Text: Daniel A. Wells, “Engraved Within the Hills: Further Perspectives on the Ending of Pym,” Poe Studies, June 1977, Vol. X, No. 1, 10:13-15


[page 13:]

Engraved Within the Hills: Further
Perspectives on the Ending of Pym

University of South Florida, St. Petersburg

“I have graven it within the hills, and my vengeance upon the dust within the rock.”

Aesthetic questions are paramount concerns of the Romantic artist, and therefore Romantic literature, through allegory, metaphor, and word play, is often literature about literature. Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is just such a work. The cryptic pattern of cave sketches and the hieroglyphs on the island of Tsalal serve to undercut the verisamilitude meticulously constructed by the narrator and to emphasize the absolute artificiality of both his adventures and his existence. While Pym and his ghost-writer editor testify to the authenticity of their narrative, Poe, the master builder, emphasizes the artificiality of art. In fact, in the chasm of Tsalal, Pym is figuratively — and quite literally — a character inside “Poe.”

Perhaps influenced by the aesthetic experiments in such contemporary genres as the French New Novel, recent commentators on the Narrative have begun to expose Poe’s self-conscious artifice. While cogently discussing the elements of Menippean satire in the Narrative’ Evelyn J. Hinz discovers metaphors of literary composition and puns on critical terms that reflect on the Narrative itself (1). Joseph J. Moldenhauer views the Narrative’s deepest theme as a demonstration of the creativity and the masochism of the inner self, ending in a metaphorical epiphany in which poetic vision merges with the mind of God (2). J. Gerald Kennedy’s thesis is that Poe’s intentions in the Narrative were to play an esoteric hoax on a reading public fond of fatuous books; unfortunately the book’s contemporary reception caught the author in his own trap (3). As might be expected, French criticism of the Narrative most heavily emphasizes the story’s self-conscious techniques and devices. Jean Ricardou finds in the Antarctic episode symbols of narrative structure and the printed page. Thus, for example, the Tsalalian water reproduces the structure of a printed text, appearing thick or limpid according to the speed with which one “reads” and non-reflective like a narrative that is chiefly about itself. To Ricardou Pym’s journey through this literary reality is a “journey to the bottom of the page,” and ultimately to the end of the book (4). Maurice Levy finds in the Antarctic episode a sequence of events that are to be taken not literally, but as Pym’s objective correlatives of his otherwise inexpressible vision of the void. The white cataract, instead of the hoped for revelation, is the dead end of man’s knowledge. The writing itself is swallowed up in the abyss of the white page (5). A third French reader of the Narrative, Claude Richard, argues for the consistency of Poe’s symbolism throughout Pym’s adventures and for the self-reflexive nature of the symbols. His argument is buttressed by a dazzling number of puns, the function of which is to demonstrate to hero and reader that lifeignorance, associated with land, surface, alcohol, the horizontal, [column 2:] like Melville’s Lee Shore, must be replaced by life-knowledge, associated with water, aspiration, spirit, and the vertical. Just as the hero’s final test for life-knowledge is the recognition of the multiplicity of life, the reader’s final test is the recognition of the multiplicity of all important writing. To see reality, then, is to be able to connect the seemingly disparate details into an essential unity. Constructing his argument partially on Ricardou, Richard describes Tsalal as a black page from which the whiteness has been withdrawn, thereby covering the ultimate meaning (6). If Ricardou and Richard are correct, we should be able to bring light to the darkness by excavating the hills of Tsalal and by joining the disparate “graven” images buried there.

Although some of their contentions seem forced, Ricardou and Richard establish the likelihood that the Tsalalian episode is self-referential. Reciprocally, the present study provides the first strong proof that the elements of involution in the text are intentional. Even Ricardou and Richard have overlooked some of Poe’s hints and have neglected, therefore, to connect the reversal theme in the story with the engraved message in the chasm of the Tsalalian hills. Pym’s last adventure, in the guise of a South Polar travel narrative, is a metaphorical and literal journey by the creations of Poe’s mind back to their source, his creative imagination. On this journey, Poe’s creations endure the horrors of his deepest phobias; the fear of falling, of being buried alive, of swift, unexpected treachery, and, perhaps, of black racial hatred. The symbolic running-of-the-gauntlet of these phobias echoes the subjective, personalized quality of Pym’s world. The journey takes place on an island on which strange masses of hills, cut in every possible direction by winding ravines, seem not so much a natural creation as a plaster of Paris or papier-mache mock-up of Poe’s private fictional world. Yet the Tsalalian adventures are only prefatory to the inevitable flow of the Narrative to the giant white cataract at its end, symbolizing the magical, mystical source of Tsalal and its creatures, Poe’s own creative imagination.

