Text: Gerard M. Sweeney, “Beauty and Truth: Poe’s ‘A Descent into the Maelstrom’,” Poe Studies, June 1973, Vol. VI, No. 1, 6:22-25


[page 21:]

Beauty and Truth: Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelstrom”

University of Akron

That Poe considered “A Descent into the Maelstrom” one of his best tales is understandable, since the story incorporates so well so much that is characteristically his (1). The blackness is there; the kinetic walls are there; the chaotic abyss is there; and the reader feels the awful terror of these elements as they are described by the man who faced them. Nonetheless, although “A Descent” is frequently anthologized, the critical attention given the story is — in volume at least — relatively slight. The only articles devoted exclusively to the tale are source studies (2). And the references to and critical discussions of “A Descent” in anthology introductions, essays, and books are generally brief (3).

It is the purpose of this essay to give the tale greater attention than it has hitherto received by focusing on its two narratives: the first, related by the unnamed narrator who tells us the sailor’s tale; the second — the tale proper — told to this preliminary narrator by the sailor, the actual descender into the Maelstrom. It will be seen, first and most significantly, that the sailor’s narrative illustrates Poe’s thesis that, as regards the chaotic mysteries of Nature, aesthetic intuition is far more important than science. For the sailor manages to save himself through his poetic appreciation of Nature, not through his rational comprehension of it. Secondly, the sailor’s tale is both supported and complemented by the first narrator’s introductory story. This frame narrative foreshadows and broadens the thematic conclusions implicit in the framed tale. And it indicates — by the way in which it is told and by the fact that it is being told — that the first narrator has been affected by the sailor’s tale and that he believes it.

The sailor gets caught in the Maelstrom because of a simple mistake: he lets his watch run down, and consequently he fails to leave the area in time. But the error has deeper implications. For in depending so on his watch, even though it has been accurate in timing the Maelstrom, the mariner reveals an attitude toward Nature that is essentially practical and rationalistic. By employing a man-made instrument and the arbitrary measurements (minutes and hours) it produces, the sailor seems to expect something of chaos: he expects it to act in a certain way, according to his technologically measured design. He is therefore akin to the narrator of “The Pit and the Pendulum,” whose first reaction to the chaotic, dreamlike dungeon-world is to measure it. Measurement is futile, however, and so the prisoner’s estimates of both the size and the shape of the dungeon are erroneous. Nor can he measure time, as Pym cannot in the nightmare belly of the Grampus. The sailor of “A Descent” is similar to both these characters, and so, before his descent, he seems [column 2:] unaware that — as the story’s epigraphical quotation from Joseph Glanville states — “The ways of God in Nature, as in Providence, are not as our ways; nor are the models that we frame any way commensurate to the vastness, profundity, and unsearchableness of His works, which have a depth in them greater than the well of Democritus “ (4).

Once caught in the Maelstrom, escape for the sailor comes in several stages, the first of which is a type of beneficial despair. He initially makes up his mind “to hope no more” (p. 187), and so he relieves himself of a great deal of terror — terror which would have driven him, like his brother, insane. But the state of hopelessness has other effects as well. In his rejection of hope, the sailor recognizes the utter futility of any rational plan of escape. And therefore he makes none. He comes to realize that, when confronted with the total otherness of the Maelstrom, man’s reason is indeed puny and impotent. So he arrives at a primary stage of transcendence, of selflessness (5). With nothing to gain, no reason to exert, no plan to formulate, no expectations to make, the sailor can do something he has never really done before: he can look at the abyss with detachment.

