Text: Thomas Ollive Mabbott (E. A. Poe), “A Decided Loss,” The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe — Vol. II: Tales and Sketches (1978), pp. 51-61 (This material is protected by copyright)


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[page 51:]

A DECIDED LOSS and
LOSS OF BREATH

The story — or stories, for it is hard to say if there be one, two, or three — cannot be called a success. “A Decided Loss,” the first form, was one of the five tales Poe submitted for the contest announced by the Philadelphia Saturday Courier in June 1831. He labored over his satire “of the extravagancies of Blackwood” (He called it that in a letter to J. P. Kennedy, February 11, 1836) with a zeal worthy of a better cause. He greatly expanded it into “Loss of Breath” in 1833 for the Tales of the Folio Club, and this expanded version was published in the Southern Literary Messenger and in Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. Sometime after 1840, he cut it down, reducing its bulk by nearly one third. One feels today that the sensational fictions of the British magazinists were incapable of exaggeration. Poe did better in “How to Write a Blackwood Article” when he ridiculed the methods of the authors.

Critics have said little about any of the versions. Quinn (Poe, p. 194) found in the first some “interest on account of . . . references to contemporary literature.” George E. Woodberry (The Life of Edgar Allan Poe, 1909, I, 130) saw especially in the longest form “a parody on the inane jargon (as it was then thought) of German metaphysics.” Actually Poe, in a footnote in Tales of the Grotesque [page 52:] and Arabesque, pointed out that he had in mind Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling’s transcendentalism.

The first and final forms of the tale are presented here, with the material excised after 1840 included as an appendix.

One of Poe’s sources was undoubtedly Adelbert von Chamisso’s Peter Schlemihl (1814) — a very popular work, widely translated. Its hero is mentioned in all versions of Poe’s tale. Haldeen Braddy calls attention to a source in Voltaire’s Candide (1759), where Dr. Pangloss was unskillfully hanged, and revived when a surgeon who bought his body began to dissect it (Glorious Incense, 1953, pp. 32, 44; Candide, chapters 6 and 28). At least one commentator thought Poe was satirizing his own preoccupation with premature burials (Walter F. Taylor in Sewanee Review, July-September, 1934).

The unnamed scene of the story is Philadelphia, where the mail robber mentioned — a real person — was convicted.

TEXTS

A Decided Loss

(A) Philadelphia Saturday Courier, November 10, 1832, facsimiled by John Grier Varner in Edgar Allan Poe and the Philadelphia Saturday Courier (1933), pp. 38-49.

The sole authorized version (A) is followed without emendation.

Loss of Breath

(A) Southern Literary Messenger, September 1835 (1:735-740); (B) Duane copy of the last, with changes in manuscript, 1839; (C) Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840), II, 123-149; (D) Broadway Journal, January 3, 1846 (2:397-401); (E) Works (1856), IV, 302-314. PHANTASY-PIECES, title only.

Griswold’s version (E), which shows slight changes from that of the Broadway Journal (D), is given. The twenty-six paragraphs dropped in 1845 and replaced by six are given at the end from Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (C).

Poe signed this tale “Littleton Barry” in the Broadway Journal.

A DECIDED LOSS.

Oh! breathe not, &c.

Moore’s Melodies.(1)

‘Thou wretch! — thou vixen! — thou shrew!’ said I to my wife on the morning after the wedding — ‘thou witch! — thou whipper-snapper! — thou sink of iniquity! — thou fiery-faced quintessence [page 53:] of all that is abominable! — thou — thou’ ——; here standing upon tiptoe, seizing her by the throat, and placing my mouth close to her ear, I was preparing to launch forth a new and most unequivocal epithet of opprobrium, which could not fail, if uttered, to convince her of her insignificance, when, to my extreme horror and astonishment, I discovered that I had lost my breath.

The phrases ‘I have lost my breath,’ ‘I am quite out of breath,’ &c., are often enough repeated in common conversation: but it never entered my imagination that such an accident could (the sufferer surviving) bona fide, and actually, occur. It was shocking. Imagine my consternation. I was, indeed, very peculiarly situated. But my good Genius never entirely deserts me. In my most ungovernable furies I still retain a sense of propriety, and ‘le chemin des passions me conduit’ (as it did Rousseau) ‘a la philosophie veritable.’(2) Although I could not, at first, precisely ascertain to what degree the occurrence had affected me, yet I unhesitatingly determined to conceal the matter at all events from my wife until experience should assure me of the extent of my unheard-of calamity. The imminent danger of discovery brightened every faculty of my soul, and, with a facility peculiar to the desperate, I put in execution a design conceived with the rapidity of lightning. Altering my countenance in a moment from its bepuffed and distorted appearance (I was in a terrible passion) to an expression of the most arch and coquettish benignity, I gave my wife a kiss on one cheek, and a pat on the other, and without saying one word (Furies I could not!) deliberately shuffled myself out of the room, leaving her as much in love with my fund of good humour (O blasphemy!) as in admiration of my exquisite drollery, and fine theatrical talent.

