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