Pym and most of the Jane Guy’s crew follow Too-wit through the ravines of Tsalal. Unknown to them, Too-wit (that is, the “too clever one”) is leading them to destruction. Meanwhile, the white-skinned visitors think that they have established a master-slave relationship with the blacks, paying for the valuable biche de mer with cheap tools and trinkets. At the time of departure, however, this relationship is reversed. On the way to the village of Klock-Klock for a farewell celebration, the crew walks into a trap. When the Tsalalians strike, Pym feels that “the whole foundations of the solid globe were suddenly rent asunder, and that the day of universal dissolution was at hand” (7). At this point Poe’s aesthetic construct seems to tumble down and with it any serious pretension on his part (though not Pym’s) to continuing the “documentary” ruse. Symbolizing these destroyed pretensions, the chaotic scene “was strewn with huge tumuli, apparently the wreck of some gigantic structures of art; although, in detail, no semblance of art could be detected” (p. 231; my italics). By implication, Pym and Peters, who have stepped into a fissure in the soft rock wall of a nearby cliff, are nearly suffocated by the exploded structure of the very narrative which gives them life, as it were, a foreshadowing of the [page 14:] more spectacular collapse of the fiction of their existence separate from the author’s imagination in Chapter 23.

In that chapter, Poe plays his boldest literary hoax. At first trapped on a hill above the harbor, Pym and Peters are forced by hunger to leave their “pent-house on the platform” (p. 219) and attempt to descend through “a vast pit of black granite” (p. 220) which they “could scarcely bring [themselves] to believe . . . the work of nature” (p. 221). Poe takes great pains to provide a description of the chasm or abyss (always a symbolic locale for the author) into which Pym has to descend in order to make good his escape. He stretches credibility to the breaking point by providing Pym “luckily” with a Pocketbook and pencil so that he can sketch the general outlines of the chasm for us. By placing Pym’s carefully drawn figures near the climactic movement of the novel, Poe emphasizes the configuration of the chasm in excruciating detail (although the diagrams of the interconnected portions of the chasm are separated with ten or more lines of prose so that the actual pattern is not obvious). The rational editor of the “Note” provides us with another clue when he says that these figures, “when conjoined with one another in the precise order which the chasms themselves presented,” spell out the “Ethiopian verbal root — . . . ‘To be shady’ — whence all the inflections of shadow or darkness” (p. 244). Asking the reader to connect theme and form, Poe is indeed shady. The editor’s construct explicitly dismisses the links among the first three figures as unimportant to his solution, but when we assemble a map of the entire chasm from Pym’s own diagrams, the secret of Tsalal reveals itself:

[[picture , figure 1, 2, 3 and 5]]

Following Poe’s repeated suggestions, when we examine the chasm “more minutely than before,” “a strong light now [should break] upon us” (p. 223). The shape of the chasm in the island of Tsalal spells out in longhand the letters of Poe’s last name, reversed of course (8). This communication is between Poe and his special readership, who must connect the figures in written script before the meaning emerges. One must glimpse the total picture from a perspective outside and above the action, something which the characters within the Narrative and its “Editor” fail to do. When the connection is made, and it glares at us in its stark simplicity, the aesthetic distance between author and work disappears; Poe signs his name, as it were, to his island, and the fiction of the separate existences of Pym and Peters (and the “Editor”) collapses like the landscape itself in the previous episode.

Inside the chasm, Pym and Peters discover some indentures that “might have been taken for the intentional, although rude, representation of a human figure standing erect, with outstretched arm,” which Pym believes “to have been the work of nature” (p. 225). The pointing man, [column 2:] followed by figures the editor translates as “to be white” and “to the region of the South,” is, by implication, Poe, and he points southward to the source of the earlier events in the novel, the source of Pym (who arrives in Tsalal on Poe’s birthday, January 19), of Peters (whose initials are the same as Poe’s father David), of the island of reverses Tsalal (which reversed spells “la-last” a Frenchified version of “the end,” the end of the world and the novel), and of the mad events on the island, such as the hilarious mock-heroic escape down the face of the cliff via the “rope of handkerchiefs” made of the magician’s props, each of which must have been at least ten feet long The pointing man, that is, the figure in stone, points to the creative imagination of Poe the author, the great font of creative energy, absorbing and effusing all the oceans of narrative. The region of the imagination is “a region of novelty and wonder.” It rises amidst “a high range of light gray vapour” and flares up “occasionally in lofty streaks, now darting from east to west, now from west to east, and again presenting a level and uniform summit — in short, having all the wild variations of the Aurora Borealis” (p. 238). Meanwhile, the water becomes hotter and whiter. Convulsions in the water match the “wild flickerings” (p. 239) in the sky over the region to the south. As the boat carrying Pym, Peters, and Nu-Nu, the captured Tsalalian, increases in velocity, time seems to slow down. Poe’s characters, the created artifacts, lose their semblance to humanity, decomposing, as it were, when they approach their source. Pym feels “a numbness of body and mind — a dreaminess of sensation” (p. 240). And out of the world of white vapor and ash rises a “shrouded human figure” (p. 242), the apotheosis of the creative imagination itself.

