THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM

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).

while the angel forms became meaninglesss spectres. Yet. the figures of the judges vanished. Arousing from the most profound of slumbers. And then there stole into my fancy. What of it there remained I will not attempt to define. and around. 3 Compare with "MS. . The notorious Inquisition of 1483 reputedly saw two thousand persons burned at the stake. with a loud humming or vibrating sound. The sentence--the dread sentence of death-was the last of distinct accentuation which reached my ears. fracto nunc funeris antro. 2 3 2 The Spanish Inquisition was begun to discover and punish converted Jews (and later. The thought came gently and stealthily. It conveyed to my soul the idea of revolution-perhaps from its association in fancy with the burr of a millwheel. In the deepest slumber-no! In delirium-no! In a swoon-no! In deathno! even in the grave all is not lost. but who fell with their leader. and I was permitted to sit. This only for a brief period. everything being calculated to inspire terror. the Marche St. 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. we break the gossamer web of some dream." There is also the suggestion of the sensation often experienced when a person loses consciousness-as if one were on a huge wheel.The Pit and the Pendulum Impia tortorum longos hie turba furores Sanguinis innocui. with heads of flame. the very mansion of death. all sensations appeared swallowed up in a mad rushing descent as of the soul into Hades. in Revelation 1:13. the great romantic French poet and author. the soft and nearly impercetible waving of the sable draperies which enwrapped the walls of the apartment. (so frail may that web have been) we remember 1 "Here the wicked mob. Bobespierre. the thought of what sweet rest there must be in the grave. like a closet. and I shuddered because no sound succeeded." note :25· . . Else there is no immortality for man. aluit. for a while." The number seven has many interpretations (see "The Masque of the Red Death. over my spirit. where grim death has been. and the cave of death demolished. yet all was not lost. thin with the intensity of their expression of flrmness=-of immoveable resolution-of stern contempt of human torture. I felt that my senses were leaving me. which was built on the site of the old [acobin Club. there was an enclosed place. Muslims) who were not true believers. At one end. or even to describe. The [acobins were the political club of the French Revolution. like that occasioned by the rapid revolution of a rnillwheel. Now that the fatherland has been saved. it is a symbol for pain. They appeared to me white--whiter than the sheet upon which I trace these words-and thin even to grotesqueness. responsible for the Reign of Terror (1793). I saw. 121 [Quatrain composed for the gates of a market to be erected upon the site of the [acobin Club House at Paris. and dimly lighted by candles placed in candlesticks fastened to the wall. Honore. I saw them fasion the syllables of my name.") 5 See "Loss of Breath." According to Baudelaire. where the Inquisitor in attendance and the notary sat at a table. vaulted. like a rich musical note. unappeased. Then silence. but just as my spirit came at length properly to feel and entertain it. the blackness of darkness . were still issuing from those lips. and I felt every fibre in my frame thrill as if I had touched the wire of a galvanic battery. the tall candles sank into nothingness." note 1:2). Yet in a second afterward. After that. and seemed white slender angels who would save me. At first they wore the aspect of charity. among others. as if magically. life and health appear. And then my vision fell upon the seven tall candles upon the table. their flames went out utterly. there came a most deadly nausea . and night were the universe. 4 5 4 Poe may have in mind the seven candlesticks in the midst of which sits God the Judge. for a few moments of delirious horror. so that the place seemed . hung round with black cloth. the sound of the inquisitorial voices seemed merged in one dreamy indeterminate hum." (Compare with the rooms of "Ligeia" and "Masque of the Red Death. In "Shadow" he also speaks of the "Hames of the seven lamps. and I saw that from them there would be no help. spinning down. I saw. long cherished a hatred of innocent blood. had no gates. but still will not say that all of consciousness was lost. Mors ubi dira fuit vita salus que patent. for presently I heard no more. and stillness. Sospite nunc patria. non satiata. from before me. I saw that the decrees of what to me was Fate. I had swooned. all at once. but with how terrible an exaggeration! I saw the lips of the black-robed judges. but then. in July of 1794. supervened. and when they at length unbound me. too. and certainly no inscription. I saw them writhe with a deadly locution. and it seemed long before it attained full appreciation. In Blackwood's.J 1 I was sick-sick unto death with that long agony. Poe may have read: "This was a large apartment under ground. July 1826. down. but.

