Text: Dennis W. Eddings, “Poe's Tell-Tale Clocks,” Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, 1994


­ [title page:]

Poe’s Tell-Tale Clocks

Dennis W. Eddings

Western Oregon State College

­ [page ii, unnumbered:]


All citations of Poe’s tales are from Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbott, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Belknap, 1969-78). Volume and page numbers are identified parenthetically in the text.

I wish to thank Professor Kent Ljungquist for kindly directing me to some relevant commentary I had overlooked. Special thanks are due to Professor Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV for his patience in enduring early versions of this presentation. His many suggestions have done much to sharpen my remarks. What remains dull I must claim for my own.

* * * * *

­ [page 1:]

Clocks and watches abound in Poe’s fiction. They are frequently encountered in the most literal of terms, as actual mechanical instruments for measuring time. On other occasions they are suggested figuratively through such things as names, as in Peter Pendulum, or movement, as with the dancers in “The Masque of the Red Death,” or physical setting, as in “The Devil in the Belfry.”(1) Critical commentary on these clocks, however, tends to take them as a starting point for discussion of related issues rather than focusing directly on how and to what end Poe uses them. Most frequently, the focal point of these readings is Poe’s view of time and how that view relates to such themes as destruction, although other considerations also appear. Gerhard Hoffmann analyzes the clock in “The Masque of the Red Death” in terms of how it helps create “mood-invested space” while Manfred Markus employs them to support his exploration of Poe’s narrative strategies.(2) Yet another approach to Poe’s clocks is exemplified by Jean-Paul Weber, who calls Poe a “maniac of time.”(3) Weber’s explanation for this “mania” is that when Poe was a child he “once chanced to witness the nocturnal romps of his parents and . . . his infant imagination would have mistaken their movements for combat, struggle.”(4) Consequently, according to Weber, Poe’s obsession with clocks, especially in the coming together of the hands, is an expression of his own Oedipal response to those “nocturnal romps.”

No matter how intriguing such related issues may be, I suggest that the clocks in Poe’s tales are significant in and of themselves, that they have a most interesting tale of their own to tell. Reading his clocks in terms of this tale reveals that the true maniacs of time are Poe’s characters, not their creator. Poe uses clocks and clock imagery to delineate and judge his characters’ attitudes toward life and its possibilities, their treatment of the clock being what tells the tale. Those who depend upon the clock would impose reliability and predictability upon a universe that is, for Poe, anything but reliable and predictable. Such characters are almost invariably the victims of their own clockwork mentality. On the other hand, those who beat the clock through a transcendent conversion of the physical world enter a new realm of possibility, an imaginative world “Out of Space — out of Time” (1:344). Five tales that help illustrate Poe’s use of clocks and clock imagery in the above terms are “The Devil in the Belfry” (1839), “A Predicament” ­[page 2:] (1838), “The Angel of the Odd” (1844), “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842), and “A Descent into the Maelström” (1841). These stories span Poe’s career and encompass both his humorous and serious sides (if these sides are indeed separable). I have taken the liberty of ignoring chronology in order to emphasize a cohesive thematic progression that helps put Poe’s tell-tale clocks in perspective.

I start with “The Devil in the Belfry” not only because it is such an obvious example of Poe’s use of clocks, but also because it figures largely in Weber’s discussion. The name of the village in “Devil,” Vondervotteimittiss, is an obvious play on the phrase “Wonder what time it is.” Starting with this observation, Weber meticulously demonstrates that the village is topographically a clock, the sixty houses representing the sixty minutes in an hour.(5) He also elaborates upon the emphasis on time and watches in the tale, as well as the exact similitude of each and all within the village. Poe’s treatment of the villagers is not subtle, and the connection between their android-like conformity and their reverence for clocks and watches is hammered home relentlessly. Not all of Poe’s presentation, however, is so readily apparent. Even Weber overlooks a significant part of the setting that reinforces and gives added depth to the clock imagery in the story.

Poe carefully describes the village’s location: “The site of the village is in a perfectly circular valley, about a quarter of a mile in circumference, and entirely surrounded by gentle hills, over whose summit the people have never yet ventured to pass” (2:366). These “gentle hills” are an important part of Poe’s treatment of the clock in “Devil.” While they are a single physical reality, they symbolize, in a manner typically Poesque, two conflicting alternatives that make the clock imagery more than a mere vehicle for Poe’s attack on conformity.

On one hand, the hills represent imaginative potential. To go beyond the hills is to leave the restricted world of the village, which is ruled by the clock, and to enter a new realm that does not regulate existence.(6) On the other hand, the hills also symbolize imaginative stultification. The villagers’ insistence that they mark the limits of their world converts the hills from a symbol of imaginative potential into a boundary image that appropriately becomes part of the over-all clock imagery; the hills ­[page 3:] become the rim of the clock, imprisoning the villagers in their self-constructed mechanical world. The villagers “have never yet ventured to pass” these hills for the “very good reason that they do not believe there is anything at all on the other side” (2:366). Content with their world of clockwork conformity, the villagers commit the same fatal error that Dupin attributes to the Prefect of Police in “The Purloined Letter” — they too would fit the world into a Procrustean bed of preconceptions. The villagers learn, however, that there is indeed something on the other side of the hills — the Devil.