And then, almost inevitably, there follows an awareness and appreciation of the awesome beauty of the Maelstrom. Immediately after he abandons hope and therefore rational expectations, the sailor reflects on “how magnificent a thing” it would be to die in “so wonderful a manifestation of God’s power” (p. 187). As he looks about him, the boat having been sucked into the top of the funnel, he feels an unforgettable “sensation of awe, horror, and admiration” at the scene he witnesses (p. 188). Added to the activity of the Maelstrom itself are the moonbeams, shooting forth in “a flood of golden glory” and, when reflected in the ebony sides of the vortex, producing a “gleaming and ghastly radiance.” In all, the effect is that of a “general burst of terrific grandeur” (p. 189). In thus appreciating the chaotic beauty of the Maelstrom, the sailor is taking both a necessary step in avoiding madness and a preliminary step towards achieving salvation. In this respect, he is again comparable to the narrator of “The Pit and the Pendulum,” who — having also abandoned the rationality of the external world — stares at the descending blade “somewhat in fear, but more in wonder” (p. 134) and then lies “smiling at the glittering death, as a child at some rare bauble” (p. 135). And Poe’s descender is similarly akin to Melville’s Ishmael, another escapee from chaos, who constantly records his amazement at the awful, chaotic, undefinable — but beautiful and godlike — power of the Whale.

The sailor’s perception of the beauty of the Maelstrom is a prerequisite to salvation in that such perception implies a recognition, even if non-rational, of an order and symmetry in the abyss. Not an aesthetician, the sailor is nonetheless aesthetic in that he appreciates beauty where he sees it. The beauty cannot be described in rational terminology, but still, since it is beauty, it is — although totally alien — orderly.

Having thus intuited that the chaotic Maelstrom does exhibit beauty, the sailor, his aesthetic appetite whetted, desires to see and experience more. So he becomes “possessed with the keenest curiosity about the whirl itself.” [page 23:] He feels “a wish to explore its depths” and regrets only that he will be unable to describe to his companions on shore “the mysteries” he will have experienced (p. 187). Then shortly later, the boat having descended even further into the funnel, the sailor becomes fascinated in watching the chaotic contents of the whirl.

Both above and below us were visible fragments of vessels, large masses of building timber and trunks Of trees, with many smaller articles, such as pieces of house furniture, broken boxes, barrels and staves. I have already described the unnatural curiosity which had taken the place of my original terrors. It appeared to grow upon me as I drew nearer and nearer to my dreadful doom. I now began to watch, with a strange interest, the numerous things that floated in our company. I must have been delirious — for I even sought amusement in speculating upon the relative velocities of their several descents toward the foam below. (pp. 189-90)

What is significant about the sailor’s statement is that the “curiosity” he reports is not scientific but aesthetic. The faculty he is employing is — in Poe’s terminology — not Pure Intellect, but Taste. His desire to explore the depths, even at the price of death, is actually a desire to experience more and more beauty. Thus the sailor is essentially a highly poetic man. He is possessed by the Sense of the Beautiful, which Poe describes in “The Poetic Principle” as an “immortal instinct, deep within the spirit of man,” one which “administers to his delight in the manifold forms, and sounds, and odours, and sentiments amid which he exists.” Moreover, the mariner of “A Descent” is not like a mere poet of commonplace reality, one who versifies the sights and sounds “which greet him in common with all mankind.” Such an individual, Poe claims, “has yet failed to prove his divine title.” Rather the sailor is totally possessed by the “thirst unquenchable,” the truly poetic thirst which “belongs to the immortality of Man. . . . It is the desire of the moth for the star. It is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us — but a wild effort to reach the Beauty above” (p. 457). Substitute “below” for “above,” and the sailor of “A Descent” is doubtless a type of divine thirster.

Thus driven by his Sense of the Beautiful, the sailor stumbles on a visible order in the chaos of the Maelstrom, and so he makes his “three important observations” about the activity of spheres and cylinders (p. 190). In a way, his observations are based on reason, and so Robert Shulman is correct in linking the sailor to M. Dupin, who invariably succeeds through a combination of reason and imagination (6). But the faculty that saves him is not exactly reason. Rather it is the rational element of Taste, whereby an order is sensed and thus Beauty poetically perceived. As Poe says in Eureka, the “sense of the symmetrical is an instinct which may be depended upon with an almost blindfold reliance. It is the poetical essence of the Universe — of the Universe which, in the supremeness of its symmetry, is but the most sublime of poems. Now symmetry and consistency are convertible terms: — thus Poetry and Truth are one. . . . We may take it for granted, then, that Man cannot long or widely err, if he suffer himself to be guided by his poetical, which I have maintained to be his truthful, in being his symmetrical, instinct” (p. 474) . Although the sailor does miscalculate several times in estimating the descents of [column 2:] various objects into the Maelstrom, it is precisely this poetical-truthful-symmetrical instinct that ultimately enables him to save himself.