a fall into utter unconsciousness would indicate that the soul itself was near death. "The dream cannot be explained with a psychology taken from consciousness. . I felt that I lay upon my back. Then a pause in which all is blank. unbound. of the judges. while I strove to imagine where and what 6 " . of the sentence. secondly. 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.. is not he who find strange palaces and wildly familiar faces in coals that glow. 7 According to [ung. So far. yet. very suddenly. there is still sufficient strength for the person to recover. Note the parallel with astral projection-the idea that the soul can leave the body during unconsciousness (see "William 'Nilson." (Poe. as the narrator here clings to. first. Then the mere consciousness of existence. But when some traces of consciousness are left. to swoon and awake in utter consciousness of any lapse of time during the syncope would demonstrate the soul to have been in such condition that. there have been moments when I have dreamed of success. at will. 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." CCIX) Thus. in their descent. indistinctly. there have been brief. existence. a perilous state. without thought-a condition which lasted long. when the revival is attended with remembrance of visions (as is now and then the case. There I suffered it to remain for many minutes. of all that a later day and much earnestness of endeavor have enabled me vaguely to recall. "Marginalia.122 The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe not that we have dreamed. It is a definite functioning which is independent of willing and wishing. symbolic. I had not opened my eyes. 194:3. for Poe. 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. Then entire forgetfulness of all that followed. It is involuntary. J. are not. Yale.. of the sable draperies." (Psychology of C. It seems probable that if. Then comes a sense of sudden motionlessness throughout all things. the language of dreams is archaic. and touch-a tingling sensation pervading my frame. and then all is madness--the madness of a memory which busies itself among forbidden 7 things. These shadows of memory tell. 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. like everything that happens in nature. amid earnest struggles to regather some token of the state of seeming nothingness into which my soul had lapsed. that of the sense of physical. 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. as if those who bore me (a ghastly train!) had outrun. of the intentions and conscious aims of the ego." note :30). in fact). after long interval. 7:3) Thus the narrator does not understand his dreams and wonders why he has them. In the return to life from the SWOOn there are two stages. Then a rushing revival of soul and a successful effort to move. And now a full memory of the trial. Then. and shuddering terror. had death occurred. of the sickness. upon reaching the second stage. and paused from the wearisomeness of their toil. that of the sense of mental or spiritual. and prelogicalin other words. is not he who beholds floating in mid-air the sad visions that the many may not view. I reached out my hand. and. and motion. because they stir up the "forbidden things" of the unconscious. on account of that heart's unnatural stillness. and earnest endeavor to conprehend my true state. Very suddenly there came back to my soul motion and sound-the tumultuous motion of the heart. in my ears. Amid frequent and thoughtful endeavors to remember. it is the key to the subconscious. annihilation would have followed. the limits of the limitless. [ung. Then again sound. They tell also of a vague horror at my heart. p. while we marvel whence they come? He who has never swooned. thought. do they not come unbidden. the sound of its beating. and it fell heavily upon something damp and hard. recalled. On the other hand. Then a strong desire to lapse into insensibility. we should find these impressions eloquent in memories of the gulf beyond. After this I call to mind flatness and dampness. we could recall the impressions of the first. of the swoon.

Cooper. The agony of suspense grew at length intolerable. I dreaded the first glance at objects around me. 9 Toledo is the capital of Toledo province. however. after a procession. and they wore a yellow miter. and attempted from that point to deduce my real condition. and cold. Shelley. if necessary) and to save his or her soul by the purification of death by fire. awaited me? That the result would be death. But in Portuguese auto means a public ceremony. with my arms extended. I still lay quietly. at least. marauding Indians. it is most often applied to the ceremony of the Spanish Inquisition at which. and too ghastly to repeat. The intensity .. it declined in the sixteenth century but gained as the spiritual capital of Spanish Catholicism. Arthur Mervyn (1800) chronicles a case of mistaken identity wrapped around a yellow-fever epidemic. Scott. Was I left to perish of starvation in this subterranean world of darkness. the most hideous of fates. spontaneous combustion. and for a brief period. The last in Spain was at Seville in 1781. and one of these had been held on the very night of the day of my trial. sentences were read and the convicted person executed. Edgar Huntly may be the best. the Inquisition was involved in only two major tasks: to force an admission of heresy or sin from the accused (by torture. and details his sensations as he attempts to find his way out. Brown (1771-1810) is one American writer who should be better known than he is. It was a wall. yet dreaded to move a step. and a death of more than customary bitterness. and Gothic fiction in general. and it appeared to me that a very long interval of time had since elapsed.e. notwithstanding what we read in fiction. My worst thoughts. and my eyes straining from their sockets. which would not take place for many months? This I at once saw could not be. lance more relapsed into insensibility. trembling convulsively in every fibre. although there was one in Mexico as late as 1815. and stood in cold big beads upon my forehead. 10 11 In Chapter 16 of Charles Brockden Brown's Edgar Huntly (1799). and I cautiously moved forward. His most immediate importance. Mass. to await the next sacrifice. in central Spain. 11 . were confirmed. and a murdering religious fanatic. An important commercial center for centuries. slimy. Heretics were dressed in the ceremonial San Benito. Those sentenced to death were handed over to the civil authorities for execution within five days. Had I been remanded to my dungeon. lest I should be impeded by the walls of a tomb." as he phrased it. Ormond (1799) tells of a woman who murders the man who tried to rape her.-but where and in what state was I? The condemned to death. 10 I. but still all was blackness and vacancy. His Wieland (1798) deals with hypnotism. then. The blackness of eternal night encompassed me. It seemed evident that mine was not. Of the dungeons there had been strange things narrated-fables I had always deemed them-but yet strange. involving a hero who walks in his sleep. Hawthorne. The sentence had passed. and stands on a granite hill surrounded on three sides by a gorge. At length. My outstretched hands at length encountered some solid obstruction. to be buried alive. I knew too well the . It was not that I feared to look upon things horrible. I quickly unclosed my eyes. Upon recovering. especially among the readers of Poe. and light was not altogether excluded." perhaps referring to the age-old demonstration of faith or truthfulness in which one places a hand in a fire. The mode and the hour were all that occupied or distracted me. I breathed more freely. Perspiration burst from every pore. but that I grew aghast lest there should be nothing to see. with a wild desperation at heart. I proceeded for many paces. I knew." Although the word originated in Lisbon. and a sermon. The atmosphere was intolerably close. I thrust my arms wildly above and around me in all directions. I at once started to my feet. perhaps even more fearful. afforded me no means 123 8 9 8 Auto-da-fe is often translated as "act offaith. And now. my dungeon. A fearful idea now suddenly drove the blood in torrents upon my heart. however. the hero finds himself in a pitch-black cave. The Church itself did not execute anyone. I brought to mind the inquisitorial proceedings. there came thronging upon my recollection a thousand vague rumors of the horrors of Toledo. Gothic castles and chimeras. is that he led the way away from "puerile superstitions. and some effective Gothic touches all Brown's own. I struggled for breath. Such a supposition. Yet not for a moment did I suppose myself actually dead. usually by burning. Victims had been in immediate demand. I followed it up. and Van Wyck Brooks calls him a precurser of both Melville and Henry James. Actually. This process. so that a better translation would be "A public ceremony offaith. between 1483 and 1498. and made effort to exercise my reason. in the hope of catching some faint ray of light. or what fate. Keats. I felt nothing. Hawthorne.The Pit and the Pendulum I could be. had stone floors. and Poe all admired Brown's work. seemingly of stone masonry-very smooth.character of my judges to doubt. yet dared not to employ my vision. perished usually at the autos-da-fe. stepping with all the careful distrust with which certain antique narratives had inspired me. Moreover. Most of the great autos-da-fe took place when Tomas de Torquemada was head of the Inquisition. as well as all the condemned cells at Toledo. I longed. of the darkness seemed to oppress and stifle me. translating the European Gothic tradition into American terms. save in a whisper. as I still continued to step cautiously onward. a yellow penitential garment with a red cross on the front and back (grotesquely embroidered for the unrepentant). is altogether inconsistent with real existence.

