Today is February 29th, a leap day, which marks the bicentennial of the first leap-year Edgar Allan Poe ever experienced during his lifetime.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase “leap-year” has been used since 1387, and is probably of older formation than that. Thus, the phrase “leap-year” would have been around during Poe’s lifetime. Still, Poe might have been more likely to associate the word “leap” with a favorite childhood game of his, leap-frog.
As an energetic young child, Poe would often play leap-frog with the Mackenzies, the family that raised Poe’s sister Rosalie. However, these childhood experiences were not Poe’s only involvements with the game. In his adult life, while living in Fordham, New York, Poe played a game of leap-frog in the woods with friends and admirers. The game ended when he landed with such force that his shoes were torn.
Poe would later go on to write “Hop-Frog”, a horror story about a crippled dwarf court jester who exacts revenge upon the king he serves. “Hop-Frog”, the name of titular character in the story, is a term synonymous with “leap-frog”, the very game that Poe enjoyed at various points in his life.
above: illustration of “Hop-Frog”
Over the course of his forty years, Edgar Allan Poe lived through ten leap days. The last February 29th of his lifetime occurred in 1848, on which date he wrote two similar letters to George W. Eveleth and George E. Isbell. The George Eveleth letter is as follows:
My Dear Sir,
I mean to start for Richmond on the 10th March. Every thing has gone as I wished it, and my final success is certain, or I abandon all claims to the title of Vates. The only contretemps of any moment, lately, has been Willis’s somewhat premature announcement of my project: — but this will only force me into action a little sooner than I had proposed. Let me now answer the points of your last letter.
Colton acted pretty much as all mere men of the world act. I think very little the worse of him for his endeavor to succeed with you at my expense. I always liked him and I believe he liked me. His intellect was o. His “I understand the matter perfectly,” amuses me. Certainly, then, it was the only matter he dil understand. “The Rationale of Verse” will appear in “Graham” after all: — I will stop in Phil: to see the proofs. As for Godey, he is a good little man and means as well as he knows how. The editor of the “Weekly Universe” speaks kindly and I find no fault with his representing my habits as “shockingly irregular”. He could not have had the “personal acquaintance” with me of which he writes; but has fallen into a very natural error. The fact is thus: — My habits are rigorously abstemious and I omit nothing of the natural regimen requisite for health: — i.e — I rise early, eat moderately, drink nothing but water, and take abundant and regular exercise in the open air. But this is my private life — my studious and literary life — and of course escapes the eye of the world. The desire for society comes upon me only when I have become excited by drink. Then only I go — that is, at these times only I have been in the practice of going among my friends: who seldom, or in fact never, having seen me unless excited, take it for granted that I am always so. Those who really know me, know better. In the meantime I shall turn the general error to account. But enough of this: the causes which maddened-me to the drinking point are no more, and I am done drinking, forever. — I do not know the “editors & contributors” of the “Weekly Universe” and was not aware of the existence of such a paper. Who are they? or is it a secret? The “most distinguished of American scholars” is Prof. Chas. Anthon, author of the “Classical Dictionary”.
I presume you have seen some newspaper notices of my late lecture on [page 2:] the Universe. You could have gleaned, however, no idea of what the lecture was, from what the papers said it was. All praised it — as far as I have yet seen — and all absurdly misrepresented it. The only report of it which approaches the truth, is the one I enclose — from the “Express” — written by E. A. Hopkins — a gentleman of much scientific acquirement — son of Bishop Hopkins of Vermont — but he conveys only my general idea, and his digest is full of inaccuracies. I enclose also a slip from the “Courier & Enquirer”: — please return them. To eke out a chance of your understanding what I really dil say, I add a loose summary of my propositions & results:
The General Proposition is this: — Because Nothing was, therefore All Things are.
1 — An inspection of the universality of Gravitation — i.e, of the fact that each particle tends, not to any one common point, but to every other particle — suggests perfect totality, or absolute unity, as the source of the phaenomenon.
