This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
First published in The Gift, 1842, this has always been one of Poe's most-read tales, a skillful exercise in suspense with. an undercurrent of something much more complex than most readers fully understand, although they may sense it. Poe's source was probably a paragraph in Thomas Dick's Philosophy of Religion (1825): "On the entry of the French into Toledo during the late Peninsular War, General Lasalle visited the palace of the Inquisition. The great number of instruments of torture, especially the instruments to stretch the limbs, and the drop-baths, which cause a lingering .death, excited horror, even in the minds of soldiers hardened in the fields of battle." Other background, as well as some of the incidents found here, was probably drawn from Anales de la Inquisici6n de Espana, written by Juan Antonio Llorente (1756-1823) in 1812 and published in English in 1826. The Spanish Inquisition was independent of the medieval Inquisition, which began in 1233, when Pope Gregory IX commissioned Dominicans to investigate heresy among the Albigenses, in southern France. Established by Ferdinand V and Isabella in 1478 with the reluctant approval of Pope Sixtus IV, the later Inquisition was entirely controlled by the Spanish kings, and the popes were never reconciled to the institution, which they regarded as usurping a church prerogative. Like the Commti.nist hysteria in the American fifties, the original purpose of the Inquisition was soon overshadowed by political witch-hunting, so that even St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Theresa of Avila were investigated for heresy. The Spanish Inquisition was not abolished until 1820. Films include Le Puds et le Pendule (1910), directed by Henri Desfontaines (1910), a 1913 English version directed by Alice Guy Blanche, and a Roger Corman production in 1961. The latter film, with Vincent Price, John Kerr, and Barbara Steele, stretches the story by adding a wholly new framework about an Englishman (Kerr) who arrives at a Spanish castle to investigate the mysterious death of his sister. The acting is atrocious, but the shocks are good, especially the final shot of Steele locked in the Iron Maiden as Price unknowingly seals her inside the Inquisitional torture chamber forever. Plot elements from Poe's story also have made their way into Avenging Conscience, a 1914 D. W. Griffith film with Henry B. Walthall, Dorothy Gish, Donald Crisp, Blanche Sweet, and Mae Marsh; as well as The Raven (1912), Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965) (the title speaks for itself), and The Snake Pit (Blood Demon), a 1967 West German film with Christopher Lee. Basil Rathbone narrates a superb recorded version (Caedmon lll5); Martin Donegan also reads one (CMS 652).
" The number seven has many interpretations (see "The Masque of the Red Death. Now that the fatherland has been saved. but still will not say that all of consciousness was lost. non satiata. 4 5 4 Poe may have in mind the seven candlesticks in the midst of which sits God the Judge. The [acobins were the political club of the French Revolution. with a loud humming or vibrating sound. Found in a Bottle": "As I placed my foot upon the upper step of the companion-ladder I was startled with a loud humming noise. and dimly lighted by candles placed in candlesticks fastened to the wall. or even to describe. it is a symbol for pain. In "Shadow" he also speaks of the "Hames of the seven lamps. 2 3 2 The Spanish Inquisition was begun to discover and punish converted Jews (and later. everything being calculated to inspire terror. so that the place seemed . but who fell with their leader. . the great romantic French poet and author. Else there is no immortality for man. After that. but with how terrible an exaggeration! I saw the lips of the black-robed judges." note :25· ." There is also the suggestion of the sensation often experienced when a person loses consciousness-as if one were on a huge wheel." (Compare with the rooms of "Ligeia" and "Masque of the Red Death. in Revelation 1:13. like a closet. In the deepest slumber-no! In delirium-no! In a swoon-no! In deathno! even in the grave all is not lost. in July of 1794. and night were the universe.") 5 See "Loss of Breath. yet all was not lost. 121 [Quatrain composed for the gates of a market to be erected upon the site of the [acobin Club House at Paris. and seemed white slender angels who would save me. the sound of the inquisitorial voices seemed merged in one dreamy indeterminate hum. Poe may have read: "This was a large apartment under ground. but. hung round with black cloth. supervened. and when they at length unbound me. I saw that the decrees of what to me was Fate. aluit. for a few moments of delirious horror. It conveyed to my soul the idea of revolution-perhaps from its association in fancy with the burr of a millwheel. This only for a brief period. long cherished a hatred of innocent blood. I felt that my senses were leaving me. all at once. the Marche St. Sospite nunc patria. Muslims) who were not true believers. down. we break the gossamer web of some dream. and certainly no inscription. as if magically. spinning down. Honore. At one end. Bobespierre. I saw them fasion the syllables of my name. and around. with heads of flame. like that occasioned by the rapid revolution of a rnillwheel. were still issuing from those lips. unappeased. like a rich musical note. And then my vision fell upon the seven tall candles upon the table. but then. too. the very mansion of death. and I shuddered because no sound succeeded. but just as my spirit came at length properly to feel and entertain it. the soft and nearly impercetible waving of the sable draperies which enwrapped the walls of the apartment. and stillness." According to Baudelaire. their flames went out utterly. and I was permitted to sit. July 1826." note 1:2). had no gates. among others. (so frail may that web have been) we remember 1 "Here the wicked mob. there was an enclosed place. for a while. 3 Compare with "MS.The Pit and the Pendulum Impia tortorum longos hie turba furores Sanguinis innocui. responsible for the Reign of Terror (1793). where grim death has been. The notorious Inquisition of 1483 reputedly saw two thousand persons burned at the stake. Then silence. I had swooned.J 1 I was sick-sick unto death with that long agony. Arousing from the most profound of slumbers. Mors ubi dira fuit vita salus que patent. the tall candles sank into nothingness. over my spirit. In Blackwood's. where the Inquisitor in attendance and the notary sat at a table. They appeared to me white--whiter than the sheet upon which I trace these words-and thin even to grotesqueness. the thought of what sweet rest there must be in the grave. The thought came gently and stealthily. fracto nunc funeris antro. And then there stole into my fancy. for presently I heard no more. all sensations appeared swallowed up in a mad rushing descent as of the soul into Hades. and it seemed long before it attained full appreciation. from before me. I saw. there came a most deadly nausea . and I saw that from them there would be no help. the blackness of darkness . What of it there remained I will not attempt to define. the figures of the judges vanished. which was built on the site of the old [acobin Club. The sentence--the dread sentence of death-was the last of distinct accentuation which reached my ears. At first they wore the aspect of charity. Yet. and the cave of death demolished. . I saw. Yet in a second afterward. while the angel forms became meaninglesss spectres. thin with the intensity of their expression of flrmness=-of immoveable resolution-of stern contempt of human torture. I saw them writhe with a deadly locution. and I felt every fibre in my frame thrill as if I had touched the wire of a galvanic battery. vaulted. life and health appear.
