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