Text: Thomas Ollive Mabbott (E. A. Poe), “The Pit and the Pendulum,” The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe — Vol. II: Tales and Sketches (1978), pp. 678-700 (This material is protected by copyright)


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[page 678, continued:]

THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM

If popularity be a test of merit, “The Pit and the Pendulum” must rank high among its author’s works. Admirers of Poe’s art may complain that the action is not quite completely unified; some gentler readers dislike the cruelty involved as excessive. It can only be said that it is really an account of a series of hairbreadth escapes, and fascinates people as did old-fashioned melodramas. Woodberry (Life, 1909, I, 343, 382) called it a work of no striking originality, but great originality lies in the collection and combination of a series of not wholly incredible experiences for the hero. As in “A Descent into the Maelström,” most of the features of the story have been traced to specific, scattered sources; it is Poe’s craftsmanship in weaving them together that has created an unforgettable tale.

In “How to Write a Blackwood Article” Poe had sardonically described methods of composing contributions to the Edinburgh magazine. In “A Predicament” he produced a burlesque of the [page 679:] stories the magazine printed. He had already in “King Pest” done a wild parody on the British magazinists. Now, it seems, he decided to do a straight story in the Blackwood manner, but to make the copy better than the model. In this he succeeded, for “The Pit and the Pendulum” has outlived for general readers all the once famous Tales from Blackwood. The central idea is that the fear of the unknown exceeds the fear of anything known.

Poe’s method was one demanded by the chosen genre. He sought and combined with modifications stories in the Blackwood manner — that is, sensational accounts of terrible experiences usually told in the first person. For details he drew not only from Blackwood’s but from other British and American periodicals* and from an American novel, and he used some factual material. He must have expected many of his readers to know what he was doing, for some of the sources were stories that had wide circulation at the time, although their popularity has now faded. Even a reviewer of the first volumes of the Works pointed out Poe’s “plagiarism” early in 1850; and Griswold, in his “Memoir,” first published in Volume III, referred to the matter later in the same year.

Poe’s plot may have been suggested by a paragraph in Thomas Dick’s Philosophy of Religion (1825), IV, iv:

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, [page 680:] which cause a lingering death, excited horror, even in the minds of soldiers hardened in the field of battle.

Poe knew Dick’s work — he had drawn upon Dick’s Christian Philosopher in connection with “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion.” The Inquisition material that supplied the framework for the present tale, however, as well as some unifying threads and one of its most outstanding features, he found — as Miss Alterton pointed out in 1933 — in the history of the Inquisition by Juan Antonio Llorente (1756-1823) or in magazine articles and reviews based upon it.§

Poe’s story was finished by the summer of 1842, and its title named in the page of “Contents” for PHANTASY-PIECES, but crossed out. [page 681:]

TEXTS

(A) The Gift: a Christmas and New Year’s Present, MDCCCXLIII (1842), pages 148-151; (B) Broadway Journal, May 17, 1845 (1:307-311); (C) Works (1850), I, 310-324.

Griswold’s text (C) is followed; it shows a few auctorial corrections, the most important of which changed “vibrations” to “oscillations,” although this laudable change was neglected in the succeeding paragraphs.

We follow the printing of the motto in “Pinakidia” (SLM, August 1836), which has the comma after fuit, and the circumflex over the second a in patriâ, both missing in texts B and C.

THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM   [C]

Impia tortorum longas hic turba furores

Sanguinis innocui, non satiata, aluit.

Sospite nunc patriâ, fracto nunc funeris antro,

Mors ubi dira fuit, vita salusque patent.

[Quatrain composed for the gates of a market to be erected upon the site of the Jacobin Club House at Paris.]   [[n]]   [[v]]

I was sick — sick unto death(1) with that long agony; and when they at length unbound me, and I was permitted to sit, I felt that my senses were leaving me. The sentence — the dread sentence of death — was the last of distinct accentuation which reached my ears. After that, the sound of the inquisitorial voices seemed merged in one dreamy indeterminate hum. It conveyed to my soul the idea of revolution — perhaps from its association in fancy with the burr of a mill-wheel.(2) This only for a brief period; for presently I heard no more. Yet, for a while, I saw; but with how terrible an exaggeration! I saw the lips of the black-robed judges. They appeared to me white — whiter than the sheet upon which I trace these words — and thin even to grotesqueness; thin with the intensity of their expression of firmness — of immoveable resolution — of stern contempt of human torture. I saw that the decrees of what to me was Fate, were still issuing from those lips. I saw them writhe with a deadly locution.(3) I saw them fashion the syllables of my name; and I shuddered because no sound succeeded. I saw, too, for a few moments of delirious horror, the soft and nearly [page 682:] imperceptible waving of the sable draperies which enwrapped the walls of the apartment.(4) And then my vision fell upon the seven tall candles upon the table.(5) At first they wore the aspect of charity, and seemed white slender angels who would save me; but then, all at once, there came a most deadly nausea over my spirit, and I felt every fibre in my frame thrill as if I had touched the wire of a galvanic battery,(6) while the angel forms became meaningless spectres, with heads of flame, and I saw that from them there would be no help. And then there stole into my fancy, like a rich musical note, the thought of what sweet rest there must be in the grave. The thought came gently and stealthily, and it seemed long before it attained full appreciation; but just as my spirit came at length properly to feel and entertain it, the figures of the judges vanished, as if magically, from before me; the tall candles sank into nothingness; their flames went out utterly; the blackness of darkness supervened;(7) all sensations{a} appeared swallowed up in a{b} mad rushing descent(8) as of the soul into Hades. Then silence, and stillness, and night were the universe.