The Devil who saunters into Vondervotteimittiss embodies the very principle of the unexpected that the villagers have attempted to negate. They would control existence by regulating it through their watches and clocks. Consequently, when the Devil causes the clock to strike thirteen, chaos results. The villagers’ enslavement to the clock makes them imaginatively incapable of grasping the transcendent notion of thirteen o’clock, a time beyond time. The contrast in appearance between the villagers, with their collective sameness, and the Devil reinforces the dual possibilities symbolized by the hills. Coming from beyond the hills, from a world of imaginative freedom, the Devil can convert old time into new. Because they are imprisoned within the hills, within a mechanical world, the villagers have no means of creative transcendence.

The contrast between the Devil and the villagers suggests that the title of the tale contains a double meaning, one that echoes the doubleness of the hills. Most obviously, “The Devil in the Belfry” describes literal events — the Devil’s ascent into the belfry and his impish manipulation of time in order to bedevil the complacent villagers. But the title also has another, more subtle implication. The true devil in the belfry is the clock it houses. The villagers’ worship of this clock prevents them from going beyond the hills to explore the imaginative potential of existence. That worship makes the clock Satanic.

“The Devil in the Belfry,” like many of Poe’s other tales, illustrates his belief that human attempts to make life reliable and predictable create a form of blindness that makes us victims of the duplicity inherent in our earthly existence. The clock is the prime symbol of the villagers’ mistake of seeing life in precisely such restricted terms. (Let us not forget that ­[page 4:] a common synonym for a clock is “regulator.”) The Devil’s treatment of the clock, on the other hand, suggests another way of viewing life. Because he is imaginatively free, the Devil can convert the demon of time into a new creation: thirteen o’clock — a time that never existed before.

Such conversion, as “A Predicament” makes clear, is the true heart of the matter. Like the villagers of Vondervotteimittiss, the Signora Psyche Zenobia is also caught up in conformity and predictability. In this case, the bugbear is the Blackwood’s balderdash to which she has fallen prey. She too would live by a safe but artificial set of rules, here the formula promulgated by Mr. Blackwood regarding “correct” responses to experience and the conversion of those responses into “correct” literature. As with the inhabitants of Vondervotteimittiss, the Signora’s regulated world is shattered by the very mechanism that symbolizes regulation — the clock. But although the clock in “A Predicament” is also housed in a steeple, Zenobia’s ascent into that tower would seem to set her apart from the villagers in “Devil,” suggesting, at least potentially, a kinship with the Devil rather than the villagers. Climbing the steeple brings Zenobia quite literally to a higher level than that of the villagers of Vondervotteimittiss. Furthermore, because it provides a superior perspective, the steeple offers a solution to the regulation implied by the clock within it. The steeple in “A Predicament” thus functions precisely like the hills in “Devil.” It too is a single reality that offers two choices, one of them echoing the Devil’s ability to convert conformity into creativity, the other echoing the villager’s rejection of creativity for the sake of conformity.

In order to reach the world of the steeple, Zenobia must climb a spiral staircase that goes “up, and round and up and round and up” (2:350). Her ascent does not lead to the “loss of consciousness” and “descent of the mind into sleep” that Richard Wilbur contends is the invariable symbolic meaning of all of Poe’s spirals.(7) Her climb instead mirrors the narrator’s spiral ascent in “The Assignation,” described by Benjamin Franklin Fisher as “symbolic of traveling toward the center of self-awareness.”(8) For both Zenobia and the narrator of “The Assignation,” the upward spiral leads to visionary possibilities that could liberate ­[page 5:] them from their restrictive view of life. Both, however, are blind to what is literally before their very eyes.(9)

The two choices Zenobia confronts when she reaches the top of the steeple are symbolized by the gigantic key-hole in the face of the clock and by the clock itself. The key-hole opens out upon a broad vista that echoes the open world Zenobia enters after leaving Mr. Blackwood’s cluttered, cloistered office. The repetition is important. Zenobia’s first emergence into the open establishes a contrast between two ways of looking at life — one confined, the other open to possibility. The second movement into the open — putting her head out of the key-hole — provides the necessary perspective that can convert that possibility into imaginative liberation.

