Edgar Allan Poe.

The complete works of Edgar Allan Poe (Volume 10) online

. (page 18 of 21)
Online LibraryEdgar Allan PoeThe complete works of Edgar Allan Poe (Volume 10) → online text (page 18 of 21)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

suggest that even as yet we have been speaking of
trifles. Ceasing to wonder at the space between star
and star in our own or in any particular cluster, let us
rather turn our thoughts to the intervals between clus
ter and cluster, in the all-comprehensive cluster of the

I have already said that light proceeds at the rate of


167,000 miles in a second, that is, about ten millions
of miles in a minute, or about 600 millions of miles in
an hour ; yet so far removed from us are some of the
" nebulae " that even light, speeding with this velocity,
could not and does not reach us from those mysterious
regions in less than three millions of years. This cal
culation, moreover, is made by the elder Herschel, and
in reference merely to those comparatively proximate
clusters within the scope of his own telescope. There
are " nebula?," however, which, through the magical
tube of Lord Rosse, are this instant whispering in our
ears the secrets of a million of ages bygone. In a
word, the events which we behold now, at this mo
ment, in those worlds, are the identical events which
interested their inhabitants ten hundred thousand cent
uries ago. In intervals, in distances such as this sug
gestion forces upon the soul, rather than upon the
mind, we find at length a fitting climax to all hitherto
frivolous considerations of quantity.

Our fancies thus occupied with the cosmical dis
tances, let us take the opportunity of referring to the
difficulty which we have so often experienced, while
pursuing the beaten path of astronomical reflection, in
accounting for the immeasurable voids alluded to, in
comprehending why chasms so totally unoccupied and
therefore apparently so needless have been made to
intervene between star and star, between cluster and
cluster; in understanding, to be brief, a sufficient



reason for the Titanic scale, in respect of mere space,
on which the universe is seen to be constructed. A
rational cause for the phenomenon, I maintain that
astronomy has palpably failed to assign; but the con
siderations through which, in this essay, we have pro
ceeded step by step enable us clearly and immediately
to perceive that space and duration are one. That the
universe might endure throughout an era at all com
mensurate with the grandeur of its component mater
ial portions and with the high majesty of its spiritual
purposes, it was necessary that the original atomic
diffusion be made to so inconceivable an extent as to be
only not infinite. It was required, in a word, that the
stars should be gathered into visibility from invisible
nebulosity, proceed from nebulosity to consolidation,
and so grow gray in giving birth and death to un
speakably numerous and complex variations of vitalic
development ; it was required that the stars should do
all this, should have time thoroughly to accomplish all
these Divine purposes, during the period in which all
things were effecting their return into unity with a
velocity accumulating in the inverse proportion of the
squares of the distances at which lay the inevitable end.
Throughout all this we have no difficulty in under
standing the absolute accuracy of the Divine adapta
tion. The density of the stars, respectively, proceeds,
of course, as their condensation diminishes ; condensa
tion and heterogeneity keep pace with each other;



through the latter, which is the index of the former,
we estimate the vitalic and spiritual development.
Thus, in the density of the globes, we have the measure
in which their purposes are fulfilled. As density pro
ceeds, as the Divine intentions are accomplished, as
less and still less remains to be accomplished, so, in the
same ratio, should we expect to find an acceleration of
the end; and thus the philosophical mind will easily
comprehend that the Divine designs in constituting the
stars advance mathematically to their fulfilment ; and
more, it will readily give the advance a mathematical
expression ; it will decide that this advance is inversely
proportional with the squares of the distances of all
created things from the starting-point and goal of their

Not only is this Divine adaptation, however, mathe
matically accurate, but there is that about it which
stamps it as Divine, in distinction from that which is
merely the work of human constructiveness. I allude
to the complete mutuality of adaptation. For ex
ample, in human constructions a particular cause has
a particular effect; a particular intention brings to
pass a particular object; but this is all; we see no
reciprocity. The effect does not react upon the cause ;
the intention does not change relations with the ob
ject. In Divine constructions the object is either de
sign or object as we choose to regard it, and we may
take at anytime a cause for an effect, or the converse,



so that we can never absolutely decide which is which.
To give an instance: In polar climates the human
frame, to maintain its animal heat, requires, for com
bustion in the capillary system, an abundant supply of
highly azotized food, such as train-oil. But again, hi
polar climates nearly the sole food afforded man is the
oil of abundant seals and whales. Now, whether is
oil at hand because imperatively demanded, or the only
thing demanded because the only thing to be obtained ?
It is impossible to decide. There is an absolute reci
procity of adaptation.

