Poe and Optics

How The Eyes Work.


The human eye has long been seen as the window to the soul, reflecting truths and secrets the body attempts to hide. Poe was not blind to the this view of the eye and widely used this belief in his tales such as “The Black Cat” and “Ligeia,” emphasizing the eyes powers to reflect unspeakable emotions.  Perhaps Poe's most haunting use of the mysterious eye is in his most famous short story “The Tell-Tale Heart.” It is the the pale blue, vulture eye of the old man that drives the narrator to insanity and causes the narrator to gruesomely murder the old man. But what power does the human eye truly have? In general, the human eye is not a source of murder, but instead it is the source of vision. It is with a understanding of vision and how the eye functions that Poe can create the optical trickery of his tales. 

Through the mechanics of the how the functions has yet to be completely understood, the anatomy of the human eye and its parts' functions have been explored and scientifically evaluated for several centuries. In fact, the same basic comprehension of the functioning remains the same as it was in the 1800s. Robert Ellis Dudgeon, a nineteenth century English doctor, outlines how the eye works in his publication The Human Eye; Its Optical Construction Popularly Explained. He explains how light firsts enters the eye through the cornea, a thin layer of moisture that helps focus the light lubricate the eye ball. Behind the cornea is a clear, watery fluid called the aqueous humor, which helps keep constant pressure within the eye. Light then enters the pupil, the circular opening within the iris. The iris is the colored part of the eye – the light blue that is so pale it almost disappears into the milky white of the old man's eye. The iris has the ability grow and contract, controlling how much light enters the pupil and passes into the lens. The lens bends the light and focuses it onto the retina at the back of the eye through a gel-like fluid called the vitreous. The vitreous inhabits the majority of the eye ball is responsible for the eye's spherical shape and the retina is a a thin layer of tissue filled with millions of tiny light-sensing nerve cells called rods and cones. Cones concentrate in the very center of the retina, called the macula, and relay the colors and fine details of the world. However, in dim light, the rods that reside along the outer edges of the retina are more useful. Rods provide us vision in the dark, help detect motion, and assist in peripheral vision. The rods and cones work together to process the light into electrical impulses. These electrical impulses are sent through the optic nerve and into the brain, where Poe's masterful art truly unfolds.

It is the mix between the physical human anatomy and the indescribable "mind" that Poe demonstrates his understanding of the science of the eye. As literary scholar Timonthy Ferris mentions to in his article "Minds and Matter," Poe utilizes his comprehension of the different parts of the eye and other sciences, but in strange situations. Below is a excerpt from Poe's The Colloquy of Monos and Una.
        "The eyelids, transparent and bloodless, offered no complete impediment to vision. As volition was         in abeyance the balls could not roll in their sockets–but all objects within the range of the visual                 hemisphere were seen with more or less distinctness; the rays which fell upon the external retina, or         into the corner of the eye, producing a more vivid effect than those which struck the front or anterior         surface."
In this quote and many others (see Quotes Section), Poe demonstrates an understanding of the physical workings of the human eye, highlighting specific parts of the eye like the retina. However, in this quote, the speaker, Monos, is not quite human. He is describing his in-between state of dieing. Poe combines his knowledge of known science with imagination of what the undead sees and feels to birth an entirely new genre of writing: science fiction.

Like most science fiction works, the mind is where most of the trickery occurs. However, an understanding of how the eye works sheds light on the similarities between vision and reading. Vision is a process of input and output – the eye takes light in and the brain processes images out. Reading is very similar, words go in and stories come out. However, like in Poe's works, if the lens of the eye or story is slightly skewed, then entire image is refocused. Poe bends the light in his tales through bending the his words. The settings Poe produces is a result of focusing the mind onto images that beyond the lens of the eye pass straight into our imagination.