Standing upon Pompey’s shoulders and putting her head through the key-hole in the clock’s face, Zenobia is enthralled by the scene before her, stating “The prospect was sublime” (2:352). Poe’s word choice, as usual, is deliberate and meaningful. As Kent Ljungquist has demonstrated, Poe saw the sublime in association with “vastness of natural objects,” the perspective given by great height helping to create the impression of that vastness.(10) Providing such height, the steeple presents to Zenobia a world of imaginative possibility much as the Devil’s thirteen o’clock did for the villagers. An imaginative response to the panorama in front of her would mark Zenobia’s transcendence from the mundane into the world of the sublime, making the spiral staircase, in a manner suggestive of Yeats, a vehicle of mystical awareness.

Zenobia’s other choice is to go merely round and round, essentially going nowhere, by failing to use her imagination in response to the sublime view before her. Since her destination is the very inner world of the clock, we should not be surprised that she ends up going around in circles, like the clock’s hands that will soon do her in.(11) In contrast to the open world outside, the inner world of the steeple is full of “wheels, pinions, and other cabalistic-looking machinery” (2:351). The claustral world inside the steeple echoes the confined world of Mr. Blackwood’s office. That echo is subtly emphasized through Poe’s use of “cabalistic,” the word reflecting Mr. Blackwood’s orally handing down to Zenobia the mysterious, esoteric doctrines (one definition of “cabala,” according to ­[page 6:] the OED) that she must follow to create a successful Blackwood’s “intensity.” Pursuing Mr. Blackwood’s precepts slavishly, Zenobia is hoisted on the petard of those doctrines. She is reduced to a mere wheel turning upon the axis of her own mechanical approach to life.

In ascending the steeple, Zenobia is finally no devil intent upon converting physical reality into transcendent truth. Instead, she is seeking to get herself “into such a scrape as no one ever got into before” (2:340) in order to apply Mr. Blackwood’s formula to her own being.(12) While an imaginative response to the sublime prospect before her would enable Zenobia to escape her mechanical view of life, she cannot respond because the formula she has been catechized in includes neither the imagination nor the sublime. Imaginative transcendence through an appropriate response to the sublime takes one beyond self. Mr. Blackwood’s prescription for life is the antithesis of the sublime, focusing inward on one’s sensations for their own sake. Consequently, Zenobia ignores what could liberate her: “Upon this subject, however, I shall forbear to dilate,” she tells us. “I will not describe the city of Edinburgh. . . . I will confine myself to the momentous details of my own lamentable adventure” (2:352).

Confining herself to these details (and “confine” is another aptly chosen word, reflecting her entrapment within a mechanical view of life), Zenobia goes on to recount her gradual decapitation by the hands of time. Her predicament as the hands of the clock close upon her neck is most interesting. Her body is in the mechanical world of the clock. Her head, while it is still connected to that world, is in boundless space. Her neck, the connecting point between head and body, is the bridge between the two worlds Zenobia inhabits. Zenobia’s situation, in other words, is a brilliant representation of Poe’s view of the relationship between the physical and spiritual. The physical self may be imprisoned in time, but awareness of the spiritual realm can be reached through the power of the imagination, the “neck” between the two worlds.

Zenobia achieves no such awareness because she is too focused upon her own sensations. As the hands of the clock close upon her neck, she begins to experience a strange separation. Her eyes fall out of her head (perhaps a subtle parody of Emerson’s “transparent eyeball”) and stare ­[page 7:] saucily up at her. Then her head topples into the gutter of the street below. Head and body thus separated, Zenobia presents in a grotesquely comic manner the dilemma of many another Poe character — the fragmentation of self. As Michael J. S. Williams puts it, Zenobia’s predicament represents “one of the classic issues of the problem of personal identity — that of the mind-body split.”(13) Zenobia’s problem is indeed one of identity, but perhaps not in the terms Williams offers. Poe, I submit, sees the completion of personal identity and being in the integration of mind and body, the harmonious relationship between reason and imagination embodying the hallmark of such integration. Dupin, being both poet and mathematician, characterizes Poe’s view.(14) Zenobia’s failure to achieve such integration is made literal when her head is separated from her body. Insisting that she is “all soul” (2:336), she ignores that which truly liberates the soul — the imagination. Her assumed name, Psyche, provides an ironic comment on her pretensions. Her slavish conformity to Mr. Blackwood’s advice, as well as her comic distortion of that advice, reveals a character who has no real identity, no real self.

“A Predicament” is far more than just another of Poe’s parodies of Blackwood’s. Like “Devil,” it also attacks a mechanical outlook on life that refuses to think or see for itself. Both tales use the clock not only to represent that mechanical outlook, but also to present an imaginative, creative alternative to it. The Devil’s thirteen o’clock and the sublime scene before Zenobia’s eyes are potentially liberating, but that liberation can occur only if those held prisoner by the clock can escape the mechanical view it represents. Because neither the villagers nor Zenobia exercise the imagination that could convert the clock into a vehicle of transcendence, they are doomed.

