Text: Anonymous, “The Nautical Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym,” Spectator (London, UK), vol. 11, whole no. 539, October 27, 1838, p. 1023


[page 1023:]


WHEN we say that Mr. PYM, of Nantucket, proceeded as far as the eighty-fourth degree of Southern latitude, and abruptly breaks off his narrative whilst in full tilt for the South Pole, with a steady wind and a rapid current in his favour, carrying him through a hot and milky-looking ocean, with surrounding wonders of various kinds, the reader will see at once that the work is an American fiction. But, although without any very definite purpose, it is a fiction of no mean skill; displaying much power, much nautical knowledge, and a DEFOE-like appearance of reality. Its ease, simplicity, and natural effects, remind one of MARRYAT.

Mr. Arthur Gordon Pym, like Robinson Crusoe, had a liking for the sea ; but his family having opposed his wishes, a friend smuggled him on board a vessel, and secreted him in the hold ; and here, in consequence of a mutiny, Mr. Pym was compelled to remain longer than he wished, exposed to all the horrors of hunger, thirst, darkness, and mephitic air. To this adventure succeed the struggles of the quarrelling mutineers, a furious tempest, and suffering by famine, ending in the immolation of one of their party. Released from this state by an English South Sea whaler, whose captain has a taste for discovery, they proceed eight degrees further South than any previous navigator has yet succeeded in reaching, and discover a groupe of islands, where the natives are black, and the productions, mineral, animal, and vegetable, differ from those in the Temperate and Arctic circles. After an interchange of presents and professions, the crew are destroyed by the savages, with the exception of Mr. Pym and another; who eventually escape in a canoe, and steer for the South Pole ; in approaching which, the narrative breaks off, be- cause, we imagine, the writer was at a loss how to go on.

The early part of the adventures is not physically impossible, and that is all: the later discoveries are clearly fable: but both the one and the other are told with great appearance of truth, and with a hearty confidence in the writer's belief, which gives them much of the air of reality. Interest is also excited in the narrative — that kind of breathless and absorbing interest with which we may suppose our ancestors listened to stories of “men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders,” or with which we in our youth perused fairy tales. The disgusting though fearful scene of the passing vessel of the dead, the horrors of the tempest and the following famine, and the escape of Pym and Peters from the mountain in whose bowels they are entombed, are all examples of this kind. Neither is the writer deficient in nautical or geographical knowledge, but intermingles both with his narrative; nor is he devoid of fancy. Take, as an instance of this latter quality, his account of the water of the new-discovered isle.

“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 our- selves 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 afterward 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 limped 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 basinful, 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 veins, the water closed over it immediately, as with us, and also, in withdrawing it, all traces of the passage of the knife were in. dandy 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 phoenomena 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.”

Here is a taste of the author's powers of nautical exposition.


“Lying to, or, in sea parlance ‘laying to,’ is a measure resorted to for various purposes, and effected in various manners. In moderate weather, it is frequently done with a view of merely bringing the vessel to a island still, to wait for another vessel, or any similar object. If the vessel which lies to is under full sail, the manoeuvre is usually accomplished by throwing round some portion of her sails so as to let the wind take them aback, when she becomes stationary. But we are now speaking of lying to in a gale of wind. This is done when the wind is ahead, and too violent to admit of carrying sail without danger of capsizing; and sometimes even when the wind is fair, but the sea too heavy fur the vessel to be put before it. If a vessel be suffered to scud before the wind in a very heavy sea, much damage is usually done her by the shipping of water over her stern, and sometimes by the violent plunges she makes forward. This manoeuvre, then, is seldom resorted to in such case, unless through necessity. When the vessel is in a leaky condition, she is often put before the wind even [column 2:] in the heaviest seas; for, when lying to, her seams are sure to be greatly opened by her violent straining, and it is not so much the ease when scudding. Often too, it becomes necessary to scud a vessel, either when the blast is so exceedingly furious as to tear in pieces the sail which is employed with a view of bringing her head to the wind, or when, through the false modelling of the frame or other causes, this main object cannot be effected.

