October's Ashen Skies
David J. Ross
Copyright 2007 by the author
Updated 2010 by the author

What do you know?!  Club member Dave Ross makes the cover of the October, 2010 Griffith Observer with a revised version of his 2007 article on Edgar Allan Poe.  It’s a nod to the 2009 bicentennial anniversary of the birth of this early American master of the dark side and features some further reflections on the way Poe’s astronomical interests help interpret his poem, Ulalume.  Should anyone like a copy click on the cover for the newsletter’s order form.  Issues are just $2.50 plus a buck for postage. 
Cover, Griffith Observer
>>Link for picture of cover:  http://www.griffithobs.org/pdf/backIssueOrderForm.pdf
The article also features Ross’s stab at taking a picture of the early morning scene, as explained  below.  But, to do it justice would have required devoting more space to it than was afforded by the editor, so here’s the full scene.  It was taken from Dave’s backyard in North Canton on the morning following a memorable “public viewing night” at TWC devoted to Comet Holmes (11/3/2007).
 Dave Ross image
Click on image to enlarge it
With the attention paid to the anniversary last year, Dave was pleased to finally find a picture of the “Poe Telescope” in the Poe House and Museum in Baltimore, courtesy of David Healy and photographer Bill Dean.  It does indeed favor the Nairne and Blunt instrument that has served as a stand in.  The picture at the Tuxedo-moon blog turned up too late to be included in the article so here it is.  The full blog in not uninteresting so take a look!  http://tuxedo-moon.blogspot.com/2009/11/novermore2009.html
Blunt Telescope
Bediamonded skies, everyone!

In 2007 the pre-dawn skies of late October and early November offer an opportunity to glimpse a celestial scene that found its way into a poem written 160 years ago by Edgar Allan Poe...
Note:  The embedded web links are intended for those who might enjoy spending a little more time with Poe or who might want to explore other subjects touched on in the essay.  Otherwise, they can be safely ignored. Close the new window to return.  -dr
Along about October each year an old green volume of the tales of Edgar Allan Poe shows up on my nightstand.  I picked it up in a library book auction at the college I attended many years ago. With the passage of time its pages are turning as ashen and sere as the skies described in those opening lines of Poe’s poem, Ulalume.  This particular collection of his works was illustrated by Fritz Eichenberg, whose woodcuts perfectly complement the dark mood cast by Poe in so many of this tales.  So, from time to time, especially in that season when the shadows begin to lengthen and evening comes early, I’ve kept a bit of company with America’s early Gothic master.

As an amateur astronomer one would think I might gravitate to a genre less apt to trigger unnecessary shivers running down the spine while keeping our often lonely night vigils.  But over the years I’ve come to appreciate that as dark as Poe’s vision may have been it was often not bereft of starlight. The author of The Pit and The Pendulum and The Murders in the Rue Morgue often displays a fairly keen interest in things astronomical.  Celestial allusions and references can be found woven throughout many of his poems and tales.  They can be traced from his earliest published poems, such as Al Aaraaf to that strange late essay, Eureka, in which Poe, as a kind of literary cosmologist, boldly set forth his thoughts on the origin and destiny of The Universe. <2>  From that same period, 1847-48, comes Ulalume, a poem often anthologized along side a handful of others exemplifying his best works.  (To hear a version of the poem click here…) <3>

Published in December of 1847, not quite a year after the death of Poe’s wife, Virginia, it tells of a man’s lonely night walk through the misty woods of October. This narrator, shattered by grief and oblivious to both time and place, carries on a dialog with his soul, Psyche, his divorced conscience.  Then, in the third stanza,

As the star-dials hinted of morn-
At the end of our path a liquescent
And nebulous lustre was born,
Out of which a miraculous crescent
Arose with a duplicate horn-
Astarte’s bediamonded crescent,
Distinct with its duplicate horn.
In mythology Astarte is usually identified with Venus, as elsewhere in Poe’s verse, but sometimes also with the moon.  Later in the poem the figure of Diana, the moon goddess, is contrasted with Astarte so it seems to suggest the presence of both.

