Edgar Allan Poe articulated the Big Bang theory some 75 years before scientists advanced the idea. At least, that’s become the conventional wisdom. In recent years, a spate of books and articles have all argued that Poe, with his 1848 “Eureka” lecture, which was later published as the self-described prose-poem Eureka, nailed the astrophysical origins of the universe. And possibly even predicted its eventual fiery end, too.
Now this bit of Poe lore circulates as one more article of faith, popping up in Aeon and as well as Gizmodo. However, as with nearly all the accepted facts of Poe’s life, everything you may’ve heard about this bizarre episode is probably false, misleading, without factual foundation, and off the mark. Which is to say wrong, in case there was any confusion. There’s even ample reason to question the historicity of the “true” story from which it springs.
So let’s review. On February 2nd, 1848, Poe placed an ad in the Daily Tribune: “Edgar A. Poe will lecture at the Society Library on Thursday evening, the 3d inst. At half-past 7. Subject, ‘The Universe.’ Tickets 50 cents—to be had at the door.”
The following evening, with rain beating on the roof, he took the stage at the New York Society Library and gave a lengthy talk detailing his exact views on the physical and metaphysical nature of the universe. For nearly three hours—to an increasingly confused crowd—Poe yarned on and on and on about stars, space, time, consciousness and the nature of God. He was utterly convinced he’d discovered every last galactic secret, and his confidence showed.
The immediate reception split along roughly two lines. The first was polite if somewhat baffled praise. The second was less polite. In fact, it was Greil Marcus-like: What is this shit?
“Some of us began to be quite sensible of the lapse of time,” a reviewer for the New World moaned. “Still no end was visible; the thin leaves, one after another, of the neat manuscript, were gracefully turned over; yet, oh, a plenty more were evidently left behind, abiding patiently ‘their appointed time.’” Even Poe’s own agent, Evert Duyckinck, described the lecture as a “mountainous piece of absurdity” which “drove people from the room.”
In the long years since, the larger reception of Eureka has divided into similar camps. You’ve got those who assert that Poe somehow intuited a host of advanced scientific theories, including, among others, the idea of the multiverse. And there remains another, smaller yet persistent school that sees Eureka as, to quote the Poe biographer Paul Collins, “crank literature”—arguing that, during this phase of his career, Poe was either crazy or a charlatan, perhaps both. Judging by the frequency with which people will assure you Poe called the Big Bang, it’s the first school that’s emerged victorious.
Yet there’s a third possible explanation, an alternative that marries the eerie prescience of Poe’s guesses while paying close attention to what was going on with Poe in the late 1840s, the most grief-stricken years of his grief-stricken life, and what led him to write the modern equivalent of a nervous-breakdown-inspired space opera. Anyone who’s watched The Office probably remembers how, after manager Andy Bernard is fired, he devotes himself to a spaced-based rock opera—in particular to delusions about its quality.
I’m not suggesting The Office was consciously drawing on Poe, only that we might understand Poe’s Eureka phase in a similar way. It may be that we can learn about the history of scientific breakthroughs from Eureka. You and I might also, and just as profitably, take in the crucial life lesson: If you’re going to have a nervous breakdown, make it a spectacular one, complete with gawking audience and baffled fans. Go big or go home. Loose yourself from your moorings and execute a gigantic, galaxy-brained leap. Crank it up. Otherwise, what’s the point? And who knows where you may land? Maybe in English departments and on listicles.
To really grasp Eureka, you have to understand the year that preceded it. Poe’s beloved wife Virginia died in January of 1847, after suffering horribly, for half a decade, from tuberculosis. And with her death, Poe collapsed, knocked past the limits of his endurance. Then, within months, a strange new spirit—an all-consuming new idea—possessed him. It was nothing less than his very own grand unifying theory of the physical, metaphysical, mathematical, material, and spiritual universe, and if he left anything out, it was not for want of trying.
Poe had long been interested in science, keeping abreast of the latest discoveries and theories of his age, and now the interest grew Poe-etically feverish, futuristic. His aunt-and-then-mother-in-law, Maria Clemm, who remained devoted to Poe after Virginia’s death, would remember how they sat up together until four in the morning—Poe working, she keeping him company. “When he was composing ‘Eureka,’ we used to walk up and down the garden, his arm around me, mine around him, until I was so tired I could not walk,” she said. “He would stop every few minutes and explain his ideas to me, and ask if I understood him.”
I’m convinced that—whatever might be said of the science—Eureka was even more ahead of its time than Poe knew. I don’t think we could quite fathom it before our own age, with its sitcom jokes about space operas, and more to the point, the larger notion of “galaxy brain.” By now, most of us know the expanding-brain meme illustrating the bizarre conclusions that can result when a person’s reach exceeds their grasp. What if Eureka marks the earliest and most literal case, with Poe as patient zero? Suddenly this strange episode in literary history makes much more sense, and the two schools of thought are reconciled and ready to hug it out.
The paradox of Eureka is that those who can judge the science tend to be insufficiently versed in the literature and the credibility of various sources in the field of Poe biography, while people versed in the latter often can’t judge the science. Poe’s most dedicated and conscientious biographer, Arthur Hobson Quinn, had to consult astronomy professors to get their takes. But all of us know what it is to experience profound loss. We’ve all been to dark, half-cracked places, whether because of a loved one’s death or some other awful disappointment like a breakup or a layoff. Who among us, after the year we’ve just had, can’t relate?
For me, this is what makes Poe’s Eureka his most profoundly relevant work. It’s not just the lines that make you wonder if anyone has ever written as beautifully or as wildly about astrophysics, metaphysics, or anything else, like:
For my part, I am not sure that I speak and see – 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…
Let not the merely seeming irreverence of this idea frighten our souls from that cool exercise of consciousness – from that deep tranquillity of self-inspection – through which alone we can hope to attain the presence of this, the most sublime of truths, and look it leisurely in the face.
It’s how, in the depths of his grief, Poe sought to reconcile the best and worst aspects of human experience. It’s how he completed his work despite the dire circumstances of his life, when he might’ve just given in altogether to depression and juleps instead.
This is, arguably, the story of Poe’s whole career, and why, despite his sometimes-horrendous failings, he remains such a compelling and inspirational figure. His experience is so timeless and epic it functions as myth, not to mention figures in endless memes. There is something deeply instructive in it all, in the same way Joseph Campbell said that heroes’ stories reflect our deepest fears and greatest hopes, outlining our own paths forward.
Part crank, part saint, part screw-up, part hero, Poe’s example suggests that our own bouts of galaxy brain may lead to glory. At least, glory of a kind. Maybe not the overly dignified variety, granted—that probably lies a little beyond our grasp, as it did for Poe. Who cares? When the chance comes, perhaps we ought to make our own leaps, anyway.
Image Credit: Pexels/Graham Holtshausen.