“Vessels in a gale of wind are laid to in different manners, according to their peculiar construction. Some lie to best under a foresail, arid this, I believe, is the sail most usually employed. Large square-rigged vessels have sails for the express purpose, called storm staysails. But the jib is occasionally employed by itself — sometimes the jib and foresail, or a double-reefed foresail, and not un- frequently the after-sails are made use of. Foretopsails are very often found to answer the purpose better than any other species of sail. The Grampus was generally laid to under a close-reefed foresail.

“When a vessel is to be laid to, her head is brought up to the wind just so nearly as to fill the sail under which she lies when hauled flat aft, that is, when brought diagonally across the vessel. This being done, the bows point within a few degrees of the direction from which the wind issues, and the windward bow of course receives the shock of the waves. In this situation a good vessel will ride out a very heavy gale of wind without shipping a drop of water, and without any further attention being requisite on the part of the crew. The helm is usually lashed down, but this is altogether unnecessary, (except an account of the noise it makes when loose,) for the rudder has no effect upon the vessel when lying to. Indeed, the helm bad far better be left loose than lashed very fast, for the rudder is apt to be torn off by heavy seas if there be no room for the helm to play. As long as the sail holds, a well-modelled vessel will maintain her situation, and ride every sea, as if instinct with life and reason. If the violence of the wind, however, should tear the sail into pieces, (a feat which it requires a perfect hurricane to accomplish under ordinary circumstances,) there is then imminent danger. The vessel falls off from the wind, and, coming broadside to the sea, is completely at its mercy: the only resource in this case is to put her quickly before the wind, letting her scud until a one other sail can be set. Some vessels will lie to under no sail whatever, but such are not to be trusted at sea.

We close with a specimen of Mr. Pym in the more legitimate walk of fiction; powerful, but, we suspect, not always natural.


“The only method we could devise for the terrific lottery, in which we were to take each a chance, was that of drawing straws. Small splinters of wood were made to answer our purpose, and it was agreed that I should be the bolder. I retired to one end of the bulk, while my poor companions silently took up their station in the other, with their backs turned towards me. The bitterest anxiety which I endured at any period of this fearful drama, was while I occupied myself in the arrangement of the lots. There are few condition, into which man can possibly full where he will not feel a deep interest in the preservation of his existence; an interest momentarily increasing with the frailness of the tenure by which that existence may be held. But now that the silent, definite, and stein nature of the business in which I was engaged (so different from the tumultuous dangers of the storm or the gradually approaching horrors of famine) allowed me to reflect on the few chances I bad of escaping the most appalling of deaths — a death for the most appalling of purposes — every particle of that energy which had so long buoyed me up departed like feathers before the wind, leaving me a helpless prey to the most abject and pitiable terror. I could not, at first, even summon up sufficient strength to tear and fit together the small splinters of wood, my fingers absolutely refusing their and my knees knocking violently against each other. My mind ran over rapidly a thousand absurd projects by which to avoid becoming a partner in the awful speculation. I thought of falling on my knees to my companions, and entreating them to let me escape this necessity ; of suddenly rushing upon them, and, by putting one of them to death, of rendering the decision by lot useless; in short, of every thing but of going through with the matter I had in hand. At last, after wasting a long time in this imbecile conduct, I was re- called to my senses by the voice of Parker, who urged me to relieve them at once from the terrible anxiety they were enduring. Even then I could not bring myself to arrange the splinters upon the spot, but thought over every species of finesse by which I could trick some one of my fellow sufferers to draw the short straw; as it had been agreed that whoever drew the shortest of four splinters from my hand, was to die for the preservation of the rest. Before any one condemn me for this apparent heartlessness, let him be placed in a situation precisely similar to my own.

“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. He also drew immediately, and he also was free; and Mow, 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 eves, 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 hand, 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.”







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