The pleasure which we derive from any display of
human ingenuity is in the ratio of the approach to this
species of reciprocity. In the construction of plot, for
example, in fictitious literature, we should aim at so
arranging the incidents that we shall not be able to de
termine, of any one of them, whether it depends from
any one other or upholds it. In this sense, of course,
perfection of plot is really, or practically, unattainable,
but only because it is a finite intelligence that con
structs. The plots of God are perfect. The universe
is a plot of God.

And now we have reached a point at which the in
tellect is forced, again, to struggle against its propen
sity for analogical inference, against its monomaniac
grasping at the infinite. Moons have been seen re
volving about planets; planets about stars; and the
poetical instinct of humanity, its instinct of the sym-



metrical, if the symmetry be but a symmetry of surface,
this instinct, which the soul, not only of man but of
all created beings, took up, in the beginning, from the
geometrical basis of the universal irradiation, impels
us to the fancy of an endless extension of this system
of cycles. Closing our eyes equally to deduction and
induction, we insist upon imagining a revolution of all
the orbs of the Galaxy about some gigantic globe which
we take to be the central pivot of the whole. Each
cluster in the great cluster of clusters is imagined, of
course, to be similarly supplied and constructed ; while,
that the " analogy " may be wanting at no point, we
go on to conceive these clusters themselves, again, as
revolving around some still more august sphere; this
latter, still again, with its encircling clusters, as but
one of a yet more magnificent series of agglomerations,
gyrating about yet another orb central to them, some
orb still more unspeakably sublime, some orb, let us
rather say, of infinite sublimity endlessly multiplied by
the infinitely sublime. Such are the conditions, con
tinued in perpetuity, which the voice of what some
people term " analogy " calls upon the fancy to depict
and the reason to contemplate, if possible, without
becoming dissatisfied with the picture. Such, in gen
eral, are the interminable gyrations beyond gyration
which we have been instructed by philosophy to com
prehend and to account for, at least in the best manner
we can. Now and then, however, a philosopher proper,



one whose frenzy takes a very determinate turn, whose
genius, to speak more reverentially, has a strongly
pronounced washer-womanish bias, doing everything
up by the dozen, enables us to see precisely that point
out of sight at which the revolutionary processes in
question do, and of right ought to, come to an end.

It is hardly worth while, perhaps, even to sneer at
the reveries of Fourier, but much has been said lat
terly of the hypothesis of Madler, that there exists, in
the centre of the Galaxy, a stupendous globe about
which all the systems of the cluster revolve. The
period of our own, indeed, has been stated 117 mil
lions of years.

That our sun has a motion in space, independently of
its rotation and revolution about the system's centre
of gravity, has long been suspected. This motion,
granting it to exist, would be manifested perspectively.
The stars in that firmamental region which we were
leaving behind us would, in a very long series of years,
become crowded; those in the opposite quarter scat
tered. Now, by means of astronomical history, we
ascertain, cloudily, that some such phenomena have
occurred. On this ground it has been declared that
our system is moving to a point in the heavens dia
metrically opposite the star Zeta Herculis ; but this in
ference is, perhaps, the maximum to which we have
any logical right. Madler, however, has gone so far
as to designate a particular star, Alcyone in the Plei-



ades, as being at or about the very spot around which
a general revolution is performed.