This is the end of the novel — where created characters and events return (on March 22, the first full day of spring) to their source. In the cave on Tsalal was a name, “Poe’ and a finger (Poe’s) pointing the direction to the source of all romance, the creative imagination: “I can liken it to nothing but a limitless cataract, rolling silently into the sea from some immense and far-distant rampart in the heaven” (p. 241). Here at the source of all art, where the artist creates meanings in a meaningless universe, are “a chaos of flirting and indistinct images” (pp. 241-242) and a flock of pallidly white birds screaming “Tekeli-li!” The cry ‘Tekeli-li” may suggest, as some readers have argued, the biblical “Mene, mene, tekel upharsin;” God’s handwriting on the wall indicating that those he had weighed in the balance had been found wanting. If so, Poe’s use of the passage points another finger at the artificiality of the entire construct. It is his handwriting, these are his walls, and he has written with an invisible finger his signature in the Tsalalian hills. He has measured his story and his characters — and maybe his readers — and has found them wanting. The handwriting is on the wall and on the page for Pym:

And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us. But there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow. (p. 242)

Pym is absorbed back into his Poe-lar source. As Ricardou notes, he is forever swallowed by the “perfect whiteness” of the blank page that follows the final period of [page 15:] the story proper. The blank, snow-like page is a chasm thrown open to receive him. Here, as in experimental contemporary fiction, emphasis on the artificiality of art can create self-annihilating artifacts. The artistic beast which begins by nipping at its own tale ends in devouring itself. The created artifact is acknowledged as artificial (regardless of the protestations of the characters, Pym the writer, and his various editors) and returns whence it came. The configuration of the chasm which spells the name of its creator backwards does indeed mean, as the “Note” ironically tells us, “to be shady” (9).

When Poe, in his disguise as “the writer of this appendix” (the “Note,” p. 243), tells the reader to consider Figures 1, 2, and 3 and ponder them “when conjoined with one another in the precise order which the chasms themselves presented” (p. 244), he is asking his reader to play the game, to uncover the hoax of his engraved secret. “Conclusions such as these,” he continues, “open a wide field for speculation and exciting conjecture,” if, and only if, the reader employs “minute philological scrutiny” (p. 245) . In a story with innumerable clues the final one is the concluding sentence, which should serve as an epigraph at the opening of the book: “I have graven it within the hills, and my vengeance upon the dust within the rock” (p. 245). Engraved in the hills is Poe’s name, undercutting the claims to authenticity of the landscape and the characters. Therefore, Poe’s “vengeance,” an example, perhaps, of his need to prove his intellectual superiority, is on the majority of his readers, who, in failing to conjoin geography and philosophy, chasm and creativity, are forever blind to the ingenuity which lies before their eyes, but beyond their vision.



(1) “ ‘Tekeli-li’: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym as Satire,” Genre, 3 (1970), 379-399.

(2) “Imagination and Perversity in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 13 (1971), 267-280.

(3) “The Preface as a Key to the Satire in Pym,” Studies in the Novel, 5 (1973), 191-196.

(4) “‘The Singular Character of the Water,’” trans. Frank Towne, Poe Studies, 9 ( 1976), 1-6.

(5) “ ‘Pym’ conte fantastique?” Etudes Anglaises, 27 (1974), 38

(6) “L’Ecriture D’Arthur Gordon Pym,” Delta, I (1975), 95-124.

(7) Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (1902; rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1965), 111, 203. Subsequent quotations from the Narrative are from this volume and noted within the text.

(8) One might wish to argue that the caverns also spell out “e.a.p.,” the author’s initials. It doubtlessly occurred to Poe that his name in longhand in lower case e a poe — was very close to being a palindrome. Since Tsalal is the island of reversals, “e o P” seems more consistent with Poe’s intentions. The two dots in Figure 5, which the text tells us represent “triangular holes” disconnected from the other parts of the chasm, may signify initials for his first two names, or a colon suggesting that all that precedes and follows is a message from the author (Figure 4 is a transcription of indentures on the cave walls). Also one should note that the letters and the dots are as hidden in the hills as a watermark in paper.

For other readings of these figures in the context of the biblical imagery associated with Tsalal, see Sidney Kaplan, “Introduction,” The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (New York: Hill & Wang, 1960), pp. vii-xxv; J. V. Ridgely, “The End of Pym and the Ending of Pym,” Papers on Poe: Essays in Honor of John [column 2:] Ward Ostrom, ed. Richard P. Veler (Springfield, Ohio: Chantry Music Press, 1972), pp. 104-112; and Richard Wilbur, “Introduction,” The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (Boston: Godine, 1973), pp. vii-xxv.

(9) The motif of reversals in the story is linked with the fact-fiction ambiguity in that the entire plot is a reversal of the normal order of the reading experience. That the juggling of fact and fiction is oriented toward the reader is evident from the opening Preface and the concluding Note. The Preface suggests that the Narrative is fiction pretending to be fact masquerading as fiction (at “Editor” Poe’s suggestion) but taken as fact by the public and thus now is presented as fact. The pedantic writer of the Note at the end of the Narrative flip-flops the effect of the Preface by over-emphasizing the authenticity of the events and by revealing that Poe himself holds a “disbelief in the entire truth of the latter portions of the narration” (p. 243).


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[S:0 - PS, 1977]