“The Angel of the Odd” presents an interesting variation on this theme. Although the clock imagery in this tale is not as pronounced as that in “The Devil in the Belfry” and “A Predicament,” its subtle presence is equally significant. The narrator of “Angel,” at least at the onset of the tale, is practically indistinguishable from the villagers of Vondervotteimittiss and the Signora Psyche Zenobia. He is yet another character who would impose a mechanistic, clockwork predictability upon the unpredictable reality of human experience. As James W. ­[page 8:] Gargano notes, “Poe means to focus attention on the narrator’s insistence on seeing reality as a connected, explicable chain of events.”(15) This narrator, however, appears to escape such a restrictive outlook by doing what the villagers and Zenobia fail to do: He stops the clock. Angered at the Angel’s insults, the narrator retaliates:

This language was rather more than I could bear, even from an angel; so, plucking up courage, I seized a salt-cellar which lay within reach, and hurled it at the head of the intruder. Either he dodged, however, or my aim was inaccurate; for all I accomplished was the demolition of the crystal which protected the dial of the clock upon the mantelpiece. (3:1104)

This simple act precipitates the sequence of singular events that follow, events that demonstrate that life is indeed susceptible to the “odd” and not subject to any humanly contrived regulation.

The narrator’s appointment to renew the insurance on his house is missed, for the clock “had ceased running” (3:1105). The stopped clock signifies the narrator’s entrance into a new realm where the order and predictability assumed by a clockwork world is inoperative. Poe emphasizes this topsy-turvy world through a recurring pattern of doubling where apparent safety leads to disaster, apparent disaster to safety. The narrator, trapped in his burning house, is saved in the nick of time when the gathered crowd raises a ladder to his window. But the ladder is knocked over by a hog bearing a remarkable resemblance to the Angel of the Odd, resulting in the narrator breaking his arm. Next he falls from a cliff, only to grab a rope dangling fortuitously from a balloon piloted by the Angel. When the Angel subsequently cuts the rope, the resulting fall is not into oblivion but into the narrator’s rebuilt house. Since Poe frequently uses houses to represent his characters’ mental condition, the rebuilt house in “Angel” has been seen as symbolic of the narrator’s coming to knowledge. Thus Gargano suggests that his misadventures restore the narrator “to sanity and a less constricted outlook.”(16) If he has achieved such an outlook, then the narrator of “Angel” succeeds precisely where the villagers and Zenobia fail — he escapes the world of the clock and consequently gains a new, far more meaningful perspective on the nature of human existence. ­[page 9:]

But has he succeeded in these terms? I think not. The narrator does not stop time through any type of imaginative transcendence or conversion. Throwing the salt-cellar in a fit of pique signifies a rejection of the Angel’s message regarding the true unpredictability of life. This self-indulgent, petulant act is not much different from Zenobia’s ignoring the sublime. Furthermore, although the actual reason the clock stops reinforces the Angel’s message about the odd, the narrator is completely blind to that fact. The clock does not stop because he inadvertently hits it with the hurled salt-cellar. Instead, the broken face serves to open the way to that stoppage. When he comes to examine the clock to discover why it has ceased running, the narrator makes an interesting discovery: “one of the raisin stems which I had been filliping about the room during the discourse of the Angel of the Odd, had flown through the fractured crystal, and lodging, singularly enough, in the key-hole, with an end projecting outward, had thus arrested the revolution of the minute hand” (3:1106).

As in “A Predicament,” we again encounter a clock with a foreign object lodged in the key-hole. But where Zenobia is beheaded by the march of time, time stops for the narrator of “Angel.” We would quite naturally expect what appear to be two opposing fates in terms of the clock to convey two opposing meanings, but such is not the case. The narrator of “Angel,” like Zenobia, does not gain any insight into the true nature of the world, for he is as trapped in his mechanical realm of causality as she is in her world of Blackwood’s formula. Although his account of his adventures suggests that he has learned the truth of the Angel’s message, the very nature of his presentation of that truth reveals that he has actually learned nothing. He is as blind to reality at the end of the tale as he was at the onset.

Stated simply, what the narrator relates as factual is in reality not so; his marvelous encounters with the odd are nothing more than a drunken hallucination. At the beginning of the story, he is trying to rouse himself from the effects of some very soporific reading “by aid of frequent Lafitte . . .” (3:1101). His intoxication, suggested by his inability to understand the paper he is reading, is increased by the Angel’s “kind” ministration of port and brandy. We need not speculate, however, about the narrator’s adventures being the result of too much imbibing. Poe ­[page 10:] provides specific proof of that fact. When the story opens, the narrator is “sitting alone in the dining-room, with my feet upon the fender, and at my elbow a small table which I had rolled up to the fire, and upon which were some apologies for desert, with some miscellaneous bottles of wine, spirit and liqueur” (3:1100-1101). We see in the conclusion the same room, but now in disarray:

I lay outstretched where I had fallen from the balloon. My head grovelled in the ashes of an unextinguished fire, while my feet reposed upon the wreck of a small table, overthrown, and amid the fragments of a miscellaneous dessert, inter-mingled with a newspaper, some broken glasses and shattered bottles, and an empty jug of the Schiedam Kirschenwasser. (3:1110)

