Close reading of “Sonnet—To Science”

This paper was written for 21L.004 (Introduction to Poetry), taught by Prof. Tapscott.

This paper analyzes the following sonnet by Edgar Allan Poe (reprinted for your convenience):

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

(from The Norton Anthology of Poetry, shorter 4th edition, p. 531)

This poem is about what appears to be a disparity between poetry and science, and the poet trying to figure out what it is about this that is making him uncomfortable. The general structure of the poem is a sonnet which first declares that science is the subject of the poem and then attempts an accusation of science for making the world less suitable for making poetry. However, it is unclear if the rhetoric is meant to be a direct accusation, or if the accusation is actually a call for an answer, and this will be explored in more detail later.

This sonnet follows the standard rhyming scheme, ABAB CDCD EFEF GG, but it is actually the case that B and C rhyme. It is likely that this is coincidental, considering there are only so many word endings in English. The metrical structure is iambic pentameter, but the strength of the meter is sometimes not as strong as what we have seen with Shakespeare, or, at least, trying to scan the poem to read it with iambic pentameter is more difficult for the author than with Shakespeare’s poetry.

The first stanza explains that this poem is about science. Poe makes this very clear by beginning the poem with an interjection: “Science!” This sets the mood of the poem outright to be something like a protest or entreaty, since it is like starting a phrase with “God!” or “Oh!”, which one generally does to ask for something. The rest of the first line gives science a title, calling science the true daughter of old time. The phrase “Old Time” refers to things which are from the distant past, and being the “true daughter” of “Old Time” means that science is faithfully grounded in people’s past intellectual pursuits. He is declaring that science is something which is not new, and so cannot simply be dismissed.

Line two is an observation of what science does to our conceptions of the world. The “peering eyes” is the scientific method of careful observation of nature, leaving no stone unturned. This metaphor is continued in the final two lines of the stanza, and it turns out the peering eyes are those of a vulture. This vulture has wings which are “dull realities.” This could mean a few things. For one, it could mean that the poet is recognizing that science is supported by a reality whose charm and interest is removed (that is, there are no oddities like Greek gods), which poets tend to write about. Similarly, it could be the imagery that this bird of prey, science, swoops down to pluck out the heart of poetry, beating dull reality into the poet by flapping its wings. In any case, this is phrased as a question: the poet is wondering why science is targeting the heart of the poet. Questions can be used for rhetorical effect (in this case, the first stanza could be read as “Science! Why are you doing this to me?”), or instead to ask for information (which can be read as “Science! You are the continuation of the intellectual enterprise. Why are you aiming at the heart of poetry now?”). At this point in the poem, it is unclear which Poe means.

The second stanza consists of more questions. Continuing with the idea that the questions are for rhetorical purposes, the first line asks how the poet should love science or deem it to be wise with the implied answer “I cannot.” However, it is also possible that these questions are not rhetorical, and these questions represent the poet trying to figure out how to place science in his poetical world.

The stanza continues by comparing the poet with another kind of bird. The poem has been using the word “he” to refer to a poet, and “thou” for the notion of science. Line six sets up the question which asks who it is that does not leave the poet when he wanders, with the implicit answer that it is science which does not leave. Line seven is confusing, though, due to the enjambment. The line “To seek for treasure in the jeweled skies” refers to either the poet or science, as it may be that the wandering is for seeking (and thus the poet is seeking), or it may be that not leaving the poet is for seeking (and thus science is seeking). If the poet is seeking, then the bird which represents the poet is seeking for treasure in the “jeweled skies.” Jeweled seems like a way to refer to stars, which are a kind of truth to be found about the universe, or it may be intensifying the fact that there are many treasures out there. And, this poet bird is flying around, wandering, not intimidated or discouraged by difficulty or danger (“soared with an undaunted wing”). With this reading, the poet is asking why science is not leaving him alone as he is trying to find his own kinds of truths in the world.

On the other hand, if it is science which is seeking, the poet bird is flying “with an undaunted wing,” but the science bird is following, trying to seek the same sources of treasures as the poet is trying to seek. This reading has the poet wondering why science is trying to answer the same kinds of questions he is, snatching up treasures before he can, and, continuing the vulture analogy, like a bird of prey.

The third stanza goes over various things which the poet thinks are the result of science. Line nine, “Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?” refers to the Roman goddess of hunting and virginity, who rides the moon across the sky at night. With science, people saw that the moon, instead of being a carriage for a goddess, was actually a lifeless rock, so science metaphorically dragged her off the moon. The next two lines talk about about the Hamadryad, which is a nymph from Greek and Roman mythology that lives in a tree and dies when the tree dies. Science, however, believes the tree lives without such creatures, and so the idea of the Hamadryad has been driven away. Again, enjambment makes it unclear who is seeking shelter on line eleven. It is either the Hamadryad driven from the wood, or it is science which drove the Hamadryad from the wood. If it were science, then science would now be “[seeking] a shelter in some happier star,” which doesn’t make sense because science is a human pursuit. It also doesn’t make sense because one generally does not seek refuge after driving some other entity away from its home. So, the enjambment probably refers to the Hamadryad, which means the poet is imagining this creature still exists somewhere although it is no longer believed. Similarly, the poem talks about Naiads (water nymphs of classical mythology) being torn from their water and elves being torn from their grass. The language used in these last six lines is that a strong verb removes each of these mythical creatures from their native habitats. Diana is “dragged,” the Hamadryad is “driven [...] from”, and the Naiad and the elves are “torn.” The poet is giving science a brutal nature, without any gentle grace, which is in accordance with being a vulture (a creature which is hardly gentle).

The third stanza spills into the final couplet, which is a continuation of the fantastical creatures being removed from their environments. The poet elides the removal verbs after describing the Naiad. The pattern is continued, and we can readily infer the Elves are being torn from their green grass. The final mythical creature is the “summer dream” being torn from “me.” Up until this point, each of the creatures were from well-known mythology, so by continuing the pattern but switching the kind of material intensifies this change in the final couplet. The “me” refers now to Poe himself, where “he” from before referred to any poet.

Starting from the third stanza, the questions of whether science has vanquished mythology can either be read as rhetoric or confusion. If it is rhetoric, then the answer to each of the “Hast thou” questions is a definite “yes,” and Poe is concluding the poem by noting a few of the things which science has shown not to be real. This means that, to Poe, dreams, too, have been disturbed by science, since he feels like he is constrained by science’s notion of reality, which is less vivid to him than the creatures from another “old time.” However, it could be the case that he is asking these questions again out of confusion. He is unsure whether or not science conflicts with these old mythological notions. In a sense, while there is no Diana on the moon empirically, she is still where she always has been: able to be called upon for poetry. So, Poe may still have his dream “beneath the tamarind tree,” and not have it wrest from him by science.

I like how this poem can be read in two ways. One reading is where Poe complains science has removed the old, poetic ideas of the way the world worked. The other is where Poe is unsure whether science truly had removed such ideas. What is clear, though, is that he was concerned this way of thinking would make the poetic way outdated.