Behold me then safely shut up in my own boudoir, a fearful instance of the evil consequences attending upon irascibility — alive with the qualifications of the dead — dead with the propensities of the living — an anomaly on the face of the earth — very calm, yet breathless. Yes, breathless! I am serious in asserting that my breath was entirely gone. I could not have stirred with it a feather if my life had been at issue, or sullied the polish upon the surface of a mirror. Hard fate! yet there was some alleviation to the first overwhelming paroxysm of my sorrow. I found upon trial that [page 54:] the powers of utterance (which, upon my inability to proceed in the conversation with my wife, I then concluded to be totally destroyed) were, in fact, only partially impeded; and I discovered that had I, at the interesting crisis aforesaid, dropped my voice to a singularly deep guttural, (oh the devil!) I might still have continued to her the communication of my sentiments. For this pitch of voice (the guttural) depends, I find, not upon the current of the breath, but upon a certain spasmodic action of the muscles of the throat — thus the race of frogs, &c.; see Hippocrates in his dissertation.(3)

Throwing myself upon a settee, I remained for some time buried in thought. My reflections, be sure, were of no consolatory description. A thousand vague and lachrymatory fancies took possession of my spirit. I had heard of Peter Schlemil, but I did not believe in him until now.(4) I had heard of compacts with the devil, and would gladly have accepted his assistance, but knew not in what manner to proceed, having studied very little of diablerie. Then the phantom suicide flitted across my imagination, but it is a trait in the perversity of human nature to reject the obvious, and the ready for the far-distant and equivocal; and, with one foot in the grave, I shuddered at self-murder as the most flagrant of enormities. Then through a single broken pane of glass, the four winds of the Heaven all poured into the apartment — and, like the Mulciberian bellows,(5) roared loudly the huge sea-coal fire — and the tabby cat purred lustily upon the rug — and the fat water-dog wheezed strenuously under the table — all taking much merit to themselves for the hideous strength of their lungs, and obviously deriding my own pulmonary incapacity. Oppressed with a tumult of vague hopes and fears, I, at length, heard my wife’s step descending the stair-case. Being now assured of her absence, with a palpitating heart I returned to the scene of my disaster. Carefully locking the door on the inside, I commenced a vigorous search. It was probable, I thought, that, concealed in some closet or drawer, or lurking in some obscure corner, might be found the lost object of my desires. It might have a vapoury — it might even have a tangible form. Most philosophers upon many points of philosophy, are still very unphilosophical. Anaxagoras, however, maintained that [page 55:] snow was black.(6) I have since discovered this to be the fact. Wm. Godwin, too, says, somewhere in his Mandeville, that invisible things (a case more in point) are the only realities.(7) I would have the world pause before accusing such asseverations of an undue quantum of absurdity. My exertions, however, proved fruitless. Drawer after drawer, closet after closet, corner after corner, were scrutinized to no purpose. Several false teeth, an eye, two pair of hips,(8) and a bundle of billet-doux, from a neighbour to my wife, were the contemptible reward of my industry and perseverance. At one time, indeed, I thought myself sure of my prize; having, in rummaging a dressing-case, accidentally demolished a bottle of (I had a remarkably sweet breath) Hewitt’s ‘Seraphic, and highly-scented double extract of Heaven, or Oil of Archangels,’(9) which, as an agreeable perfume, I here take the liberty of recommending. With a heavy heart, I repaired again to my boudoir, there to ponder upon some method of eluding my wife’s sagacity, until I could make arrangements prior to my leaving the country — for to this I had already made up my mind. In a foreign climate, being unknown, I might, with more probability of success, endeavour to conceal my unhappy bereavement — a bereavement calculated, even more than beggary, to estrange the affections of the multitude, and to draw down upon the wretch the well-merited indignation of the virtuous and the happy. To sharpen my invention, I took down a prize poem on —————,(10) and reading half an hour, found myself fuddled. Jumping up in despair, I hit upon an expedient, and immediately set about carrying it into execution. Being naturally quick, I committed to memory the entire tragedies of Metamora and Miantinimoh.(11) I had the acuteness to recollect that in the accentuation of these dramas, the tones of voice in which I found myself deficient, were totally unnecessary, and that the deepest guttural should reign monotonously throughout. Having, therefore, practised by the borders of a large, and well-frequented marsh, I found myself, in a few hours, as well qualified to quiz the Aborigines as their original representative himself. Thus armed at all points, I determined to make my wife believe that I was suddenly seized with a passion for the stage. In this I succeeded to a miracle; and to every question or suggestion, felt myself at liberty [page 56:] to reply, in my most sepulchral tones, with a passage from the tragedies, folding my arms, working my knees, shuffling my feet, looking asquint, and showing my teeth, with the energy of the most accomplished and popular performer. To be sure they talked of confining me in a straight jacket — but, good God! they never suspected me of having lost my breath. Having thus, at length, put my affairs in order, and affixed a codicil to my will, in which, after many charitable legacies, I bequeathed to my wife my fine quarto copy of Calbrinachus(12) in Dianam, I took my seat, one frosty night, in the mail stage for ———,(13) giving it to be understood among my acquaintance, that business in Europe, of the last importance, rendered indispensable my immediate personal attendance. The coach was crammed to repletion; but, from the darkness of the night, the features of my companions could not be distinguished. Without making any effectual resistance, I suffered myself to be ensconced between two ambiguous bipeds, while a third, requesting pardon for the liberty which he was about to take, threw himself at full length upon my carcase, and falling asleep in an instant, drowned all my guttural ejaculations for relief, in a snore which would put thy roarings to the blush, thou bell-metal bull of Phalaris!(14) Happily the state of my respiratory faculties rendered suffocation an accident entirely out of the question.

