Text: Anonymous, [Review of Narrative of A. G. Pym], The Atlas (London, UK), vol. 13, October 20, 1838, p. 666


[page 666:]



The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, of Nantucket, North America; containing the Details of a Mutiny, Famine, Shipwreck, during a Voyage to the South Seas; resulting in Various Extraordinary Adventures and Discoveries in the Eighty-Fourth Parallel of Southern Latitude.

(Wiley and Putnam. London, 1838.)

IN the lack of new publications of greater interest, we may venture to bestow upon this most incredible book a larger space than, under other circumstances, we should be disposed to afford to such a production. The reader may reasonably be surprised at the announcement of adventures and discoveries in the eighty-fourth parallel of southern latitude; but when he comes to read them his surprise will cease. We will run through the leading incidents of the story, which, however, would have been more entertaining, had the writer been a little more careful in subduing his tendency for the marvellous. He has so ridiculously overdone the recital, that the volume cannot impose upon anybody.

Mr. PYM — who describes his adventures in the first person — informs us that upon his return a few months ago (his preface is dated last July) to the United Slates, he was urged to give to the public (he particulars of his strange experiences in the South Seas, but he was restrained from doing so by a variety of reasons, one of which was the apprehension that his story would be regarded as “an impudent and ingenious fiction.” At length a Mr. Poe, the editor of a magazine, prevailed upon him to allow him to write in his own way a narrative of the earlier part of his adventures, and publish it in the magazine “under the garb of fiction.” Two numbers of this pretended fable appeared, but the readers of the magazine, contrary to al expectation, believed the whole narrative to be true, and Mr. PYM, tempted by this circumstance, as he says, proceeded to complete it in the form in which it now appears. Such is the history of the book, as far as it is revealed to us, and the following are the main circumstances related by our imaginative voyager.

At a very early age, Mr. PYM discovered an impressible passion for a sea life, and tells us of a desperate adventure he had with a young companion, the son of a sea captain, when they were both out at night in a boat, run down by a whaling-ship, and saved by a miracle. His friends entertained very life, but he was determined to evade them, and at last an opportunity offered when Captain Barnard, the father of his friend AUGUSTUS, was employed to take out the brig Grampus upon a whaling voyage to the South Seas. It was agreed between the young adventurers that AUGUSTUS should contrive to secrete his friend in the hold of the Grampus until they got fairly out to sea, and that then, when it was too late to return, he should discover himself. He was accordingly hidden in a box in the hold, with a small stock of provisions; three days elapsed before he saw AUGUSTUS, and then it was merely to learn that the vessel was about to sail. Several days after that passed over, and he heard no more of AUGUSTUS, and hunger, and thirst, and almost madness, begun to set in, and such was the stupor into which he was plunged, that he assures us in italics that he slept for more than three entire days and nights at the very least. This little bouncer, however, is only the beginning of his extraordinary adventures. When he was nearly famished in the hold, AUGUSTUS made his appearance, but with a terrible narrative of the cause of his delay. In the interval that elapsed a mutiny had taken place on board, the captain and several of the sailors had been most barbarously treated and set adrift, and the ship was at the mercy of the desperate mutineers, who were now divided into two parties amongst themselves. The issue of this state of things is that one of the sailors — a savage fellow, called DIRK PETERS — shows some kindness to AUGUSTUS, and induces him to join his party together with his friend, and then they fall upon the antagonist body of sailors, massacre them, and take possession of the vessel. The way in which this is brought about is by acting on the superstitions of the whalers. Mr. PYM dresses himself up in the clothes of a dead sailor, and, smearing his face to look like a corpse, suddenly appears amongst them in the cabin, whereupon the mate drops down dead, and all the others are thrown into such an agony of fear that they are easily dispatched.

