‘Sonnet—To Science’ by Edgar Allan Poe is a fourteen-line sonnet that can be separated into one set of eight lines, or an octave, and a sestet, or a set of six lines. These two sections are divided by a “turn” in the text of the poem. In the case of ‘Sonnet—To Science’ the narrator moves from using third-person experiences to utilizing Roman mythology to further his case against science.
The references to Roman mythology are numerous in the second half of the poem. Poe taps into this mythological history to try to convince a reader of the damage science does. It is constantly disrupting the lives of beings as mystical as naiads and hamadryads. One of the most important themes of ‘Sonnet—To Science’ is how science is removing the magic of myth, art, and beauty. To the speaker’s eyes, this makes the world less special and less capable of inspiring him to write.
Summary of Sonnet—To Science
The poem begins with the speaker describing how he holds “Science” to be somewhat malevolent. It is the “daughter of Old Time” and is constantly seeking out a “poet’s heart” and bothering it. Science reveals to the artistically minded the truth behind myths, art, and beauty. This corrupts an artist’s view of the world.
In the second half of ‘Sonnet—To Science’ , the speaker uses the myths of Diana as well as that of sea and tree nymphs to further his case against science. It is only due to this force that “hamadryad[s]” are forced from their trees and “naiads” from the flood. Science destroys the most magical and mystical parts of the world. He knows this to be true as it comes for him as he sits dreaming “beneath the tamarind tree.”
Analysis of Sonnet—To Science
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?
In the first set of lines, the speaker begins by exclaiming over “Science!” This is a force he sees as being the “true daughter of Old Time.” As was often the case in Poe’s poetry he personifies elements that would normally never be given agency. In this case, his speaker is interested in the ability of “Science” to change the nature of his world.
He describes it as being the “daughter of Old Time.” Science, as an entity with power, is able to influence the lives of living beings just as “Time” does. Time might control when one lives and dies, but science governs how one’s days operate.
The next lines are directed to “Science” and condemn its “peering eyes” and “prey[ing].” It is described as being sneaky and maniacal. It seems to wish the worst on the “poet.” Wherever he goes it is there. It is easy enough to assume the “poet” refers to Poe himself. This would mean that Poe is the speaker referring to himself in the third person.
Science is to him a “Vulture” picking over the magical parts of life and striping them down. When one is aware of the truth of the “jewelled skies” they become less magical. Additionally, the speaker says that the “Vulture” of science has “wings” of “dull realties.” The mystical world the speaker lived in before he understands science was a more interesting one.
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
In the second half of the opening octave, the speaker continues to ask questions of “Science.” These are all rhetorical— he is not expecting an answer. Instead, he is using them as a way to further the points he wants to make. The speaker asks why the poet, or any like him who make art, “should…love thee?” Science does nothing for the writer expect to take away the beauty and strangeness of the world. The poet is unable to look upon science and “deem [it] wise.”
The speaker describes how someone like himself, a poet, is apt to dream and wander, looking for “treasure in the jewelled skies.” This is his life and the way he must live in order to write what he needs to write. It takes daydreams and a free imagination to be an artist. Science is something that would and has, disrupted this process significantly. One cannot dream when they know the rules behind the world.
Hast thou 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?
In the last six lines, ‘Sonnet—To Science’ takes a turn and the speaker becomes interested in the way that science has impacted Greek and Roman myths. He looks to these stories to provide the reader with examples of the damage done by rules and reason. It is the science that “dragged Diana,” also known as Artemis, from her “car” or chariot. The next line speaks on the “Hamadryad” in the woods. This is a type of nymph, present in both Greek and Roman mythology, who lives in a tree and dies when it dies.
The speaker sees science as the cause of the nymph’s death. It is also science’s fault that the “Naiad” is taken from the water and the “Elfin from the green grass.’ Science’s relationship with “Time” is apparent here. It is “Time” that kills the tree or grassland and “Science” which provides the reasons behind the tragedies.
In the last lines, the speaker refers to himself in the first person for the first time. He equates his own being to those present in mythological texts. Just as they are removed from their environments so too is he from “The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree.”