I had swooned; but still{c} will not say that all of consciousness was lost. What of it there remained I will not attempt to define, or even to describe; yet all was not lost. In the deepest slumber — no! In delirium — no! In a swoon — no! In death — no! even in the grave all is not lost. Else there is no immortality for man. Arousing from the most profound of slumbers, we break the gossamer web of some dream. Yet in a second afterward,{d} (so frail may that web have been) we remember not that we have dreamed.(9) In the return to life from the swoon there are two stages; first, that of the sense of mental or spiritual; secondly, that of the sense of physical, existence. It seems probable that if, upon reaching the second stage, we could recall the impressions of the first, we should find these impressions eloquent in memories of the gulf beyond. And that gulf is — what? How at least shall we distinguish its shadows from those of the tomb? But if the impressions of what I have termed the first stage, are not, at will, recalled, yet, after long interval, do they not come unbidden, while we marvel whence they [page 683:] come? He who has never{e} swooned{f} is not he who finds strange palaces and wildly familiar faces in coals that glow; is not he who beholds floating in mid-air the sad visions that the many may not view; is not he who ponders over{g} the perfume of some novel flower — is not he whose brain grows bewildered with the{h} meaning of some musical cadence which has never before arrested his attention.(10)

Amid frequent and thoughtful endeavors to remember; amid earnest struggles to regather some token of the state of seeming nothingness into which my soul had lapsed, there have been moments when I have dreamed of success; there have been brief, 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{i} unconsciousness. These shadows of memory tell, indistinctly, of tall figures that lifted and bore me in silence down — down — still down(11) — till a hideous dizziness oppressed me at the mere idea of the interminableness of the descent. They tell also of a vague horror at my heart on account of that heart’s unnatural stillness. Then comes a sense of sudden motionlessness throughout all things; as if those who bore me (a ghastly train!) had outrun, in their descent, the limits of the limitless, and paused from the wearisomeness of their toil. After this I call to mind flatness and dampness; and then all is madness — the madness of a memory which busies itself among forbidden things.

Very suddenly there came back to my soul motion and sound — the tumultuous motion of the heart, and, in my ears, the sound of its beating. Then a pause in which all is blank. Then again sound, and motion, and touch — a tingling sensation pervading my frame. Then the mere consciousness of existence, without thought — a condition which lasted long. Then, very suddenly, thought, and shuddering terror, and earnest endeavor to comprehend{j} my true state. Then a strong desire to lapse into insensibility. Then a rushing revival of soul and a successful effort to [page 684:] move. And now a full memory of the trial, of the judges,{k} of the sable draperies, of the sentence, of the sickness, of the swoon. Then entire forgetfulness of all that followed; of all that a later day and much earnestness of endeavor have enabled me vaguely to recall.

So far, I had not opened my eyes. I felt that I lay upon my back, unbound. I reached out my hand, and it fell heavily upon something damp and hard. There I suffered it to remain for many minutes, while I strove to imagine where and what I could be. I longed, yet dared not to employ my vision. I dreaded the first glance at objects around me.{l} It was not that I feared to look upon things horrible, but that I grew aghast lest there should be nothing to see. At length, with a wild desperation at heart, I quickly unclosed my eyes. My worst thoughts, then, were confirmed. The blackness of{m} eternal night encompassed me. I struggled{n} for breath. The intensity of the darkness seemed to oppress and stifle me. The atmosphere was intolerably close. I still lay quietly, and made effort to exercise my reason. I brought to mind the inquisitorial proceedings, and attempted from that point to deduce my real condition. The sentence had passed; and it appeared to me that a very long interval of time had since elapsed. Yet not for a moment did I suppose myself actually dead.(12) Such a supposition, notwithstanding what we read in fiction, is altogether inconsistent with real existence; — but where and in what state was I? The condemned to death, I knew, perished usually at the autos-da-fé,{o} and one of these had been held on the very night of the day of my trial.(13) Had I been remanded to my dungeon, to await the next sacrifice, which would not take place for many months? This I at once saw could not be. Victims had been in immediate demand. Moreover, my dungeon, as well as all the condemned cells at Toledo, had stone floors, and light was not altogether excluded.

A fearful idea now suddenly drove the blood in torrents upon my heart, and for a brief period, I once more relapsed into insensibility. Upon recovering, I at once started to my feet, trembling convulsively in every{p} fibre. I thrust my arms wildly above and [page 685:] around me in all directions. I felt nothing; yet dreaded to move a step, lest I should be impeded by the walls of a{q} tomb. Perspiration burst from every pore, and stood in cold big beads upon my forehead. The agony of {qq’}suspense grew, at length,{qq’} intolerable, and I cautiously moved forward, with my arms extended, and my eyes straining from their sockets, in the hope of catching some faint ray of light. I proceeded for many paces; but still all was blackness and vacancy. I breathed more freely. It seemed evident that mine was not, at least, the most hideous of fates.(14)

And now, as I still continued to step cautiously onward, there came thronging upon my recollection a thousand vague rumors of the horrors of{r} Toledo.(15) Of the dungeons there had been strange things narrated — fables I had always deemed them — but yet strange, and too ghastly to repeat, save in a whisper. Was I left to perish of starvation in this subterranean{s} world of darkness; or what fate, perhaps even more fearful, awaited me? That the result would be death, and a death of more than customary bitterness, I knew too well the character of my judges to doubt. The mode and the hour were all that occupied or distracted me.

My outstretched hands at length encountered some solid obstruction. It was a wall, seemingly of stone masonry — very smooth, slimy, and cold. I followed it up;(16) stepping with all the careful distrust with which certain antique narratives had inspired me. This process, however, afforded me no means of ascertaining the dimensions of my dungeon; as I might make its circuit, and return to the point whence I set out, without being aware of the fact; so perfectly uniform seemed the wall. I therefore sought the knife which had been in my pocket, when led into the inquisitorial chamber; but it was gone; my clothes had been exchanged for a wrapper of coarse serge. I had thought of forcing the blade in some minute crevice of the masonry, so as to identify my point of departure. The difficulty, nevertheless, was but trivial; although, in the disorder of my fancy, it seemed at first insuperable. I tore a part of the hem from the robe and placed the fragment at full length, and [page 686:] at right angles to the wall. In groping my way around the prison, I could not fail to encounter this rag upon completing the circuit. So, at least, I thought: but I had not counted upon the extent of the dungeon, or upon my own weakness. The ground was moist and slippery. I staggered onward{t} for {uu}some time,{uu} when I stumbled and fell. My excessive fatigue induced me to remain prostrate; and sleep soon overtook me as I lay.