Now, since by " analogy " we are led, in the first
instance, to these dreams, it is no more than proper
that we should abide by analogy, at least in some
measure, during their development ; and that analogy
which suggests the revolution suggests at the same
time a central orb about which it should be performed ;
so far the astronomer was consistent. This central
orb, however, should, dynamically, be greater than all
the orbs taken together which surround it. Of these
there are about 100 millions. " Why, then," it was
of course demanded, " do we not see this vast central
sun, at least equal in mass to 100 millions of such
suns as ours; why do we not see it we, especially,
who occupy the mid region of the cluster, the very
locality near which, at all events, must be situated this
incomparable star ? " The reply was ready : " It must
be non-luminous, as are our planets." Here, then, to
suit a purpose, analogy is suddenly let fall. " Not so,"
it may be said, " we know that non-luminous suns
actually exist." It is true that we have reason at
least for supposing so ; but we have certainly no reason
whatever for supposing that the non-luminous suns in
question are encircled by luminous suns, while these
again are surrounded by non-luminous planets ; and it
is precisely all this with which Madler is called upon
to find anything analogous in the heavens, for it is



precisely all this which he imagines in the case of the
Galaxy. Admitting the thing to be so, we cannot
help here picturing to ourselves how sad a puzzle the
" why it is so " must prove to all a priori philosophers.

But, granting in the very teeth of analogy and of
everything else the non-luminosity of the vast central
orb, we may still inquire how this orb, so enormous,
could fail of being rendered visible by the flood of
light thrown upon it from the 100 millions of glorious
suns glaring in all directions about it. Upon the
urging of this question, the idea of an actually solid
central sun appears in some measure to have been
abandoned; and speculation proceeded to assert that
the systems of the cluster perform their revolutions
merely about an immaterial centre of gravity common
to all. Here, again, then, to suit a purpose, analogy is
let fall. The planets of our system revolve, it is true,
about a common centre of gravity ; but they do this in
connection with, and in consequence of, a material sun
whose mass more than counterbalances the rest of the

The mathematical circle is a curve composed of an
infinity of straight lines. But this idea of the circle,
an idea which, in view of all ordinary geometry, is
merely the mathematical as contradistinguished from
the practical idea, is, in sober fact, the practical con
ception which alone we have any right to entertain in
regard to the majestic circle with which we have to



deal, at least in fancy, when we suppose our system
revolving about a point in the centre of the Galaxy.
Let the most vigorous of human imaginations attempt
to take but a single step toward the comprehension of
a sweep so ineffable! It would scarcely be paradoxi
cal to say that a flash of lightning itself, travelling
forever upon the circumference of this unutterable
circle, would still forever be travelling in a straight
line. That the path of our sun in such an orbit would,
to any human perception, deviate in the slightest de
gree from a straight line, even in a million of years, is
a proposition not to be entertained; yet we are re
quired to believe that a curvature has become apparent
during the brief period of our astronomical history
during a mere point during the utter nothingness of
two or three thousand years.

It may be said that Madler has really ascertained a
curvature in the direction of our system's now well-
established progress through space. Admitting, if
necessary, this fact to be in reality such, I maintain
that nothing is thereby shown except the reality of this
fact, the fact of a curvature. For its thorough deter
mination ages will be required ; and, when determined,
it will be found indicative of some binary or other
multiple relation between our sun and some one or
more of the proximate stars. I hazard nothing, how
ever, in predicting that after the lapse of many cen
turies, all efforts at determining the path of our sun

VOL. X.-20. 305


through space will be abandoned as fruitless. This is
easily conceivable when we look at the infinity of per
turbation it must experience, from its perpetually
shifting relations with other orbs, in the common
approach of all to the nucleus of the Galaxy.

But in examining other " nebulae " than that of the
Milky Way, in surveying, generally, the clusters which
overspread the heavens, do we or do we not find con
firmation of Madler's hypothesis ? We do not. The
forms of the clusters are exceedingly diverse when
casually viewed; but on close inspection through
powerful telescopes, we recognize the sphere very dis
tinctly as at least the proximate form of all ; their con
stitution in general being at variance with the idea of
revolution about a common centre.