There were now but four living men on board, PETERS, AUGUSTUS, PARKER (a seaman) and Mr. PYM. The ship springs a leak — horrors of all kinds accumulate — the sea shows more wildness than ever sea showed before — the provisions below are unattainable in consequence of the deluge of water that closes up the cabin — and nothing can save the vessel but the curious fact that it contains a cargo of empty oil-casks, it being obvious, says the veracious author, that a vessel with such a cargo could not sink. In order to give to such circumstances as strong an appearance of reality as they will permit, Mr. PYM relates the emotions which agitated him during this fearful passage. Mark, inquisitive reader, the profound and accurate statement of his illusions.

“Shortly after this period I fell into a slate of partial insensibility, during which the most pleasing images floated in my imagination; such as green trees, waving meadows of ripe grain, processions of dancing girls, troops of cavalry, and other fantasies I now remember that, in all which passed before my mind's eye, motion was a predominant idea. Thus, I never fancied any stationary object, such as a house, a mountain, or anything of that kind; but windmills, ships, large birds, balloons, people on horseback, carriages driving furiously, and similar moving objects, presented themselves in endless succession.”

This is after the manner of Robinson Crusoe, but the author evidently does not know where to stop when he begins these delineations. A man in so appalling a situation would be very unlikely to describe his feelings in such heightened colours as Mr. PYM invariably employs. The naked horrors would be quite enough without any aids from exaggerated language.

In this way — sinking daily, and forming still more ghastly images of the future — this crew of four famishing men at length descry a sail. But the author must relate this in his own words.

“I turned my head, and shall never forget the ecstatic joy which thrilled through every particle of my frame, when I perceived a large brig bearing with down upon us, and not more than a couple of miles off. I sprung to my feet as if a musket bullet had suddenly struck me to the heart; and, stretching out my arms in the direction of the vessel, stood in this manner, motionless, and unable to articulate a syllable. PETERS and PARKER were equally affected, although in different ways. The former danced about the deck like a madman, uttering the most she came down but and our impatience amounted howls and imprecations, while the latter burst into tears, and continued for many minutes weeping like a child.

“The vessel in sight was a large brig, of a Dutch build, and painted black, with a tawdry gilt figure-head. She had evidently seen a good deal of rough weather, and, we supposed, had suffered much in two gale which had proved so disastrous to ourselves, for her foretopmast was gone, and some of her star-board bulwarks. When [column 2:] we first saw her, she was, as I have already said, about two miles off and to windward, bearing down upon us. The breeze was very gentle, and what astonished us chiefly was, that she had no other sails set than her foresail and extravagant rhodomontades, intermingled nearly to phrensy. The awkward manner in which she steered, too, was remarked by all of us, even excited as we were. She yawed about so considerably, that once or twice we thought it impossible she could see us, or imagined that, having seen us, and discovered no person on board, she was about to tack and make off in another direction. Upon each of these occasions we screamed and shouted at the top of our voices, when the stranger would appear to change for a moment her intention, and again hold on towards us — this singular conduct being repeated two or three limes, so that at last we could think of no other manner of accounting for it than by supposing the helmsman to be in liquor.

“No person was seen upon her decks until she arrived within about a quarter of a mile of us. We then saw three seamen, whom by their dress we took to be Hollanders. Two of these were lying on some old sails near the forecastle, and the third, who appeared to be looking at us with great curiosity, was leaning over the starboard bow near the bowsprit. This last was a stout and tall man, with a very dark skin. He seemed by his manner to be encouraging us to have patience, nodding to us in a cheerful although rather odd way, and smiling constantly so as to display a set of the most brilliantly white teeth. As his vessel drew nearer, we saw a red flannel cap which he had on fall from his head into the water; but of this he took little or no notice, continuing his odd smiles and gesticulations. I relate these things and circumstances minutely, and I relate them it must be understood, precisely as they appeared to us.”

By this time the reader will begin to suspect that the long bow is stretched a little too far; but he must see the incident out, if he would satisfy himself of the entire ingenuity of our Nantuckian.

