Friday, April 4, 2014

In defense of Poe's Sonnet to Science

The first time I read the poem I posted Tuesday, the second line, “Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes,” reminded me of a passage I’d read in C.S. Lewis’s book The Pilgrim’s Regress.  

This is going to be a long post.  May as well get a cup of coffee and settle in, but do please settle in and read it.  There really is a method to my madness, even if I don’t get around to connecting all the dots for you. :-D 

In the story, “John” has left his home in Puritania and his belief in a benevolent yet vengeful Landlord in order to travel to a beautiful island in the West that he has seen glimpses of.  In the course of his travels he has many adventures, as you’d expect from the Bunyan-inspired title of the book.

In Book Three, as he’s traveling through the dark country of Zeitgeistheim, “plodding westward through the dark and the rain, in great distress, because he was too tired to go on and too cold to stop,” the path comes to narrow cleft in the side of a mountain, where he is stopped and told he cannot pass. 

“Do you not know that all this country belongs to the Spirit of the Age?”

John apologizes and says he did not mean to trespass and that he would find another way around.

“You fool,” said the captain, “you are in his country now.  This pass is the way out of it, not the way into it.  He welcomes strangers.  His quarrel is with runaways.”

John is handed over to young Mr. Enlightenment, who drags him off to prison, which is situated under a mountain that looks more and more like a man the closer they get to it, until John realizes what the mountain really is.

And then in my nightmare I thought John become like a terrified child and put his hands over his eyes not to see the giant; but young Mr. Enlightenment tore his hands away and forced his face around and made him see the Spirit of the Age where it sat like one of the stone giants, the size of a mountain, with his eyes shut. Then Mr. Enlightenment opened a little door among the rocks and flung John into a pit made in the side of a hill, just opposite the giant, so that the giant could look into it through its gratings.

“He will open his eyes presently,” said Mr. Enlightenment.  Then he locked the door and left John in prison.

Now that the stage is set, here’s the part that Poe’s poem reminded me of:
Chapter Seven
Facing the Facts

John lay in his fetters all night in the cold and stench of the dungeon. And when morning came there was a little light at the grating, and, looking around, John saw that he had many fellow prisoners, of all sexes and ages. But instead of speaking to him, they all huddled away from the light and drew as far back into the pit, away from the grating, as they could. But John thought that if he could breathe a little fresh air he would be better, and he crawled up to the grating. But as soon as he looked out and saw the giant, it crushed the heart out of him: and even as he looked, the giant began to open his eyes and John, without knowing why he did it, shrank from the grating. Now I dreamed that the giant’s eyes had this property, that whatever they looked on became transparent. Consequently, when John looked around into the dungeon, he retreated from his fellow prisoners in terror, for the place seemed to be thronged with demons. A woman was seated near him, but he did not know it was a woman, because through the face, he saw the skull and through that the brains and the passages of the nose, and the larynx, and the saliva moving in the glands and the blood in the veins: and lower down the lungs panting like sponges, and the liver, and the intestines like a coil of snakes. And when he averted his eyes from her they fell on an old man, and this was worse for the old man had a cancer. And when John sat down and drooped his head, not to see the horrors, he saw only the working of his own inwards. Then I dreamed of all these creatures living in the hole under the giant’s eye for many days and nights. And John looked around on it all and suddenly he fell on his face and thrust his hands into his eyes and cried out, “It is the black hole. There may be no Landlord, but it is true about the black hole. I am mad. I am dead. I am in hell for ever.”

That’s the whole chapter.  John finally escapes from the prison but not after a lengthy ordeal, mostly centered around meal times. When the jailer brought in the food, he would set the dishes down and then talk to the prisoners:

If their meal was flesh he would remind them that they were eating corpses, or give them some account of the slaughtering: or, if it was the inwards of some beast, he would read them a lecture in anatomy and show the likeness of the mess to the same parts in themselves – which was the more easily done because the giant’s eyes were always staring into the dungeon at dinner time.

It gets worse – and it goes on for days.

Finally something happens that causes John to realize that this is all a deception.
Then I dreamed that one day there was nothing but milk for them, and the jailor said as he put down the pipkin:

“Our relations with the cow are not delicate – as you can easily see if you imagine eating ony of her other secretions.”

Now John had been in the pit a shorter time than any of the others: and at these words something seemed to snap in his head and he gave a great sigh and suddenly spoke out in a loud, clear voice:

“Thank heaven!  Now at last I know that you are talking nonsense.”

“What do you mean?” said the jailor, wheeling around upon him.

“You are trying to pretend that unlike things are like.  You are trying to make us think that milk is the same sort of thing as dung.”

“And pray, what difference is there except by custom?”

“Are you a liar or only a fool, that you see no difference between that which Nature casts out as refuse and that which she stores up as food?”

“So Nature is a person, then, with purposes and consciousness,” said the jailor with a sneer.  “In fact, a Landlady.  No doubt it comforts you to imagine you can believe that sort of thing”; and he turned to leave the prison with his nose in the air.*

“I know nothing about that,” shouted John after him.  “I am talking of what happens.  Milk does feed calves and dung does not.”

“Look here,” cried the jailor, coming back, “we have had enough of this.  It is high treason and I shall bring you before the Master.”

While he is before the Spirit of the Age, Reason rides up on a horse, poses three riddles, which the giant is unable to answer, and then slays him.  She then takes John on the next leg of his journey.

Science is a good thing when it keeps its place, but it’s been getting awfully uppity the last few centuries, and I can’t help but think that this is what Poe was objecting to in his sonnet.

And did you notice what it was that made John realize it was all a deception?  “You are trying to pretend that unlike things are like.”  The Spirit of the Age and his jailor were bad poets.

~*~ ~*~ ~*~


  1. Oh, I did not know this Lewis's title (not that I know many, LOL). I MUST read this one. Recently in our PP's reading, Christian and Hopeful were in the dungeon too. Does he keep the places allegories, with different, of course, topics at stake... or not so different, because in the dungeon the Giant tries to tell them the world is all there is... maybe in a more than religious platform, but discussing reason and poetic knowledge? Like when we read Poetic Knowledge, and got to that part in Dickens when the student who knows the horse is mocked in favor of the 'scientific' version of a horse, or enlighted version of a horse.
    This post by the AO ladies touches also on that, mythos versus logos.

    1. It's a lot like PP as far as the places he goes and the people he meets -- it's all kind of allegorical. An awful lot of it is various philosophies that were popular in his day, but don't let that put you off. I first read it when I was in high school and knew NOTHING about any philosophy at all, let alone whatever a young intellectual in the 1920s would have run into. The story was interesting without knowing any of that, and then later when I reread it, having learned a very little bit, it was even more interesting.

      Have you ever read his Surprised by Joy? The young man in Pilgrim's Regress is a little like Lewis -- he sees a beautiful island in the west and wants so badly to get there and tries one thing after another, but they never lead to the island... like the "joy" Lewis was after never leading to anything permanent.

      The nice thing about Lewis is that he's so reasonable, so logical, but never at the expense of the beautiful mythos -- the poetic, as you said.

      I subscribe the AO blog, but I haven't read that series yet -- need to get to it this week.


What are your thoughts? I love to hear from you!