Upon awaking, and stretching forth an arm, I found beside me a loaf and a pitcher with water. I was too much exhausted to reflect upon this circumstance, but ate and drank with avidity. Shortly afterward.{v} I resumed my tour around the prison, and with much toil, came at last upon the fragment of the{w} serge. Up to the period when I fell, I had counted fifty-two paces, and, upon resuming my walk, I had counted forty-eight more — when I arrived at the rag. There were in all, then, a hundred paces; and, admitting two paces to the yard, I presumed the dungeon to be fifty yards in circuit. I had met, however, with many angles in the wall, and thus I could form no guess at the shape of the vault; for vault I could not help supposing it to be.

I had little object — certainly no hope — in these researches; but a vague curiosity prompted me to continue them. Quitting the wall, I resolved to cross the area of the enclosure. At first, I proceeded with extreme caution, for the floor, although seemingly of solid material, was treacherous with slime. At length, however, I took courage, and did not hesitate to step firmly — endeavoring to cross in as direct a line as possible. I had advanced some ten or twelve paces in this manner, when the remnant of the torn hem of my robe became entangled between my legs. I stepped on it, and fell violently on my face.

In the confusion attending my fall, I did not immediately apprehend a somewhat startling circumstance, which yet, in a few seconds afterward,{x} and while I still lay prostrate, arrested my attention. It was this: my chin rested upon the floor of the prison, but my lips, and the upper portion of my head, although seemingly [page 687:] at a less elevation than the chin, touched nothing. At the same time, my forehead seemed bathed in a clammy vapor, and the peculiar smell of decayed fungus arose to my nostrils. I put forward my arm, and shuddered to find that I had fallen at the very brink of a circular pit, whose extent, of couse, I had no means of ascertaining at the moment. Groping about the masonry just below the margin, I succeeded in dislodging a small fragment, and let it fall into the abyss. For {yy}many seconds{yy} I hearkened to its reverberations as it dashed against the sides of the chasm in its descent: at length, there was a sullen plunge into water, succeeded by loud echoes. At the same moment, there came a sound resembling the quick opening, and as rapid closing of a door overhead, while a faint gleam of light flashed suddenly through the gloom, and as suddenly faded away.

I{z} saw clearly the doom which had been prepared for me, and congratulated myself upon the timely accident by which I had escaped. Another step{a} before my fall, and the world had seen me no more. And the death just avoided,{a’} was of that very character which I had regarded as fabulous and frivolous in the tales respecting the Inquisition. To the victims of its{b} tyranny, there was the choice of death with its direst physical agonies, or death with its most hideous moral horrors. I had been reserved for the latter. By long suffering my nerves had been unstrung, until I trembled at the sound of my own voice, and had become in every respect a fitting subject for the species of torture which awaited me.

Shaking in every limb, I groped my way back to the wall — resolving there to perish rather than risk the terrors of the wells, of which my imagination now pictured many in various positions about the dungeon. In other conditions of mind, I might have had courage to end my misery at once, by a plunge into one of these abysses; but now I was the veriest of cowards. 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.

Agitation of spirit kept me awake for many long hours; but at [page 688:] length I again slumbered. Upon arousing, I found by my side, as before, a loaf and a pitcher of water. A burning thirst consumed me, and I emptied the vessel at a draught. It must have been drugged — for scarcely had I drunk,{c} before I became irresistibly drowsy. A deep sleep fell upon me — a sleep like that of death. How long it {dd}lasted, of course I{dd} know not; but when, once again, I unclosed my eyes, the objects around me were visible. By a wild, sulphurous lustre, the origin of which I could not at first determine, I was enabled to see the extent and aspect of the prison.

In its size I had been greatly mistaken. The whole circuit of its walls did not exceed twenty-five yards. For some minutes this fact occasioned me a world of vain trouble; vain indeed — for what could be of less importance, under the terrible circumstances which environed me, than the mere dimensions{e} of my dungeon? But my soul took a wild interest in trifles,(17) and I busied myself in endeavors to account for the error I had committed in my measurement. The truth at length flashed upon me. In my first attempt at exploration, I had counted fifty-two paces, up to the period when I fell: I must then have been within a pace or two of the fragment of serge; in fact, I had nearly performed the circuit of the vault. I then slept — and, upon awaking, I must have returned upon my steps — thus supposing the circuit nearly double what it actually was. My confusion of mind prevented me from observing that I began my tour with the wall to the left, and ended it with the wall to the right.

I had been deceived, too, in respect to the shape of the enclosure. In feeling my way, I had found many angles, and thus deduced an idea of great irregularity; so potent is the effect of total darkness upon one{f} arousing from lethargy or sleep! The angles were simply those of a few slight depressions, or niches, at odd intervals. The general shape of the prison was square. What I had taken for masonry{f’} seemed now to be iron, or some other metal, in huge plates, whose sutures or joints occasioned the depressions.{g} [page 689:] The entire surface of this metallic enclosure was rudely daubed in all the hideous and repulsive devices to which the charnel superstition of the monks has given rise. The figures of fiends in aspects of menace, with skeleton forms, and other more really fearful images, overspread and disfigured the walls. I observed that the outlines of these monstrosities were sufficiently distinct, but that the colors seemed faded and blurred, as if from the effects of a damp atmosphere.(18) I now noticed the floor, too, which was of stone. In the centre yawned the circular pit from whose jaws I had escaped; but it was the only one in the dungeon.