“The brig came on slowly, and now more steadily than before, and — I cannot speak calmly of this event — our hearts leaped up wildly within us, and we poured out our whole souls in shouts and thanksgiving to God for the complete, unexpected, and glorious deliverance that was so palpably at hand. Of a sudden, and all at once, there came wafted over the ocean from the strange vessel (which was now close upon us) a smell, a stench, such as the whole world nas no name for — no conception of — hellish — utterly suffocating — insufferable, inconceivable. I gasped for breath, and, turning to my companions, perceived that they were paler than marble. But we had now no time left for question or surmise — the brig was within fifty feet of us, and it seemed to be her intention to run under our counter, that we might board her without her putting out a boat. We rushed aft, when suddenly, a wide yaw threw her off full five or six points from the course she had been running, and, as she passed under our stern at the distance of about twenty feet, we had a full view of her decks. Shall I ever forget the triple horror of that spectacle? Twenty-five or thirty human bodies, among whom were several females, lay scattered about between the counter and the galley, in the last and most loathsome state of putrefaction! We plainly saw that not a soul lived in that fated vessel. Yet we could not help shouting to the dead for help I Yes, long and loudly did we beg, in the agony of the moment, that those silent and disgusting images would stay for us, would not abandon us to become like them, would receive us among their goodly company! We were raving with horror and despair — thoroughly and through the anguish of our grievous disappointment.”

As the brig approaches, the figure in the forecastle becomes more visible. It was that of a tall stout man, leaning on the bulwark, and still nodding his head to and fro, his arms extended over the rail, and the palms of his hands fell outward. On his hack, where a part of his shirt was torn, (here sat a huge sea-gull gorging himself with the flesh; but this was not all — the bird drew out its head, looked lazily round, and flying directly over the deck of the Grampus, dropped a portion of the clotted and liver-like substance upon which it had been feasting at the feet of PARKER. Mr. PYM had a horrid thought for a moment — but he shuddered and threw the “frightful thing” into the sea.

This was the first very awful adventure. The next was worse. The four men were now ravenous for food, and PARKER proposed that one of them should die to furnish a meal for the remainder. At first Mr. PYM resisted this terrible suggestion, but at length he was compelled by the others to submit. As scenes of this kind have frequently occurred, there is nothing absolutely incredible in the relation of the way in which it took place on this occasion, although there is too much straining after mere effect. It was agreed that they were to draw lots — the shortest lot to determine the victim. Mr. PYM ran over a thousand schemes for cheating his companions, in the natural desire for life; it was in vain, however, to seek a subterfuge!

“At length delay was no longer possible, and, with a heart almost bursting from my bosom, I advanced to the region of the forecastle, where my companions were awaiting me. I held out my hand with the splinters, and PETERS immediately drew. He was free — his, at least, was not the shortest; and there was now another chance against my escape. I summoned up all my strength, and passed the lots to AUGUSTUS. lie also drew immediately, and he also was free; and now, whether I should live or die, the chances were no more than precisely even. At this moment all the fierceness of the tiger possessed my bosom, and I felt towards my poor fellow-creature, PARKER, the most intense, the most diabolical hatred. But the feeling did not last; and at length, with a convulsive shudder and closed eyes, I held out the two remaining splinters towards him. It was full five minutes before he could summon resolution to draw, during which period of heart-rending suspense I never once opened my eyes. Presently one of the two lots was quickly drawn from my hand. The decision was then over, yet I knew not whether it was for me or against me. No one spoke, and still I dared not satisfy myself by looking at the splinter I held. PETERS at’ length took me by the band, and I forced myself to look up, when I immediately saw by the countenance of PARKER that I was safe, and that he it was who had been doomed to suffer. Gasping for breath, I fell senseless to the deck.

“I recovered from my swoon in time to behold the consummation of the tragedy in the death of him who had been chiefly instrumental in bringing it about. He made no resistance whatever, and was stabbed in the back by PETERS, when he fell instantly dead. I must not dwell upon the fearful repast which immediately ensued.”