as if those who bore me (a ghastly train!) had outrun. Amid frequent and thoughtful endeavors to remember." (Psychology of C. of all that a later day and much earnestness of endeavor have enabled me vaguely to recall. symbolic. And now a full memory of the trial. It is a definite functioning which is independent of willing and wishing. very suddenly. in their descent. Yale. a fall into utter unconsciousness would indicate that the soul itself was near death. we could recall the impressions of the first. while I strove to imagine where and what 6 " . is not he who beholds floating in mid-air the sad visions that the many may not view." CCIX) Thus. They tell also of a vague horror at my heart. So far. and prelogicalin other words. then the soul is to be considered in such condition as would ensure its existence after the bodily death-the bliss or wretchedness of the existence to be indicated by the character of the visions. These shadows of memory tell. when the revival is attended with remembrance of visions (as is now and then the case. 7:3) Thus the narrator does not understand his dreams and wonders why he has them. it is the key to the subconscious. unbound. of the judges. do they not come unbidden. and. a perilous state.. p. thought. existence. Then the mere consciousness of existence. first. of the intentions and conscious aims of the ego. the sound of its beating. like everything that happens in nature. we should find these impressions eloquent in memories of the gulf beyond. because they stir up the "forbidden things" of the unconscious. I had not opened my eyes. is not he who ponders over the perfume of some novel flower-is not he whose brain grows bewildered with the meaning of some musical cadence 6 which has never before arrested his attention. and motion. Then a strong desire to lapse into insensibility. "The dream cannot be explained with a psychology taken from consciousness. amid earnest struggles to regather some token of the state of seeming nothingness into which my soul had lapsed. secondly. at will. and shuddering terror. and then all is madness--the madness of a memory which busies itself among forbidden 7 things. and earnest endeavor to conprehend my true state. there is still sufficient strength for the person to recover. the limits of the limitless." (Poe. Then comes a sense of sudden motionlessness throughout all things." note :30). Then again sound. that of the sense of mental or spiritual. and paused from the wearisomeness of their toil. for Poe. annihilation would have followed. upon reaching the second stage. Then entire forgetfulness of all that followed. But when some traces of consciousness are left. to swoon and awake in utter consciousness of any lapse of time during the syncope would demonstrate the soul to have been in such condition that. of the swoon. in my ears. Then a rushing revival of soul and a successful effort to move. Then. and it fell heavily upon something damp and hard. after long interval. It is involuntary. . [ung. of the sickness. without thought-a condition which lasted long. and touch-a tingling sensation pervading my frame. There I suffered it to remain for many minutes. After this I call to mind flatness and dampness. 194:3. of tall figures that lifted and bore me in silence down-downstill down-till a hideous dizziness oppressed me at the mere idea of the interminableness of the descent. there have been moments when I have dreamed of success. yet. of the sentence. Then a pause in which all is blank. of the sable draperies. On the other hand.. there have been brief. on account of that heart's unnatural stillness. the language of dreams is archaic. in fact). very brief periods when I have conjured up remembrances which the lucid reason of a later epoch assures me could have had reference only to that condition of seeming unconsciousness. are not. In the return to life from the SWOOn there are two stages. J. as the narrator here clings to. Very suddenly there came back to my soul motion and sound-the tumultuous motion of the heart. recalled. while we marvel whence they come? He who has never swooned. indistinctly. is not he who find strange palaces and wildly familiar faces in coals that glow. It seems probable that if. 7 According to [ung. that of the sense of physical. "Marginalia. And that gulf is-what? Howat least shall we distinguish its shadows from those of the tomb? But if the impressions of what I have termed the first stage.122 The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe not that we have dreamed. I reached out my hand. had death occurred. Note the parallel with astral projection-the idea that the soul can leave the body during unconsciousness (see "William 'Nilson. I felt that I lay upon my back.
