The Gravity of Things



When unquestioning faith in the principles of science finally deserts the narrator of “MS. Found in a Bottle,” he is thrust into a world of inexplicable and ominous sensations. The last illustration of conventional mechanics that he is able to describe is the catapult effect created when the great mass of the rapidly descending phantom ship strikes one end of the wreckage to which he is clinging and hurls him into the stranger’s rigging—a result that any child can visualize. More difficult conceptual challenges quickly follow as the narrator slips through the main hatchway of his phantom host and conceals himself in “a convenient retreat between the huge timbers of the ship,” the first carefully calibrated sign of the decisive pneumatic frontier that he has crossed.


Landscape Design Circular Basin Early Story Mental Discipline Early Vortex 
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  1. Planetary bodies and vortices served as the “islands” and the “whirlpools” of extraterrestrial space in the same years that Poe was exploring the vortex in fiction. David Halliburton notes the inherently “equivocal” nature of the vortex as a kinetic experience in his intriguing discussion of “MS. Found in a Bottle.” See Edgar Allan Poe: A Phenomenological View, pp. 245–256. Terence Whalen’s chapter “Subtle Barbarians” in Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum America (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1999)Google Scholar
  2. Poe’s detailed knowledge of telescopes and his familiarity with the findings of contemporary astronomy are evident as early as the elaborate technical notes that he attaches to “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” in 1835. The suggestive instrumental structure he gives to the Norway maelstrom falls midway between this early sign of his interest and his references, thirteen years later, to Lord Rosse’s startling findings in the closing pages of Eureka. Von Humboldt’s survey of the scientific utility of the pendulum, as well as a brief allusion to Galileo’s legendary epiphany while observing the movements of a cathedral chandelier, come from Cosmos. For the passage in which Humboldt describes how to find the mean density of the Earth, and dismisses popular fantasies of a subterranean world, see the edition of Volume 1 recently issued by the Johns Hopkins University Press (1997), pp. 169–171. Poe also read explanations of Galileo’s work with pendulums in a number of scientific biographies of the time. John Limon offers a wide-ranging discussion of Poe’s engagement with works of contemporary natural philosophy in The Place of Fiction in the Time of Science: A Disciplinary History of American Writing (Cambridge and London: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1990).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. On the Croton water project, see Nelson M. Blake, Water for the Cities: A History of the Urban Water Problem in the United States (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse Univ. Press, 1956).Google Scholar
  4. Simon Schama’s Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (New York: Random House, 1989), pp. 156–159.Google Scholar
  5. Joan Dayan’s chapter on Eureka in Fables of Mind (pp. 19–79) is the most ambitious investigation of the book’s philosophical roots, preparing a context for her thoughtful discussion of “The Domain of Arnheim” (pp. 83–104). David Halliburton is particularly perceptive in his consideration of the complex rhetorical life of “force” in Eureka. See Edgar Allan Poe: A Phenomenological View, pp. 392–412. John Irwin calls attention to Poe’s interest in the work of David Brewster in American Hieroglyphics, with particular emphasis on Brewster’s Letters on Natural Magic (1832). Brewster’s biographies of Galileo, Tycho Brahe, and Kepler are in The Martyrs of Science (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1841).Google Scholar

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© Douglas Anderson 2009

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