person standing with arms and legs outstretched surrounded by ambiguous and abstract symbols

Sonnet—To Science

by Edgar Allan Poe

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Themes and Meanings

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Even in this early work, Poe seems to have been considering—albeit a bit reluctantly—the possibility that he might align himself with those Romantics who celebrated the awesome revelations of the scientific imagination (among whom Percy Bysshe Shelley was the most outstanding) rather than those who viewed the intellectual and industrial revolutions with mournful regret. He never did resolve that dilemma, and that was greatly to the advantage of his work. No other nineteenth century American writer fled as far as he “to seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,” and the flight in question began in the poem which follows “Sonnet—to Science” in his collected works: the brilliantly bizarre “Al Aaraaf.”

The first footnote to “Al Aaraaf” links it to Tycho Brahe’s “new star,” which revealed once and for all that the heavens are not fixed and finished, but the imagery of the long poem is as rich and exotic as anything Poe was later to produce. Other footnotes set Classical references and scientific references side by side, but not as Erasmus Darwin might have done. Poe never lost the sense of a vital and violent struggle between the hallowed glories of mythology and the new revelations of science; he never could combine the two without a keen awareness that he was doing something paradoxical. But Poe was a very paradoxical man, and he took pride in that fact. He conceived of his own self as something deeply divided, echoed that division in many of the characters with whom he populated his phantasmagoric tales, and saw it reflected in the war between science and romance for possession of the modern imagination.

“Sonnet—To Science” is a very modest poem by comparison with the works for which Poe is best remembered. It lacks all trace of the greatness of his best work, yet it is an interesting poem, both in the context of its time and in the context of the career that grew from it. Even as an adolescent Poe was aware of the overarching importance of the march of science and was concerned with calculating its costs and rewards. “Sonnet—To Science” emphasizes the costs, but it does not do so blindly or blandly; it has intelligence enough to acknowledge that the imaginative predations of science are not without a certain grandeur as well as an ominous inevitability.

Toward the end of his life, Poe was to expand greatly on his perception of the problem posed in “Sonnet—To Science” in the long poetic essay Eureka (1848). Eureka protests against the reductionist method of science while celebrating the magnificence of its revelations. Like “Sonnet—To Science,” Eureka’s first concern is the astronomers who dethroned Diana and the other deities embodied in the heavens. In a sense, “Sonnet—To Science” is the more prophetic work in that it proceeds to pay more attention to the disenchanting effects of biological science.

In answer to his own not-quite-rhetorical questions, Poe decided that if science was neither lovable nor entirely wise, then the duty of the poet was to take arms against it and fight for the conservation of the Elfin and their classical analogues. The heroic quality of that mission was never properly appreciated in his native land, where nonbelievers in science and technology preferred to sequester themselves within the walls of religious fundamentalism. In the lands where the fugitive Elfin and the Dianic mysteries were still remembered, however, and their force still felt, Poe’s progress from sonnet, “Sonnet—to Science,” to epic, Eureka, via the most scenic route imaginable, has been celebrated with all appropriate reverence.

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