That the sailor is essentially a poet and not a rationalist is underscored by the way he narrates his tale. The technical terminology (“sphere” and “cylinder”) he uses to describe his observations is not really his: rather the words were borrowed — after the descent — from a local schoolmaster. Similarly he has forgotten, since it is essentially meaningless, the scientific explanation the schoolmaster taught him of the phenomenon he observed. Science or Pure Intellect cannot describe or explain the Maelstrom: poetry is the sole requisite, and it is to poetry that the sailor resorts in order to narrate his experience. So, while his descriptions of the events preceding the descent are related in a language that is commonplace and matter-of-fact, his picture of the Maelstrom and of his experience in it is flooded with tropes. The boat is “the lightest feather of a thing that ever sat upon water.” It shakes itself “just as a dog does in coming out of the water” (p. 185). It skims “like an air-bubble upon the surface of the surge” (p. 187). Then the seascape of the Maelstrom itself: in size it is “mountainous” (p. 187); in blackness it is a “wide waste of liquid ebony” (p. 189), and its sound is “a kind of shrill shriek” like “the water-pipes of many thousand steam-vessels letting off their steam all together” (p. 187).

The sailor’s sense of the beauty of the Maelstrom is the penultimate step in his salvation. It allows him to intuit an order and thus to penetrate the chaotic otherness. But sensing an order is not the same as control: indeed, the Maelstrom cannot be controlled. Escape is possible only through joining in the chaos on its own terms, the terms in this case being the sailor’s observations about spheres and cylinders. Thus he must throw himself into the water, an act which emblemizes his poetic reaction to the awesome abyss. He cannot fight the chaos, nor can he conquer it. A poetic union with the chaotic, orderly, destructive Beauty is the only way out. So the sailor is again like Dupin, whose solution to the crime involves identifying himself with the criminal. So too he is like the prisoner of “The Pit,” whose escape from the descending blade involves joining in the irrationality and absurdity of the dungeon-world, by inviting the rats to his ropes and his lips. And finally he is like Ishmael, who escapes destruction through his poetic appreciation of the beauty of chaotic Nature and through his loving union with it, in the person of Queequeg.

The sailor concludes his tale by saying that the comrades who rescued him from the sea, “the merry fishermen of Lofaden,” did not believe his story and that he scarcely expects the man he is addressing (the first narrator) to believe him either (p. 192) . The disbelievers, being so merrily ignorant, are evidently akin to the jolly captain of the Bachelor, who doubts the existence of the White Whale. But the first narrator of “A Descent” is not like these. For both the content and the language of his narrative indicate that he does believe the sailor’s tale and that, as regards the “howling Phlegethon” of the Maelstrom (p. 182), the sailor has been a guide to him as surely as Virgil was to Dante.

From the very beginning of the tale, the first narrator [page 24:] is in a proper frame of mind to accept the truth of the sailor’s story. For as he overlooks the Maelstrom, he makes in miniature essentially the same discovery that the sailor has already made and has yet to relate: namely, that measurement and detached rationality are futile as regards the chaos of Nature. So — in advance — he confirms and expands the implications of the mariner’s descent by detailing in his narrative scientific discussions of the Maelstrom, which, realistically, the sailor would not know. Yet at the same time the first narrator is not merely a device. He is also, in certain ways, a character — one who is a capsule double of the sailor.

As regards the scientific accounts of the vortex, merely glancing at the Maelstrom assures the first narrator, evidently an educated man, that they are useless. First, science can in no way convey the impression of the Maelstrom: it cannot communicate the feeling one gets when viewing it. Thus the narrator states that the “ordinary account of this vortex had by no means prepared me for what I saw. That of Jonas Ramus, which is perhaps the most circumstantial of any, cannot impart the faintest conception either of the magnificence, or of the horror of the scene . . .” (p. 181). Secondly, science can neither measure nor explain the chaotic whirlpool. Ramus’ estimate of the depth of the vortex (forty fathoms) must be wrong, for merely peering into the Maelstrom assures one that its depth is “unmeasurably greater.” Moreover, the narrator tells us, the “attempts to account for the phenomenon — some of which, I remember, seemed to me sufficiently plausible in perusal — now wore a very different and unsatisfactory aspect.” The idea that the vortex arises from the collision of waves is, “however conclusive on paper . . . altogether unintelligible, and even absurd, amid the thunder of the abyss” (p. 182).