All this I saw indistinctly and by much effort — for my personal condition had been greatly changed during slumber. I now lay upon my back, and at full length, on a species of low framework of wood. To this I was securely bound by a long strap resembling a surcingle. It passed in many convolutions about my limbs and body, leaving at liberty only my head, and my left arm to such extent, that I could, by dint of much exertion, supply myself with food from an earthen dish which lay by my side on the floor. I saw, to my horror, that the pitcher {hh}had been removed. I say,{hh} to my horror — for I was consumed with intolerable thirst. This thirst it appeared to be the design of my persecutors to stimulate — for the food in the dish was meat pungently seasoned.

Looking upward,{i} I surveyed the ceiling of my prison. It was some thirty or forty feet overhead, and constructed much as the side walls. In one of its panels a very singular figure riveted my whole attention. It was the painted figure of Time as he is commonly represented, save that, in lieu of a scythe, he held what, at a casual glance, I supposed to be the pictured image of a huge pendulum, such as we see on antique clocks. There was something, however, in the appearance of this machine which causecl me to regard it more attentively. While I gazed directly upward at it, (for its position was immediately over my own) I fancied that I saw it in motion. In an instant afterward{j} the fancy was confirmed. Its sweep was brief, and of course slow. I watched it for some minutes, somewhat in fear, but more in wonder. Wearied at length [page 690:] with observing its dull movement, I turned my eyes upon the other objects in the cell.

A slight noise attracted my notice, and, looking to the floor, I saw several enormous rats traversing it. They had issued from the well, which lay just within view to my right. Even then, while I gazed, they came up in troops, hurriedly, with ravenous eyes, allured by the scent of the meat. From this it required much effort and attention to scare them away.(19)

It might have been half an hour, perhaps even an hour, (for I could take but imperfect note of time,) before I again cast my eyes upward. What I then saw{k} confounded and amazed me. The sweep of the pendulum had increased in extent by nearly a yard. As a natural consequence, its velocity was also much greater. But what mainly disturbed me{l} was the idea that it had perceptibly descended. I now observed — with what horror it is needless to say — that its nether extremity was formed of a crescent of glittering steel, about a foot in length from horn to horn; the horns upward, and the under edge evidently as keen as that of a razor. Like a razor also, it sccmed massy and heavy, tapering from the edge into a solid and broad structure above. It was appended to a weighty rod of brass, and the whole hissed as it swung through the air.(20)

I could no longer doubt the doom prepared for me by monkish ingenuity in torture. My cognizance of the pit had become known to the inquisitorial agents — the{m} pit, whose horrors had been destined for so bold a recusant(21) as myself — the pit, typical of hell, and regarded by rumor as the Ultima Thule(22) of all their punishments. The plunge into this pit I had avoided by the merest of {nn}accidents, and{nn} I knew that surprise, or entrapment{o} into torment, formed an important portion of all the grotesquerie of these dungeon deaths. Having failed to fall, it was no part of the demon plan to hurl me into the abyss; and thus (there being no alternative) a different and a milder destruction awaited me. Milder! I half smiled in my agony as I thought of such application of such a term. [page 691:]

What boots it to tell of the long, long hours of horror more than mortal, during which I counted the rushing oscillations{p} of the steel!(23) Inch by inch — line by line — with a descent only appreciable at intervals that seemed ages — down and still down it came! Days passed — it might have been that many days passed — ere it swept so closely over me as to fan me with its acrid breath. The odor of the sharp steel forced itself into my nostrils. I prayed — I wearied heaven with my{q} prayer for its more speedy descent. I grew frantically mad, and struggled to force myself upward{r} against the sweep of the fearful scimitar. And then I fell suddenly calm, and lay smiling at the glittering death, as a child at some rare bauble.

There was another{s} interval of utter insensibility; it was brief; for, upon again lapsing into life, there had been no perceptible descent in the pendulum. But it might{t} have been long — for I knew there were demons who took note of my swoon, and who could have arrested the vibration at pleasure. Upon my recovery, too, I felt very — oh, inexpressibly — sick and weak, as if through long inanition. Even amid{u} the agonies of that period, the human nature {vv}craved food.{vv} With painful effort I outstretched my left arm as far as my bonds permitted, and took possession of the small remnant which had been spared me by the rats. As I put a portion of it within my lips, there rushed to my mind a half-formed thought of joy — of hope. Yet what business had I with hope? It was, as I say, a half-formed thought — man has many such, which are never completed. I felt that it was of joy — of hope; but I felt also that it had perished in its formation. In vain I struggled to perfect{w} — to regain{x} it. Long suffering had nearly annihilated all my ordinary powers of mind. I was an imbecile — an idiot.

The vibration of the pendulum was at right angles to my length. I saw that the crescent was designed to cross the region of the heart. It would fray the serge of my robe — it would return and repeat its operations{y} — again — and again. Notwithstanding [page 692:] its terrifically wide sweep, (some thirty feet or more,) and the hissing vigor of its descent, sufficient to sunder these very walls of iron, still the fraying of{z} my robe would be all that, for several minutes, it would accomplish. And at this thought I paused. I dared not go farther than this reflection. I dwelt upon it with a pertinacity of attention — as if, in so dwelling, I could arrest here the descent of the steel. I forced myself to ponder upon the sound{a} of the crescent as it should pass across the garment — upon the peculiar thrilling sensation which the friction of cloth produces on{b} the nerves. I pondered upon all this frivolity until my teeth were on edge.

Down — steadily down it crept.{c} I took a frenzied pleasure in contrasting its downward with its lateral velocity. To the right — to the left — far and wide — with the shriek{d} of a damned spirit! to my heart, with the stealthy pace of the tiger. I alternately laughed and howled, as the one or the other idea grew predominant.

Down-certainly, relentlessly down! It vibrated within three inches of my bosom! I struggled violently — furiously — to free my left arm. This was free only from the elbow to the hand. I could reach the latter, from the platter beside me, to my mouth, with great effort, but no farther. Could I have broken the fastenings above the elbow, I would have seized and attempted to arrest the pendulum. I might as well have attempted to arrest an avalanche!

