Art, Science, and Edgar Allan Poe: The Merging of Worlds

Generally, we remember Edgar Allan Poe as a poet and as a horror writer. We can name his most popular works, could point out a photograph of him from a lineup, but even moreso we remember him simply as a specific aesthetic; a sort of dark, brooding artist with a distinct writing style. This public image is a disservice to Poe, a prolific, talented writer perhaps as dedicated to truth as to style. Poe’s interest in science – both a personal fascination and a practicality for a newspaper editor – is clear from any analysis of a wide range of Poe’s works. When we look at Poe’s works, and, in turn, his own life and self, the link he creates between his artistry and his love for scientific truth becomes distinct. More than simply the image of a destitute writer, Poe is an innovator, merging science and art to create new genres, reveal new truths, and make either field more universally acceptable.

The first object we look at is Poe’s famous story, “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1). While the story is credited with being one of Poe’s best and most iconic horror stories, it also provides a glimpse into Poe’s personal fascination with medicine and anatomy. Poe’s adult life coincided with the beginning of the scientific era, a time during which many scientific truths were being discovered while nearly as many pseudosciences were constructed. The concept of psychological obsession, as well as a focus on the dissection of human bodies and its repercussions on the soul, were popular topics in Poe’s time, and appear distinctly in “Tell-Tale Heart.”

Following this work we can look at The Raven, possibly Poe’s best-known story. The Raven itself is an incredibly complex poem with a precise rhyme scheme and meter. In constructing the poem in such a way, Poe constructed it almost like a ‘scientist,’ making it so complex in its structure that it becomes difficult to read aloud. While adapted and reprinted in a number of forms, the most relevant is its inclusion in a textbook (2) as an example of poetic diction as a result of this. Here, Poe’s art is now no longer “steeped” in science, but also becomes a science, a specimen to be used for the advancement of future artists.. This sort of science of poetry is further realized by Poe in his Rationale of Verse (3), which itself attempts to explain poetry in an objective, scientific way. Here, Poe is explicitly blurring the division between art and science; in his essay, they become one, art as a scientific endeavor and science as a means of explaining art. Poe’s revision of a textbook on molluscs (4) reveal his interest and understanding of marine science. But the act of revising the book also puts this science into an artistic form – one which makes that science accessible to the non-scientific reader. Such a fact suggests that in blurring the line between science and art, Poe is perhaps opening a doorway between the two – science seeps out of its academic circle into art that the general reader can utilize. Poe’s later book Eureka demonstrates the opposite direction through this door – in writing on the workings of the universe, Poe attempts to explain them poetically, thus using the writing process as a means of determining the truth. Seeing the notes he wrote on his own copy of the book indicates a continued pursuit of the truth, one which centered around his reading his own piece and making changes so that the explanation worked better – almost mirroring the scientific method.

Perhaps Poe’s most significant act in blending science and art is his pioneership of science fiction, a genre merges scientific truths and constructed realities. Poe’s story The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (6) is a fictional story based on real data from actual Antarctic voyages, translating science into entertainment, rather than simple or explicit explanation, and thus exposing science to an even broader audience. This level of blurring of the two fields, of course, makes it difficult to distinguish the true from the false; what is science has become fiction, and what is fiction feels like real science.

In using reality to explore art, and art to explore science, Poe indirectly foreshadowed how his own image was to be considered after death. The public, reading questionable critiques of Poe’s works, reproducing certain visual images of Poe over others, and attempting to place Poe into the horror category for which he is now known, have made the real Poe into art. The “Poe” we think of today is a fictionalized version of himself, a scientific reality we’ve made into science fiction as an attempt to better understand him. The mask of Poe produced by Warner Brothers Television (7) represents this truth almost too well. Looking at the mask, we see a distorted image of Poe, intentionally stylized and used, literally, to cover up his true identity.

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All images courtesy of the Susan Jaffe Tane Collection.

 

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