Just as the sailor will later do when telling his tale, the first narrator, having rejected the utility and validity of scientific rationality, resorts to the only alternative possible to describe the Maelstrom: that is, to poetry. For from the very beginning, it is clear that his reaction to the whirling vortex is as aesthetic as the sailor’s. So he speaks of “the magnificence . . . of the scene” and of “the wild bewildering sense of the novel which confounds the beholder” (p. 181). Such words recall both the element of strangeness in the description of the exquisite beauty of Ligeia (p. 211) and Poe’s own statement in “Anastatic Printing” that “strangeness — in other words novelty — will be found a principal element” in beauty (p. 475).

The narrator’s poetic descriptions of the Maelstrom fall into several categories. First there are tropes which are original with him and which indicate a background of education and travel. Such are the doubly dark allusion to “the Nubian geographer’s account of the Mare Tenehrarnm” (p. 179) and the comparison of the sound of the Maelstrom to “the moaning of a vast herd of buffaloes upon an American prairie” (p. 180) . More interesting still — and emblematic of the theme of “A Descent” — is the way in which the narrator poeticizes the comparatively dull language of the scientist. While Jonas Ramus describes the roar of the Maelstrom as “scarce equalled by the loudest and most dreadful cataracts” (p. 181), the narrator portrays the vortex as “sending forth to the winds [column 2:] an appalling voice, half shriek, half roar, such as not even the mighty cataract of Niagara ever lifts up in its agony to heaven” (p. 180). Finally, perhaps the most significant of all is the manner in which the first narrator’s account subtly incorporates some of the tropes of the sailor’s story. As we have seen, the sailor describes his boat as “the lightest feather of a thing that ever sat upon water” (p. 185) and then says, describing his feelings at the time he abandoned hope, “I knew very well that we were doomed, had we been ten times a ninety-gun ship” (p. 186). These figures of speech then creep into the diction of the first narrator, indicating how much he has been affected by the sailor.

Looking down from this pinnacle upon the howling Phlegethon below, I could not help smiling at the simplicity with which the honest Jonas Ramus records, as a matter difficult of belief the anecdotes of the whales and the bears [which are sucked into the abyss], for it appeared to me, in fact, a self-evident thing, that the largest ships of the line in existence, coming within the influence of that deadly attraction, could resist it as little as a feather the hurricane, and must disappear bodily and at once. (p. 182)

In addition to the evidence from his diction, the first narrator’s acceptance of the sailor’s tale is attested in two other ways. For one thing, he explicitly concurs with the mariner as regards the incomprehensibility of the scientific explanation of the Maelstrom — that is, the theory of colliding currents (p. 182) . Then there is also a more subtle indication of his agreement. When the narrator first sights the vortex from the summit of Helseggen, he says to the sailor, “This . . . can be nothing else than the great whirlpool of the Maelstrom” (p. 180) . The sailor’s reply is a gentle correction of his companion’s appellation. “ ‘So it is sometimes termed,’ said he. ‘We Norwegians call it the Moskoe-strom, from the island of Moskoe in the midway’” (pp. 180-181). The name is accepted by the first narrator, for the next time he refers to the vortex, he calls it the Moskoe-strom (p. 182). But the point lies not merely in the acceptance of a new name; rather it lies in the implications of the name. In rejecting “Maelstrom,” the sailor is rejecting a definition: “the stream that whirls round and grinds” or “the grinding stream.” He is thus rejecting man’s efforts to define — and so to limit and control — chaotic Nature. The sailor’s substitution (“Moskoe-strom”) is not a definition, but a reference to the place of the vortex. And the significance of this name is, from the sailor’s point of view, precisely that it signifies nothing. For after identifying for his companion all the islands in the area, the sailor concludes his catalogue by saying: “These are the true names of the places — but why it has been thought necessary to name them at all, is more than either you or I can understand” (pp. 179-180). What he is implying is that, as regards Nature, man’s arbitrary nomenclature is as meaningless as his science and technology. Names say nothing about the essence of the thing named, and so for him (and for the first narrator), “Moskoe-strom” is the appropriate appellation.