We are not, as the narrator contends, in a “rebuilt” house. We see the same fire, but now burnt out, the same table, but now wrecked; the same dessert, but now partially consumed; the same bottles, but now emptied. We even see the same newspaper that precipitated the narrator’s harangue against the odd. We clearly see all of this — but the narrator does not. As Fisher puts it, he “refuses to credit his angel’s originating in one of those bottles whose contents are drained by the close of his tale.”(17)

The narrator’s presentation of his hallucination as actual happenings reveals his failure to attain any true insight into the unpredictable nature of existence. He still inhabits a clockwork world of causal predictability that would force the odd into conformity with his own mechanical viewpoint. His encounter with the clock has not led to anything approximating imaginative insight. He may have stopped the clock, but his inability to see the truth about his adventures shows that the terms of his doing so are wrong; simply ceasing to be aware of time is not the same as transcending it.

The very form of his account is the final revelation of his failure, for the tale he weaves from his hallucination is little more than another Blackwood’s “bizarrerie” in which the narrator would appear to have studiously followed Mr. Blackwood’s advice to Signora Psyche Zenobia: ­[page 11:]

The first thing requisite is to get yourself into such a scrape as no one ever got into before. The oven, for instance, — that was a good hit. But if you have no oven, or big bell, at hand, and if you cannot conveniently tumble out of a balloon . . . you will have to be contented with simply imagining some similar misadventure (2:340).

The narrator of “Angel” has indeed imagined that he has gotten himself into scrapes such as no one ever got into before. He has even managed to tumble conveniently out of a balloon (filled, no doubt, with as much hot air as the tale itself).

Despite their lightheartedness, the underlying message these tales present is serious: insisting that existence can be regulated and made predictable creates a mental and imaginative straightjacket that, paradoxically, allows unpredictability free reign. Poe saw such constriction as ultimately destructive and his clocks help bring out both his characters’ false views and the dead-end that results from them. Two other tales, “The Masque of the Red Death” and “A Descent into the Maelström,” treat the same idea, but in a far different tone.

Prince Prospero in “Masque” would escape the plague and its reminder of mortality by creating his own world. He thus appears to be imaginatively liberated. Indeed, “Masque” is often read as an allegory of the artist and the ability of art to create its own world. Kermit Vanderbilt states that Prospero is “the artist-hero” who “will employ his taste and imagination to create a symbolic equivalent of nature’s elements — a combination which can transform earthly reality into the artist’s liberating vision of immortal beauty.”(18) But no such transformation occurs in “Masque” because Prospero’s vision is anything but liberating. Edward William Pitcher has stated that “Prospero’s idea of Time and Life deviates from Poe’s.”(19) Poe’s masterful use of clock imagery helps illustrate that deviation.

The castellated abbey to which Prospero flees is another of Poe’s “house/head” linkings, the abbey suggesting the human outlook of a warped, deluded “creator.” The extent of Prospero’s vain (and I use the word in the double sense of proud and useless) delusion that he can ­[page 12:] create a new world with no connection to external reality is seen in his deliberate, perverse incorporation of a clock within it. In the seventh chamber, the black room, is “a gigantic clock of ebony. Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute-hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical . . .” (2:672). The clock is Prospero’s ultimate gesture of contempt toward the external world he would shut out. The clock’s “exceedingly musical” sound suggests Prospero’s attempt to convert its mechanical measurement of time into an accompanying instrument in the musical discordance that marks his brave new world. Prospero would thus mock time by making it a mere accompaniment to his own superior creation. His attempted conversion of the clock, however, is doomed to failure because it ignores rather than transforms the realities of the world.

Prospero’s attempt to make the clock subordinate to his own creative vision actually results in a world where the clock dominates, yet another irony in this most ironic story. The clock’s chiming, as Pitcher has shown, mocks the frenetic efforts of the gay assembly to escape the reality of their earth-bound existence, just as the motion of the pendulum mimics the revelers’ dancing.(20) But Poe’s use of the clock to reveal Prospero’s false world goes even further than Pitcher suggests. The clock brackets the story, appearing early and at the end, and the effect of its chiming on the assembly is evoked five times. The clock is thus given palpable form seven times within the tale, subtly tying it in with the seven rooms that also symbolize the idea of time as progression as they move from blue (birth) westward to black (death).(21)

Prospero’s attempt to subordinate the clock to his own creative vision, then, succeeds only in making it the dominant reality in his world. The clock’s structural dominance over the tale is even further suggested when we recognize that the progression of the colored rooms is circular rather than in a straight line, yet another subtle evocation of clock imagery.(22) The sudden stillness of the revelers every time the clock chimes completes its dominance over Prospero’s masque. Only after all the “dreamers” have died does the clock cease its relentless measurement of the flight of time, another statement of Poe’s belief that time is a ­[page 13:] construct bound to the temporal, physical universe. The stopping of the clock in “Masque,” however, has further, even more ironic, implications.

