the technological and material landscape of America. This poem shows the tensions that existed in nineteenth-century America between the Romantic outlook on life and the rapacious nature of industrialism.

Poe writes that science has dragged Diana from her car, driven the hamadryad from the wood, torn the Naiad from her flood and the elfin from the green grass. By showing that science has removed these objects of mythology from nature, Poe is criticizing the destructive forces of industrialism as it seeks to subdue nature for utilitarian purposes. By converting the landscape from a place of magic and wonder into a place of commodities, Poe worries that human kind will lose its imaginative and creative abilities.

Alexandre Humboldt

Alexandre Humboldt

These three stories highlight an important theme throughout Poe’s work. He seems to be interested in the inability for science, experience, and reason to effectively control nature which directly effects mans ability to hold mastery over the natural world. Further contextualizing this theme is Poe’s obsession with the journals kept by his contemporary Alexander von Humbolt, a German natural philosopher who traveled the world doing environmental research. One theory of Humbolt’s that clearly had an impact on Poe was the existence of holes at the North Pole and South Pole which could transport people to the other side of the world. Interestingly, MS takes place at the South Pole and Maelstrom takes place near the North Pole in Norway.   The reliance of the whirlpool not a transportation device but as an object of certain death in both MS Found in a Bottle and Descent into the Maelstrom reveals Poe’s disregard for this scientific theory and thus, in the mastery of man over nature.

This theme alone makes Poe a worthy candidate for further study by the environmental historian. However, many more themes of the environment are present in Poe’s work. Despite a lifetime spent in cities on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, Poe viewed cities with intense suspicion as a corrupting force. Indeed, several of his stories involving murder that take place in urban environments see the nature of these crimes as extremely savage and animalistic. For Poe, one does not become closer to feral and animalistic by contact with raw nature, but rather by the absence of raw nature. In Tamerlane two friends find love and happiness in nature until one leaves for the company of other men and falls prey to pride and ambition in the city. In The Fall of the House of Usher and The Oval Portrait he shows that without contact with the natural world, one will wither away and die. This ties into the fear in the nineteenth-century that men were becoming weak from city life and needed to escape to nature to become rejuvenated. Clearly, further study of the works of Edgar Allan Poe and other writers not associated with the transcendentalist movement can enrich our understanding of cultural ideas regarding the environment in nineteenth-century America.

[i] Edgar Allan Poe, Eureka, 1848.

[ii] Scott Peeples, Edgar Allan Poe Revisited (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998) 46.

[iii] Edgar Allan Poe, MS Found in a Bottle, 1833

[iv] Tracy Ware, “’A Descent into the Maelstrom’: The Status of Scientific Rhetoric in a Perverse Romance” Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 29. No. 1 (1992) 77.

[v] Edgar Allan Poe, A Descent into the Maelstrom, 1841

[vi] Ibid.

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