In the simplest terms, what was Edgar Allan Poe trying to say in his "Sonnet: To Science"?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Edgar Allan Poe’s “Sonnet: To Science” can be paraphrased as follows.

The speaker begins by hailing “Science,” calling her the “true daughter of Old Time” (1). This may suggest, at first, that he considers science an ancient and long-enduring interest or achievement of the human race. Note that he personifies both Science and her elderly father, Time. The second line presents a less attractive image of Science. Instead of merely being a “true daughter,” as she was in line 1, she is now said to alter “all things” with her “peering eyes” – phrasing that suggests that Science is intrusive, voyeuristic, and even somewhat threatening, as if she cannot leave well enough alone.

The depiction of Science becomes even less (indeed, far less) attractive in lines 3-4:

Why preyest thou thus upon the poet's heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?

Now Science is depicted as a creature determined to kill the poet (representative of imaginative human beings) or at least feast on his corpse. Science has gone from being a “true daughter” to being a “Vulture” – a huge, ugly, stupid, gluttonous bird that feeds on the dead. Paradoxically, by describing Science in such an imaginative (if overblown and hyperbolic) way, the poet illustrates the very mental traits that he claims Science threatens. Any poet who could write lines 3-4 is certainly not interested in “dull realities” (as if mere truth were boring)! The poet Poe has in mind here is a poet like Poe himself (not a poet like Philip Larkin): a Romantic with a capital “R” – highly emotional and given to flights of fancy.

Why and how, this poet asks, should any poet love Science or consider Science wise or a source of wisdom (5)? Science interferes with the imaginative person’s mental wanderings. The vulture Science is the enemy of the high-flying imaginative person (7-8).  Science is also implicitly the enemy of imaginative beauty. After all, Science has undermined belief in such classical divinities as Diana (goddess of the moon, who supposedly moved about in a chariot or “car”) and such mythical creatures as the kind of nymphs who were supposed to inhabit forests and actually live inside trees (9-10). (It isn’t immediately obvious how a creature who used to inhabit a tree is now supposed to “seek a shelter in some happier star” [11].)

Thanks to the influence of Science (the speaker suggests), such beautiful, appealing myths are no longer taken seriously. Enchanting fantasies have thus been replaced by boring reality.  Science has destroyed our beliefs in such creatures as naiads (water nymphs) and elves, in the process also diminishing the beauty of nature by making it seem un-enchanted and un-enchanting.  Science has also torn the speaker (who imagines himself to be an imaginative person) from his pleasant dreams, which were dreamt in and fostered by a natural and exotic beauty (the Tamarind tree is a native of tropical India; a pine tree or a maple tree would not have been exotic enough for Poe’s purposes). In short, the victimized poet is like the victimized gods and other mythical creatures already mentioned. The imaginative poet suffers because Science is so viciously Vulture-like. The poet laments his victimhood, his loss, his discomfort and distress – all caused by being overshadowed by boring, “dull realities.”