“The captain’s gray hairs are records of the past, and his grayer eyes are Sybils of the future. The cabin floor was thickly strewn with strange, iron clasped folios, moldering instruments of science and obsolete long-forgotten charts”– “MS. Found in a Bottle” by Edgar Allan Poe (1833)
Poe illustrated his concerns about the uncertainties and shortcomings of nineteenth-century science in many of his fictional works. In those, his central concern in those stories was that truth was not always as predictable and certain as nineteenth-century scientists had been claiming. Instead, he believed that neither scientists nor the public could ever be certain about truth because it is relative and constantly being revised by new ideas and observations. From his point of view, science involved both what could be observed and what could be imagined. For example, a science news story about space and time travel could also be used to speculate about the future implications of space travel. A tale about a man “mesmerized” and interviewed at the time of death could be viewed as one which introduced both the expansive possibilities on this topic, as well as one which demonstrated the possible future horrors of nineteenth-century science. Poe’s narratives also crossed the boundaries between the apparent certainties and uncertainties of science, confronting readers with making difficult decisions concerning what they were experiencing was real or imagined. He made these decisions more difficult by embedding elements of accepted scientific ideas into his imagined stories.
Poe’s first published tale, “M.S. Found in a Bottle,” (1833) won the Baltimore Visitor first prize for fiction. Mabbott calls the story a “masterpiece,” and contends that “winning the prize and contest set the author on the way to lasting fame” (131).
The Visitor wrote that Poe’s tales are eminently distinguished by a wild, vigorous and poetical imagination, a rich style in fertile inventory, and a various and curious learning” (Thomas and Jackson 137). “MS” reveals Poe’s interest in writing about a wide variety of science-related topics, including secret writing, conundrums, scientific realism, uncertainty, and life after death. Carlson contends that the story mocks the popular sea voyages of the time, such as those of Captain Adam Seward’s (pseudonym for Captain John Symmes) 1820 Symzonia-a Voyage of Discovery. Symmes’s then well-known “Theory of Concentric Circles” proposed that the Earth was hollow at both Poles (119). The assumption of his idea was that a ship approaching the Poles would be sucked into an abyss through the earth. Gewirtz contends that “Poe’s story was never meant to correspond with the world. Location was selected to flaunt transparent and geographic pretense” (23). Poe in selecting his first story and setting was also likely well aware of the public’s interest in this science topic.
Poe reports the story in the style of a science journalist who is intending to submit his story on the realistic and technical details of his journey to a travel or nautical magazine. “Our vessel was a beautiful ship of about four hundred tons, copper-fastened, and built at Bombay of Malabar teak. She was freighted with cotton-wool and oil, from the Lachadive islands. We had also on board coir, jaggeree, ghee, cocoa-nuts, and a few cases of opium.” He also uses scientific language to add to the realism of the story: “The hulk flew at a rate defying computation, before rapidly succeeding flaws of wind, which, without equaling the first violence of the Simoon, were still more terrific than any tempest I had ever before encountered.” As the ship advances, the boundaries between reality and imagination become more and more blurred. The narrator’s invisibility to the crew suggests that the entire journey was only taking place in his mind. In the story, the narrator can see the crew and captain of the ship, but they cannot see him. He remarks, “About an hour ago, I made bold to thrust myself among a group of the crew. They paid me no manner of attention, and, although I stood in the very midst of them all, seemed utterly unconscious of my presence.” By being unobserved, the narrator is looking at the relics of science as an outsider, who has concluded that much of nineteenth-century science is outdated and largely based on theories and principles of irrelevant past scientists like Sir Francis Bacon and Clyde Symmes.
The narrator describes the ship as having a “severely simple bow and antiquated stern,” which reminded him of “an unaccountable memory of old foreign chronicles and ages long ago.” The captain’s “gray hairs are records of the past, and his grayer eyes are Sybils of the future. The cabin floor was thickly strewn with strange, iron clasped folios, mouldering instruments of science and obsolete long-forgotten charts” (144). Poe believes that the tools of nineteenth-century science could not possibly chart an enlightened course to the future. The captain is sailing to an unknown destination using outdated maps and charts. The narrator’s assumptions about the inadequacies of the ship’s navigational systems are confirmed as the journey ultimately takes the narrator to the abyss that Symmes imagined are at the South Pole. Poe exploits and perhaps satirizes Symmes’s theories and the fears that readers associated with such beliefs when the narrator encounters the Pole’s vortex:
Oh horror upon horror!—the ice opens suddenly to the right, and to the left, and we are whirling dizzily, in immense concentric circles, ‘round and round’ the borders of a gigantic amphitheater. The summit of those walls is lost in the darkness and the distance. But little time will be left for me to ponder upon my destiny! The circles grow small—we are plunging madly within the grasp of the whirlpool—amid a roaring, and bellowing, and thundering of ocean and tempest, the ship is quivering—oh God! And—going down (146).
Poe uses the phrase “whirling dizzily” to indicate that those who are invested in the belief systems of nineteenth-century science will be whirling around and too dizzy to understand what is happening when the new technologies replace their antiquated belief systems. The dark and distant walls represent the barriers he sees which are blocking progress to a more enlightened future. He regrets that by associating with this ship and these antiquated ideas he will have little time to “ponder about his destiny.” He uses the term “immense concentric circles” to mock the “Concentric Circles” theory. The antiquated approaches that scientists have thus far trusted will be crushed by the roaring, “bellowing, and thundering of ocean and tempest.” The foundations that they have based their beliefs on are “quivering.” Poe’s use of the word “God,” juxtaposed with “going down,” intimates that he believes that organized religion, which also proposes to chart a course to truth, is also going down in the whirlpool along with the antiquated beliefs of nineteenth-century science. As the narrator and his ship are sucked into the Pole, he thrusts the journal into the sea for readers of the future to discover. Poe’s narrative infers that he hoped that future scientists would one day find his writings and note that he was correct in his prophetic visions. As he realized that he would probably not live to see that day, he reaches back to the distant past to highlight his criticisms of nineteenth-century science in his tale, “Some Words with a Mummy.”
Carlson, Eric W. Ed. A Companion to Poe Studies. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.
Gewirtz, Isaac. Edgar Allan Poe: Terror of the Soul, Ed. New York: New York Public Library, 2013.
Poe, Edgar Allan. Tales and Sketches, Volume 1 and 2: 1831-1849. Ed. Thomas O. Mabbott. Urbana: The University of Illinois Press, 1978.
Thomas, Dwight and David Jackson, Ed. The Poe Log- A Documentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe 1809-1849. Boston: G.B. Hall and Company, 1987