The day broke at length, and my persecutor, arising and adjusting his shirt-collar, thanked me in a very friendly manner for my civility. Perceiving that I remained without motion, and made him no reply, (all my limbs were dislocated, and my head twisted on one side) his apprehensions began to be excited, and, arousing the rest of the passengers, he communicated, in a very decided manner, his opinion that a corpse had been palmed upon them during the night, for a living and responsible fellow traveller — here giving me a thump on the right eye by way of evidencing the truth of his assertion. One after another (there were fifteen in all) now gave me a pull by the ear; and a young practitioner having applied a pocket-mirror to my mouth, and found me without breath, the suggestion of my tormentor was pronounced to be a true bill; and, stopping the coach, the whole assembly declared their determination to proceed, for the present, no farther with [page 57:] any such carcases; and, for the future, to endure tamely no such impositions. As we were at this time passing through the village of ———, I was accordingly thrown out of the coach at the sign of the Three Crows, without meeting with any farther accident except the breaking of my thighs under the left hind wheel of the vehicle; and I must do the driver the justice to acknowledge that he did not forget to throw after me my largest trunk, which alighting on my head, fractured my scull in a manner at once interesting and extraordinary. The landlord of the Three Crows, who is a hospitable man, finding that my trunk contained sufficient to indemnify him for any trifling expenditure, sent forthwith for an undertaker, and made every preparation for a reputable burial. I was laid out very decently in a garret, and afforded every convenience suitable to my funeral estate. The landlady accommodated me with a pair of her own stockings, and her husband having fastened my hands, and tied up my jaws with a pocket-handkerchief, bolted the door on the outside as he took his departure, leaving me alone to silence and to meditation.

Having, by this time, recovered, in a measure, from the stunning sensation of my bruises, I found, to my infinite delight, that I could have spoken had not my jaws been tied up by the pocket-handkerchief. Consoling myself with this reflection I was mentally repeating a few verses of the ———,(15) as is my custom, before resigning myself to sleep, when two cats of a greedy and vituperative disposition entering at a hole in the wall, leapt up simultaneously with a flourish a la Catalani,(16) and alighting opposite one another on my countenance, betook themselves to unseemly, and indecorous controversy for the paltry consideration of my nose.

But as the loss of his ears proved the means by which the Persian Mige-Gush ascended the empire of Cyrus,(17) so the loss of a few ounces of my visage was the salvation of my body. Aroused by the pain, and burning with indignation, I burst, at a single effort, the fastenings, and the bandage, and starting majestically upon my feet, opened the lattice, and to the extreme terror and disappointment of the belligerents, precipitated myself in triumph from the window.