The goddess of love has “come up through the lair of the Lion” and beacons to the man “with love in her luminous eyes.” Evoking the lair of the Lion sets a tone of threat and danger, but with Venus and the moon nearby it also suggests the constellation if not the astrological house of Leo.  Leo happened to have been Virginia’s birth sign, born August 22, 1822, but here Poe’s seems more interested in the dramatic effect; he mostly wants us to hear the lion’s snarl.   His other works reveal no more than a superficial interest in astrology and in one of his early poems he specifically rejects the idea that the stars rule his fate.

Heedlessly, the man is inclined to pursue what he takes to be Astarte’s offer of the “Lethean peace of the skies”, the peace of forgetful oblivion; but Psyche, whose wings sorrowfully trail in the dust, senses treachery and pleads retreat.  Finally they are delivered to the door of a tomb, the tomb of the lost Ulalume.  The rhyme, of course, is intentional and Poe is thought to have derived the name from stems suggesting something like “Light from Death”.

Our narrator remembers and at last recognizes where he is on “this night of all nights of the year”.  Coming to himself, his identity restored, he and Psyche join in wondering what “woodlandish ghouls- the pitiful, the merciful ghouls” summoned up “the spectre of a planet” to lead him from the brink of madness, perhaps even suicide, down this path where he must face and own his unresolved grief for a love to whom he remains loyal.

The poem is a melancholy, Halloween psychodrama; just the kind of thing for which Poe is famous. Whether it’s a trick or a treat, however, has been debated by readers and critics from the moment it first appeared.  Some dismiss it as an example of Poe’s penchant for obscurantism; some have read it under a heavy Freudian lens for insights into the author’s supposed mania, while others hail it as Poe at his atmospheric best.

If Astarte’s bediamonded crescent indeed belongs to Venus, it apparently didn’t trouble Poe that its duplicate horn isn’t something apparent to the unaided eye.  The scene is filtered through the fevered mind of our narrator; in any case, the author was certainly familiar with the crescent phase of Venus and probably not just in an academic way.

One of the few advantages afforded the young Poe, orphaned and growing up in the home of John and Frances Allan, was that of a sound early education.  Later, his increasingly strained relationship with Allan would end up ruining his chances for a college degree. But early on, Poe had been taught by the likes of Joseph Clarke at the Richmond Academy.  Allan enrolled him there in 1820 upon returning with his family to America after spending five years pursuing a business venture in England.  Although Poe’s best subjects were in language and literature, this is how part of the curriculum is recorded in The Poe Log, compiled by Thomas and Jackson…

“Navigation with the method of working Celestial and Lunar Observations... Optics with the use of the Instruments; Elementary and Physical Astronomy... Algebra... Geography, with constant references to Maps and Charts, and occasional illustrations from Astronomy, adapted to the student’s capacity.”

The Allan home as it once stood at Fifth and Main Streets in Richmond with its second story portico where Poe is said to have used the telescope. For more on Poe's life click on the picture.
Whatever these “illustrations” might have been, the twelve year old Poe’s school work was probably reinforced at the eyepiece of a small refracting telescope that John Allan brought back from London. From the second story porch of their fine house at Fifth and Main Streets, Poe is said to have learned early lessons in stargazing, which certainly would have included the changing crescent of Venus.

A small telescope that apparently came from the Allan family estate is on display at the Poe House and Museum in Baltimore. The small refractor is indeed an English telescope, manufactured by the firm of Thomas Blunt and Son which operated from 1801-1822 in London.  Blunt had learned the trade of instrument making as an apprentice to Edward Nairne whose firm sold a type of spy glass meant for use on the sea and at night.  T.H. Ellis, the son of John Allan’s business associate and Poe’s boyhood companion, recalled that his young friends “many a time looked with wondering eyes” through the telescope.  It seems likely that the brass instrument on display in Baltimore is the very one Ellis mentions.  No more than a two inch glass, such an instrument would be adequate to reveal the phases of bright Venus and much more besides.