It was a wall. and Poe all admired Brown's work. lest I should be impeded by the walls of a tomb. Perspiration burst from every pore. The sentence had passed.The Pit and the Pendulum I could be. save in a whisper. Had I been remanded to my dungeon. 11 . I knew. with my arms extended. were confirmed. and stands on a granite hill surrounded on three sides by a gorge. which would not take place for many months? This I at once saw could not be. as I still continued to step cautiously onward. and some effective Gothic touches all Brown's own. I at once started to my feet. translating the European Gothic tradition into American terms. At length. the Inquisition was involved in only two major tasks: to force an admission of heresy or sin from the accused (by torture. Victims had been in immediate demand. I breathed more freely. yet dared not to employ my vision. after a procession. and attempted from that point to deduce my real condition. I brought to mind the inquisitorial proceedings. marauding Indians. and stood in cold big beads upon my forehead. afforded me no means 123 8 9 8 Auto-da-fe is often translated as "act offaith. and a death of more than customary bitterness.-but where and in what state was I? The condemned to death. my dungeon. usually by burning. I followed it up. Most of the great autos-da-fe took place when Tomas de Torquemada was head of the Inquisition. and one of these had been held on the very night of the day of my trial. perished usually at the autos-da-fe." Although the word originated in Lisbon. notwithstanding what we read in fiction. It seemed evident that mine was not. Upon recovering. as well as all the condemned cells at Toledo. I proceeded for many paces. but still all was blackness and vacancy. although there was one in Mexico as late as 1815. Cooper. a yellow penitential garment with a red cross on the front and back (grotesquely embroidered for the unrepentant). but that I grew aghast lest there should be nothing to see. I still lay quietly. Mass. Of the dungeons there had been strange things narrated-fables I had always deemed them-but yet strange. awaited me? That the result would be death. and light was not altogether excluded. Moreover. Ormond (1799) tells of a woman who murders the man who tried to rape her. in central Spain. I struggled for breath. 10 I. stepping with all the careful distrust with which certain antique narratives had inspired me. Yet not for a moment did I suppose myself actually dead. But in Portuguese auto means a public ceremony. The atmosphere was intolerably close. and made effort to exercise my reason.character of my judges to doubt. seemingly of stone masonry-very smooth. and a murdering religious fanatic. Hawthorne. Heretics were dressed in the ceremonial San Benito. however. I knew too well the . to await the next sacrifice. involving a hero who walks in his sleep. The Church itself did not execute anyone. The intensity . I felt nothing. of the darkness seemed to oppress and stifle me. or what fate. so that a better translation would be "A public ceremony offaith. trembling convulsively in every fibre. spontaneous combustion. perhaps even more fearful. I dreaded the first glance at objects around me. Hawthorne. then. and cold. It was not that I feared to look upon things horrible." perhaps referring to the age-old demonstration of faith or truthfulness in which one places a hand in a fire. and I cautiously moved forward. slimy. Was I left to perish of starvation in this subterranean world of darkness. A fearful idea now suddenly drove the blood in torrents upon my heart. is that he led the way away from "puerile superstitions. and a sermon. My outstretched hands at length encountered some solid obstruction. An important commercial center for centuries. between 1483 and 1498. and Van Wyck Brooks calls him a precurser of both Melville and Henry James. The last in Spain was at Seville in 1781. the most hideous of fates. The blackness of eternal night encompassed me. 9 Toledo is the capital of Toledo province. My worst thoughts. had stone floors. His Wieland (1798) deals with hypnotism. I quickly unclosed my eyes. and my eyes straining from their sockets. and they wore a yellow miter. and Gothic fiction in general. especially among the readers of Poe. The agony of suspense grew at length intolerable. Edgar Huntly may be the best. the hero finds himself in a pitch-black cave. Gothic castles and chimeras. 10 11 In Chapter 16 of Charles Brockden Brown's Edgar Huntly (1799). I longed. and details his sensations as he attempts to find his way out.e. lance more relapsed into insensibility. His most immediate importance. to be buried alive. if necessary) and to save his or her soul by the purification of death by fire. Brown (1771-1810) is one American writer who should be better known than he is. there came thronging upon my recollection a thousand vague rumors of the horrors of Toledo. Scott. The mode and the hour were all that occupied or distracted me. Shelley. Actually. Such a supposition. it is most often applied to the ceremony of the Spanish Inquisition at which. This process. with a wild desperation at heart. And now. and it appeared to me that a very long interval of time had since elapsed. at least.. Those sentenced to death were handed over to the civil authorities for execution within five days. and for a brief period. I thrust my arms wildly above and around me in all directions. Arthur Mervyn (1800) chronicles a case of mistaken identity wrapped around a yellow-fever epidemic. sentences were read and the convicted person executed." as he phrased it. yet dreaded to move a step. Keats. in the hope of catching some faint ray of light. is altogether inconsistent with real existence. it declined in the sixteenth century but gained as the spiritual capital of Spanish Catholicism. however. and too ghastly to repeat.
however. 13 The image of the pit has. and. QUitting the wall. Upon awaking. So. As he that walks in slippery places is every moment liable to fall. Shortly afterward. While Poe was an alien to the New England tradition. but ate and drank with avidity. of course. The difficulty. a hundred paces. for vault I could not help supposing it to be. ' In the confusion attending my fall. there is a strong parallel between "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. for the floor." According to Edwards. although seemingly at a less elevation than the chin. came at last upon the fragment of the serge. I did not immediately apprehend a somewhat startling circumstance. the last apostle of New England Puritanism.124 The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe of ascertaining the dimensions of my dungeon. I therefore sought the knife which had been in my pocket. I staggered onward for some time. although seemingly of solid material. I stepped on it. I had advanced some ten or twelve paces in this manner. but it was gone. my clothes had ben exchanged for a wrapper of coarss serge. at least I thought: but I had not counted upon the extent of the dungeon. been connected with Hell and destruction. and . he can't foresee one moment whether he shall stand or fall the next. when led into the inquisitorial chamber. touched nothing. it seemed at first insuperable. but my lips and the upper portion of my head.-when I arrived at the rag. At the same time my forehead seemed bathed in a clammy vapor. There were in all. I took courage. . as does the narrator of "A Descent into the Maelstrom. nevertheless. The ground was moist and slippery. for centuries. At length. I had little object-certainly no hope-in these researches." that remarkable tract by Jonathan Edwards (1703-58). however. and upon resuming my walk. This is important. as I might make its' circuit. and sleep SOon overtook me as I lay. 12 but a vague curiosity prompted me to continue them. Up to the period when I fell I had counted fifty-two paces. and shuddered to find that I had fallen at the very brink of a circular pit. and the peculiar smell of decayed fungus arose to my nostrils. as in a moment!" These lines are also part of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. which yet. when the remnant of the torn hem of my robe became entangled between my legs. I put forward my arm. I could not fail to encounter this rag upon completing the' circuit. then. My excessive fatigue induced me to remain prostrate. so as to identify my point of departure. I presumed the dungeon to be fifty yards in circuit. In groping my way around the prison.and that he can combine "trivial" discoveries with creative thought and come up with solutions to his predicament. and while I still lay prostrate. I had thought of forcing the blade in Some minute crevice of the masonry. thou castedst them down into destruction. and return to the point whence I set out without being aware of the fact. was but trivial. I had counted forty-eight more. I found beside me a loaf and a pitcher with water. whose extent. in a few seconds afterward. and did not hesitate to step firmly. I tore a part of the hem from the robe and placed the fragment at fun length. so perfectly uniform seemed the wall. It was this-my chin rested upon the floor of the prison. the quotation from Psalms implies that sinners "were always exposed to sudden unexpected destruction. whose survival in a hostile environment is based on their willingness to forgo old assumptions and meet a new world on its own terms. although. I had met. I was too much exhausted to reflect upon this circumstance. I had no means of ascertaining at the 12 The narrator has literally circumscribed his world. I resolved to cross the area of the enclosure. and fell Violently on my face. for it shows he has both brains and imagination. At first I proceeded with extreme caution. was treacherous with slime. as in Psalms 73:18-19: "Surely thou didst set them in slippery places. and thus I could form no guess at the shape of the vault. arrested my attention. in the disorder of my fancy. and at right angles to the wall. when I stumbled and fell. admitting two paces to the yard. and stretching forth an arm." He is an example of Poe's "passive" narrators. I resumed my tour around the prison. with many angles in the wall. endeavoring to cross in as direct a line as possible. or upon my own weakness. How are they brought into desolation. and with much toil.