and the peculiar smell of decayed fungus arose to my nostrils. when led into the inquisitorial chamber. as does the narrator of "A Descent into the Maelstrom. at least I thought: but I had not counted upon the extent of the dungeon." According to Edwards. a hundred paces. I had no means of ascertaining at the 12 The narrator has literally circumscribed his world. whose survival in a hostile environment is based on their willingness to forgo old assumptions and meet a new world on its own terms. At length. in a few seconds afterward. of course. QUitting the wall. when the remnant of the torn hem of my robe became entangled between my legs. At the same time my forehead seemed bathed in a clammy vapor. I did not immediately apprehend a somewhat startling circumstance. I resumed my tour around the prison. so as to identify my point of departure. the quotation from Psalms implies that sinners "were always exposed to sudden unexpected destruction. 13 The image of the pit has. The difficulty. There were in all. I had little object-certainly no hope-in these researches. Upon awaking. How are they brought into desolation. although. So." that remarkable tract by Jonathan Edwards (1703-58). . and return to the point whence I set out without being aware of the fact. I resolved to cross the area of the enclosure. 12 but a vague curiosity prompted me to continue them. and sleep SOon overtook me as I lay. I had advanced some ten or twelve paces in this manner. I took courage. however. This is important. but it was gone. Up to the period when I fell I had counted fifty-two paces. or upon my own weakness. was treacherous with slime. While Poe was an alien to the New England tradition. the last apostle of New England Puritanism. which yet. then. as I might make its' circuit. nevertheless. as in a moment!" These lines are also part of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. and did not hesitate to step firmly. and shuddered to find that I had fallen at the very brink of a circular pit.-when I arrived at the rag." He is an example of Poe's "passive" narrators. but my lips and the upper portion of my head. there is a strong parallel between "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. but ate and drank with avidity. I staggered onward for some time. and at right angles to the wall. ' In the confusion attending my fall. however. although seemingly at a less elevation than the chin. when I stumbled and fell. although seemingly of solid material. and. I was too much exhausted to reflect upon this circumstance. thou castedst them down into destruction. The ground was moist and slippery. for vault I could not help supposing it to be. he can't foresee one moment whether he shall stand or fall the next. At first I proceeded with extreme caution. for it shows he has both brains and imagination. I had met. My excessive fatigue induced me to remain prostrate. I tore a part of the hem from the robe and placed the fragment at fun length. and . arrested my attention. been connected with Hell and destruction. and fell Violently on my face. I found beside me a loaf and a pitcher with water. I presumed the dungeon to be fifty yards in circuit. Shortly afterward. it seemed at first insuperable. and thus I could form no guess at the shape of the vault. touched nothing. in the disorder of my fancy.and that he can combine "trivial" discoveries with creative thought and come up with solutions to his predicament. my clothes had ben exchanged for a wrapper of coarss serge. endeavoring to cross in as direct a line as possible. I put forward my arm.124 The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe of ascertaining the dimensions of my dungeon. whose extent. and stretching forth an arm. so perfectly uniform seemed the wall. I could not fail to encounter this rag upon completing the' circuit. for centuries. as in Psalms 73:18-19: "Surely thou didst set them in slippery places. was but trivial. came at last upon the fragment of the serge. It was this-my chin rested upon the floor of the prison. and upon resuming my walk. I stepped on it. I therefore sought the knife which had been in my pocket. I had thought of forcing the blade in Some minute crevice of the masonry. with many angles in the wall. and with much toil. and while I still lay prostrate. for the floor. admitting two paces to the yard. I had counted forty-eight more. As he that walks in slippery places is every moment liable to fall. In groping my way around the prison.