Down — still unceasingly — still inevitably down! I gasped and struggled at each vibration. I shrunk convulsively at its every sweep. My eyes followed its outward or upward whirls with the eagerness of the most unmeaning despair; they closed themselves spasmodically at the descent, although death would have been a relief, oh, how unspeakable! Still I{e} quivered in every nerve to think how slight a sinking{f} of the machinery would precipitate that keen, glistening axe upon my bosom. It was hope{g} that prompted the nerve to quiver — the frame to shrink. It was hope{h} — the hope [page 693:] that triumphs on the rack — that whispers to the death-condemned even in the dungeons of the Inquisition.

I saw that some ten or twelve vibrations would bring the steel in actual contact with my robe — and with this observation there suddenly came over my spirit all the keen, collected calmness of despair.{i} For the first time during many hours — or perhaps days — I thought. It now{j} occurred to me, that the bandage, or surcingle, which enveloped me, was unique.(24) I was tied by no separate cord.{k} The first stroke of the razor-like crescent athwart any portion of the band, would so detach it that it might be unwound from my person by means of my left hand. But how fearful, in that case, the proximity of the steel! The result of the slightest struggle, how deadly! Was it likely, moreover, that the minions of the torturer had not foreseen and provided for this possibility? Was it probable that the bandage crossed my bosom {ll}in the track{ll} of the pendulum? Dreading to find my faint, and, as it seemed, my last hope frustrated, I so far elevated my head as to obtain a distinct view of my breast. The surcingle enveloped my limbs and body close in all directions — save in the path of the destroying crescent.

Scarcely had I dropped my head back into{m} its original position, when there flashed upon my mind what I cannot better describe than as the {nn}unformed half{nn} of that idea of deliverance to which I have previously alluded, and of which a moiety only floated indeterminately through my brain when I raised food{o} to my burning lips. The whole thought was now present — feeble, scarcely sane, scarcely definite — but still entire. I proceeded at once, with the nervous energy of despair, to attempt its execution.

For many hours the immediate vicinity of the low framework upon which I lay, had been literally swarming with rats. They were wild, bold, ravenous — their red eyes glaring upon me as if they waited but for motionlessness on my part to make me their prey.

“To what food,” I thought, “have they been accustomed in the well?” [page 694:]

They had devoured, in spite of all my efforts to prevent them, all but a small remnant of the contents of the dish. I had fallen into an habitual see-saw, or wave of the hand about the platter; and, at length, the unconscious uniformity of the movement deprived it of effect. In their voracity, the vermin frequently fastened their sharp fangs in my fingers. With the particles of the oily and spicy viand which now remained, I thoroughly rubbed the bandage{p} wherever I could reach it; then, raising my hand from the floor, I lay breathlessly still.

At first, the ravenous animals were startled and terrified at the change — at the cessation of movement. They shrank alarmedly back; many sought the well. But this was only for a moment. I had not counted in vain upon their voracity. Observing that I remained without motion, one or two of the boldest leaped upon the frame-work,{q} and smelt at the surcingle. This seemed the signal for a general rush. Forth from the well they hurried in fresh troops. They clung to the wood — they overran it, and leaped{r} in hundreds upon my person. The measured movement of the pendulum disturbed them not at all. Avoiding its strokes, they busied themselves with the anointed bandage. They pressed — they swarmed upon me in ever accumulating heaps. They writhed upon my throat; their cold lips sought my own;(25) I was half stifled by their thronging pressure; disgust,{s} for which the world has no name, swelled my bosom, and chilled, with a heavy{t} clamminess, my heart. Yet one minute, and I felt that the struggle would be over. Plainly I perceived the loosening of the bandage. I knew that in more than one place it must be already severed. With a more than human resolution I lay still.

Nor had I erred in my calculations — nor had I endured in vain. I at length felt that I was free. The surcingle hung in ribands from my body. But the stroke of the pendulum already pressed upon my bosom. It had divided the serge of the robe. It had cut through the linen beneath. Twice again it swung, and a sharp sense of pain shot through every nerve. But the moment of escape had arrived. At a wave of my hand my deliverers hurried [page 695:] tumultuously away. With a steady movement — cautious, sidelong, shrinking, and slow — I slid from the embrace of the bandage and beyond the reach{u} of the scimitar. For the moment, at least, I was free.

Free! — and in the grasp of the Inquisition! I had scarcely stepped from my wooden bed of horror upon the stone floor of the prison, when the motion of the hellish machine ceased, and I beheld it drawn up, by some invisible force, through the ceiling. This was a lesson which I took desperately to heart. My every motion was undoubtedly watched. Free! — I had but escaped death in one form of agony, to be delivered unto worse than death in some other. With that thought I rolled my eyes nervously around on the barriers of iron that hemmed me in. Something unusual — some change which, at first, I could not appreciate distinctly — it was obvious, had taken place in the apartment. For many minutes of a dreamy and trembling abstraction, I busied myself in vain, unconnected conjecture. During this period, I became aware, for the first time, of the origin of the sulphurous{v} light which illumined{w} the cell. It proceeded from a fissure, about half an inch in width, extending entirely around the prison at the base of the walls, which thus appeared, and were completely separated from the floor. I endeavored, but of course in vain, to look through the aperture.

As I arose{x} from the attempt, the{y} mystery of the alteration in the chamber broke at once upon my understanding. I have observed that, although the outlines of the figures upon the walls were sufficiently distinct, yet the colors seemed blurred and indefinite. These colors had now assumed, and were momentarily assuming, a startling and most intense brilliancy, that gave to the spectral and fiendish{z} portraitures an aspect that might have thrilled ever firmer nerves than my own. Demon eyes, of a wild and ghastly vivacity, glared upon me in a thousand directions, where none had been visible before, and gleamed with the lurid lustre of a fire that I could not force my{a} imagination to regard as unreal. [page 696:]

Unreal! — Even while I breathed{b} there came to my nostrils the breath of the vapor of heated iron!(26) A suffocating odor 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. I panted! I gasped for breath! There could be no doubt of the design of my tormentors — oh! most unrelenting! oh! most demoniac of men! I shrank from the glowing metal to the centre of the cell. Amid the thought of the fiery destruction that impended, the idea of the coolness of the well came over my soul like balm. I rushed to its deadly brink. I threw my straining vision below. The glare from the enkindled roof illumined its inmost recesses. Yet, for a wild moment, did my spirit refuse to comprehend the meaning of what I saw. At length it forced — 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, I rushed from the margin, and buried my face in my hands — weeping bitterly.