Agitation of spirit kept me awake for many long hours. By a wild sulphurous lustre.The Pit and the Pendulum moment. "However close we sometimes seem to that dark and final abyss. at that very instant. or appinted time comes." 14 15 16 16 His sleep "like that of death" ends. 14 Mental. under the terrible circumstances which environed me. It must havebeen drugged. is only that God's appointed time is not come. kept from destruction only by the whim of God/Fate. as before. That the reason why they are not fallen already. and don't fall now. Shea. and let it fall into the abyss. without being thrown down by the hand of another. How long it lasted of course. of which my imagination now pictured many in various positions about the dungeon. I had been reserved for the latter. for scarcely had I drunk. Man. was of that very character which I had regarded as fabulous and frivolous in the tales respecting the Inquisition." says Daniel B. . until I trembled at the sound of my own voice. up to the period when I fell. out of Hell. he falls at once. and I emptied the vessel at a draught. The truth at length flashed upon me. . . The whole circuit of its walls did not exceed twenty-five yards. A burning thirst consumed me. I was enabled to see the extent and aspect of the prison. Edwards was a highly original thinker who moved "out from an intense and sometimes fatalistic subjectivity to construct a vast. let no man of peace and freedom despair. In my first attempt at exploration I had counted fifty-two paces. in Major Writers of Early American Literature (Wisconsin. of course. as there is for the narrator of "MS. in fact. succeeded by loud echoes. suggests that there is an appointed time. In other conditions of mind I might have had courage to end my misery at once by a plunge into one of the abysses. Shaking in every limb. His words could just as easily refer to Poe. and as rapid closing of a door overhead. but the mere pleasure of God. although that flame is usually blue and yellow. there was the choice of death with its direst physical agonies. 200). metaphysically ambitious correlative of the soul." it is this "wild interest in trifles" that saves him. Another step before my fall. For some minutes this fact occasioned me a world of vain trouble. once again. The observation from the words that I would not insist upon is this. their foot shall slide . And the death just avoided. I must then have been within a pace or two of the fragment of serge. I must have returned upon my 125 13 when he does fall. and had become in every respect a fitting subject for the species of torture which awaited me. and he awakens in something very much like Hell. I found by my side. they shall fall into destruction. and annihilation. not the red that one would expect of hellfire. is a passive element in the universe." writes Ernest Renan in a memorable passage from Souvenirs d'enfance et de jeunesse (1883). than the mere dimensions of my dungeon? But my soul took a wild interest in trifles. without warning . Neither could I forget what I had read of these pits-that the sudden extinction of life formed no part of their most horrible plan. both writers say. and as suddenly faded away. I then slept.. like Edwards. but now I was the veriest of cowards. and then. chaos. and congratulated myself upon the timely accident by which I had escaped. vain indeed! for what could be of less importance. 1972. that when that due time. as he that stands in such slippery declining ground on the edge of a pit that he can't stand alone. is no Puritan. I know not. "There is nothing that keeps wicked men." Despite his Puritan theology. . and I busied myself in endeavors to account for the error I had committed in my measurement. a loaf and a pitcher of water. I saw clearly the doom which had been prepared for me. I groped my way back to the wall. needs nothing but his own weight to throw him down . Found in a Bottle. but when. ." the narrator alludes to the burning of sulfur (brimstone). at length there was a sullen plunge into water. By long suffering my nerves had been unstrung. who is "Calvinistic" in his belief that the universe was created by a "fall" from unity and that man is estranged from God's ideal world. For many seconds I hearkened to its reverberations as it dashed against the sides of the chasm in its descent. but if we substitute "fate" for "God"-or even Poe's concept of the Godhead-the similarities become clearer. Another thing implied is that they are liable to fall of themselves. Groping about the masonry just below the margin. . [r. For it is said. before I became irresistibly drowsy. As he that stands or walks on slippery ground. But Poe. God won't hold them up in these slippery places any longer. . I succeeded in dislodging a small fragment. Writers after Poe have continued to use it in this manner. In its size I had been greatly mistaken. "An immense river of oblivion is sweeping us away into a nameless abyss. but will let them go. resolving there to perish rather than risk the terrors of the wells.. or death with its most hideous moral horrors. and the world had seen me no more. A deep sleep fell upon me-a sleep like that of death. and President Kennedy in 1962 said.. at anyone moment. the objects around me were visible. 17 17 Like the narrator of "A Descent into the Maelstrom. when he is let go he immediately falls and is lost. The narrator escapes the pit-this time. while a faint gleam of light flashed suddenly through the gloom. p. but at length I again slumbered. psychological 15 The abyss is associated with nothingness. At the same moment there came a sound resembling the quick opening.. Upon arousing." Poe. By "wild. and upon awaking. the origin of which I could not at first determine. I had nearly performed the circuit of the vault. sulphurous lustre. To the victims of its tyranny. I unclosed my eyes.