The sailor finishes his tale by describing the incredulity of his rescuers, and then he adds: “I can scarcely expect you to put more faith in” the story than they did (p. 192). This concluding statement contains an implied question put to the listener — “Do you believe me?” [page 25:] — a question which is never formally answered by the first narrator. As a result, it might seem that the framed story ends without the closing frame. But the fact is that a formal reply from the first narrator to the sailor’s implied question and a formal closing of the frame structure would both be superfluous. For since the content and the language of the first narrator’s introductory story attest that he does believe the sailor’s tale, a reported answer is unnecessary because the answer is known. Furthermore, the very fact that the first narrator has written down the sailor’s tale for the benefit of the reader constitutes the closing of the frame. By having the sailor directly address his listener at the end of the tale, Poe has subtly reminded the reader of the first narrator’s presence. But Poe has so constructed his tale that no comment from this narrator is necessary.



(1) Letter to James Russell Lowell (2 July 1844), printed in Arthur Hobson Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critica1 Biography (1941; rpt. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1969), pp. 427-430.

(2) Arlin Turner, “Sources of Poe’s ‘A Descent into the Maelstrom,’ “ JEGP, 46 (1947), 298-301; William T. Bandy, “New Light on a Source of Poe’s ‘A Descent into the Maelstrom,’” American Literature, 24 (1953), 534-537. See also Adolph B. Benson, “Scandinavian References in the Works of Poe,” JEGP, 40 (1941), 73-90. More critically oriented, though also a source study, is Margaret J. Yonce, “The Spiritual Descent into the Maelstrom: A Debt to ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’” Poe Newsletter, 2 (1969), 26-29.

(3) Much of the interpretive criticism — with which this essay disagrees either moderately or strongly — deals summarily with the role the old sailor plays in managing to save himself. In his edition of Edgar Allan Poe: Selected Prose, Poetry, and Eureka (San Francisco: Rinehart, 1950), W. H. Auden says that “A Descent” and Pym are both “stories of pure adventure,” in which “the hero is as purely passive as the I in dreams; nothing that happens is the result of his personal choice, everything happens to him” (p. vii). William L. Howarth, in his “Introduction” to Twentieth Century Interpretations of Poe’s Tales (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971), claims that “Poe’s sailor — like Ishmael — escapes death only by an odd quirk of fate” (p. 19). In contrast, Harry Levin, in The Power of Blackness (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), sees “A Descent” as “one of Poe’s later tales in which the mind is enabled to exert control over matter” (p. 106). For criticism discussing the role of reason in the sailor’s escape, see n. 6, below.

(4)Introduction to Poe, ed. Eric W. Carlson (Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1967), p. 178. Further references to Poe’s works will be from this edition and will be included in the text.

(5) For analysis of the possible “Christian” significance of this selflessness to the tale, see Yonce, pp. 27-29.

(6) Robert Shulman, “Poe and the Powers of the Mind,” ELH, 37 (1970), 252-253. Shulman sees the Maelstrom as symbolic of the mind and claims that “just as the protagonist is about to be destroyed in the whirlpool, the counter forces of reason and imagination do help save him from that abyss of existence which also suggests the chaotic depths of the mind” (p. 253). Daniel Hoffman, in Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (New York: Anchor Press, 1973), also links the sailor to Dupin, as does Hervey Allen in Israfel (1926; rpt. ea., New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1934). Hoffman, however, in seeing that the ratiocinative powers of the sailor are both mathematical and intuitive (p. 139), is more correct than Allen, who groups “A Descent” with the tales of ratiocination, in which, he claims, the hero is “the Perfect Logician” and “the logical processes are stressed to the last degree” (pp. 407-408).


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