The heat rapidly increased, and once again I looked up, shuddering as with a fit of the ague. There had been a second change in the cell — and now the change was obviously in the form.(27) As before, it was in vain that I at first endeavored to appreciate or understand what was taking place. But not long was I left in doubt. The Inquisitorial vengeance had been hurried by my two-fold escape, and there was to be no more dallying with the King of Terrors. The room had been square. I saw that two of its iron angles were now acute — two, consequently, obtuse. The fearful difference quickly increased with a low rumbling or moaning sound. In an instant the apartment had shifted its form into that of a lozenge. But the alteration stopped not here — I neither hoped nor desired it to stop. I could have clasped the red walls to my bosom as a garment of eternal peace. “Death,” I said, “any death but that of the pit!” Fool! might I not have{c} known that into the pit it was the object of the burning iron to urge me? Could I resist its glow? or if even that, could I withstand its pressure? And now, flatter and flatter grew the lozenge, with a rapidity that left me no time for contemplation. Its centre, and of course, its greatest width, [page 697:] came just over the yawning gulf. I shrank back — but the closing walls pressed me resistlessly onward.{d} At length for my seared and writhing body there was no longer an inch of foothold on the firm floor of the prison. I struggled no more, but the agony of my soul found vent in one loud, long, and final scream of despair. I felt that I tottered upon the brink — I averted my eyes —

{ee}There was a discordant hum of human voices! There was a loud blast as of many trumpets!{ee} There was a harsh grating as of a thousand thunders! The fiery walls rushed back! An outstretched arm caught my own as I fell, fainting, into the abyss. It was that of General Lasalle. {ff}The French army had entered Toledo.(28) The Inquisition was in the hands of its enemies.{ff}

 


VARIANTS

[The following variant appears at the bottom of page 681:]

Motto:  This first appears in B

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 682:]

a  sensation (A)

b  that (A)

c  Omitted (A)

d  afterwards, (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 683:]

e  Omitted (B) misprint

f  swooned, (B, C) comma deleted to follow A

g  ever (B) misprint

h  the intense (A)

i  what men term (A)

j  realize (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 684:]

k  judges, of the tall candles, (A)

l  around me. / around. (A)

m  of the (A)

n  gasped (A)

o  auto-da-fes, (A, B, C) editorially corrected

p  ever (C) misprint, corrected from A, B

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 685:]

q  a (A)

qq . . . qq  suspense, grew at length (B, C) corrected from A

r  at (A)

s  subterrene (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 686:]

t  onwards (A)

uu . . . uu  perhaps half an hour, (A)

v  afterwards, (A)

w  Omitted (A)

x  afterwards, (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 687:]

yy . . . yy  nearly a minute (A)

z  I now (A)

a  Another step / A step farther (A)

a’  avoided, (B, C) corrected from A

b  Omitted (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 688:]

c  drank, (A)

dd . . . dd  lasted I, of course, (A)

e  dimension (A)

f  our (A)

f’  masonry, (C) corrected from A, B

g  depression. (B, C) misprint, corrected to follow A

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 689:]

hh . . . hh  was absent: (A)

i  upwards, (A)

j  afterwards (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 690:]

k  saw, (C) comma deleted to follow A, B

l  me, (C) comma deleted to follow A, B

m  the (A)

nn . . . nn  accidents. (A)

o  entrapment (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 691:]

p  vibrations (A, B)

q  Omitted (A)

r  upwards (A)

s  an (A)

t  might (A)

u  amid all (A)

vv . . . vv  craved food. (A)

w  realize (A)

x  reain (B) misprint

y  operation (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 692:]

z  of the serge of (A)

a  sound (A)

b  in (A)

c  crept. (A)

d  shriek and the plunge (A)

e  Still I / I still (A)

f  sinking or slipping (A)

g  hope (A)

h  hope (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 693:]

i  despair. (A)

j  now at once (A)

k  cords. (A)

ll . . . ll  in the track (A)

m  in (A)

nn . . . nn  unformed half (A)

o  food (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 694:]

p  bundage (B) misprint

q  fame-work, (C) misprint, corrected from A, B

r  leapt (A)

s  a disgust, (A)

t  deadly (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 695:]

u  sweep (A)

v  sulphureous (A)

w  illuminated (A)

x  rose (A)

y  fhe (B) misprint

z  fiendship (B) misprint

a  my diseased (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 696:]

b  gazed (A)

c  not have / have not (B)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 697:]

d  onwards. (A)

ee . . . ee  There . . . trumpets! There . . . voices! (A)

ff . . . ff  The . . . enemies! The . . . Toledo! (A)

 


[page 697, continued:]

NOTES

Motto:  The motto appears in “Pinakidia,” no. 145 (SLM, August 1836, p. 581). It may be translated: “Here the wicked mob, unappeased, long cherished a hatred of innocent blood. Now that the fatherland is saved, and the cave of death demolished; where grim death has been, life and health appear.” Charles Baudelaire says, in a footnote to his translation of the tale, that the Marché St. Honoré, erected on the site of the Jacobin Club, never had either gates or an inscription (Nouvelles Histoires extraordinaires, 1857).

1.  Compare Politian, VI, 29: “I am sick, sick, sick, even unto death,” and see also Isaiah 38:1, “sick unto death.”

2.  Compare “MS. Found in a Bottle,” paragraph 5: “As I placed my foot upon the upper step of the companion-ladder I was startled with a loud humming noise, like that occasioned by the rapid revolution of a mill-wheel.”