Prospero’s final assault on reality ends when he falls “prostrate in death” before the ebony clock. The scene suggests that the clock’s shadow falls over Prospero just as the Raven’s shadow falls over the narrator in Poe’s most famous poem. Prospero’s pursuit of the Red Death, itself an ironic reversal of his attempt to flee from it, culminates when the Red Death turns and confronts him. Faced with a reality he cannot control or evade, Prospero shrieks and collapses in death. His fellow dreamers, hot on his heels in pursuit of the Red Death, see the specter standing “erect and motionless within the shadow of the ebony clock . . .” (2:676). Since Prospero collapses in front of the Red Death, and since the Red Death is in the clock’s shadow, it seems plausible that the same shadow also covers Prospero.

The Red Death’s posture within the clock’s shadow then creates a brilliantly ironic contrast to the clock’s domination over Prospero’s false world. “Erect and motionless” directly opposes the previously emphasized movement of the pendulum of the clock and the mirrored movement of the abbey’s inhabitants. The Red Death may stand within the shadow of the clock, but his separation from its dominance is brought out by this opposition. When the clock is stopped, the Red Death holds “illimitable dominion over all” (2:677). Prospero and his fellow travelers fail to escape the shadow of time because the means of their attempted conversion is wrong. Rather than being the result of a transcendent vision, Prospero’s artificial world emerges from a futile attempt to impose his will upon reality. The failure of that world to exclude what he would deny marks Prospero’s faulty vision and false art. Indeed, perhaps the ultimate irony in “Masque” resides in the fact that the true artist is not Prospero but the Red Death. M. Denise Schimp has convincingly argued that the Red Death is the actual narrator of the tale.(23) As such, the Red Death controls everything in the story, and his depiction of the Prince’s “sagacity” in creating his dream world becomes the ultimate mockery of Prospero’s efforts. ­[page 14:]

Prospero, Zenobia, the villagers, and the narrator of “Angel” fail in their dealings with the clock because their approach to it, symptomatic of their approach to life itself, is wrong. Where these characters fail, however, the fisherman in “A Descent into the Maelström” succeeds, suggesting that his approach is right.

At the beginning of the story the fisherman is also ruled by the clock. The Ström itself is enclosed by twelve islands, a clock image similar to that found in “Devil” and suggested in “Masque.” Reliance upon the predictability of the Ström’s occurrence indicates the fisherman’s faith in the predictability of life. Knowing the precise time when the Ström will appear, the brothers feel safely in control. That control, however, is predicated upon the mechanical measurement of time, and such measurement is indeed fallible: “but soon a hideous thought flashed upon me. I dragged my watch from its fob. It was not going. . . . It had run down at seven o’clock! We were behind the time of the slack, and the whirl of the Ström was in full fury!” (2:587). Once again, reliance upon a mechanical regulation of existence threatens disaster. In this case, however, that disaster is averted.

The fisherman is saved because he responds appropriately to his predicament. He does not carry the baggage that pulls down the villagers, Zenobia, Prospero or the narrator of “Angel.” The fisherman is, after all, quite illiterate. He needs “an old school-master of the district” to teach him to use the words “cylinder” and “sphere” (2:592). It may even be Poe’s sly point that the narrator’s illiteracy is what enables him to save himself. Zenobia and the narrator of “Angel” are bogged down by literacy, their mechanistic approach to life reflected in the mechanical reading matter they consume.(24) Prospero’s Gothic abbey could also be seen as the result of bad reading. Not so with the ignorant fisherman. Unfettered by a false, mechanistic formula, he is creatively free, and that freedom saves him.

Submitting to the very force that threatens his destruction, the fisherman attains the imaginative insight that leads to his salvation. Awed by the power of the Ström, he loses his terror: “It may look like boasting — but what I tell you is truth — I began to reflect how magnificent a thing it was to die in such a manner, and how foolish it was in me to ­[page 15:] think of so paltry a consideration as my own individual life, in view of so wonderful a manifestation of God’s power” (2:588). The fisherman has experienced precisely the sense of the sublime that Zenobia ignores. His individual consciousness gives way to a collective sense of belonging to the entire created order. In that state, his senses revive. He begins to notice the different rates of descent in differently shaped objects. Imaginatively and intuitively grasping the significance of that fact, he cuts loose the water cask which will sink more slowly and throws himself into the Ström, embracing the very force that threatens to annihilate him. The contrast to Prospero is striking. Running from destruction, Prospero encounters it; leaping into destruction, the fisherman is saved.

