The Theosophical Forum – October 1937


The object of this article is to show how many of the best-known teachings of Theosophy are to be found in Poe; an undertaking which seems to be by no means superfluous, judging by the prevalent ignorance of the fact. Misconceptions concerning Poe have prevented people from even reading his best writings; and even those who may have read them cannot be wholly exculpated from the charge of judging the value of ideas rather from preformed notions concerning their author than from an estimate of the intrinsic worth of the ideas.

To write a criticism of the man and his works in general is not our present purpose, and a few brief remarks must suffice as introduction to our main topic. To whomsoever the fault may be due, the fact remains that Poe was defamed by his literary executor, and that this false picture was accepted without examination by the writers in encyclopaedias and works on literature, who are not always so wise as their claims would suggest. Later, certain writers who possessed the ability to assess values by intrinsic merit, and to judge the author by his works rather than the other way round, succeeded in exposing the calumnies. No doubt some of these carried the reaction too far in the other direction; but at the present date it is easy for anyone to obtain a fair and balanced judgment concerning the life and character of Poe.

He was an over-sensitive and badly balanced temperament, a sad misfit in the world into which he was born. He suffered from misunderstanding, frustration, and continual poverty. Like a being deposited by a passing comet upon an unfamiliar globe, he lived in a realm strangely apart from ordinary human interests. His intense and one-sided temperament carries him to great heights, and by inevitable reaction to morbid depths. His tales are all in this strange aloof world of his: he fails when he tries to introduce the usual components of a fictional narrative — human interest, dialog, etc. Some of these tales are beautiful, others morbid; all are chaste. His attempts at humor are distressing. It is in his prose writings rather than in his scanty verse that he justifies his title of poet.

Poe's almost invariable habit of writing in the first person has probably led some not very competent critics into the belief that many of his tales are autobiographical. But such a technique comes natural to a genius whose object is intensity and vividness. To write a tale in the third person is to give an outside view; the true artist thinks himself into that which he designs to portray, realizes the drama in his mind, identifies himself with the character. How much more vivid instead of "Mr. So-and-so came of a race noted for vigor of fancy, etc." — to write: "I am come of a race noted for vigor of fancy."

Psycho-analystic experts have dissected his character in a way that impresses you only so long as you fail to realize that any other complex character — yours or mine — could be dissected in precisely the same way and with the same results. We one and all have subtle motives which we suppress until we can find an opportunity of expressing them under some respectable disguise; Poe is a long way from being the only writer who has sought relief by expressing in imagination what he has failed to express in actual life.

There will be some who, having prejudged Poe in consequence of the misrepresentations, will either not read his best writings or will dismiss them as the lucid intervals of a dipsomaniac; which perhaps will seem to them a good reason for discounting anything he has said, regardless of possible intrinsic merit. There will be also what we may call the supernaturalists, who regard manifestations of genius as due to some occult inspiration from a power behind the scenes, said power being in turn but the medium for a still higher power; and so on, so that the source continually recedes like the rainbow. This doctrine contravenes the idea that man contains within himself the potency of all knowledge, and this potency can be brought into actuality by his own efforts. Poe shows no sign of indebtedness to the Orient or to ancient Greece; and whether his intuitions were his own, or were breathed into him by somebody else, let each decide for himself.

In his prose poem Eureka, Poe shows the universe as proceeding from an original unity to multiplicity, and back from multiplicity to unity; the two tendencies being continually operative, their perpetual interaction causing the movement, the stress, the joy, or life; the close of a cycle of manifestation being marked by the final predominance of the unifying tendency. But this universe is only one of an infinite number of universes. These surely are Theosophical doctrines. Gravitation is the desire of separated particles to return to unity; they seek the center of spheres, not because these are centers, but because such is the shortest road towards unity. This general principle is worked out at great length and much detail in a consideration of the stellar universe and its mechanics. But it must not be thought that he leaves us with a dry mechanism or views the universe as a cold crystal. For him, all is life, down to the smallest atomic particle; the entire universe is sentient. In this he bears out his own contention that a mere mathematician cannot reason, but that a man must be a poet as well as a mathematician. See The Purloined Letter: "As poet and mathematician he would reason well; as mere mathematician he could not have reasoned at all." The following extract from the conclusion of Eureka will illustrate what we have said:

There was an epoch in the Night of Time, when a still-existent Being existed — one of an absolutely infinite number of similar Beings that people the absolutely infinite domains of the absolutely infinite space. It was not and is not in the power of this Being — any more than it is in your own — to extend by actual increase, the joy of his Existence; but just as it is in your power to expand or to concentrate your pleasures (the absolute amount of happiness remaining always the same) so did and does a similar capability appertain to this Divine Being, who thus passes his Eternity in perpetual variation of Concentrated Self and almost Infinity Self-Diffusion. What you call the Universe is but his present expansive existence. He now feels his life through an infinity of imperfect pleasures — the partial and pain-intertangled pleasures of those inconceivably numerous things which you designate as his creatures, but which are really but infinite individualizations of Himself. All these creatures — all those which you term animate, as well as those to whom you deny life for no better reason than that you do not behold it in operation — all these creatures have, in a greater or less degree, a capacity for pleasure and for pain: — but the general sum of their sensations is precisely that amount of Happiness which appertains by right to the Divine Being when concentrated within Himself. These creatures are all, too, more or less conscious Intelligences; conscious, first, of a proper identity; conscious secondly, and by faint indeterminate glimpses, of an identity with the Divine Being of whom we speak — of an identity with God. Of the two classes of consciousness, fancy that the former will grow weaker, the latter stronger, during the long succession of ages which must elapse before these myriads of individual Intelligences become blended — when the bright stars become blended — into One. Think that the sense of individual identity will be gradually merged in the general consciousness — that Man, for example, ceasing imperceptibly to feel himself Man, will at length attain that awfully triumphant epoch when he shall recognise his existence as that of Jehovah. In the meantime bear in mind that all is Life — Life — Life within Life — the less within the greater, and all within the Spirit Divine.

It is superfluous to point out the many ideas familiar to Theosophists which occur in this passage. In another passage he speaks of the "law of periodicity":

Are we not indeed more than justified in entertaining a belief — let us say rather in indulging a hope — that the processes we have here ventured to contemplate will be renewed forever, and forever, and forever; a novel Universe swelling into existence, and then subsiding into nothingness, at every throb of the Heart Divine?

We also note the familiar analogy between the Great Breath and the pulse of the heart. But as to this heart, he continues:

And now — this Heart Divine — what is it? It is our own.

This redeems the philosophy from all suspicion of being that of an external universe, a universe purely objective, omitting the subject, and therefore unreal and abstract. Such an external objective universe is familiar enough to scientific philosophy, and to many metaphysical systems. This cutting off of object from subject not only shuts out one half of reality but precludes a just comprehension of the remaining half.

Poe's criterion of truth is its beauty, its consistency, the conviction which it brings to the mind, the response as of recognition which it evokes from the heart. He makes great fun of the inductive and deductive methods, which he dubs the method of creeping and the method of crawling. The pedants who rely on either of these methods do not care whether a truth is true; all they want to know is the method by which the alleged truth has been arrived at; if it has not been arrived at by their favorite method, it is not true. We are reminded of those earnest truth-seekers who are always demanding "proof — people who, to be logical, would have to deny their own existence. Here is a passage from Mellonta Tauta ('These things are of the future'):

Do you know that it is not more than a thousand years ago since the metaphysicians consented to relieve the people of the singular fancy that there existed but two possible roads for the attainment of Truth! Believe it if you can!

Then with his cumbrous humor he makes fun of the Aristotelians and the Baconians, who started from axioms and sensations respectively, or from noumena and phenomena. These notions operated to retard the progress of knowledge — which makes its advances almost invariably by intuitive bounds.

No man dared utter a truth for which he felt himself indebted to his Soul alone. It mattered not whether the truth was even demonstrably a truth, for the bullet-headed savants of the time regarded only the road by which he had attained it. They would not even look at the end. "Let us see the means," they cried, "the means!" If, upon investigation of the means, it was found to come under neither the category Aries (that is to say Ram) nor under the category Hog, why then the savants went no farther, but pronounced the "theorist" a fool, and would have nothing to do with him or his truth.

Is it not passing strange that, with their eternal prattling about roads to Truth, these bigoted people missed what we now so clearly perceive to be the great highway — that of Consistency? Does it not seem singular how they should have failed to deduce from the works of God the vital fact that a perfect consistency must be an absolute truth!

The problem of the origin of evil presents no difficulty to one who views the universe in this way; he sees that we have imposed sorrows upon ourselves for our own purposes. The passage quoted below also connects this thought with the idea of the unity of all souls in the one Oversoul:

No thinking being lives who, at some luminous point of his life of thought, has not felt himself lost amid the surges of futile efforts at understanding or believing that anything exists greater than his own soul. The utter impossibility of anyone's soul feeling itself inferior to another; the intense overwhelming dissatisfaction and rebellion at the thought: — these, with the omniprevalent aspirations at perfection are but the spiritual, coincident with the material, struggles towards the original Unity — are, to my mind at least, a species of proof far surpassing what Man terms demonstration, that no one soul is inferior to another — that nothing is, or can be, superior to any one soul — that each soul is, in part, its own God — its own Creator: — in a word, that God — the material and spiritual God — now exists solely in the diffused Matter and Spirit of the Universe; and that the regathering of this diffused Matter and Spirit will be but the reconstitution of the purely Spiritual and Individual God.