. resolving there to perish rather than risk the terrors of the wells. The whole circuit of its walls did not exceed twenty-five yards. is a passive element in the universe. . and then." says Daniel B. but now I was the veriest of cowards. "However close we sometimes seem to that dark and final abyss. both writers say." 14 15 16 16 His sleep "like that of death" ends. Another thing implied is that they are liable to fall of themselves. For it is said. of course. Another step before my fall. In other conditions of mind I might have had courage to end my misery at once by a plunge into one of the abysses. Edwards was a highly original thinker who moved "out from an intense and sometimes fatalistic subjectivity to construct a vast. the objects around me were visible. for scarcely had I drunk. A burning thirst consumed me." Despite his Puritan theology. . At the same moment there came a sound resembling the quick opening. For some minutes this fact occasioned me a world of vain trouble. As he that stands or walks on slippery ground. vain indeed! for what could be of less importance. in fact. 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. 14 Mental. By long suffering my nerves had been unstrung. and President Kennedy in 1962 said. is no Puritan. I know not. let no man of peace and freedom despair. while a faint gleam of light flashed suddenly through the gloom. and don't fall now. he falls at once. but the mere pleasure of God. . but will let them go. Shaking in every limb. It must havebeen drugged. 200). at anyone moment. I was enabled to see the extent and aspect of the prison. suggests that there is an appointed time. before I became irresistibly drowsy. By "wild. Groping about the masonry just below the margin. For many seconds I hearkened to its reverberations as it dashed against the sides of the chasm in its descent. without being thrown down by the hand of another.. psychological 15 The abyss is associated with nothingness. p. at length there was a sullen plunge into water. . up to the period when I fell. And the death just avoided. I saw clearly the doom which had been prepared for me. but when. I must have returned upon my 125 13 when he does fall. and as suddenly faded away. chaos. when he is let go he immediately falls and is lost. their foot shall slide . and congratulated myself upon the timely accident by which I had escaped. In my first attempt at exploration I had counted fifty-two paces. I succeeded in dislodging a small fragment. sulphurous lustre. or appinted time comes.The Pit and the Pendulum moment. But Poe. . I had nearly performed the circuit of the vault. the origin of which I could not at first determine. was of that very character which I had regarded as fabulous and frivolous in the tales respecting the Inquisition.. Found in a Bottle. although that flame is usually blue and yellow. a loaf and a pitcher of water. as before." the narrator alludes to the burning of sulfur (brimstone). and upon awaking. like Edwards. In its size I had been greatly mistaken. and let it fall into the abyss. The truth at length flashed upon me. To the victims of its tyranny. I then slept. kept from destruction only by the whim of God/Fate. and annihilation. and as rapid closing of a door overhead. [r. I must then have been within a pace or two of the fragment of serge. Agitation of spirit kept me awake for many long hours. but at length I again slumbered. I found by my side. and he awakens in something very much like Hell. I had been reserved for the latter. I groped my way back to the wall. as there is for the narrator of "MS. metaphysically ambitious correlative of the soul." it is this "wild interest in trifles" that saves him. God won't hold them up in these slippery places any longer. at that very instant. not the red that one would expect of hellfire. or death with its most hideous moral horrors. The observation from the words that I would not insist upon is this. needs nothing but his own weight to throw him down ." writes Ernest Renan in a memorable passage from Souvenirs d'enfance et de jeunesse (1883). Writers after Poe have continued to use it in this manner. until I trembled at the sound of my own voice. without warning . succeeded by loud echoes. How long it lasted of course. than the mere dimensions of my dungeon? But my soul took a wild interest in trifles. is only that God's appointed time is not come. and the world had seen me no more. 17 17 Like the narrator of "A Descent into the Maelstrom. and I busied myself in endeavors to account for the error I had committed in my measurement. . once again. there was the choice of death with its direst physical agonies. under the terrible circumstances which environed me. 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. "An immense river of oblivion is sweeping us away into a nameless abyss. His words could just as easily refer to Poe. out of Hell. 1972. Upon arousing. A deep sleep fell upon me-a sleep like that of death. . that when that due time. in Major Writers of Early American Literature (Wisconsin. of which my imagination now pictured many in various positions about the dungeon.. That the reason why they are not fallen already. Man." Poe. 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. "There is nothing that keeps wicked men. they shall fall into destruction. as he that stands in such slippery declining ground on the edge of a pit that he can't stand alone. By a wild sulphurous lustre. I unclosed my eyes. Shea. The narrator escapes the pit-this time. and I emptied the vessel at a draught.

