Monday, November 11, 2013

You Can't Have Poetry without Poe

Editor's Note:  The following essay was submitted in fulfillment of a writing assignment for the MOOC Fantasy and Science Fiction:  The Human Mind, Our Modern World, offered by the University of Michigan.


Edgar Allan Poe was a romantic poet with a rich imagination and appreciation of fantasy.  However, he was also, perhaps grudgingly, a man of science and reason.  A close reading of the poetry of Poe reveals his struggle between these two different ways of looking at the world.

Poe summarizes his conflicted feelings nicely in his poem, “To Science.”   In the opening line, he hails Science as a goddess, as the “true daughter of Old Time.”  He goes on in the next line to acknowledge the power of scientific observation, describing Science as one “who alterest all things with [her] peering eyes.”  However, in the remainder of the poem, Poe laments that scientific explanations transform fantastic phenomena into mere “dull realities.”  For example, while Science may explain the apparent motion of the moon, it does so only at the expense of  “drag[ing] Diana from her car.”


In his poem “Israfel,” Poe showcases the struggle between romance and reason by comparing his own earthly lot to that of the Angel of Poetry.  He begins his poem by acknowledging that “None sing so wildly well / As the angel Israfel.”  However, Poe goes on to note that Israfel is unencumbered by the science and reality of Poe’s “world of sweets and sours / [where] our flowers are merely flowers.”  In effect, Poe is saying that the angel has it comparatively easy.  Finally, Poe offers a bold challenge to switch places with the angel--and to see who would be the better poet then.  About the angel, Poe predicts, “he might not sing so wildly well / A mortal melody.”  However, revealing a bit of hubris, of himself the poet says, “a bolder note than this might swell / From my lyre within the sky.”

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