Literature

A Short Analysis of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Sonnet – To Science’

‘Sonnet – To Science’ is one of the earliest poems written by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49). Indeed, this poem was written when Poe was barely 20, in 1829! It appeared in print that year, in Poe’s second collection of verse, Tamerlane and Other Poems. Although ‘Sonnet – To Science’ may appear to be a hymn to the importance of scientific endeavour and discovery, there’s a little more going on in this poem. Before we offer some words of analysis, here’s the text of the poem.

Sonnet – To Science

Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car,
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?

Poe’s interest in science was considerable, as some of his essays and his long prose-poem Eureka attest. Indeed, in Eureka, Poe has been credited with a scientific ‘discovery’ of his own: it’s thought that he was the first to propose a solution to Olbers’ paradox. However, ‘Sonnet – To Science’ was written when Poe was a young Romantic poet, and it bears the stamp of Keats, who had attacked science, in his poem ‘Lamia’, for destroying the sense of mystery and awe in the world:

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.

In other words, ‘cold philosophy’ (in Keats’s time, the word ‘scientist’ hadn’t yet been coined, and those practising science were often referred to as natural philosophers) restricts the world rather than liberating it. Keats’s reference to science conquering ‘all mysteries by rule and line’ summons science’s attention to exactitude and hard reality. But for Keats, following Hamlet, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of your philosophy.

A sonnet is a handy poetic vehicle for making an argument, and in ‘Sonnet – To Science’, Poe uses the English or Shakespearean sonnet form, rhymed ababcdcdefefgg, to make less of an argument and more of a sustained rant against scientific exploration. We can see how this breaks down in Poe’s sonnet:

Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?

Poe begins by personifying science (or Science) as the ‘daughter of Old Time’, because science, like time, alters things and destroys them, just as Time causes everything to age, decay, and wither. So it’s not a favourable analogy. Indeed, there’s something rapacious about science (or ‘Science’), preying upon the heart of the poet like a vulture feeding upon an animal’s heart. The thing that propels this bird of prey forward is its wings, but its wings are ‘dull realities’: science has no time for romance.

How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?

How can the poet love science, or think it a wise endeavour, when every time the poet tries to find something beautiful and awe-inspiring in the skies, the ‘vulture’ of science flies boldly and uncaringly into view, destroying the beautiful sight with those ‘dull realities’. In other words, imagine looking at the sky and imagining what sort of angels or deities might be up there. Science would answer back that there’s no such thing: the sky is an illusion, its blueness explained by the scattering of white light when sunlight enters the earth’s atmosphere, its clouds explained by meteorology.

Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car,
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?

Poe concludes ‘Sonnet – To Science’ with a series of rhetorical questions, which are designed to show the extent to which the beauty which poets of the classical world could enjoy has been destroyed by scientific discoveries. Diana, the beautiful goddess of Roman mythology, is sometimes depicted riding a chariot that directs the moon across the sky; hence the reference to Diana being ‘dragged … from her car’.

Similarly, a hamadryad, also in classical mythology, was a nymph that lived in a tree and died when the tree died. Naiads were nymphs inhabiting the seas and oceans, and elves associated with the countryside. These magical and mystical associations have been lost, thanks to science disproving their existence. Poe feels that a sense of awe has been lost.

The counterargument, of course, is that science enables us to appreciate the awe of the woodlands, the seas, and the sky, but with a deeper understanding of these things. Poe was young when he wrote ‘Sonnet – To Science’, and whilst the sonnet is fairly accomplished from a technical perspective, and makes its ‘argument’ well from a rhetorical perspective, older Poe would see come to have a more nuanced view of science’s relation to art. Some people admire the ingenuity of the magic trick even when it’s been explained to them; for others, the ‘magic’ has been destroyed.

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