The figures of fiends in aspects of menace. at a casual glance. . that the pitcher had been removed. on his back. too. What I touched was cold . All this I saw indistinctly and by much effort: for my personal condition had been greatly changed during slumber. I now lay upon my back. he held what. was a punishment of the Secret Tribunal. clothed in fire were breathing." Poe mentions Melmoth in a letter of July 1836 and in a review in Graham's of January 1842. 18 Compare with the bedchamber of "Ligeia. as if from the effects of a damp atmosphere. I surveyed the ceiling of my prison. 1820!!!" . however. In the centre yawned the circular pit from whose jaws I had escaped. which was of stone. What I had taken for masonry seemed now to be iron. and thus deduced an idea of great irregularity. leaving at liberty only my head. This thirst it appeared to be the design of my persecutors to stimulate: for the food in the dish was meat pungently seasoned. It passed in many convolutions about my limbs and body. so potent is the effect of total darkness upon one arousing from lethargy or sleep! The angles were simply those of a few slight depressions.. in lieu of a scythe. My confusion of mind prevented me from observing that I began my tour with the wall to the left. Its sweep was brief. I say to my horror.The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe steps-thus supposing the circuit nearly double what it actually was.. by dint of much exertion. and it is so constructed as to become longer with every movement. upon a table. on a species of low framework of wood. Poe no doubt borrowed the idea from the preface to Llorente's History of the Inquisition (1826). and ended it with the wall to the right. and I comprehended that these were hideous figures scrawled in phosphorous to terrify me. . and at full length. too. but more in wonder. carries an hourglass and a scythe. I turned my eyes upon the other objects in the cell. to my horror. In an instant afterward the fancy was confirmed. It was some thirty or forty feet overhead. and other more really fearful 18 images. for I was consumed. who. 19 A belt or girth around the body of a horse to keep a saddle or pack on the animal's back. with skeleton forms.. It was the painted picture of Time as he is commonly represented save that. A.D. I had been deceived. overspread and disfigured the walls. until life is extinct. This. I now noticed the floor. I watched it for some minutes.." Poe may have also been inspired by a description in Chapter Six of Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). looking to the floor. as we now know it. or ensuring confiscation. steady marking off of one's lifetime. or cincture. or niches. A slight noise attracted my notice. is actually that of Saturn. While I gazed directly upward at it (for its position was immediately over my own) I fancied that I saw it in motion. The scythe is the instrument by which Time "cuts down" all things according to their allotted span. suspended above him is a Pendulum. April 1827= "One of these prisoners had been condemned. The entire surface of this metallic enclosure was rudely daubed in all the hideous and repulsive devices to which the charnel superstition of the monks has given rise. in respect to the shape of the enclosure. who. whose sutures or joints occasioned the depression. In one of its panels a very singular figure riveted my whole attention. It may be doubted if the holy office in its mercy ever invented a more humane and rapid method of exterminating heresy. and was to have suffered on the following day. which hangs over our heads. in huge plates. In feeling my way I had found many angles. somewhat in fear. Wearied at length with observing its dull movement. the edge of which is sharp. but it was the only one in the dungeon. and gradually cuts on. His punishment was to be death by the Pendulum. To this I was securely bound by a long 19 strap resembling a surcingle. The general shape of the prison was square. forth clouds of it around me. so that two symbols of Time are combined. with the pendulum adding the idea of slow. but that the colors seemed faded and blurred. I saw. and of course slow. by Charles Robert Maturin: "I started up with horror . on perceiving myself surrounded by demons. The wretch sees this implement of destruction swing to and fro above him. or some other metal. according to tradition. There was something. supply myself with food from an earthen dish which lay by my side on the floor. and my left arm to such extent that I could. and. at odd intervals. 20 The figure of Time. Here the scythe is a pendulum. for a priest's cassock. let it be remembered. but also the girdle. I observed that the outlines of these monstrosities were sufficiently distinct. in the appearance of this machine which caused me to regard it more attentively. reprinted in a review in the Philadelphia Museum. Looking upward. . I supposed to be the pictured 20 image of a huge pendulum such as we see on antique clocks. and constructed much as the side walls. with intolerable thirst. The method of thus destroying the victim is as follows:-the condemned is fastened in a groove. and every moment the keen edge approaching nearer and nearer: at length it cuts the skin of his nose. Time can also be seen as a sort of sword of Damocles.
Upon my recovery. and struggled to force myself upward against the sweep of the fearful . What boots it to tell of the long. and . made his appearance. I now observed-with what horror it is needless to say-that its nether extremity was formed of a crescent of glittering steel. My cognizance of the pit had become known to the inquisitorial agents-the pit whose horrors had been destined for so bold a recusant as myselfthe pit. From this it required much effort and attention to scare them away. and who could have arrested the vibration at pleasure. It was appended to a weighty rod of brass. while I gazed. They had issued from the well.~il. The plunge into this pit I had 21 avoided by the merest of accidents. tapering from the edge into a solid and broad structure above." the narrator tells how "Every moment I saw the bell sweep within an inch of my face. meaning "the most remote land. Solinus. Even amid the agonies 25 of that period. (for I could take but imperfect note of time) before I again cast my eyes upward. by lack of food and water ." "To look at the object was bitter as death. Thule was the most northern point known to the ancient Romans. I could no longer doubt the doom prepared for me by monkish ingenuity in torture. they came up in troops. for I knew there were demons who took note of my swoon. as a child at some rare bauble. about a foot in length from hom to hom. "end. the last extremity. the cavern in which he is trapped seems to be full of hideous faces. horn. which lay just within view to my right. Like a razor also. which Poe pokes fun at in "How to Write a Blackwood Article. the horns upward. But what mainly disturbed me was the idea that it had perceptibly descended. perhaps even an hour. it was no part of the demon plan to hurl me into the abyss. formed an important portion of all the grotesquerie of these dungeon deaths. while others. What I then saw confounded and amazed me. But it might have been long. Pliny." not uncommon in previous centuries. 