Another period of despair follows. AUGUSTUS dies, reduced in weight to forty or fifty pounds; and so decayed, that when PETERS lifts up the body to cast it into the sea, an entire leg comes off in his grasp. It is by such outrageous fabrications as this that Mr. PYM betrays the fabulous quality of his whole narrative. There are many statements in the book that might be and others that could not be true, and the result is that we doubt the vraisemblable, because our faith is shaken by the impossible. The brig is next overturned, but she is a wonderful brig, and the two survivors still manage to keep on the keel. At length they are taken up by the Jane Guy, of Liverpool, bound on a sealing and trading voyage to the South Seas and Pacific. When they were thus picked up, the Grampus was off Cape St Roque; so that, observes Mr. PYM, we had probably drifted from north to south, not less than twenty-five degrees!

It might be supposed that, having now got on board a veritable English schooner, all the marvellous adventures were at an end; but it is now only that they begin in reality. The Jane Guy makes Prince Edward's Island, passes the islands of Crozet, and comes to anchor at Desolation Island, discovered by Cooke. Here we have an account of the albatross, the largest and fiercest of the South Sea birds, and of their manner of constructing their nests in fellowship with the penguins, which we may pass over as a communication of no great novelty. Departing from this place, they proceeded in search of a group of islands called the Auroras, the existence of which has been testified by some navigators, [column 3:] but no such land could be found, although the vessel passed through all the degrees of latitude and longitude within which they were said to lie. And now comes the crowning marvel of the book.

Our readers are aware that Captain WEDDELL proceeded several years ago farther south than any other individual was ever Known to have penetrated. He made that memorable voyage in a whaler, and reached the latitude of 74 deg. 15 min. Now that is the utmost ascertained extent of adventure in the South Seas, and Captain Weddell declared his belief that no land existed in the polar regions of the south. We need not allude to any other voyages of discovery in that direction, of which there have been several, but content ourselves with reference to the single one which went farther than all the rest, and which, therefore, carried investigation to the most distant point hitherto attained. The Jane Guy, according to Mr. PYM, went considerably beyond Captain Weddell, and discovered an island in the eighty-fourth parallel of latitude — nearly ten degrees farther than the point gained by the intrepid whaler! Captain Guy, who commanded the schooner, was opposed to the adventure, but Mr. PYM persuaded him to persevere. If the story were true, we should of course enter into details; but, believing it to be a pure invention, we will not trouble ourselves to be very minute.

On their way they saw several large whales — but the most remarkable thing they fell in with was a nondescript creature, such as may fairly be supposed to belong to some fabulous region.

“We also picked up a bush, full of red berries, like those of the hawthorn, and the carcass of a singular-looking land animal. It was three feet in length, and but six inches in height, with four very short legs, the feet armed with long claws of a brilliant scarlet, and resembling coral in substance. The body was covered with, a straight silky hair, perfectly white. The tail was peaked like that of a rat, and about a foot and a half long. The head resembled a cat's, with the exception of the ears — these were flapped like the ears of a dog. The teeth were of the same brilliant scarlet as the claws.”

That was a real monster of the South Pole. At length they saw land, and presently four canoes filled with savages — and such savages! — put out from shore.

“In the four canoes, which might have been fifty feet long and five broad, there were a hundred and ten savages in all. They were about the ordinary stature of Europeans, but of a more muscular and brawny frame. Their complexion a jet black, with thick and long woolly hair. They were clothed in skins of an unknown black animal, shaggy and silky, and made to fit the body with some degree of skill, the hair being inside, except where turned out about the neck, wrists, and ancles. Their arms consisted principally of clubs, of a dark and apparently very heavy wood. Some spears, however, were observed among them, headed with flints, and a few slings. The bottoms of the canoes were full of black stones about the size of a large egg.”

These people uttered certain strange words, danced about with delight, and showed so much good humour, that the captain went on shore, and visited them in their village. Of course the whole country was totally different from all other countries: indeed it seems to have been like one of the scenes in a Drury-lane pantomime.

