Dead Poe and the Ten of Swords

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Edgar Allan Poe died on October 7, 1849, in mysterious-enough circumstances to generate much newspaper copy, several working theories as to what killed him, at least a few novelistic accounts of his last days, and an enduring legacy as a troubled soul. 

Like the slew of rockstars dead at 27, Poe’s death at 40 in the streets of Baltimore only added to his cache as a Byronic figure consumed by the same morbid obsessions as his literary characters.  While Poe’s was undoubtedly a dark vision, the postmortem creation of Poe as a sort of modern-day Orestes has unfortunately eclipsed his exceptional talent as a writer and literary theorist.  And that compelling portrait of Poe as a type of mad Melmoth the Wanderer can be traced to a single person: Rufus Griswold.     

Perhaps no greater case of literary frenmity exists than that between Griswold and Poe, who vied for the same jobs, readers, women, and critical acclaim.  Griswold, incidentally, will appear as the notorious Knight of Swords (commission available!) in The American Renaissance Tarot, for his unscrupulous practices as a compiler and general reputation as a liar and plagiarizer.  Consider the account Griswold gave of Poe in the infamous “Ludwig” obituary, most of it lifted verbatim from an Edward Bulwer-Lytton novel:

 “He was at all times a dreamer — dwelling in ideal realms — in heaven or hell — peopled with creatures and the accidents of his brain. He walked the streets, in madness or melancholy, with lips moving in indistinct curses, or with eyes upturned in passionate prayers, (never for himself, for he felt, or professed to feel, that he was already damned), but for their happiness who at the moment were objects of his idolatry — or, with his glances introverted to a heart gnawed with anguish, and with a face shrouded in gloom, he would brave the wildest storms; and all night, with drenched garments and arms wildly beating the winds and rains, he would speak as if to spirits that at such times only could be evoked by him from the Aidenn close by whose portals his disturbed soul sought to forget the ills to which his constitution subjugated him — close by that Aidenn where were those he loved — the Aidenn which he might never see, but in fitful glimpses, as its gates opened to receive the less fiery and more happy natures whose destiny to sin did not involve the doom of death.”

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Many of Poe’s friends rushed their own memorials of Poe into print as a counter-measure against Griswold’s vitriol, but the damage had already been done: speculation about Poe as a hapless drunk, drug-addict, suicide, or lunatic abounded in the press, and a cottage industry of “I knew Poe” testimonials padded many a publisher’s pocket.  The pens we’ve used in place of Swords in much of this suit are clutched by blood-sucking journalists in the Ten of Swords, hovering over the body of Poe which collapsed on the Baltimore cobblestones in strange clothes not his own. 

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In formatting this project, I was committed to featuring writers in the Tarot’s court cards (King, Queen, Page, and Knight) and their works in the numbered or small cards.  Why then commemorate Poe’s death in the Ten of Swords?  Isn’t that too “meta”?  Aside from the obvious visual parallels of Poe’s collapse in the streets with the murdered figure on the Ten of Swords, this card pays homage to Poe’s last major work prior to his death, a book so uncanny and ambitious that many of his contemporaries dismissed it as evidence of the brain inflammation that killed him.  Thus, Eureka is a text intimately associated with Poe’s own death in a way that his oeuvre full of gruesome ends is not.

Eureka is Poe’s cosmology, his theology, and his unified field theory.  No blurb in a blog could do it justice.  It is not altogether unfair to compare the text’s aim to that of the 2004 documentary, What the Bleep Do We Know!?, which explores the intersections of quantum physics and the New Age of spirituality – Poe’s precise object in 1848 was “the material and spiritual universe” and how these are not simply a reflection but also a continuation of one another.  Nineteenth-century readers of Eureka thought Poe had gone soft or was having an elaborate laugh at their expense; his technical and scientific language did not fit the tone of what he claimed was a “prose poem” and a paean to intuition. 

  The Ten of Swords in the  Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot .

The Ten of Swords in the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot.

Eureka was a critical failure, a bomb.  Poe was prone to reciting his favorite portions of the book in pubs, and eighteen months after Eureka’s publication, he was dead.  Aleister Crowley named the Ten of Swords “Ruin,” and so for numerous reasons, this Tarot card makes a fitting tribute for Poe’s least-read production.  Associated with the Sun in Gemini, the Ten of Swords illustrates the tragedy of twoness, or Poe’s ill-received attempt to marry science and divinity.  

And yet – its author found nothing to regret in Eureka but rather perceived it to be the crowning glory of a lifetime of philosophical and scientific study.  Poe bragged to his publisher that “Newton’s discovery of gravitation was a mere incident compared with the discoveries revealed in this book.”  In 1849 he wrote to Stella Lewis, “I have no desire to live since I have done ‘Eureka.’  I could accomplish nothing more.”

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If Eureka were a silly book, it would be easier to dismiss Poe’s grandiose claims about its importance.  But experts from a range of fields have noted Poe’s prescience in predicting groundbreaking 20th century scientific theories from relativity to the Big Bang.  If I’m honest, I’ll tell you that I’m not qualified to comment on the sophistication of Poe’s scientific thought.  Rather, I enjoy Eureka because Poe takes us on a dizzying tour of the cosmos so that he can arrive at the heady conclusion that we are all creators, we are all gods.  These are Eureka’s final lines:   

“Man, for example, ceasing imperceptibly to feel himself Man, will at length attain that awfully triumphant epoch when he shall recognize his existence as that of Jehovah.  In the mean time bear in mind that all is Life – Life – Life within Life – the less within the greater, and all within the Spirit Divine.”

Did Poe suffer from a diseased brain in his final years – are these the words of a madman?  Or did he experience the Hermetic revelation that matter and spirit are continuous, so that the line between human and god becomes infinitely fuzzed?  I think you can guess that my sympathies are with Poe as a consummate genius whose insights outran his times.  But the fact that critics are still arguing over whether Eureka was a joke, the product of mental illness, or the rhetorical key to Poe’s entire corpus could not be more fitting for a Tarot card connected to a decan of Gemini, where liars, tricksters, and silver-tongued prodigies convene.

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I asked our artist Celeste to depict the “Big Bang” in Poe’s mind, however she envisioned it, and I'm exceptionally pleased with the results.  Please contact me directly about commissioning our remaining Swords cards, featuring “The Black Cat,” “Ulalume,” and “MS. Found in a Bottle,” or check out the offerings on our shop page