3.  Writhing lips appear also in “Berenicë” and “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.”

4.  Compare the draped walls of the bridal chamber in “Ligeia,” and also the following description of the torture chamber where a victim faced the Inquisitor: “This was a large apartment under ground, vaulted, hung round with black cloth, and dimly lighted by candles placed in candlesticks fastened to the wall. At one end, there was an inclosed place, like a closet, where the Inquisitor in attendance and the notary sat at a table; so that the place seemed . . . the very mansion of death, everything being calculated to inspire terror” (Blackwood’s Magazine, July 1826, p. 81, cited in the fourth footnote to the introduction, above). Margaret Alterton quoted this passage in 1933. The substance is ascribed in the Blackwood’s article to the account of Isaac Orobio, a Jew, as recorded by the Dutch theologian and historian Philip van Limborch (1633-1712).

5.  Poe’s seven candles may reflect the “seven golden candlesticks” of Revelation 1:12. Compare also the “flames of the seven lamps,” in “Shadow.” [page 698:]

6.  The simile of the galvanic battery is canceled from “MS. Found in a Bottle” and “The Oval Portrait.” The galvanic battery, in “The Buried Alive,” Blackwood’s, October 1821, was instrumental in the revival of the narrator. See also “Some Words with a Mummy.”

7.  Compare Jude, verse 13: “wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever.” Poe also refers to “the blackness of darkness” in chapter 21 of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.

8.  Compare “mad, rushing, horrible sound” in “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion,” at note 1.

9.  See “Marginalia,” number 150 (Graham’s, March 1846, p. 117), for an elaborate discussion of visions that appear just before slumber.

10.  Compare this passage to a description of what may be called partial self-hypnotism in “Berenicë,” at note 6.

11.  Compare “Fairyland,” line 15, “Comes down — still down — and down”; and especially “A Predicament,” where the heroine says of the hand of the great clock, “Down, down, down it came, closer and yet closer.”

12.  In contrast, Ugo in Politian, X, thinks he is dead, as did a character in an early version of “Loss of Breath.” George III was finally recognized to be insane when he talked of having attended his own funeral.

13.  The Spanish phrase means acts of faith, but came to be used for public burning of heretics or Jews.

14.  For similar gruesome passages on people who think themselves buried alive, see early versions of “Loss of Breath”; Arthur Gordon Pym, chapter 21; and “The Premature Burial.”

15.  Toledo was a center of the activities of the Inquisition.

16.  Some sensations and experiences described in the next few pages resemble some recounted in chapter 16 of Charles Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly. See David Lee Clark’s article (1929), cited above. Poe planned and perhaps began a study of Brown’s novels; in “American Novel Writing” (Pittsburgh Literary Examiner, August 1839), he said, “In our next article under this head we shall comment upon the novels of Charles Brockden Brown.”

17.  His “wild interest in trifles” combined with coherent thinking under stress leads to a solution for the narrator as in “A Descent into the Maelström” (at note 16) and — as pointed out by Clark — in Brown’s Edgar Huntly. For comment on the basic, undying curiosity, see “The Power of Words” at note 2.

18.  For the pictures, compare Charles Robert Maturin, Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), chapter 6: “I started up with horror . . . on perceiving myself surrounded by demons, who, clothed in fire were breathing forth clouds of it around me . . . what I touched was cold . . . and I comprehended that these were hideous figures scrawled in phosphorus to terrify me.” See the Bison edition (1961), ed. William F. Axton, p. 118. Poe mentioned Melmoth as if he was familiar with it in his “Letter to B———” (SLM, July 1836) and in his review of Henry Cockton’s Stanley Thorne in Graham’s for January 1842. The “fearful [page 699:] images” recall also the draperies of the bedchamber in “Ligeia,” where the arabesque figures changed from “the appearance of simple monstrosities” to “an endless succession of ghastly forms” as one advanced.

19.  A versification of the legend that Archbishop Hatto II of Mainz was eaten by mice in the tower he had built as a refuge from them appeared in the Knickerbocker Magazine, November 1837, p. 403 (Alterton, 1933). Poe may also have known Southey’s verses, “God’s judgement on a Wicked Bishop.”

20.  The pendulum came from the passage below, a note appended to the preface (pp. xix-xx) of Llorente’s History of the Inquisition (London, 1826). Poe probably found it in the review of the book in the British Critic, January 1827 (p. 129), where it was quoted in full, or in the reprinted review in the Philadelphia Museum, April 1827, p. 333. The passage, quoted in part by Alterton in 1933, is here reproduced from the book:

The following fact shews that the inquisitors of our own days do not fall below the standard of those who followed the fanatic Torquemada. * * * * was present when the Inquisition was thrown open, in 1820, by the orders of the Cortes of Madrid. Twenty-one prisoners were found in it, not one of whom knew the name of the city in which he was: some had been confined three years, some a longer period, and not one knew perfectly the nature of the crime of which he was accused.

One of these prisoners had been condemned, and was to have suffered on the following day. His punishment was to be death by the Pendulum. The method of thus destroying the victim is as follows: — the condemned is fastened in a groove, upon a table, on his back; suspended above him is a Pendulum, the edge of which is sharp, and it is so constructed as to become longer with every movement. The wretch sees this implement of destruction swinging to and fro above him, and every moment the keen edge approaching nearer and nearer: at length it cuts the skin of his nose, and gradually cuts on, until life is extinct. It may be doubted if the holy office in its mercy ever invented a more humane and rapid method of exterminating heresy, or ensuring confiscation. This, let it be remembered, was a punishment of the Secret Tribunal, A.D, 1820!!!

21.  A recusant is properly one who falls back into a heresy once recanted. Poe apparently thought it meant one who refused to obey.

22.  The remotest part of the known world, in Vergil’s Georgics, I, 30, hence indicating an extreme limit. Poe used the phrase in a sense close to the original in his poem “Dream-Land,” lines 5-8:

I have reached these lands but newly

From an ultimate dim Thule —

From a wild weird clime that lieth, sublime,

Out of Space — out of Time.

