Text: E. Arthur Robinson, “Thoreau and the Deathwatch in Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’,” Poe Studies, June 1971, vol. IV, no. 1, 4:14-16


[page 14, column 1:]

Thoreau and the Deathwatch in Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”

University of Rhode Island

John E. Reilly has identified “the death watches in the wall,” to which the narrator in Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” hearkened “night after night,” as an insect (Liposcelis divinatorius) , and notes further a superstition that the sounds produced by the insect were “held to presage the death of someone in the house where they are heard” (1). For both insect and superstition Professor Reilly cites sources in entomological texts of Poe’s day, as well as literary references in the writing of Addison, Swift, Goldsmith, Keats, and later, Mark Twain. Since several of these sources liken the noise made by the insect to the ticking or clicking of a watch, and Poe’s narrator describes what he believes to be the beating of the old man’s heart as creating “a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton” (2), Mr. Reilly argues plausibly that these sounds originate in the clicking of an actual insect which the narrator, in his agitation, amplifies into the loud “beating” of the heart that drives him into a frenzy.

It may be noted, then, that we have in the tale two distinct types of reference to the sounds in question. The first is to the noise of the insects on previous nights, which the narrator mentions as simply and literally as any other night noise. The second is to the beating or watch-like sound on the night of the murder, which, irrespective of its actual quality or origin, varies in keeping with the narrator’s internal state. Reference to the first of these two types occurs in the story once and to the second, on a much more extensive scale, twice. Poe makes no overt connection between the two classes of reference. The noise made by the deathwatches on earlier nights is not described, with the result that as a clue it can be apparent only to readers otherwise familiar with the insect. Indeed, Poe leaves any rational explanation of the later “sounds” wholly to the reader’s insight or imagination, offering, through the narrator, subjective data for speculation. My object here, however, is not to discuss Mr. Reilly’s interpretation of the “death watches,” but to point out and comment on an additional similar passage which Poe is likely to have known.

Under the date of August 10, 1838, Henry David Thoreau recorded in his Journal a note on “The Time of the Universe” that includes an allusion to “the cricket’s chant, and the tickings of the deathwatch in the wall” (3). Thoreau incorporated a revision of this passage in his “Natural History of Massachusetts” published in the July 1842 issue of The Dial. The complete paragraph in The Dial reads as follows:

In the autumn days, the creaking of crickets is heard at noon over all the land, and as in summer they are heard chiefly at [column 2:] night-fall, so then by their incessant chirp they usher in the evening of the year. Nor can all the vanities that vex the world alter one whit the measure that night has chosen. Every pulse-beat is in exact time with the cricket’s chant and the tickings of the deathwatch in the wall. Alternate with these if you can (4).

The context reveals that Thoreau is writing with general optimism of man’s possible closeness to nature, in contrast to the anxiety which marks the usual literary reference to the deathwatch. “Entomology extends the limits of being in a new direction,” writes Thoreau, “so that I walk in nature with a sense of greater space and freedom.” He adds, “I explore, too, with pleasure, the sources of the myriad sounds which crowd the summer noon, and which seem the very grain and stuff of which eternity is made.” In contrast, he declares, the “din of religion, literature, and philosophy . . . . is the three-inch swing of a pendulum in a cupboard, which the great pulse of nature vibrates by and through each instant” (The Dial, 3, 21-22). Curiously, in The Dial Thoreau omits the sentence immediately preceding mention of the deathwatch in his Journal: “The human soul is a silent harp in God’s quire, whose strings need only to be swept by the divine breath to chime in with the harmonies of creation.” Despite Poe’s antagonism toward Transcendentalism, such a statement would have held interest for him could he have read it.

I cannot show beyond question that Poe used Thoreau’s essay in writing “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Nevertheless, apparent relationships are so impressive that the facts should be reviewed and their implicit significance brought out.

In the first place, it is probable that Poe read the paragraph by Thoreau. The dates of publication are close enough to require careful examination. Emerson had just taken over the editorship of The Dial from Margaret Fuller, the July 1842 number, which contains Thoreau’s essay, being the first for which he assumed responsibility, and the issue was off the press by the first or second day of that month (5). “The Tell-Tale Heart” appeared in January 1843, in Lowell’s The Pioneer, and had been submitted before December 17, 1842 (6). It is impossible to determine how much earlier Poe may have written the story, but on the ground of his desperate need of money in the summer of 1842, as well as his habits of publication, it seems unlikely that he completed the tale before Thoreau’s essay was in print (7).

The Dial was published as a quarterly between July 1840 and April 1844. Stirred by an almost lifelong dream of founding a magazine, Poe commented frequently on new ventures in this field. His surviving references to The Dial are relatively numerous. He mentions the magazine at least as early as September 1841, when he wrote to Joseph Snodgrass denying that his “Extravaganza,” “Never Bet Your Head,” in the current issue of Graham’s Magazine, was aimed specifically at The Dial: “You are mistaken about ‘The Dial. ’ I have no quarrel in the world with that illustrious journal, nor it with me. I am not aware that it ever mentioned my name, or alluded to me either directly or indirectly. My slaps at it were only in ‘a general way ’ “ (8). In his “Autography” of January 1842 he charges Emerson with obscurity and affectation but finds “flashes” of beauty in his poems, some of which [page 15:] he remembers from The Dial, citing verses which appeared in the July 1840 and January 1841 numbers (XV, 260). Nor do Poe’s allusions to The Dial, usually caustic, end with the decease of that journal in 1844. In “The Literati of New York City” for July 1846 he describes Christopher Pearse Cranch as “at one time one of the most noted, and undoubtedly one of the least absurd contributors to ‘The Dial ’ . . . .” (XV, 69). There is another reference, more neutral, in a biographical sketch of Margaret Fuller the following month. Best known is the sarcastic animadversion to the Transcendental magazine which provides a conclusion to Poe’s third review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales in 1847.

Poe mentions several figures in connection with The Dial — Emerson, Cranch, Margaret Fuller, Alcott indirectly, and Hawthorne by extension—but not, to my knowledge, Henry David Thoreau. In the early 1840’s Poe would have little reason to know of Thoreau. Indeed, “Natural History of Massachusetts” appeared in 1842 without Thoreau’s name, as the product merely of “a near neighbor and friend of ours, dear also to the Muses, a native and an inhabitant of the town of Concord” (The Dial, 3, 19). Thoreau’s paper ostensibly is a review of Reports—on the Fishes, Reptiles, and Birds; the Herbaceous Plants and Quadrupeds; the Insects Injurious to Vegetation; and the Invertebrate Animals—of Massachusetts, by the Commissioners on the Zoological and Botanical Survey of the State. It is the second article in a rather long table of contents. Thoreau allows himself wide latitude to present his own vital experiences with nature; although he includes considerable information from the Reports, he leaves himself open to Poe’s strictures on “the reviewer(?)” who writes more about his own beliefs than about the publication being reviewed. Poe expressed these sentiments in his “Exordium” for Graham’s in January 1842. The critic’s concern, Poe maintains, is solely with the “Art” of the production—its values in other fields, such as history or metaphysics, being left to readers in those areas. The Massachusetts Reports made no pretense to “Art,” at least in the capital letter sense, the Art residing in Thoreau’s review.

In brief, then, the records indicate that Poe was a professional reader of The Dial, and with his interest in current criticism it seems unlikely that he would have “skipped” Thoreau’s anonymous review in the July 1842 issue.

In the second place, none of the earlier references cited by Mr. Reilly contains the exact wording “deathwatch [or “death watches”] in the wall” as used by Thoreau and Poe in publications six months apart. I would not make too much of this similarity, as it may exist in allusions not quoted by Mr. Reilly, nor is it difficult to conceive that two such stylists as Thoreau and Poe would hit upon the rhythmic and alliterative phrase “deathwatches in the wall” independency. I presume the insects literally exist in the walls of a building. Several writers, with Thoreau, refer to their “ticking” or “clicking,” and some cite the resemblance between this sound and that made by a watch in explanation of the name given the insect. Mr. Reilly quotes Oliver Goldsmith’s phrase “death-watches in the wainscot.” Thoreau and Poe both mention crickets in speaking of the deathwatch, but so do [column 2:] other writers, no doubt because the chirping of crickets is one of the most conventional night noises. Thus chance may play a considerable role in such verbal repetitions. Indeed, the wording most nearly identical with Thoreau’s appears in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer in 1876 (again cited by Mr. Reilly), as Tom shudders at the “ghastly ticking of a deathwatch in the wall,” and one would hesitate to assume that Twain was familiar with Thoreau’s “Natural History of Massachusetts.” Nevertheless, the coincidence between Poe’s and Thoreau’s expression is a fact and must be considered.

Even more striking than the verbal echoing is the similarity in the figurative use which Thoreau and Poe make of the deathwatch. Previous to Poe’s tale, only Thoreau, so far as I know, associates the sound and tempo of the deathwatch with the beating of the heart. “Every pulsebeat,” writes Thoreau, “is in exact time with . . . . the tickings of the deathwatch in the wall.” In Poe’s story the connection is more indirect, as the figurative application is unstated. Mr. Reilly’s interpretation, supported by considerable acute analysis, is that the insect’s ticking is “the source of the sound which the murderer believes to have been the heart beat of the old man” (p. 3). At the very least we have a juxtaposition: the narrator is reminded of his lonely hearkening to the deathwatches, and shortly after, following observation of the old man’s eye, he ~begins to hear the “low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton.” He assumes that his “over acuteness of the senses” has enabled him to hear the beating of the old man’s heart, which mounts in terror until he is killed. Later, the murderer “hears” the beating of the dead heart, ever louder, as he chats with the police. Most commentators, including myself, have previously attributed this hallucination to the narrator’s hearing his own heart beat. I believe Mr. Reilly makes a good case for the role of the deathwatch— although I also believe that, since the murderer’s terror keeps pace with that of his victim and in the second instance is solely his own, his own heartbeat must also be brought back into the picture. Mr. Reilly remarks perceptively that “the presence and absence of the sound during the night of the murder,” along with its change in tempo and volume, is “a function of the narrator’s frame of mind” (p. 6). This emotional state of course affects his own pulse-beat. On another level, also, the narrator’s emotions reflect his psychological disorders (as Mr. Reilly points out), his underlying fears, his varying degree of identification with his victim, and other factors. But discussion of such issues would lead away from my present objective. Here it suffices that the very co-existence of the deathwatch and of stress upon the heartbeat in Poe’s tale poses a basic counterpart to Thoreau’s statement. The greater importance one gives the deathwatch in his reading of the story, the more impressive the relationships become.

Third, there exists both a resemblance and an antithesis between the themes to which the two writers relate the deathwatch. James W. Gargano has developed the idea that “The Tell-Tale Heart” embodies a protest against the corrosiveness of time, old age, and death; the many symbols of time in the story represent “the limitations that wither, corrupt, and destroy” (9). Mr. Reilly sees in [page 16:] the story Poe’s “romantic complaint against Time”; the “sound of an insect becomes a measure of time under the aspect of death, a kind of metaphor binding together three tokens of man’s mortality: the process of nature, the beating of the human heart, and the ticking of a watch” (p. 8) . Thoreau too uses the deathwatch as a token of the process of nature, but in acceptance rather than despair. Strictly speaking, in Thoreau’s paragraphs the “pulse-beat” by which the “tickings of the deathwatch” are timed is that of nature, not man: the “great pulse of nature” that “vibrates by and through each instant.” Night has chosen the “measure” of the “cricket’s chant and the tickings of the deathwatch” and Thoreau invites man to “alternate with these if you can.” The mood anticipates that in the chapter on Spring in Walden. The original passage in Thoreau’s Journal is entitled “The Time of the Universe,” and in the context in “Natural History of Massachusetts” Thoreau finds the “myriad sounds” of summer “the very grain and stuff of which eternity is made.” Noon and summer are giving way to night and autumn and portents of death.

One can suppose that Thoreau and Poe, both masters of word-play, expect their readers to be aware of the common meaning of “deathwatch” as a vigil held over a person who is dying ot dead. Shortly after recalling the “death watches in the wall” Poe’s narrator declares that “Death, in approaching him [the old man] had stalked with his black shadow, before him, and enveloped the victim. And it was the mournful influence of the unperceived shadow that caused him to feel — although he neither saw nor heard—to feel the presence of my head within the room.” Hence the murderer is holding a kind of macabre-”deathwatch,” and the victim one of “mortal terror,” as both wait, almost motionless, for a sound or sight that will end their vigil. To the narrator at least—and through him to the old man—this sign comes in the maddening “low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton,” which stirs him into catastrophic action. Only a careful reading will reveal the many devises by which the narrator’s consciousness merges with the terrified “soul” of his victim, so that the “deathwatch” is also in effect his own. Thus the protagonists of both Thoreau and Poe are conducting a “deathwatch” adjusted to the “pulse-beat” which they hear, and leading to “eternity” (in Thoreau’s terms) but in what different moods! This second meaning of “deathwatch,” almost a pun, is appropriate to both settings, gives an added dimension to each, and highlights the extent to which the central image, the key wording, and the immediate application in the two passages are parallel.

Poe frequently made charges of plagiarism on less evidence than that cited above, but also he was frequently wrong. And Poe himself wrote that verbal borrowing was often “unintentional”:

The poetic sentiment implies an abnormally keen appreciation of poetic excellence, with an unconscious assimilation of it into the poetic entity, so that an admired passage, being forgotten and afterwards reviving through an exceedingly shadowy train of association, is supposed by the plagiarizing poet to be really the coinage of his own brain. An uncharitable world, however, will never be brought to understand all this, and the poet who commits a plagiarism is, if not criminal, at least unlucky; and equally in either case does critical justice require the right of [column 2:] property to be traced home. Of two persons, one is to suffer— it matters not what—and there can be no question as to who should be the sufferer. (XVI, 77-78)

I do not see that either Thoreau or Poe need “suffer.” Whether by Poe’s “poetic . . . . assimilation” or as a complete coincidence, both use an obscure insect to symbolize inexorable changes of nature, in one instance to serve a transcendent joy in union with universal currents and in the other a Gothic terror of destruction.



(1) “The Lesser Death-Watch and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart, ’” American Transcendental Quarterly, No. 2 (II Quarter 1969), 3-9.

(2) References to Poe’s stories and criticism are to The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (1902 rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1965). For “The Tell-Tale Heart ’ see V, 88-94.

(3) The Writings of Henry David Thoreau ( Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906), VII, 53.

(4) The Dial (rpt. New York: Russell & Russell, 1961), 3, 23 also in Writings, V, 108.

(5) The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Ralph L. Rusk (New York: Columbia UP, 1939), III, 56, 68.

(6) On the publication of “The Tell-Tale Heart” see Arthur Hobson Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Appleton-Century, 1941), p. 364, and John Ward Ostrom, ed., The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1948), I, 220.

(7) For example, Poe wrote on June 4, 1842, that he was “putting the concluding touch” to “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” and serial publication of the tale began in November of 1842 after it had been rejected by two editors (Ostrom, I, 201-203); “The Tell-Tale Heart” likewise had been turned down previous to December 17 by Henry T. Tuckerman of the Boston Miscellany who made the manuscript available to Lowell. In “A Possible Source for Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart ’ and ‘The Black Cat, ’” American Literature, 12 (March 1940), 88, Edith S. Krappe suggests that Poe’s tale could not have been written prior to April 1840, on the basis of its resemblance to a story by Dickens of that date. On Poe’s financial straits at this time see Quinn pp. 357, 360.

(8) Letters, I, 183-184.

(9) “The Theme of Time in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart, ’” Studies in Short Fiction, 5 (Summer 1968), 380-381.


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1971]