25 Lethargy caused. its velocity was also much greater. As a natural consequence. Its etymology is unclear. The odor of the sharp steel forced itself into my nostrils. Milder! I half smiled in my agony as I thought of such application of such a term. At last the devil himself. In that tale. or Isles of Darkness. and Mela take it for Iceland." but he cannot keep his eyes from it. typical of hell. and the under edge evidently as keen as that of a razor. it seemed massy and heavy. during which I counted the rushing vibrations of " the steel! Inch by inch-line by line-with a descent only appreciable at intervals that seemed ages-down and still down it came! Days passed-it might have been that many days passed-ere it swept so closely over me as·to fan me with its acrid breath. hurriedly." Poe mentions it again in his poem Dream-Land. scimitar. and lay smiling at the 23 glittering death. no doubt. as in the common description of the evil spirit. which glare down on him "with terrifying frowns. Bochart says it is a Syrian word and that the Phoenician merchants who traded to the group called it Gezirat Thule. and I knew that surprise. the human nature craved food. or entrapment into torment. consider it to be Shetland. it was brief. Having failed to fall. and thus (there being no alternative) a different and a milder destruction awaited me. I felt very-oh. too. At the same time. for. "The bell pealing above and opening its jaws with a hideous clamor" seems to be "a ravening monster raging to devour" him. or with grinning mockery. upon again lapsing into life there had been no perceptible descent in the pendulum. and eyes ofinfernal lustre. but it could be the Gothic Tiule. 24 He seems to be mesmerized by the moving. with hoof. long hours of horror more 22 than mortal. and took possession of the small remnant which had been 127 21 The end of the world. With painful effort I outstretched my left arm as far as my bonds permitted. I prayed-I wearied heaven with my prayer for its more speedy descent. 22 Avails or profits (obsolete usage) 23 Compare with Thomas Mann's (a pseudonym for William Maginn) "The Man in the Bell" (1821). I grew frantically mad. Even then. glittering object. and the whole hissed as it swung through the air. It might have been half an hour. like Camden. with ravenous eyes. The sweep of the pendulum had increased in extent by nearly a yard. And then Hell suddenly calm. 24 There was another interval of utter insensibility. as if through long inanition. still more appalling.The Pit and the Pendulum I saw several enormous rats traversing it. accoutred. allured by the scent of the meat. inexpressibly sick and weak. where it is to be pronounced "Thuly." and connected with the Greek telos. and regarded by rumor as the Ultima Thule of all their punishments.
I would have seized and attempted to arrest the pendulum. and with this observation there suddenly came over my spirit all the keen. there rushed to my mind a half formed thought of joy-of hope. In vain I struggled to perfect-to regain it. sufficient to sunder these very walls of iron. Long suffering had nearly annihilated all my ordinary powers of mind. still the fraying of my robe would be all that. I felt that it was of joy-of hope. I was an imbecile-s-an idiot. 2. 25). it would accomplish. I saw that some ten or twelve vibrations would bring the steel in actual contact with my robe. It was hope that prompted the nerve to quiver-the frame to shrink.128 The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe spared me by the rats. this paradox suggests that while Poe ordinarily remained true to his conception of the torture of the disordered personality.to my mouth. It would fray the serge of my robe-it would return and repeat its operation-again-and again. Yet what business had I with hope? It was. for several minutes. they closed themselves spasmodically at the descent. Down-steadily down it crept. For the first time during many hoursor perhaps days-I thought. but no farther. I could arrest here the descent of the steel. My eyes followed its outward or upward whirls with the eagerness of the most unmeaning despair. to free my left arm. furiously. Notwithstanding its terrifically wide sweep (some thirty feet or more) and the hissing vigor of its descent. To the right-to the left-far and wide--with the shriek of a damned spirit. he did not overlook the possibility that sanity can be more terrifying than madness" (James Lundquist. . relentlessly down! It yibrated within three inches of my bosom! I struggled violently. I could reach the latter. from the platter beside me. And at this thought I paused. Down-certainly. It was hope-the hope that triumphs on the rackthat: whispers to the death-condemned even in the dungeon 26 of the Inquisition. I dwelt upon it with a pertinacity of attention-as if. collected calmness of despair. a half formed thought-man has many such which are never completed. I pondered upon all this frivolity until my teeth were on edge. Poe Newsletter. It now occurred to me that the 26 "Because of the limitations imposed upon him by an inquisitionary force. I took a frenzied pleasure in contrasting its downward with its lateral velocity. although death would have been a relief. I dared not go farther than this reflection. As I put a portion ofit within my lips. I saw that the crescent was designed to cross the region of the heart. but I felt also that it had perished in its formation. . in so dwelling. I shrunk convulsively at its every sweep. glistening axe upon my bosom. The vibration of the pendulum was at right angles to my length. every act of balance or sanity only leads to a worsening of his situation. to my heart with the stealthy pace of the tiger! I alternately laughed and howled as the one or the other idea grew predominant. oh! how unspeakable! Still I quivered in every nerve to think how slight a sinking of the machinery would precipitate that keen. as I say. with great effort. Vol. This was free only from the elbow to the hand. I forced myself to ponder upon the sound of the crescent as it should pass across the garment-upon the peculiar thrilling sensation which the friction of cloth produces on the nerves. I might as well have attempted to arrest an avalanche! Down-still unceasingly-still inevitably down! Ivgasped and struggled at each vibration. p. Could I have broken the fastenings above the elbow. 1969.
I so far elevated my head as to obtain a distinct view of my breast. was unique.The Pit and the Pendulum bandage. my last hope frustrated. The first stroke of the razor-like crescent athwart any portion of the band. nineteenth century . moreover. and of which a moiety only floated indeterminately through my brain when 28 I raised food to my burning lips. as it seemed. Illustration by Jules Descartes Ferat. The whole thought was now 28 A half Still I quivered in every nerve to think how slight a sinking of the machinery would precipitate that keen. Scarcely had I dropped my head back into its original position. would so detach it that it might be unwound from my person by means of my left hand. when there flashed upon my mind what I cannot better describe than as the unformed half of that idea of deliverance to which I have previously alluded. I 27 was tied by no separate cord. that the minions of the torturer had not foreseen and provided for this possibility? Was it probable that the bandage crossed my bosom in the track of the pendulum? Dreading to find my faint. But how fearful. The surcingle enveloped my limbs and body close in all directions-save in the path of the destroying 27 All in one piece (archaic) 129 crescent. glistening axe upon my bosom. or surcingle. and. which enveloped me. in that case. the proximity of the steel! The result of the slightest struggle how deadly! Was it likely.