An example of a Nairne and Blunt spyglass telescope that is probably similar to the one on display at the Poe House and Museum in Baltimore.  I’ve not actually seen the scope but in email correspondence it was described to me as bearing the inscription Thomas Blunt and Son.  The firm operated in London during the time the Allan family lived in England.  A small point, it’s often described as “Poe’s telescope”, but in terms of possession this is very unlikely.  The infamous break with John Allan and the fact that it apparently comes down via the Allan family estate argues that it was John Allan’s telescope. (From the collection of Il Museo dell'Osservatorio Astronomico di Capodimonte.)
I wonder if the word “ashen” in that opening line of Ulalume might have been suggested to Poe’s imagination by its association with Venus.  The mysterious “ashen light” of Venus had been discussed since the middle of the 17th century and, being something of a mystery, was discussed in popular astronomy books of the day. I also wonder about that word “duplicate” used to describe a crescent.  Was it intended to be limited to the crescent’s two horns or might it also imply how Venus is by turns a morning and an evening star, or how both the moon and Venus display phases and in this way share a similar personality?  Is it another of Poe’s famous doppelgängers?  It’s still a favorite observing activity when the two are favorably placed in the sky to go back and forth and compare their similar aspect, save for size.  We have the opportunity to do the very thing this month, and not by accident.

A. H. Quinn, author of one of the better Poe biographies, wondered out loud about Venus, the moon and Leo in an October morning sky to his colleague Eric Doolittle in the astronomy department at the University of Pennsylvania. <4> Doolittle was quick to produce the confirmation, something that can be readily explored with today’s desktop planetaria.  In late October of 1847 Venus was indeed on the border between Virgo and Leo in the predawn sky.  The moon, just past last quarter, would have been caught in the Lion’s paws on the morning of October 31st.  Both would have been thin crescents when the moon approached within 3 deg. of Venus on November 4th.

The predawn scene on October 31st that seems to be reflected in the imagery of Poe's poem Ulalume. The view would still be suggestive a few days before and after. On Nov. 4th the moon passed within 3 deg. of Venus; both would have shown a distinct crescent shape, telescopically in the case of the planet.
The earth and Venus, and even the moon, are by chance synchronized in an eight year cycle that brings Venus and the moon to very nearly the same place in the sky in the same month.  This Fall marks the passing of 20 of these “Venus years” since that “most immemorial year” (160 divided by 8).  And so it happens that we find Venus and the moon in a very similar configuration with respect to Leo around October 31st.  The moon will be a thin crescent, four days from new, when it draws close to Venus on the morning of November 5th.  After 160 years, however, the planet will display a slightly gibbous phase, its maximum western elongation having slipped in the calendar from December 14th to October 28th.  Actually, the specters of two other planets will loom in this October’s ashen skies.  Saturn will be slowly tiptoeing past the lair of the lion as well, and higher in the sky will be Mars.

A very similar scene occurs on Nov. 1st in 2007. This year Saturn, below Regulus, joins the parade. Above the moon in the constellation Gemini, Mars will also be found.
Did Poe take his inspiration directly from the morning sky?  In 1846 Poe had moved with Virginia and her mother, his aunt Mrs. Clemm, to a small cottage in Fordham, New York, now in the Bronx, hoping that the country air would benefit his wife, who was dying of tuberculosis.  Quinn remarks that from its patio and certainly from a rocky ledge nearby which served as a favorite retreat Poe could have looked East across the campus of St. John’s College, now Fordham University, and across the East River to the hills of Long Island. The cottage, relocated a few hundred yards from its original site, still stands in Poe Park along the Grand Concourse at E. Kingsbridge Rd.  Long walks through the countryside at all hours, day or night, seem to have been part of his routine while in Fordham; a favorite route leading to the newly completed walkway of the High Bridge aqueduct across the Harlem River, New York’s oldest standing bridge.  As his Inspector Dupin might observe, he had motive, opportunity and several suitable venues from which to take in scenes such as the one suggested in Ulalume.
Poe, depicted atop the walkway of the High Bridge aqueduct.  The scene here suggests a foggy night but one might try to imagine what the setting might look like with a clear starry sky above.  Click the “High Bridge” link above for several photos that suggest the view. Closed to the public since the 1960’s, on Earth Day, April 22, 2007, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced plans for the restoration and reopening of New York’s oldest standing bridge as part of the city’s park system.  Click on the picture for other examples of illustrations to Poe’s works.
Following Ulalume, early in 1848 Poe began the series of public lectures in New York that eventually lead to the publication of Eureka, his self-described prose poem on cosmology.  More philosophical than scientific, Poe nonetheless proves conversant with some of the major figures and themes in the astronomy of his day, pleading, among other things, for a greater recognition of the role of imagination in scientific discovery.  No doubt the intellectual stimulation of friends among both students and faculty at St. John’s College, where Poe was welcomed as something of a visiting scholar, not to mention the resources of its library, helped bring to fruition ideas and interests scattered throughout his earlier poems, tales and essays.  Eureka was a project to lift Psyche’s wings from out of the dust but, as public interest waned, it failed to advance Poe’s fond dream of one day establishing his own journal.