23.  Margaret Alterton in 1925 mentioned “The Man in the Bell” as probably Poe’s source for some of the thoughts and sensations described in the next few pages, quoting the narrator:

“Every moment I saw the bell sweep within an inch of my face . . . To look at the object,” he said, “was bitter as death,” but he could not prevent his [page 700:] eyes from following it instinctively as it swung. “The bell pealing above and opening its jaws with a hideous clamor,” seemed at one time “a ravening monster raging to devour” him. “In the vast cavern of the bell hideous faces appeared, and glared down on me with terrifying frowns, or with grinning mockery, still more appalling. At last the devil himself, accoutred, as in the common description of the evil spirit, with hoof, horn, and tail, and eyes of infernal lustre, made his appearance . . .”

The story, in Blackwood’s, November 1821, signed Thomas Mann, a pseudonym of William Maginn, is reprinted in his The Odoherty Papers (1855). Poe mentioned the piece in a letter to Thomas W. White, April 30, 1835, and in “How to Write a Blackwood Article.” Maginn’s tale was also a source for “The Devil in the Belfry:”

24.  Poe uses the word in a sense now termed obsolete by the OED: formed or consisting of a single thing — in this case, all in one piece.

25.  Professor R. C. Blackmur cited the cold lips of the rats as a bold and unexpected touch, in The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Tales (1960), p. 378.

26.  For the heating of the room, compare “The Involuntary Experimentalist” in Blackwood’s for October 1837, a story of a man working on the interior of a boiler which begins to be heated by people unaware of the workman inside it. This is one of the stories mentioned in “How to Write a Blackwood Article.”

27.  The room that decreases in size is from “The Iron Shroud” by William Mudford, first printed in Blackwood’s for August 1830 and reprinted in many places. This is the “plagiarized” source immediately recognized by Lewis Gaylord Clark and Griswold — see introduction above — but they called it “Vivenzio, or Italian Vengeance.” The name of the protagonist is Vivenzio. Mudford’s room is made of blocks that are removed a few at a time. The room in Poe’s story is constructed on a different plan.

28.  General Antoine-Chevalier-Louis Colbert, Comte de Lasalle, entered Toledo during the Peninsular War in 1808. Poe reviewed W. F. Napier’s book on that war in Graham’s for November 1841, but probably had in mind the passage from Thomas Dick quoted above.

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 679:]

*  For a recent study of Poe’s use of British periodicals, see Michael Allen’s Poe and the British Magazine Tradition (1969).

  See Lewis Gaylord Clark’s review of the first two volumes of Poe’s Works in the Knickerbocker, February 1850, and Griswold’s “Memoir,” p. xlviii. Notable articles on the sources of Poe’s tale include a discussion by Margaret Alterton in her Origins of Poe’s Critical Theory (1925), p. 27, where she mentions two stories in Blackwood’s; a discussion by David Lee Clark of Poe’s indebtedness to Charles Brockden Brown in Modern Language Notes, June 1929; and Miss Alterton’s illuminating supplementary piece in the same periodical, June 1933, demonstrating Poe’s use of material suggested by or derived from Juan Antonio Llorente’s history of the Spanish Inquisition. In my notes below I mention specific sources found for certain passages in the text, omitting notice of suggestions superseded by better ones. [David Hirsch, in Mississippi Quarterly, 1969-70 (23:35-43), makes a good case for including another Blackwood’s tale among Poe’s sources: “Singular Recovery from Death,” December 1821. Burton Pollin, in Discoveries in Poe, pp. 18-20; suggests Poe’s indebtedness to Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame.]

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 680:]

  I have seen the information about General Lasalle’s visit to the palace of the Inquisition used as a filler in newspapers, such as the Portsmouth (New Hampshire) Journal, June 2, 1832, p. 1, col. 4, which says, in a short article headed “Spanish Inquisition”: “When Gen. Lasalle entered Toledo he immediately visited the palace of the Inquisition. . .”; and goes on to describe the instruments of torture.

§  After the French invasion of Spain in 1808, Joseph Bonaparte suppressed the Inquisition and appointed Llorente to take charge of its archives and write its history. His Anales de la Inquisition de EspaƱa (2 vols., Madrid) appeared in 1812. When the French were driven out and the Inquisition was restored by Ferdinand VII, Llorente took refuge in Paris, where a translation by A. Pellier of his work was published as Histoire critique de l’Inquisition de I’Espagne, depuis. . .son établissement jusqu’ au règne de Ferdinand VII (4 vols., 1817-18). Historia critica de la Inquisicion de España (10 vols., Madrid, 1822) was issued after the second suppression of the Inquisition (1820), and Histoire abrégée de l’Inquisition d’Espagne . . . par L[éonard] Gallois (3rd ed., Paris, 1824), preceded by a note on the life and writings of Llorente, appeared the year after his death. In 1826 two one-volume editions in English appeared: The History of the Inquisition of Spain from the time of its establishment to the reign of Ferdinand VII . . . abridged and translated from the original works of D. Jean Antoine Llorente (London: G. B. Whittaker), and History of the Spanish Inquisition abridged from the original work of M. Llorente, late secretary of that institution, by Leonard Gallois: Translated by an American (New York: G. G. Morgan). In 1843 a reprint of the London edition was issued in Philadelphia. Poe may have seen one of the versions of Llorente’s work, but it is more likely that he drew upon the two articles cited by Margaret Alterton: (1) “The Inquisition of Spain, with Anecdotes of Some of Its More Illustrious Victims,” by James Browne, in Blackwood’s Magazine, July and August 1826, which surveys earlier writings on the Inquisition and gives special attention to Llorente, quoting from a French edition, and (2) a review of the one-volume English edition of 1826 in the British Critic, January 1827, reprinted in the Philadelphia Museum of Foreign Literature and Science for April of that year.

 


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Notes:

None.


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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) (The Pit and the Pendulum)