In Edgar Allan Poe’s later collections, “Sonnet—To Science” appears with a footnote describing it as one of “the crude compositions of my earliest boyhood.” The same footnote excuses its republication with reference to “private reasons—some of which have reference to the sin of plagiarism, and others to the date of Tennyson’s first poems.” Alfred, Lord Tennyson, had been born in the same year as Poe and had published his first volume of poetry, Poems by Two Brothers (in association with his brother Charles), in 1827, the same year in which Poe’s earliest publications appeared.
The sonnet’s rhyme scheme follows the English, or Shakespearean, form rather than the Italian, or Petrarchan, sonnet form. Its substance, by contrast, has more in common with the Italian tradition, which characteristically involves the posing of a question, than with the English tradition, which tends to be more meditative. Where the Petrarchan sonnet would usually supplement an interrogatory octave with a responsive sestet, however, “Sonnet—To Science” maintains its inquiring tone throughout the three quatrains and the concluding couplet.
“Sonnet—To Science” addresses its object from a point of view solidly anchored within the Romantic movement, likening science’s keen-eyed inquiry to a vulture whose wings cast a shadow of “dull reality” upon the landscape of the imagination. It asks how the poet, having discovered such a predator “upon [his] heart,” can possibly love the scientific revelation or concede its wisdom. It is only natural, the sonnet suggests, that poets should flee the shadow of dull reality in search of better and brighter pastures, lit by “jewelled skies.”
The last six lines of the sonnet add detail to the charges presented in more general terms in the first eight. Like a prosecutor engaged in cross-examination, the sonnet demands an accounting of specific sins. Has science not dragged Diana (a Roman goddess associated with nature and birth) from her “car”? (Diana was associated in Rome itself with moonlight, so the car in question is the moon.) Has not the Hamadryad (a type of nymph associated with oak trees) been “drivenfrom the wood” and the Naiad (a species of water nymph) from her “blood”—the blood in question being the stream or spring embodying her spirit? Has science not banished the Elfin—the Anglo-Saxon fairy race—from their pastoral haunts? And has it not, in consequence, robbed the poet of the “summer dream” which might otherwise have visited him in the shade of the tamarind tree?
The accusative tone of these questions implies that they are rhetorical—that they do not actually require an answer because it is obvious that each charge is correct. The fact remains, however, that no answer is given and that the questions are questions rather than statements. The poem preserves a margin of uncertainty, which the poet’s voice invites the reader to share. “Sonnet—to Science” is a poem that seeks to address a problem and thus to define the problem’s nature. As might be expected of a poem composed at the outset of an adventurous career, it is essentially open-ended. It is setting out an agenda rather than delivering a verdict.
Although Poe was well aware in his later years that he had been born in the same year as Tennyson, he probably was not conscious of the fact that he had also been born in the same year as Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution was not published until ten years after Poe’s death. It was Darwin’s science which finally picked the bones of mythology clean, extrapolating in the process Tennyson’s key image of...
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“nature red in tooth and claw” (“In Memoriam,” 1850).
Whether or not he was aware of Charles Darwin, however, Poe would certainly have been aware of Charles’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), who was renowned in his own day as a poet as well as a naturalist. Erasmus Darwin frequently reported his scientific discoveries in poetic form, and his earlier publications—including The Loves of the Plants (1789)—are not ashamed to formulate his discoveries as news conveyed by nymphs and elemental spirits. The imagery of “Sonnet—to Science” implies a stark contrast between myth and science—a frank enmity expressed in the violence with which it treats Diana and the dispossessed nymphs—but the implication is more tentative than it may seem.
By choosing the metaphor of a shadow-casting wing to represent science Poe admits—and then re-emphasizes in the vital eighth line—that science has its own soaring imagination and its own admirable courage. The first line, too, concedes that science is a “true daughter of Old Time,” the time in question being that which brings self-knowledge and reveals previously hidden truths—and perhaps also the time that heals wounds.
The concessions of the first and eighth lines would be more generous were it not for the fact that the shadow-casting wing of science is attached to a vulture: a bird of ill-omen more disreputable even than a raven. The third line makes it explicit, however, that Poe conceives science as a predator, not as a scavenger, and this is re-emphasized in the second part of the poem. Science drags, drives, and tears; it does not sit around waiting for myth to die of natural causes. It is, in fact, more like an eagle than a vulture. There is a hesitation here, if not an outright ambiguity.
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