No clock dominates the fisherman’s descent. Caught within the Ström, enclosed within its walls and going down, he loses track of time. Outside the clockwork world of predictability, he can convert the enclosed walls of the Ström into an image of spacelessness. The rainbow created by the moonlight becomes a “pathway between Time and Eternity” (2:591). Freed from a mechanical view of life, the fisherman, like the Devil, becomes creatively free. As Kent Ljungquist so eloquently puts it, the story “represents man’s enlarged, strained faculties coming to grips with nature’s grandeur and horror and finally achieving a conception of the ideal, supersensible sublime. . . .”(25) For the fisherman, the clock has been stopped.

The fisherman in “Descent” is one of the few characters in Poe’s fiction who successfully beats the clock. Yet he is an important exception, for Poe thoroughly believed in the process the fisherman exemplifies. Integration of self through the merging of imagination and reason is, for Poe, the only means by which we can hope to deal with an inherently duplicitous and unpredictable world. Conversely, anything that prevents such integration is pernicious, perhaps even fatal. Poe’s clocks are one means by which he reveals and develops these possibilities, for they are touchstones by which his characters’ attitudes and actions are measured. As such, they do indeed have a tale to tell.

­ [page 16:]


1.  For instance, in addition to the tales I treat here, there is also the ominous clock in the school room in “William Wilson” and, of course, the deadly clock in “The Pit and the Pendulum.” The clock’s loud chiming amidst the frenetic movement of “The Man of the Crowd” links the literal and figurative. The dancers in “The Masque of the Red Death” are echoed, to mention only two instances, in the tapestry (itself “dancing”) in “Metzengerstein” and in “Hop-Frog.” Also in “Hop-Frog” we encounter a circular room with a pendulum-like ornament in the center. If space permitted, such listing could continue, demonstrating how pervasive the clock and clock imagery is in Poe’s work.

2.  Gerhard Hoffman, “Space and Symbol in the Tales of Edgar Allan Poe,” Poe Studies, 12 (June, 1979), p. 11. For Markus see Roger Forclaz, “Poe in Europe: Recent German Criticism,” Poe Studies, 21 (June, 1988), pp. 5-6.

3.  Jean-Paul Weber, “Edgar Poe or The Theme of the Clock,” La Nouvelle Revue Francaise, 68 and 69 (August and September, 1958), 301-11, 498-508. Rpt. Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Robert Regan (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1967), p. 97.

4.  Weber, p. 82. Weber’s Freudian reading of Poe’s clocks skews what are often perceptive remarks. His thesis becomes most dubious given David Poe’s desertion of his family before July 26, 1811. Edgar was then only 18 months old, an infant rather than a “little child.” See Dwight Thomas and David K. Jackson, The Poe Log: A Documentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe, 1809-1849 (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987), p. 11. I find the phrase “nocturnal romps” comically incongruous when applied to David and Elizabeth Poe since Weber himself describes them as, “wandering players, whose poverty was so great that more than once, doubtlessly, in the course of their tours they must have had to content themselves with a single room for lodging” (p. 82).

5.  Weber, p. 80.

6.  Poe uses hills as a line of demarcation between the prosaic and the exotic in a much different context in “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains.” See Kent Ljungquist’s remarks in The Grand and the Fair: Poe’s Landscape Aesthetics and Pictorial Techniques (Potomac, Md.: Scripta Humanistica, 1984), pp. 127-29 and 138-39. ­[page 17:]

7.  Richard Wilbur, “The House of Poe,” Library of Congress Anniversary Lecture, May 4, 1959, Rpt. The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Eric W. Carlson (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966), p. 257.

8.  ‘Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, “The Flights of a Good Man’s Mind: Gothic Fantasy in Poe’s ‘The Assignation’,” Modern Language Studies, 16 (Summer, 1986), p. 33.

9.  Such blindness is a common theme in Poe’s tales, which place a great deal of emphasis upon the necessity of seeing clearly and from a proper perspective. The Prefect of Police in the Dupin tales consistently fails to see what is literally before his very eyes. Interesting variations upon the theme are found in “The Spectacles” and “The Sphinx.”

10.  Ljungquist, p. 47.

11.  Going circularly to nowhere is suggestive once again of Yeats, a dead-end counterpart to the progressive spiral.

12.  Burton Pollin suggests how Zenobia’s language derives from Mr. Blackwood’s instruction and details the extent of Poe’s satire in “Poe’s Tale of Psyche Zenobia: A Reading for Humor and Ingenious Construction,” Papers on Poe: Essays in Honor of John Ward Ostrom, ed. Richard P. Veler (Springfield, Ohio: Chantry Music Press, 1972), pp. 92-103.

13.  Michael J. S. Williams, A World of Words: Language and Displacement in the Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1988), p. 21. Bruce I. Weiner also explores, in relation to larger concerns, Zenobia’s predicament in terms of the “epistemological and ontological problems” it presents in determining where identity is to found — “in the senses (body) or the sensations (mind)” — p. 52 of “Poe and the Blackwood’s Tale of Sensation” in Poe and His Times: The Artist and His Milieu, ed. Benjamin F. Fisher IV (Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1990), pp. 45-65.