I was free. sidelong. It had divided the serge of the robe. then. . . for which the world has no name. and so the rat's kiss is horrifying beyond mere sanitary reasons. They clung to the wood-they overran it. The animal also represents plague. with a heavy clamminess. "To what food. Plainly I perceived the loosening of the bandage. "have they been 29 accustomed in the well?" They had devoured. But the moment of escape had arrived. their cold lips sought my own. to attempt its execution. ravenous. scarcely sane. This seemed the signal for a general rush. all but a small remnant of the contents of the dish. and smelt at the surcingle. They were wild." I thought. I was half stifled by their thronging pressure. The measured movement of the pendulum disturbed them not at all. In their voracity the vermin frequently fastened their sharp fangs in my fingers. But this was only for a moment. With a more than human resolution I lay still. shrinking. decay. with the nervous energy of despair. swelled 30 my bosom. disgust. by some invisible force. as well as Robert Southey's verses "God's Judgment on a Wicked Bishop. I proceeded at once. I had not counted in vain upon their voracity. With a steady movement--cautious. at length. andappropriately here-the underworld. Yet one minute. and leaped in hundreds upon my person. 31 The narrator does not escape unscythed. through the ceiling. at least. their red eyes glaring upon me as if they waited but for motionlessness on my part to make me their prey. I had fallen into an habitual see-saw. Avoiding its strokes they busied themselves with the anointed bandage. 30 Rats are traditional symbols of infirmity ad death. It had cut through the linen beneath. They shrank alarmedly back. But the stroke of the pendulum already pressed upon my bosom. This was a lesson which I took desperately to 29 A poem published in Knickerbocker Magazine of November 1837 tells the legend of Archbishop Ratto II of Mainz. With the particles of the oily and spicy viand which now remained. and I felt that the struggle would be over. and slow-I slid from the embrace of the bandage and beyond the reach of the scimitar. The surcingle hung in ribands from my body. many sought the well. Forth from the well they hurried in fresh troops. my heart. They pressed-they swarmed upon me in ever accumulating heaps. in spite of all my efforts to prevent them. Observing that I remained without motion. Twice again it swung. Nor had I erred in my calculations-nor had I endured in vain. Freel-and in the grasp of the Inquisition! I had scarcely stepped from my wooden bed of horror upon the stone floor of the prison. raising my hand from the floor.The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe present-feeble. At first the ravenous animals were startled and terrified at the change-at the cessation of movement. I at length felt that I was free. For many hours the immediate vicinity of the low framework upon which I lay. They writhed upon my throat. I knew that in more than one place it must be already severed.-but still entire. 31 and a sharp sense of pain shot through every nerve. For the moment. Poe may have had this in mind. scarcely definite. and chilled. when the motion of the hellish machine ceased and I beheld it drawn up." . I lay breathlessly still. I thoroughly rubbed the bandage wherever I could reach it. had been literally swarming with rats. one or two of the boldest leaped upon the framework. the unconscious uniformity of the movement deprived it of effect. or wave of the hand about the platter: and. who was supposedly eaten by mice in the tower he had built as a refuge. At a wave of my hand my deliverers hurried tumultuously away. bold.
I rushed from the margin. As before. for the first time. For many minutes of a dreamy and trembling abstraction. at first. but what he ." about a man working inside a boiler who is trapped when someone. I busied myself in vain. The Inquisitorial vengeance had been hurried by my two-fold escape. and gleamed with the lurid lustre of a fire that I could not force my imagination to regard as unreal. yet the colors seemed blurred and indefinite.-Oh! for a voice to speak!-oh! horror!oh! any horror but this! With a shriek.The Pit and the Pendulum heart. unconnected conjecture. The room had been square. This torture device is not only elaborate but fantastic. I could not appreciate distinctly-it was obvious. There had been a second change in the cell-and now the change was obviously in the form. Amid the thought of the fiery destruction that impended. about half an inch in width. I became aware.34 it wrestled its way into my soul-it burned itself in upon my shuddering reason. and were. the mystery of the alteration in the chamber broke at once upon my understanding. had taken place in the apartment. to look through the aperture. 34 What he sees is. glared upon me in a thousand directions. During this period. and once again I looked up. I saw that two of its iron angles were now acute-two. at first. endeavored to appreciate or understand what was taking place. These colors had now assumed. not knowing of his presence. a startling and most intense brilliancy. My every motion was undoubtedly watched. and there was to be no more dallying with the King of Terrors. shuddering as with a fit of the ague. 32 As I· arose from the attempt. I rushed to its deadly brink. 131 32 He apparently sees the light from' the furnace that heats the iron. completely separated from the floor. Yet. 33 The room has truly taken on the aspect of Hell. extending entirely around the prison at the base of the walls. and were momentarily assuming. of a wild and ghastly vivacity. and buried my face in my hands-weeping bitterly. Something unusual-some change which. it was in vain that I. fires the thing up. the idea of the coolness of the well came over my soul like balm. The heat rapidly increased. At length it forced. I threw my straining vision below. only a pit. But not long was I left in doubt. It proceeded from a fissure. for a wild moment. 33 Unreal/-Even while I breathed there came to my nostrils the breath of the vapour of heated iron! A suffocating odour pervaded the prison! A deeper glow settled each moment in the eyes that glared at my agonies! A richer tint of crimson diffused itself over the pictured horrors of blood. to be delivered unto worse than death in some other. The glare from the enkindled roof illumined its inmost recesses. did my spirit refuse to comprehend the meaning of what I saw. which thus appeared. I panted! I gasped for breath! There could be no doubt of the design of my tormentors-ohl most unrelenting! oh! most demoniac of men! I shrank from the glowing metal to the centre of the cell. Free!-I had but escaped death in one form of agony. "How to Write a Blackwood Article" mentions a tale entitled "The Involuntary Experimentalist. of course. since heat would have to be provided on all four sides and somehow not interfere with the movement of the walls. where none had been visible before. With that thought I rolled my eyes nervously around on the barriers of iron that hemmed me in. I endeavored. I had observed that. although the outlines of the figures upon the walls were sufficiently distinct. Demon eyes. that gave to the spectral and fiendish portraitures an aspect that might have thrilled even firmer nerves than my own. but of course in vain. comprehends is annihilation. of the origin of the sulphurous light which illumined the cell.