" It is difficult," says Sir John Herschel, " to form
any conception of the dynamical state of such systems.
On one hand, without a rotary motion and a centri
fugal force, it is hardly possible not to regard them as
in a state of progressive collapse. On the other, grant
ing such a motion and such a force, we find it no less
difficult to reconcile their forms with the rotation of the
whole system [meaning cluster] around any single axis,
without which internal collision would appear to be

Some remarks lately made about the " nebulas " by
Dr. Nichol, in taking quite a different view of the cos-
mical conditions from any taken in this discourse, have



a very peculiar applicability to the point now at issue.
He says :

" When our greatest telescopes are brought to bear
upon them, we find that those which were thought to
be irregular are not so; they approach nearer to a
globe. Here is one that looked oval ; but Lord Rosse's
telescope brought it into a circle. . . . Now, there
occurs a very remarkable circumstance in reference
to these comparatively sweeping circular masses of
nebulae. We find they are not entirely circular,
but the reverse ; and that all around them on every
side there are volumes of stars, stretching out appar
ently as if they were rushing toward a great central
mass in consequence of the action of some great
power." x

Were I to describe, in my own words, what must
necessarily be the existing condition of each nebula on
the hypothesis that all matter is, as I suggest, now re
turning to its original unity, I should simply be going
over, nearly verbatim, the language here employed by
Dr. Nichol, without the faintest suspicion of that stu
pendous truth which is the key to these nebular phe

And here let me fortify my position still further by
the voice of a greater than Madler, of one, moreover,

1 1 must be understood as denying, especially, only the revolutionary por
tion of Mk'dler's hypothesis. Of course, if no great central orb exists now in
our cluster, such will exist hereafter. Whenever existing, it will be merely
the nucleus of the consolidation.



to whom all the data of Madler have long been familiar
things, carefully and thoroughly considered. Refer
ring to the elaborate calculations of Argelander, the
very researches which form Madler's basis, Hum-
boldt, whose generalizing powers have never, perhaps,
been equalled, has the following observation :

" When we regard the real, proper, or non-perspec
tive motions of the stars, we find many groups of them
moving in opposite directions ; and the data as yet in
hand render it not necessary, at least, to conceive that
the systems composing the Milky Way, or the clusters
generally composing the universe, are revolving about
any particular centre unknown, whether luminous or
non-luminous. It is but man's longing for a funda
mental First Cause that impels both his intellect and
fancy to the adoption of such an hypothesis." *

The phenomenon here alluded to, that of " many
groups moving in opposite directions," is quite inex
plicable by Madler's idea; but arises, as a necessary
consequence, from that which forms the basis of this
discourse. While the merely general direction of each
atom of each moon, planet, star, or cluster would,

1 Betrachtet man die nicht perspectivischen eigenen Bewegungen der Sterne,
so scheinen viele gruppenweise in ihrer Richtung entgegengesetzt; und die
bisher gesammelten Thatsachen machen es auf 's wenigste nicht nothwendig,
anzunehmen, dass alle Theile unserer Sternenschicht oder gar der gesammten
Sterneninseln, welche den Weltraum fullen, sich um einen grossen, unbe-
kannten, leuchtenden, oder dunkeln Centralkorper bewegen. Das Streben
nach den letzen und hochsten Grundursachen macht freilich die reflectirende
Thatigkeit des Menschen, wie seine Phantasie, zu einer solchen Annahme


on my hypothesis, be, of course, absolutely rectilinear,
while the general path of all bodies would be a right
line leading to the centre of all ; it is clear, neverthe
less, that this general rectilinearity would be com
pounded of what, with scarcely any exaggeration, we
may term an infinity of particular curves, an infinity
of local deviations from rectilinearity, the result of
continuous differences of relative position among the
multitudinous masses, as each proceeded on its own
proper journey to the end.

I quoted just now from Sir John Herschel the fol
lowing words, used in reference to the clusters : " On
one hand, without a rotary motion and a centrifugal
force, it is hardly possible not to regard them as in a
state of ' progressive collapse.' " The fact is, that, in
surveying the " nebulae " with a telescope of high
power, we shall find it quite impossible, having once
conceived this idea of " collapse," not to gather at all
points corroboration of the idea. A nucleus is always
apparent in the direction of which the stars seem to be
precipitating themselves ; nor can these nuclei be mis
taken for merely perspective phenomena; the clusters
are really denser near the centre, sparser in the regions
more remote from it. In a word, we see everything as
we should see it were a collapse taking place ; but, in
general, it may be said of these clusters that we can
fairly entertain, while looking at them, the ideal of
orbital movement about a centre only by admitting the



possible existence, in the distant domains of space, of
dynamical laws with which we are unacquainted.