2 — Gravity is but the mode in which is manifested the tendency of all things to return into their original unity; is but the reaction of the first Divine Act.
3 — The law regulating the return — i.e, the law of Gravitation — is but a necessary result of the necessary & sole possible mode of equable irradiation of matter through space: — this equable irradiation is necessary as a basis for the Nebular Theory of Laplace.
4 — The Universe of Stars (contradistinguished from the Universe of Space) is limited.
5 — Mind is cognizant of Matter only through its two properties, attraction and repulsion: therefore Matter is only attraction & repulsion: a finally consolidated globe of globes, being but one particle, would be without attraction, i e, gravitation; the existence of such a globe presupposes the expulsion of the separative ether which we know to exist between the particles as at present diffused: — thus the final globe would be matter without attraction & repulsion: — but these are matter: — then the final globe would be matter without matter: — i,e, no matter at all: — it must disappear. Thus Unity is Nothingness.
6. Matter, springing from Unity, sprang from Nothingness: — i,e, was created.
7. All will return to Nothingness, in returning to Unity.
Read these items after the Report. As to the Lecture, I am very quiet about it — but, if you have ever dealt with such topics, you will recognize the novelty & moment of my views. What I have propounded will (in good time) revolutionize the world of Physical & Metaphysical Science. I say this calmly — but I say it.
I shall not go till I hear from you.
E A Poe
Compared to the George Isbell letter:
A press of business has hitherto prevented me from replying to your letter of the 10th.
“The Vestiges of Creation” I have not yet seen; and it is always unsafe and unwise to form opinions of books from reviews of them. The extracts of the work which have fallen in my way, abound in inaccuracies of fact: — still these may not materially affect the general argument. One thing is certain; that the objections of merely scientific men — men, I mean, who cultivate the physical sciences to the exclusion, in a greater or less degree, of the mathematics, of metaphysics and of logic — are generally invalid except in respect to scientific details. Of all persons in the world, they are at the same time the most bigoted and the least capable of using, generalizing, or deciding upon the facts which they bring to light in the course of their experiments. And these are the men who chiefly write the criticisms against all efforts at generalization — denouncing these efforts as “speculative” and “theoretical”.
The notice of my Lecture, which appeared in the “New-World”, was written by some one grossly incompetent to the task which he undertook. No idea of what I said can [page 2:] be gleaned from either that or any other of the newspaper notices — with the exception, perhaps, of the “Express” — where the critique was written by a gentleman of much scientific acquirement — Mr E. A. Hopkins, of Vermont. I enclose you his Report — which, however, is inaccurate in numerous particulars. He gives my general conception so, at least, as not to caricature it.
I have not yet published the “Lecture[”], but, when I do so, will have the pleasure of mailing you a copy. In the meantime, permit me to state, succinctly, my principal results.
GENERAL PROPOSITION. Because Nothing was, therefore All Things are.
1 — An inspection of the universality of Gravitation — of the fact that each particle tends not to any one common point — but to every other particle — suggests perfect totality, or absolute unity, as the source of the [p]haenomenon.
2. Gravity is but the mode in which is manifested the tendency of all things to return into their original unity.
3. I show that the law of the return — i.e the law of gravity — is but a necessary result of the necessary and sole possible mode of equable irradiation of matter through a limiter space.
4. Were the Universe of stars — (contradistinguished from the universe of space) unlimited, no worlds could exist.
5. I show that Unity is Nothingness.
6. All matter, springing from Unity, sprang from Nothingness. i e, was created.
7. All will return to Unity; i e — to Nothingness. I would be obliged to you if you would let me know how far these ideas are coincident with those of the “Vestiges”.
Very Respy Yr. Ob. st
Edgar A Poe
Happy leap-day everyone, and “hop” on over to the Poe Museum sometime soon, lest you share the fate of Hop-Frog’s King!