charging that the moving walls are stolen from "The Iron Shroud. he comprehends the predicament and wants to escape. 'The Pit and the Pendulum.132 The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe consequently. "Feeling. to be delivered into worse than death in some other. his intellect. It was that of General Lasalle. In an instant the apartment had shifted its form into that of a lozenge. For Poe the will is constrained to choose between evils which. is indicativeof Poe's suppressed homosexual nature. and an unjustified condemnation. 'I had but escaped death in one form of agony. and his will. sanity can no longer help the hero. within the context of the tale. Through his feeling. Its centre. . 36 The narrator would rather die by the red-hot walls than be cast into oblivion. threatened by an encroaching mechanism. His escape is "the supreme wishphantasy of Poe. It is typical of Griswold's obsessive degrading of Poe that he trumps up this criticism but says nothing about the countless other borrowings that can be found in Poe's works (all of which have been throughly reworked). it works beautifully. 1969. and impelled toward a gaping abyss. accuses Poe of plagiarism. surrounded by watchful rats. and will function together. could I withstand its pressure? And now. Vintage. I shrank back-but the closing walls pressed me resistlessly onward." The man who wants to enter Heaven must first go through Hell (or at least Purgatory) . upon confrontation. she says. pp. an unjust imprisonment. pp. I struggled no more. entered Toledo during the Peninsular War of 1808. He cannot let the scimitar "enter and split his heart-the scimitar replacing the phallus. if even that. for. quite unlike Poe's. Even though the three faculties are perfectly unified when the glowing walls begin to close in. Comte de Lasalle. 35 Griswold. 153-54) Marie Bonaparte sees Poe as heing caught between the male force (the pendulum) and the female (the pit). 1958. swift retreat of the walls-just in time to save the narrator-is impossible. 38 General Antoine Chevalier Louis Colbert. to lose once and for all his sole claim to existence. fainting. The fearful difference quickly increased with a low rumbling or moaning sound. intellect. came just over the yawning gulf. Harry Levin sees the tale as an existential parable: "The hero is not less heroic because he suffers rather than acts. the frying-pan versus the fire . but the agony of my soul found vent in one loud. His arrival parallels the announcement of the Second Coming in Browning's Childe Hamid: "He that endureth to the end shall be saved. and recoiling from both. for no adjustment of the faculties can help him. 592) In Jungian analysis. but there is no alternative left. and for Poe that is frightening merely because we do not 35 36 37 38 . .. The Inquisition was in the hands of its enemies. and the hero escapes the pendulum-but he escapes into a more restricted and horrible situation.' abandons him to the existential dilemma: the agony of the prostrate individual." and he cannot enter the pit-the female sexual organ--either. But the alteration stopped not h~re-I neither hoped nor desired it to stop. The French army had entered Toledo. This." (The Power of Blackness. nor is he less contemporary in an epoch which has so vastly multiplied the sentence of political imprisonment. I felt that I tottered upon the brink-I averted my eyes-There was a discordant hum of human voices! There was a loud blast as of many trumpets! There was a harsh grating as of a thousand thunders! The fiery walls rushed back! An outstretched arm caught my own as I fell.. There. with a rapidity that left me no time for contemplation. His previous escapes have worsened his condition to the point where he gives up hope and yields at last. long." I said. "Death.. he was always to be tossed between these poles of his bisexuality with never a hope of escape. seem worse than their alternatives: the pit or the pendulum. August 1830). obtuse. However. "any death but that of the pit!" Fool! might I have not known that into the pit it was the object of the burning iron to urge me? Could I resist its glow? or. " (James Lundquist. in effect. isolated and immobilized. in his memoir of Poe (1850). and of course. and final scream of despair. its greatest width.' he says as he enters the third and most horrible crisis." (P." by William Mudford (Blackuiood's. the room is huilt of blocks that are removed a few at a time. and which has visualized the ordeal of life itself-through the apprehensive eyes of Franz Kafkaas an arbitrary trial.. the pit or hole is seen as symbolic of the passage from temporal to nontemporal existence. however. Poe Newsletter. I could have clasped the red walls to my bosom as a garment of eternal peace. 25-26) 37 It is only when we think about it afterward that we realize that the sudden. flatter and flatter grew the lozenge. into the abyss. He is completely limited in time. At length for my seared and writhing body there was no longer an inch offoothold on the firm floor of the prison. 2. His climactic adventure.
but by following the expressions of his own objective nature such as dreams and genuine fantasies-then sooner or later the Self emerges. Man and his Symbols. and surrenders himself completely to God. The ego will then find an inner power that contains all the possibilities of renewal. While physical death by the pendulum is terrifying. or as Christian allegory. 234) Still another interpretation can be stated in purely Christian terms: only when the narrator admits that his predicament is beyond his power to escape. is even more so. p." (M. an unconscious reworking of Poe's ambivalent sexuality. as symbolized by the pit. the death of the self.-L. Yet the Jungian self does at least have a hope of saving itself: "Whenever a human being genuinely turns to the inner world. a parable of man's existence. a representation of the emergence of the self. can he be saved. Thus "The Pit and the Pendulum" can be read as a simple tale of terror. Poe seems to offer something for everyone.The Pit and the Pendulum 133 know what lies beyond. and tries to know himself-not by ruminating about his subjective thoughts and feelings. von Franz. .
Notes. and a Bibliography by STEPHEN PEITHMAN Doubleday & Company.. lnc. New York 1981 .he nnotated Talesof LL Edited with an Introduction. Garden City.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue listening from where you left off, or restart the preview.