Thursday, April 12, 2007

She blinded me, with science! -- a National Poetry Month post

Okay, Thomas Dolby.* I'm onto you. Poetry in motion, indeed.

Reading my poem-a-day calendar, I came across a sonnet from one of Kevin Slattery's favorite subjects, Edgar Allen Poe. And on what is a cold, dark, rainy Thursday in New Jersey, I've decided to share it with you:

Sonnet -- To Science
by Edgar Allen Poe

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

Alrighty, let's have a look at Mr. Poe's opus, shall we? First off, it is a sonnet-- specifically, it is a Shakespearian sonnet (ABAB CDCD EFEF GG).

On first reading, I confess to feeling mild confusion -- I think it was the sheer number of question marks that threw me. Because on a second reading, it was clear that Poe was bemoaning the loss of mythology and fantasy brought about by the practicalities of science. It is a highly emotional poem, reflecting an agitated state on the part of the speaker, and yet Poe has put it inside the very organized box that is a sonnet.

Vulture: The line about science being a vulture preying upon the human heart may be an allusion to the myth of Prometheus, one of the Titans, who defied Zeus by giving fire to mortals. He was chained to a mountain, where a vulture (or perhaps an eagle) would pick at his liver every day. This interpretation of the reference to the myth of Prometheus is borne out not only by the idea that science is ever-present, and therefore ever oppressive to a poet's heart, but also by Poe's later mention of other mythological beings, including Diana (the huntress) and dryads and naiads, Greek tree and water spirits.

Tamarind tree: A huge, tropical tree, which suggests an exotic location for a nap. In India, there is a tamarind tree worshipped because it is believed that Puliyidaivalaiyamman, a deity, is present in the tree, and offers her blessings in the form of fruit. Perhaps Poe sees the tamarind tree as a symbol of the tree of inspiration, as opposed to the apple tree of scientific knowledge, remembering that the "science!" that Poe was referring to was, in fact, natural science as developed by Sir Isaac Newton.

This poem was written early in Poe's career, while he was still in the Army. Poe's protestations about poetry are not necessarily a heart-felt belief, as Poe developed a fascination with natural science, eventually becoming quite knowledgeable about the subject. In fact, his later writings contributed to the early development of American science fiction as a genre. One of his works, Eureka, included a theory of the cosmos that anticipated black holes and the Big Bang theory.

*Trivia about the Dolby song and video: According to Wikipedia, "She Blinded Me With Science" is used as a fight song by some American engineering schools (what are they fighting about?). The exclamations of "Science!" in the song were from Dr. Magnus Pyke, a British scientist and media figure who liked to appear as a mad scientist -- think Bill Nye the Science Guy meets Dr. Emmett Brown (from Back to the Future).

No comments: