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