In this view, and in this view alone, we comprehend the riddles of Divine Injustice — or Inexorable Fate. In this view alone the existence of Evil becomes intelligible; but in this view it becomes more — it becomes endurable. Our souls no longer rebel at a Sorrow which we ourselves have imposed upon ourselves, in furtherance of our own purposes — with a view — if even with a futile view — to the extension of our own Joy.

In a piece called The Power of Words our poet illustrates views familiar to Theosophists as to the power of vibration, especially of the spoken word. It is in the form of a colloquy between two beings liberated from earth-life, and we quote the concluding passage:

Agathos. — And while I thus spoke, did there not cross your mind some thought of the physical power of words? Is not every word an impulse on the air?

Oinos. — But why, Agathos, do you weep — and why, oh why do your wings droop as we hover above this fair star — • which is the greenest and yet most terrible of all we have encountered in our flight? Its brilliant flowers look like a fairy dream — but its fierce volcanoes like the passions of a turbulent heart.

Agathos. — They are! — they are! This wild star — it is now three centuries since, with clasped hands and with streaming eyes, at the feet of my beloved — I spoke it — with a few passionate sentences — into birth. Its brilliant flowers are the dearest of all unfulfilled dreams, and its raging volcanoes are the passions of the most turbulent and unhallowed of hearts.

The universal sentience of Nature is expressed in The Island of the Fay, from which we quote the following:

I love to regard the dark valleys, and the gray rocks, and the waters that silently smile, and the forests that sigh in uneasy slumbers, and the proud watchful mountains that look down upon all, — I love to regard these as themselves but the colossal members of one vast animate and sentient whole — a whole whose form (that of the sphere) is the most perfect and most inclusive of all; whose path is among associate planets; whose meek handmaiden is the moon, whose mediate sovereign is the sun; whose life is eternity; whose thought is that of a God; whose enjoyment is knowledge; whose destinies are lost in immensity; whose cognizance of ourselves is akin with our own cognizance of the animalcula which infest the brain — a being which we in consequence regard as purely inanimate and material, much in the same manner as these animalcula must regard us.

As to the plurality of universes we find this in Eureka:

Have we any right to infer, let us rather say to imagine — an interminable succession of the "clusters of clusters," or of "Universes" more or less similar? . . . I myself feel impelled to fancy — without daring to call it more — that there does exist a limitless succession of Universes, more or less similar to that of which we have cognizance — to that of which alone we shall ever have cognizance — at the very least until the return of our own particular Universe into Unity. // such clusters of clusters exist, however — and they do — it is abundantly clear that, having had no part in our origin, they have no portion in our laws. They neither attract us nor we them. Their material, their spirit, is not ours — is not that which obtains in any part of our Universe. They could not impress our senses or our souls. Among them and among us — considering all, for the moment, collectively — there are no influences in common. Each exists, apart and independently, in the bosom of its proper and particular God.

A few miscellaneous quotations:

Each law of Nature is dependent at all points upon all other laws, and all are but consequences of one primary exercise of the Divine Volition. — Eureka

The development of Repulsion (Electricity) must have commenced, of course, with the very earliest particular efforts at Unity, and must have proceeded constantly in the ratio of Coalescence — that is to say, in that of Condensation, or, again, of Heterogeneity. Thus the two Principles Proper, Attraction and Repulsion — the Material and the Spiritual — accompany each other, in the strictest fellowship, forever. Thus, the Body and the Soul walk hand in hand.Ibid.

Space and Duration are one. — Ibid.

The incomprehensible connection between each particular individual in the moon with some particular individual on the earth — a connection analogous with, and depending upon, that of the orbs of the planet and the satellite, and by means of which the lives and destinies of the inhabitants of the one are interwoven with the lives and destinies of the inhabitants of the other. — Adventure of Hans Pfaal

Discarding now the two equivalent terms, "gravitation" and "electricity," let us adopt the more definite expressions, "attraction" and "repulsion." The former is the body; the latter the soul: the one is the material, the other the spiritual, principle of the Universe. No other principles exist. All phenomena are referable to one, or to the other, or to both combined. So rigorously is this the case — so thoroughly demonstrable is it that attraction and repulsion are the sole properties through which we perceive the Universe — in other words, by which Matter is manifested to Mind — that, for all merely argumentative purposes, we are fully justified in assuming that matter exists only as attraction and repulsion — that attraction and repulsion are matter. — Eureka

Poe's theory of aesthetics — if this is the right word to use — is defined, among other places, in the following passage:

Dividing the world of mind into its three most immediately obvious distinctions, we have the Pure Intellect, Taste, and the Moral Sense. I place Taste in the middle because it is just this position which in the mind it occupies. It holds intimate relations with either extreme; but from the Moral Sense is separated by so faint a difference that Aristotle has not hesitated to place some of its operations among the virtues themselves. Nevertheless we find the offices of the trio marked with a sufficient distinction. Just as the Intellect concerns itself with Truth, so Taste informs us of the Beautiful, while the Moral Sense is regardful of Duty. Of this latter, while Conscience teaches the obligation, and Reason the expediency, Taste contents herself with displaying the charms, waging war upon Vice solely because of her deformity, her disproportion, her animosity to the fitting, to the appropriate, to the harmonious, in a word, to Beauty. — The Poetic Principle

And in the Philosophy of Composition he designates Beauty as the province of the poem, excluding didacticism of every sort. He sees Wordsworth's defects through a lens, ignoring the merits; he waxes enthusiastic over Coleridge; he would have had no use for Ruskin's doctrine. He is however here merely explaining his theory of art and composition, not laying down a rigid and exclusive dogma; and elsewhere, as we have seen, he gives abundant proof of his sense of the universal unity. The nameless goal presents itself under various forms to various minds — Truth, Goodness, Beauty, Harmony, Love; but "by whatever name they worship Me, it is I alone who inspire them with constancy in that devotion."

On the subject of death, so interesting to Theosophists, we find various places where he enunciates views on which Theosophists would look with approval. The Colloquy of Monos and Una is a dialog between two souls in the after-life, in which one of them describes his experiences of death. Though his consciousness and power of thought gradually die down, there is never a time when he is not sufficiently aware of existence to be able to remember it afterwards. He is dimly aware of the laying-out, the weeping, even the lowering into the tomb, nay even the tomb itself. And what is remarkable here is the fact that, when all else of sensory or conscious experience has faded out, there still remains the sense of — Time. Time, he says, is not a mental abstraction, it is a self-existent reality. It consists in a ceaseless rhythmic pulsation, so exact and inerrant that, as he lies on the bed of death, he is enabled by its means to detect the errors in the ticking of a watch. Time, then, is the ultimate essence of consciousness, the irreducible substratum; and this is surely an idea which might be found in The Secret Doctrine. And from this condition the consciousness slowly rebuilds itself by gradations similar to those whereby it had dwindled down. The same idea is found in The Pit and the Pendulum:

I had swooned; but still will not say that all of consciousness was lost. What of it there remained I will not attempt to define, or even to describe; yet all was not lost. In the deepest slumber — no! In delirium — no! In a swoon — no! In death — no! even in the grave all is not lost. Else there is no immortality for man.

Poe's ideas of cosmogenesis will bear comparison with any system short of that of the Esoteric Philosophy. He of course finds it necessary, as is inevitable, to assume something as a starting-point; and he uses the terms God and Godhead without necessarily implying thereby the dogmatic errors which cause Theosophists to fight shy of them. His starting-point is one of which nothing can be predicated except in negative terms; and he quotes a French writer to the effect that, to understand God, one must himself be God. Assuming that this Being created out of nothing that universe which was to be his own self-expression — what did he first create? Assuming the creator as Spirit, what he first created was "Matter in its utmost conceivable state of — what? — of Simplicity. . . ."

Oneness, then, is all that I predicate of the originally created Matter; but I propose to show that this Oneness is a principle abundantly sufficient to account for the constitution, the existing phenomena and the plainly inevitable annihilation of that least the material Universe.

This last remark is summed up elsewhere in the words: "In the Original Unity of the First Thing lies the Secondary Cause of All Things, with the Germ of their Inevitable Annihilation."

The proving of this proposition occupies much space and can hardly be even summarized here. Unity is a condition which, in its very nature, implies multiplicity; a profound thought, worth reflecting on.

As to pre-existence, we find the following:

Herein was I born. But it is mere idleness to say that I had not lived before — that the soul has no previous existence. You deny it? — let us not argue the matter. Convinced myself, I seek not to convince. There is, however, a remembrance of aerial forms — of spiritual and meaning eyes — of sounds musical yet sad; a remembrance which will not be excluded; a memory like a shadow — vague, variable, indefinite, unsteady; and like a shadow, too, in the impossibility of my getting rid of it while the sunlight of my reason shall exist. In that chamber was I born. Thus awaking from the long night of what seemed, but was not, nonentity. . . . — Berenice

Here for the present we conclude a somewhat diffuse and sketchy survey, and one which might easily have been carried to greater length. The writer has found it a congenial task to do his little towards rehabilitating a slandered reputation; and he hopes that his Theosophical readers will find themselves able to share his satisfaction. Poe, in his Preface to Eureka, has the following:

What I here propound is true: — therefore it cannot die: — or if by any means it be now trodden down so that it die, it will "rise again to the Life Everlasting."

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