Poe’s Ulalume at least partly reflects his deepening struggles following the loss of Virginia.  His detractors have often been quick to focus on those self-destructive sources of relief that may have contributed to his otherwise mysterious death just two Octobers later, and for many readers their exaggerations still mar his reputation. <5> What seems more certain is that the night brought other consolations, and inspirations.  When autumn leaves fall from the trees and shadows gather in the star strewn night, perhaps we may glimpse the specter of yet another wanderer, that of this early American master still searching upon that far plutonian shore.

On Nov. 5th of this year the waning crescent moon passes close to Venus.  But, unlike the telescopic view in 1847, having just passed its maximum western elongation, the planet will be about 55% illuminated making its phase slightly gibbous.  Illustrations were  prepared using Stellarium.   (Click the chart for info.) It, and other desktop planetarium programs, make it easy to visualize the reappearance of Venus at very nearly the same spot in the sky every 8 years.  For example, start in 1847 and move forward one year per step.  Depending on the precise way the program calculates a “year” you may need to reset the time.

<1>  At the top of this page, the lovely picture of the moon veiled by clouds is used by kind permission of Laurent Laveder of Pixheaven.net.  See his gallery of striking astrophotography there and for details on this particular photo here.  It was found at the APOD site under the title: “The Old Moon in The New Moon’s Arms” to illustrate the Moon’s “ashen glow” or earthshine and has enjoyed an extensive publication history.  My sincere thanks to Mr. Laveder for permission to use it here.

<2> There have been a number of recent articles in Sky and Telescope Magazine that have touched on Poe.  See:  “Wondering in The Dark” by Ken Croswell; Sky & Telescope; Dec 2001; 44; “Lighter Than Air” by E C Krupp; Sky & Telescope; Apr 2002; 78; “A Walk in The Night- Pt.2” by Stephen James O'Meara; Sky & Telescope; Jul 2004; 82.  See the Sky & Telescope archive.
For an annotated bibliography on aspects of "Science Fiction" in Poe's works see the list byDavid KettererFinally, a late discovery that I've not been able to check into yet, is the PhD. dissertation by Bradley J. Ricca entitled AmericanZodiac: Astronomical signs in Dickinson, Melville, and Poe (CWRU 2003), which specifically examines the subject of astronomy in these 19th century writers.

<3> The best annotated source for Poe’s poetry, which touches briefly on the astronomy in Ulalume, is one or another edition of the Complete Poems, edited by T. O. Mabbott.  The YouTube version of the late Jeff Buckley’s rendition of Ulalume is from the CD Closed on Account of Rabies.

<4> Two useful books cited in the essay are: Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography by Arthur Hobson Quinn, The Johns Hopkins University Press, (1941) 1997 and The Poe Log: A Documentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe 1809-1849 by Dwight Thomas and David K. Jackson, Twayne Publishers, 1995.  More on the Venus cycle can be found in two books by Anthony Aveni, Stairway to the Starsand Conversing With the Planets: How Science and Myth Invented the Cosmos.

<5> For a new and plausible speculation on the mystery of Poe's sudden demise, which suggests he may have suffered from a brain tumor, see this 2007 interview with Matthew Pearl, author of a now slightly premature novel on the same subject called The Poe Shadow.  My thanks to Dave Gill for passing this along to me.

David J. Ross, 2007, 2010
djross720 at sbcglobal.net
Copyright 2007, 2010 by the author

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