The mail-robber W——,(18) to whom I bear a singular resemblance, [page 58:] was, at this moment, passing through the village, on his way to execution at ———. His great infirmity, and long continued ill-health had obtained him the privilege of remaining unmanacled; and, habited in his gallows costume, he lay at full length in the bottom of the hangman’s cart, (which happened to be under the windows of the Three Crows at the moment of my precipitation) without any other guard than the driver, who was asleep, and two recruits of the — Regiment of Infantry, who were drunk. As ill-luck would have it I alit upon my feet within the cart. W——, who is an acute fellow, perceiving his opportunity, immediately leaped up, slipped out at the back of the vehicle, and turning down an alley was out of sight in an instant. The recruits aroused by the bustle, and not precisely comprehending the transaction, saw nevertheless a figure, the exact counterfeit of the felon, standing upright before their eyes, and were of opinion that the rascal, meaning W——, was after making his escape. Having communicated this idea to one another, they took each a dram, and then felled me with the butt end of their muskets. It was not long before the cart arrived at the place of execution. It was of course useless for me to say a word in my defence. Hanged, I must be — there could be no doubt of it, and I resigned myself to my fate with a mingled feeling of astonishment and tranquillity. The hangman adjusted the noose about my neck, and as, through the stupefying elects of my wounds, I was unable to make myself heard at so great a distance from the ground, it was reported in the newspapers of the following day that I died in my obstinacy like a wicked, and bloody-minded cut-throat as I was, stubbornly refusing to make any confession — a monster of mankind — an awful warning to all little children, and (so ran the Gazette) a duodecimo compendium of all horrible atrocities. The Editors were wrong — at least in the most important particular — I did not die. Upon the falling of the drop, I felt, as may be imagined no other inconvenience than was occasioned by the shock. To be sure my neck was chafed by the rope, and there was a violent determination of blood to the brain — but I stood in no danger of suffocation. I had, however, sufficient presence of mind to counterfeit the most extraordinary convulsions, and here my talents for grimace stood me in great service. Several [page 59:] gentleman fainted away, and three ladies were carried home in hysterics. The celebrated Pinxit, too, availed himself of the opportunity to retouch, from a sketch taken on the spot, his admirable painting of the “Marsyas flayed alive.”(19)

But the most courageous spirit — the toughest constitution must at length yield to an obstinate run of ill luck, as the proudest cities have been humbled by the pertinacity of an enemy. Salmanezer, as we have it in the holy writings, lay three years before Samaria — yet it fell. Sardanapalus (see Diodorus) maintained himself seven years in Nineveh to no purpose. Troy fell at the end of the 2d lustrum, and Psammitticus (as Aristœcus declares upon his honor as a gentleman) was admitted into Azoth after it had valourously sustained a siege for the 5th part of a century.(20) After half an hour’s performance (as long as I thought necessary) I became motionless, and shortly afterwards, being cut down, was delivered to a practising physician with a bill and receipt for five and twenty dollars. He took me to his apartment forthwith, and commenced operations immediately. Having deprived me of both my ears, he discovered signs of animation. He therefore rang the bell, and told the servant to call in a neighbouring apothecary with whom he might consult in the emergency. However, in case of my proving to be alive, he first made an incision into my stomach, and, being naturally of a benevolent disposition, removed several of my viscera for private examination. The apothecary confirmed his suspicion with regard to my existence, and this suspicion I endeavoured to strengthen; kicking and plunging with all my might, and making the most furious contortions, the hangman’s cap which still covered my face rendering any attempt at explanation out of the question. All this was, however, attributed to the effect of the new Galvanic Battery, which the apothecary, upon learning my situation, lead brought with him, and from the moment of his entrance to that of my decease, which took place a few minutes afterwards, had never ceased to apply with the most unremitting assiduity.(21)

 


[page 60, continued:]

NOTES

1.  The motto is the opening of “Oh! breathe not his name” in the Irish Melodies of Thomas Moore (1779-1852). [page 60:]

2.  J. J. Rousseau (1712-1778), Julie, ou la Nouvelle Heloise, part II, letter iii, paragraph 2: “The road of the passions has led me to true philosophy.”

3.  Hippocrates is reported to have believed that diseases were caused by air given off by undigested food.

4.  Peter Schlemihl, hero of the romance of that name by Adelbert von Chamisso, gave his shadow in exchange for the services of the devil for twenty-four years. He fled abroad and in time escaped from his bad bargain by forcing the Prince of Darkness to perform only good deeds.