On the part of Herschel, however, there is evidently
a reluctance to regard the nebulae as in " a state of
progressive collapse." But if facts, if even appear
ances justify the supposition of their being in this
state, why, it may well be demanded, is he disinclined
to admit it ? Simply on account of a prejudice ;
merely because the supposition is at war with a pre
conceived and utterly baseless notion, that of the
endlessness, that of the eternal stability of the universe.

If the propositions of this discourse are tenable, the
" state of progressive collapse " is precisely that state
in which alone we are warranted in considering all
things; and, with due humility, let me here confess
that, for my part, I am at a loss to conceive how any
other understanding of the existing condition of affairs
could ever have made its way into the human brain.
" The tendency to collapse " and " the attraction of
gravitation " are convertible phrases. In using either
we speak of the reaction of the First Act. Never was
necessity less obvious than that of supposing matter
imbued with an ineradicable quality forming part of
its material nature a quality, or instinct, forever in
separable from it, and by dint of which inalienable
principle every atom is perpetually impelled to seek its
fellow-atom. Never was necessity less obvious than
that of entertaining this unphilosophical idea. Going



boldly behind the vulgar thought, we have to conceive,
metaphysically, that the gravitating principle apper
tains to matter temporarily, only while diffused, only
while existing as many instead of as one; appertains
to it by virtue of its state of irradiation alone; apper
tains, in a word, altogether to its condition, and not
in the slightest degree to itself. In this view, when the
irradiation shall have returned into its source, when the
reaction shall be completed, the gravitating principle
will no longer exist. And, in fact, astronomers, with
out at any time reaching the idea here suggested, seem
to have been approximating it, in the assertion that " if
there were but one body in the universe, it would be
impossible to understand how the principle, gravity,
could obtain " ; that is to say, from a consideration of
matter as they find it, they reach a conclusion at which
I deductively arrive. That so pregnant a suggestion as
the one quoted should have been permitted to remain
so long unfruitful, is, nevertheless, a mystery which I
find it difficult to fathom.

It is, perhaps, in no little degree, however, our pro
pensity for the continuous, for the analogical, in the
present case more particularly for the symmetrical,
which has been leading us astray. And, in fact, the
sense of the symmetrical is an instinct which may be
depended upon with an almost blindfold reliance. It
is the poetical essence of the universe of the universe
which, in the supremeness of its symmetry, is but the


most sublime of poems. Now, symmetry and consis
tency are convertible terms ; thus poetry and truth are
one. A thing is consistent in the ratio of its truth,
true in the ratio of its consistency. A perfect con
sistency, I repeat, can be nothing but an absolute truth.
We may take it for granted, then, that man cannot
long or widely err if he suffer himself to be guided by
his poetical, which I have maintained to be his truth
ful, in being his symmetrical, instinct. He must have
a care, however, lest, in pursuing too heedlessly the
superficial symmetry of forms and motions, he leave
out of sight the really essential symmetry of the prin
ciples which determine and control them.

That the stellar bodies would finally be merged in
one, that, at last, all would be drawn into the sub
stance of one stupendous central orb already existing,
is an idea which, for some time past, seems vaguely
and indeterminately to have held possession of the
fancy of mankind. It is an idea, in fact, which be
longs to the class of the excessively obvious. It springs
instantly from a superficial observation of the cyclic
and seemingly gyrating or vortical movements of
those individual portions of the universe which come
most immediately and most closely under our observa
tion. There is not, perhaps, a human being, of ordi
nary education and of average reflective capacity, to
whom, at some period, the fancy in question has not
occurred, as if spontaneously, or intuitively, and wear-



ing all the character of a very profound and very

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 18 20 21

Online LibraryEdgar Allan PoeThe complete works of Edgar Allan Poe (Volume 10) → online text (page 18 of 21)