The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe steps-thus supposing the circuit nearly double what it actually was. and ended it with the wall to the right. 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. with the pendulum adding the idea of slow. clothed in fire were breathing. for I was consumed. My confusion of mind prevented me from observing that I began my tour with the wall to the left. and of course slow. upon a table. I now lay upon my back. but that the colors seemed faded and blurred. but also the girdle. and it is so constructed as to become longer with every movement. too. which was of stone." Poe may have also been inspired by a description in Chapter Six of Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). and. that the pitcher had been removed. To this I was securely bound by a long 19 strap resembling a surcingle. I had been deceived. and gradually cuts on. A slight noise attracted my notice.. I saw. to my horror. . In an instant afterward the fancy was confirmed. What I touched was cold . and I comprehended that these were hideous figures scrawled in phosphorous to terrify me. April 1827= "One of these prisoners had been condemned.. The scythe is the instrument by which Time "cuts down" all things according to their allotted span. This. for a priest's cassock. 18 Compare with the bedchamber of "Ligeia. looking to the floor. who. In the centre yawned the circular pit from whose jaws I had escaped. While I gazed directly upward at it (for its position was immediately over my own) I fancied that I saw it in motion. in respect to the shape of the enclosure. overspread and disfigured the walls. whose sutures or joints occasioned the depression. I now noticed the floor. I surveyed the ceiling of my prison. let it be remembered. according to tradition. or cincture. but more in wonder. . 19 A belt or girth around the body of a horse to keep a saddle or pack on the animal's back. In feeling my way I had found many angles. somewhat in fear. Poe no doubt borrowed the idea from the preface to Llorente's History of the Inquisition (1826). until life is extinct. but it was the only one in the dungeon. 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. . Time can also be seen as a sort of sword of Damocles. too. and every moment the keen edge approaching nearer and nearer: at length it cuts the skin of his nose. It was the painted picture of Time as he is commonly represented save that." Poe mentions Melmoth in a letter of July 1836 and in a review in Graham's of January 1842. and other more really fearful 18 images. There was something. which hangs over our heads. What I had taken for masonry seemed now to be iron. I supposed to be the pictured 20 image of a huge pendulum such as we see on antique clocks. with skeleton forms. and constructed much as the side walls. or some other metal. and my left arm to such extent that I could. and thus deduced an idea of great irregularity.. Looking upward. is actually that of Saturn. Wearied at length with observing its dull movement. reprinted in a review in the Philadelphia Museum. In one of its panels a very singular figure riveted my whole attention. The method of thus destroying the victim is as follows:-the condemned is fastened in a groove. Here the scythe is a pendulum. in huge plates. Its sweep was brief. or ensuring confiscation. This thirst it appeared to be the design of my persecutors to stimulate: for the food in the dish was meat pungently seasoned. with intolerable thirst. The general shape of the prison was square. 20 The figure of Time. at a casual glance. by dint of much exertion. the edge of which is sharp. he held what. carries an hourglass and a scythe. leaving at liberty only my head. who. forth clouds of it around me. 1820!!!" . The wretch sees this implement of destruction swing to and fro above him.. I turned my eyes upon the other objects in the cell. and at full length. on his back. as we now know it. at odd intervals. and was to have suffered on the following day. The figures of fiends in aspects of menace. It passed in many convolutions about my limbs and body. was a punishment of the Secret Tribunal. suspended above him is a Pendulum. It may be doubted if the holy office in its mercy ever invented a more humane and rapid method of exterminating heresy.D. I watched it for some minutes. or niches. on perceiving myself surrounded by demons. in lieu of a scythe. supply myself with food from an earthen dish which lay by my side on the floor. however. I observed that the outlines of these monstrosities were sufficiently distinct. steady marking off of one's lifetime. by Charles Robert Maturin: "I started up with horror . It was some thirty or forty feet overhead. in the appearance of this machine which caused me to regard it more attentively. on a species of low framework of wood. His punishment was to be death by the Pendulum. A. I say to my horror. as if from the effects of a damp atmosphere. All this I saw indistinctly and by much effort: for my personal condition had been greatly changed during slumber. so that two symbols of Time are combined.

it was brief. made his appearance." and connected with the Greek telos.The Pit and the Pendulum I saw several enormous rats traversing it. like Camden. 22 Avails or profits (obsolete usage) 23 Compare with Thomas Mann's (a pseudonym for William Maginn) "The Man in the Bell" (1821). "end. Even then. And then Hell suddenly calm. Having failed to fall. the horns upward. The sweep of the pendulum had increased in extent by nearly a yard. 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 eyes ofinfernal lustre. with hoof. At last the devil himself. still more appalling. I could no longer doubt the doom prepared for me by monkish ingenuity in torture. In that tale. perhaps even an hour. formed an important portion of all the grotesquerie of these dungeon deaths. meaning "the most remote land. Even amid the agonies 25 of that period. Solinus. accoutred." "To look at the object was bitter as death. or Isles of Darkness. But what mainly disturbed me was the idea that it had perceptibly descended. The odor of the sharp steel forced itself into my nostrils. and struggled to force myself upward against the sweep of the fearful . allured by the scent of the meat. inexpressibly sick and weak. and lay smiling at the 23 glittering death. I grew frantically mad. scimitar. its velocity was also much greater. and who could have arrested the vibration at pleasure. From this it required much effort and attention to scare them away. horn. as a child at some rare bauble. and took possession of the small remnant which had been 127 21 The end of the world. As a natural consequence. 24 He seems to be mesmerized by the moving. where it is to be pronounced "Thuly. What boots it to tell of the long. which lay just within view to my right. consider it to be Shetland. Its etymology is unclear. Thule was the most northern point known to the ancient Romans. Bochart says it is a Syrian word and that the Phoenician merchants who traded to the group called it Gezirat Thule. I felt very-oh. while others. At the same time.~il." but he cannot keep his eyes from it. for I knew there were demons who took note of my swoon. too. Like a razor also. tapering from the edge into a solid and broad structure above. about a foot in length from hom to hom. and the under edge evidently as keen as that of a razor. it seemed massy and heavy. while I gazed. With painful effort I outstretched my left arm as far as my bonds permitted. They had issued from the well." not uncommon in previous centuries. the last extremity. But it might have been long. which Poe pokes fun at in "How to Write a Blackwood Article. by lack of food and water . (for I could take but imperfect note of time) before I again cast my eyes upward. or entrapment into torment. as in the common description of the evil spirit. Pliny. It was appended to a weighty rod of brass. they came up in troops. and the whole hissed as it swung through the air. typical of hell. Upon my recovery. the cavern in which he is trapped seems to be full of hideous faces." Poe mentions it again in his poem Dream-Land." the narrator tells how "Every moment I saw the bell sweep within an inch of my face. no doubt. as if through long inanition. the human nature craved food. or with grinning mockery. but it could be the Gothic Tiule. I now observed-with what horror it is needless to say-that its nether extremity was formed of a crescent of glittering steel. upon again lapsing into life there had been no perceptible descent in the pendulum. long hours of horror more 22 than mortal. 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. "The bell pealing above and opening its jaws with a hideous clamor" seems to be "a ravening monster raging to devour" him. hurriedly. with ravenous eyes. 25 Lethargy caused. and . which glare down on him "with terrifying frowns. it was no part of the demon plan to hurl me into the abyss. and regarded by rumor as the Ultima Thule of all their punishments. and I knew that surprise. What I then saw confounded and amazed me. and Mela take it for Iceland. 24 There was another interval of utter insensibility. Milder! I half smiled in my agony as I thought of such application of such a term. I prayed-I wearied heaven with my prayer for its more speedy descent. for. glittering object. It might have been half an hour. The plunge into this pit I had 21 avoided by the merest of accidents. and thus (there being no alternative) a different and a milder destruction awaited me.