14.  The nature of Dupin’s integration of reason and imagination is suggested by G. R. Thompson, Poe’s Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1973), p. 6. My “A Suggestion on the Unity of Poe’s Fiction,” in The Naiad Voice: Essays on Poe’s Satiric Hoaxing, ed. Dennis W. Eddings (Port Washington, N.Y.: Associated Faculty Press, 1983), addresses Poe’s view of the necessary balance between reason and imagination; see especially pp. 157-62. Poe’s view of the power of the ­[page 18:] imagination is fairly typical of Romanticism. His distinction between the physical and spiritual world with the imagination as a bridge between them has a decidedly Emersoman ring to it. See Ottavio M. Casale, “Poe on Transcendentalism,” ESQ, 50 (Supplement, 1968), pp. 85-97. Poe displayed, however, the same balance he developed in Dupin, warning against the dangers of the uncontrolled imagination thematically in several works and explicitly in #251 of Marginalia. See Collected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, vol. 2, The Brevities, ed. Burton R. Pollin (New York: Gordian, 1985), p. 391.

15.  James W. Gargano, “The Distorted Perception of Poe’s Comic Narrators,” Topic, 16 (Fall, 1976), p. 28.

16.  Gargano, p. 29. The mirroring of a character’s state of mind with a house or room is an old tradition that is practically a staple of Gothic fiction. Richard Wilbur’s “The House of Poe” is a seminal study. A stimulating exchange on Poe’s use of the house/head link begins with Poe’s Fiction, esp. pp. 87-97, where Professor Thompson argues that Usher’s house reflects the “internal landscape” of both Usher and the narrator. Professor Thompson elaborates upon the argument in “Poe and the Paradox of Terror: Structures of Heightened Consciousness in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ ” Ruined Eden of the Present: Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe, ed. G. R. Thompson and Virgil L. Lokke (West Lafayette, In.: Purdue University Press, 1981), pp. 313-40. Patrick F. Quinn argues against Professor Thompson’s reading in two commentaries in the same collection, “A Misreading of Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ ” pp. 303-312, and “‘Usher’ Again: Trust the Teller!” pp. 341-53.

17.  Benjamin F. Fisher IV, The Very Spirit of Cordiality: The Literary Uses of Alcohol and Alcoholism in The Tales of Edgar Allan Poe (Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1978), p. 11.

18.  Kermit Vanderbilt, “Art and Nature in ‘The Masque of the Red Death,’ ” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 22 (March, 1968), p. 380.

19.  Edward William Pitcher, “Horological and Chronological Time in ‘Masque of the Red Death,’ ” ATQ, No. 29, part II (Winter, 1976), p. 73.

20.  Pitcher, p. 74.

21.  Mabbott, note 3 (2:677), suggests some of the readings given to the seven rooms. Nicholas Ruddick expands upon Mabbott’s list as part of his interesting contention that the elements in the story, including the rooms, present a ­[page 19:] deliberately inconclusive allegory by which Poe attacks allegory itself. See “The Hoax of the Red Death: Poe As Allegorist” in The Sphinx: A Magazine of Literature and Society, 4 (no. 4, 1985), pp. 268-276. Ruddick’s comments take on an even more intriguing air when coupled with Robert Regan’s exposure of Poe’s playing within the story. See “Hawthorne’s ‘Plagiary’; Poe’s Duplicity” in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 25 (December, 1970), pp. 281-98.

22.  Poe’s careful description reveals as much. The rooms do not “form a long and straight vista” as would be normal; rather the rooms “were so irregularly disposed that the vision embraced but little more than one at a time. There was a sharp turn at every twenty or thirty yards . . .” (2:671). See also Pitcher, p. 72.

23.  M. Denise Schimp, “The Narrative Mask of the Red Death,” presented to the Poe Studies Association at the American Literature Association Conference, May 31, 1990.

24.  Claude Richard, in “Arrant Bubbles: Poe’s ‘The Angel of the Odd’,” Poe Newsletter, 2 (October, 1969), pp. 46-48, demonstrates Poe’s scorn for the reading matter the narrator of “Angel” attempts to digest. Many have commented upon Poe’s frequent satires against Blackwood’s; see the Selected Bibliography in The Naiad Voice. Bruce I. Weiner presents an intriguingly different perspective on Poe’s use of Blackwood’s in “Poe and the Blackwood’s Tale of Sensation,” cited in note 13.

25.  Ljungquist, pp. 77-78.



This lecture was delivered by Dr. Eddings, of Western Oregon State College, at the Seventieth Annual Commemorative Program of the Poe Society, October 4, 1992.

© 1994 and 2010, by The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, Inc.


[S:1 - PTTC, 1994] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Poe's Tell-Tale Clocks (D. W. Eddings, 1994)