“At every step we took inland the conviction forced itself upon us that we were in a country differing essentially from any hitherto visited by civilized men. We saw nothing with which we had been formerly conversant. The trees resembled no growth of either the torrid, the temperate, or the northern frigid zones, and were altogether unlike those of the lower southern latitudes we had already traversed. The very rocks were novel in their mass, their colour, and their stratification; and the streams themselves, utterly incredible as it may appear, had so little in common with those of other climates, that we were scrupulous of tasting them, and, indeed, had difficulty in bringing ourselves to believe that their qualities were purely those of nature. At a small brook which crossed our path (the first we had reached) Too-wit and his attendants halted to drink. On account of the singular character of the water, we refused to taste it, supposing it to be polluted; and it was not until some time afterwards we came to understand that such was the appearance of the streams throughout the whole group. I am at a loss to give a distinct idea of the nature of this liquid, and cannot do so without many words. Although it flowed with rapidity in all declivities where common water would do so, yet never, except when falling in a cascade, had it the customary appearance of limpidity. It was, nevertheless, in point of fact, as perfectly limpid as any limestone water in existence, the difference being only in appearance. At first sight, and especially in cases where little declivity was found, it bore resemblance, as regards consistency, to a thick infusion of gum-arabic in common Water. But this was only the least remarkable of its extraordinary qualities. It was not colourless, nor was it of any one uniform colour — presenting to the eye, as it flowed, every possible shade of purple, like the hues of a changeable silk. This variation in shade was produced in a manner which excited as profound astonishment in the minds of our party as the mirror had done in the case of Too-wit. Upon collecting a basinfull, and allowing it to settle thoroughly, we perceived that the whole mass of liquid was made up of a number of distinct veins, each of a distinct hue; that these veins did not commingle; and that their cohesion was perfect in regard to their own particles among themselves, and imperfect in regard to neighbouring veins. Upon passing the blade of a knife athwart the veius, the water closed over it immediately, as with us, and also, in withdrawing it, all traces of the passage of the knife were instantly obliterated. If, however, the blade was passed down accurately between two veins, a perfect separation was effected, which the power of cohesion did not immediately rectify. The phenomena of this water formed the first definite link in that vast chain of apparent miracles with which I was destined to be at length encircled.”

This marvellous water is hardly marvellous enough for a downright romance, and much too marvellous for truth. But it is a sheer waste of lime to pursue these particulars. The crew of the schooner land, are entrapped in a defile by the savages, who, by a species of sorcery known only at the south pole, contrive to hurl down upon the unsuspecting Englishmen the entire summits of the ranges of hills at each side, burying them in the ruins. The way in which these mighty masses were loosened appears to have been by cords of grape-vine attached to stakes — a mode quite as feasible as if you tried to lift a house from its foundations by a silk thread. Mr. PYM and PETERS alone escape alive, and after sundry” strange adventures in ravines, and cliffs, and caves, they at last make the shore, notwithstanding that there are at least ten thousand natives close at hand who have just blown up the unlucky Jane Guy of Liverpool, They seize a canoe, and make off for sea: and here the narrative ends, leaving them drifting in 84 deg. parallel, somewhat after the fashion of the monster in Frankenstein.

This sudden termination of the story is attempted to be accounted for by a statement at the end, of the sudden death of Mr. PYM, before he completed the last few chapters — but how or where he died, the writer sayeth not. The fact seems to be that having brought his narrative to a point of extravagant peril — a canoe drifting amongst the ice islands of the South Seas — he did not know how to bring himself home in safely, and so stopped all at once: although with such a fertile invention he might have readily supplied the deficiency. Could he not get on the back of an albatross, and compel the bird to carry him back to Nantucket? Daniel Rourke, Esq. thus visited the moon on the back of an eagle.

It is superfluous to add that we hold the entire narrative to be a mere fiction.




This long article was reprinted in full in the London and Paris Observer (Paris, France) for October 28, 1838, pp. 678-679.



[S:0 - AUK, 1838] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Poe Bookshelf - Review of Narrative of A. G. Pym (Anonymous)