. Yet what business had I with hope? It was. although death would have been a relief.128 The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe spared me by the rats. in so dwelling. To the right-to the left-far and wide--with the shriek of a damned spirit. It was hope that prompted the nerve to quiver-the frame to shrink. to free my left arm. I could arrest here the descent of the steel. every act of balance or sanity only leads to a worsening of his situation. sufficient to sunder these very walls of iron.to my mouth. In vain I struggled to perfect-to regain it. For the first time during many hoursor perhaps days-I thought. I might as well have attempted to arrest an avalanche! Down-still unceasingly-still inevitably down! Ivgasped and struggled at each vibration. Could I have broken the fastenings above the elbow. I took a frenzied pleasure in contrasting its downward with its lateral velocity. but no farther. and with this observation there suddenly came over my spirit all the keen. I forced myself to ponder upon the sound of the crescent as it should pass across the garment-upon the peculiar thrilling sensation which the friction of cloth produces on the nerves. I would have seized and attempted to arrest the pendulum. it would accomplish. this paradox suggests that while Poe ordinarily remained true to his conception of the torture of the disordered personality. from the platter beside me. for several minutes. Vol. relentlessly down! It yibrated within three inches of my bosom! I struggled violently. I shrunk convulsively at its every sweep. It was hope-the hope that triumphs on the rackthat: whispers to the death-condemned even in the dungeon 26 of the Inquisition. glistening axe upon my bosom. a half formed thought-man has many such which are never completed. It now occurred to me that the 26 "Because of the limitations imposed upon him by an inquisitionary force. collected calmness of despair. as I say. there rushed to my mind a half formed thought of joy-of hope. I saw that some ten or twelve vibrations would bring the steel in actual contact with my robe. with great effort. Long suffering had nearly annihilated all my ordinary powers of mind. I could reach the latter. And at this thought I paused. I pondered upon all this frivolity until my teeth were on edge. I dwelt upon it with a pertinacity of attention-as if. . Down-steadily down it crept. Down-certainly. The vibration of the pendulum was at right angles to my length. Notwithstanding its terrifically wide sweep (some thirty feet or more) and the hissing vigor of its descent. 25). It would fray the serge of my robe-it would return and repeat its operation-again-and again. but I felt also that it had perished in its formation. oh! how unspeakable! Still I quivered in every nerve to think how slight a sinking of the machinery would precipitate that keen. I saw that the crescent was designed to cross the region of the heart. they closed themselves spasmodically at the descent. 1969. As I put a portion ofit within my lips. My eyes followed its outward or upward whirls with the eagerness of the most unmeaning despair. to my heart with the stealthy pace of the tiger! I alternately laughed and howled as the one or the other idea grew predominant. 2. p. furiously. still the fraying of my robe would be all that. I was an imbecile-s-an idiot. I dared not go farther than this reflection. he did not overlook the possibility that sanity can be more terrifying than madness" (James Lundquist. This was free only from the elbow to the hand. I felt that it was of joy-of hope. Poe Newsletter.

as it seemed. was unique. and. and of which a moiety only floated indeterminately through my brain when 28 I raised food to my burning lips. would so detach it that it might be unwound from my person by means of my left hand. The surcingle enveloped my limbs and body close in all directions-save in the path of the destroying 27 All in one piece (archaic) 129 crescent. glistening axe upon my bosom. nineteenth century .The Pit and the Pendulum bandage. 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. 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. I 27 was tied by no separate cord. But how fearful. the proximity of the steel! The result of the slightest struggle how deadly! Was it likely. Illustration by Jules Descartes Ferat. my last hope frustrated. when there flashed upon my mind what I cannot better describe than as the unformed half of that idea of deliverance to which I have previously alluded. I so far elevated my head as to obtain a distinct view of my breast. moreover. The first stroke of the razor-like crescent athwart any portion of the band. or surcingle. in that case. Scarcely had I dropped my head back into its original position. which enveloped me.