5.  See Homer’s Iliad, XVIII, 474, and Vergil’s Aeneid, VIII, 416ff., for the bellows in the workshop of Hephaestus/Vulcan (called Mulciber).

6.  Anaxagoras really said there must be blackness in snow which turned into dark water; but Pierre Bayle in his Dictionaire (first edition, Amsterdam, 1696) accused him of saying snow was black, and the canard has been often repeated. “Il disait que la neige est noire” appears under the Anaxagoras entry in the Beuchot edition (Paris, 1820), II, 21, and was used by Poe three times — here, in “Tennyson vs. Longfellow,” Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, February 12, 1840, and in his review of Barnaby Rudge in Graham’s Magazine for February 1842.

7.  See William Godwin, Mandeville (1817), vol. III, ch. iii, par. 8.

8.  Compare “The Man That Was Used Up” and “The Spectacles” on artificial aids to beauty.

9.  Hair tonics often had high-sounding names, and the reference is probably to B. R. Hewitt, whose drugstore was on Passyunk Road above Carpenter in Philadelphia, but reference to John H. Hewitt, the Baltimore poet and editor, who had been contemptuous of “Al Aaraaf,” is suggested by Quinn (Poe, p. 194).

10.  The allusion here was omitted in later versions, but compare note 15 below, and “Loss of Breath” at note 15.

11.  Metamora by John Augustus Stone (1800-1834) was first played by Edwin Forrest at the Park, New York, December 15, 1829, and in Philadelphia at the Arch Street Theatre, January 22, 1830. The hero is King Philip of Pokanoket, son of Massasoit. No complete text survives, but see Richard Moody, Edwin Forrest (1960), pp. 94f., and an article on the play in American Literature, November 1962. Forrest was an actor of great vigor and power. Miantinomoh, or the Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, a play founded on Cooper’s novel, was presented at the Bowery Theatre, New York, November 12, 1830. See the New York American of that date.

12.  Probably a misreading of Poe’s manuscript; Callimachus’ Hymn to Artemis praises the goddess as patron of the Amazons; this bequest to a wife was not a compliment. The reference was omitted in “Loss of Breath.”

13.  The city meant is clearly Philadelphia.

14.  Phalaris, tyrant of Agrigentum, about 510 B. C. had a huge hollow brazen bull into which an offender was put, and a fire lit beneath. The victim’s cries [page 61:] simulated the roarings of a bull. Poe refers to this also in “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.”

15.  See note 10 above, and “Loss of Breath,” below, at note 15.

16.  Angélique Catalani (1782-1849) was a great, though not faultless, opera singer; a pun on her name is intended.

17.  The Persian Magian later referred to as the Pseudo-Smerdis had lost his ears (instead of his head) for a serious offense under Cyrus; he thus lived to usurp the throne after the murder of Cyrus’ elder son Smerdis by order of his brother Cambyses. See Isaac Taylor’s translation, Herodotus (London, 1829), pp. 201-202, 217-229, esp. 222-223.

18.  The mail robber was George Wilson. His accomplice, James Porter, was hanged on July 2, 1830, at Philadelphia. Wilson was reprieved and imprisoned. His ultimate pardon and release were recorded in the Saturday Evening Post, January 16, 1841.

19.  Pinxit means “he painted.” Marsyas was a Phrygian Satyr punished by Apollo for presumption in challenging the god to a contest in flute-playing. “The Flaying of Marsyas” is the subject of a painting by Raphael. See Benjamin Disraeli, Vivian Grey (1827), vol. IV, bk. vii, chap. ii, p. 323, for a reference to a piece of sculpture that may be “of the flayer of Marsyas.”

20.  For the siege of Samaria, see II Kings 17:3-6; of Nineveh, Diodorus Siculus, II, 27; and of Troy, the Odyssey. Aristaeus of Proconnesus, a half-fabulous poet (Herodotus, Histories, IV, 13-16), is said to have been a source of Herodotus, whose account of the siege of Azoth by Psammetichus I in the seventh century B. C. (Histories, II, 157), does not credit him specifically.

21.  Compare accounts of experiments with the Galvanic battery in “The Premature Burial” and “Some Words With a Mummy.”

 


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Notes:

This is one of several stories where the note for the motto is numbered, digressing from Mabbott’s more usual form of designating a note as for the motto, and reserving the numbered notes only for actual text. This anomaly has been preserved here as changing it would require adjustments to the assigned note numbers.


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[S:1 - TOM2T, 1978] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (T. O. Mabbott) (A Decided Loss)