I had fallen into an habitual see-saw. and slow-I slid from the embrace of the bandage and beyond the reach of the scimitar. by some invisible force. But the stroke of the pendulum already pressed upon my bosom. disgust." I thought. They were wild.The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe present-feeble. "To what food. They shrank alarmedly back. Forth from the well they hurried in fresh troops. I proceeded at once. bold. 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. But the moment of escape had arrived. 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. . in spite of all my efforts to prevent them. . The measured movement of the pendulum disturbed them not at all. I knew that in more than one place it must be already severed. With the particles of the oily and spicy viand which now remained. at length. I was half stifled by their thronging pressure. 30 Rats are traditional symbols of infirmity ad death. Avoiding its strokes they busied themselves with the anointed bandage. I at length felt that I was free. with the nervous energy of despair. "have they been 29 accustomed in the well?" They had devoured. But this was only for a moment. for which the world has no name. At a wave of my hand my deliverers hurried tumultuously away. their cold lips sought my own. It had cut through the linen beneath. They clung to the wood-they overran it. one or two of the boldest leaped upon the framework. through the ceiling. 31 and a sharp sense of pain shot through every nerve. raising my hand from the floor. In their voracity the vermin frequently fastened their sharp fangs in my fingers. I lay breathlessly still. For many hours the immediate vicinity of the low framework upon which I lay. For the moment. scarcely sane. scarcely definite. when the motion of the hellish machine ceased and I beheld it drawn up. their red eyes glaring upon me as if they waited but for motionlessness on my part to make me their prey. 31 The narrator does not escape unscythed. sidelong. and leaped in hundreds upon my person. as well as Robert Southey's verses "God's Judgment on a Wicked Bishop. with a heavy clamminess. andappropriately here-the underworld. The animal also represents plague. Nor had I erred in my calculations-nor had I endured in vain. to attempt its execution. shrinking. and I felt that the struggle would be over. This seemed the signal for a general rush. Yet one minute. and smelt at the surcingle. swelled 30 my bosom. Twice again it swung. I was free. With a steady movement--cautious. I had not counted in vain upon their voracity. I thoroughly rubbed the bandage wherever I could reach it. Plainly I perceived the loosening of the bandage. It had divided the serge of the robe." . decay. and so the rat's kiss is horrifying beyond mere sanitary reasons. had been literally swarming with rats. who was supposedly eaten by mice in the tower he had built as a refuge. With a more than human resolution I lay still. the unconscious uniformity of the movement deprived it of effect. Observing that I remained without motion. They writhed upon my throat. my heart. Poe may have had this in mind. at least. all but a small remnant of the contents of the dish. ravenous.-but still entire. many sought the well. or wave of the hand about the platter: and. They pressed-they swarmed upon me in ever accumulating heaps. At first the ravenous animals were startled and terrified at the change-at the cessation of movement. The surcingle hung in ribands from my body. then. and chilled.

I could not appreciate distinctly-it was obvious. and were momentarily assuming. I endeavored. As before. endeavored to appreciate or understand what was taking place. yet the colors seemed blurred and indefinite. did my spirit refuse to comprehend the meaning of what I saw.-Oh! for a voice to speak!-oh! horror!oh! any horror but this! With a shriek. of a wild and ghastly vivacity. At length it forced. Something unusual-some change which. since heat would have to be provided on all four sides and somehow not interfere with the movement of the walls. shuddering as with a fit of the ague. The Inquisitorial vengeance had been hurried by my two-fold escape. I had observed that. and were. This torture device is not only elaborate but fantastic. glared upon me in a thousand directions. although the outlines of the figures upon the walls were sufficiently distinct. where none had been visible before.The Pit and the Pendulum heart. With that thought I rolled my eyes nervously around on the barriers of iron that hemmed me in. I rushed from the margin. For many minutes of a dreamy and trembling abstraction. These colors had now assumed. about half an inch in width. 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. a startling and most intense brilliancy. extending entirely around the prison at the base of the walls. for a wild moment. Yet. My every motion was undoubtedly watched. 34 What he sees is. to be delivered unto worse than death in some other. I busied myself in vain. 32 As I· arose from the attempt. But not long was I left in doubt. The glare from the enkindled roof illumined its inmost recesses. only a pit. I saw that two of its iron angles were now acute-two. comprehends is annihilation. and once again I looked up. Amid the thought of the fiery destruction that impended. and gleamed with the lurid lustre of a fire that I could not force my imagination to regard as unreal. the idea of the coolness of the well came over my soul like balm. and buried my face in my hands-weeping bitterly. had taken place in the apartment. The heat rapidly increased. fires the thing up. I rushed to its deadly brink. unconnected conjecture. which thus appeared. the mystery of the alteration in the chamber broke at once upon my understanding. 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.34 it wrestled its way into my soul-it burned itself in upon my shuddering reason. it was in vain that I. Demon eyes. It proceeded from a fissure. that gave to the spectral and fiendish portraitures an aspect that might have thrilled even firmer nerves than my own. to look through the aperture. at first. 131 32 He apparently sees the light from' the furnace that heats the iron. During this period. "How to Write a Blackwood Article" mentions a tale entitled "The Involuntary Experimentalist. of the origin of the sulphurous light which illumined the cell. not knowing of his presence. There had been a second change in the cell-and now the change was obviously in the form. at first. Free!-I had but escaped death in one form of agony. I threw my straining vision below. completely separated from the floor. but what he . and there was to be no more dallying with the King of Terrors. The room had been square. but of course in vain. 33 The room has truly taken on the aspect of Hell." about a man working inside a boiler who is trapped when someone. I became aware. for the first time. of course.

The Inquisition was in the hands of its enemies. 153-54) Marie Bonaparte sees Poe as heing caught between the male force (the pendulum) and the female (the pit). 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).132 The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe consequently. 2. " (James Lundquist. This. It was that of General Lasalle. and for Poe that is frightening merely because we do not 35 36 37 38 . He is completely limited in time. and the hero escapes the pendulum-but he escapes into a more restricted and horrible situation. I struggled no more. . He cannot let the scimitar "enter and split his heart-the scimitar replacing the phallus. and impelled toward a gaping abyss. 36 The narrator would rather die by the red-hot walls than be cast into oblivion. to be delivered into worse than death in some other. Even though the three faculties are perfectly unified when the glowing walls begin to close in. surrounded by watchful rats. the frying-pan versus the fire . charging that the moving walls are stolen from "The Iron Shroud.' he says as he enters the third and most horrible crisis. its greatest width. the room is huilt of blocks that are removed a few at a time." (The Power of Blackness. within the context of the tale. 'The Pit and the Pendulum. intellect. The French army had entered Toledo. he comprehends the predicament and wants to escape. into the abyss. 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. 592) In Jungian analysis. "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. 38 General Antoine Chevalier Louis Colbert. 1969. upon confrontation.. swift retreat of the walls-just in time to save the narrator-is impossible. sanity can no longer help the hero. . quite unlike Poe's.." I said. The fearful difference quickly increased with a low rumbling or moaning sound." The man who wants to enter Heaven must first go through Hell (or at least Purgatory) ." and he cannot enter the pit-the female sexual organ--either. it works beautifully. he was always to be tossed between these poles of his bisexuality with never a hope of escape. is indicativeof Poe's suppressed homosexual nature. pp. threatened by an encroaching mechanism. There. fainting. long. she says. flatter and flatter grew the lozenge. His climactic adventure. pp. entered Toledo during the Peninsular War of 1808. and an unjustified condemnation. In an instant the apartment had shifted its form into that of a lozenge. and final scream of despair. and his will. his intellect. if even that. "Feeling. His escape is "the supreme wishphantasy of Poe. Its centre." (P. and recoiling from both. seem worse than their alternatives: the pit or the pendulum.. but there is no alternative left. "Death. His arrival parallels the announcement of the Second Coming in Browning's Childe Hamid: "He that endureth to the end shall be saved. for. 25-26) 37 It is only when we think about it afterward that we realize that the sudden. Harry Levin sees the tale as an existential parable: "The hero is not less heroic because he suffers rather than acts. I could have clasped the red walls to my bosom as a garment of eternal peace.. an unjust imprisonment. isolated and immobilized. and of course. I shrank back-but the closing walls pressed me resistlessly onward. accuses Poe of plagiarism. 35 Griswold. Poe Newsletter. At length for my seared and writhing body there was no longer an inch offoothold on the firm floor of the prison. Vintage." by William Mudford (Blackuiood's. But the alteration stopped not h~re-I neither hoped nor desired it to stop. could I withstand its pressure? And now. came just over the yawning gulf. in his memoir of Poe (1850). Comte de Lasalle. Through his feeling. 1958. and which has visualized the ordeal of life itself-through the apprehensive eyes of Franz Kafkaas an arbitrary trial. His previous escapes have worsened his condition to the point where he gives up hope and yields at last. the pit or hole is seen as symbolic of the passage from temporal to nontemporal existence. obtuse. but the agony of my soul found vent in one loud. and will function together. August 1830). For Poe the will is constrained to choose between evils which. nor is he less contemporary in an epoch which has so vastly multiplied the sentence of political imprisonment. however. to lose once and for all his sole claim to existence. 'I had but escaped death in one form of agony. However. for no adjustment of the faculties can help him. with a rapidity that left me no time for contemplation.' abandons him to the existential dilemma: the agony of the prostrate individual. in effect.

" (M. 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. the death of the self. Poe seems to offer something for everyone. as symbolized by the pit. 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.-L. Yet the Jungian self does at least have a hope of saving itself: "Whenever a human being genuinely turns to the inner world. Thus "The Pit and the Pendulum" can be read as a simple tale of terror. Man and his Symbols. an unconscious reworking of Poe's ambivalent sexuality.The Pit and the Pendulum 133 know what lies beyond. a representation of the emergence of the self. can he be saved. The ego will then find an inner power that contains all the possibilities of renewal. and tries to know himself-not by ruminating about his subjective thoughts and feelings. von Franz. a parable of man's existence. and surrenders himself completely to God. is even more so. p. .

he nnotated Talesof LL Edited with an Introduction. and a Bibliography by STEPHEN PEITHMAN Doubleday & Company. New York 1981 . Notes.. lnc. Garden City.

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