Text: Kent Ljungquist, “Burke’s Enquiry and the Aesthetics of ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’,” Poe Studies, December 1978, Vol. XI, No. 2, 11:26-29


[page 26, column 2:]

Burke’s Enquiry and the Aesthetics of
“The Pit and the Pendulum”

Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Leo Spitzer was among the earliest critics to discuss the aesthetic conjunction of light and dark imagery in the works of Edgar Allan Poe (1), one of the starkest contrasts of which occurs in “The Pit and the Pendulum.” At the outset of the tale, the tall candles in the chamber are compared to “white angels,” “angel forms, with heads of flame,” before they “sank into nothingness,” and the “blackness of darkness supervened” (2). The interplay of light and darkness is prominent elsewhere in the tale: the black-robed judges possess terrifying white lips, the angelic forms prove to be meaningless spectres, and visual effects in the chamber alternate between utter darkness and hellish light. In The Power of Blackness, Harry Levin, in addition to locating sources of the phrase “blackness of darkness” (3), suggests that Poe’s use of imagery conformed to the aesthetics of his period, that the sharp chiaroscuro in “The Pit and the Pendulum” was characteristic of much Gothic fiction exploiting horrific blackness. But Levin does not note the supporting aesthetics of such fiction presented by Edmund Burke’s Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, a work which had gained currency in mid-nineteenth-century America (4). Poe was conversant with both the aesthetic of the sublime and the Enquiry (5), the principles of which provide an informing aesthetic for “The Pit and the Pendulum.

Poe, who used qualities of the sublime throughout his career, drew from Burke an aesthetic justification for dealing with intense sensations. Most significantly, Poe was fascinated by the mixture of terror and delight that Burke described in fearful experiences. Horror was, of course, the chief emotional feature of dark, foreboding scenes in Gothic fiction, but for Poe as well as for Burke, attention to vivid and precise pictorial details could elevate such scenes to a state of grandeur or magnificence. Sublimity is “magnificent,” Burke argued, because it transcends decorous attention to rules of order and delicacy. Burke thereby gave his imprimatur to the scenic qualities of disorder and obscurity. Moreover, the sublime could be used to portray subjects that defied the restrictions of ordinary language, as well as the normal limits of the human imagination. For aesthetician and author alike, a preparatory step on the path to transcendent emotional states was placing the mind under stress, allowing a character to work himself through a painful experience by forcing him to grasp a subject beyond the common understanding.

Poe places the narrator of “The Pit and the Pendulum” in just such a crucible of painful sensations, which force him to grapple with an ultimate state of horror. It is noteworthy, in view of Burke’s animadversions on Lockean [page 27:] associationism, that the progressive horrors in the tale defy an associationist explanation (6). Poe’s anti-associationist stance probably stems from his reading the sections in Burke’s Enquiry successively headed, “Locke’s opinion concerning darkness considered,” “Darkness terrible in its own nature,” ‘7he effect of Blackness,” and “The effects of Blackness moderated” (7). Throughout these sections, Burke uses “blackness” and “darkness” interchangeably to counter Locke’s associationist aesthetics, whereby moral and cultural assumptions are cited to explain the psychology of fear (8). For Locke, the excitement caused by darkness is a learned phenomenon, whereas Burke argues thee blackness evokes sublimity, regardless of prior moral and cultural associations.

In addition to the narrator’s confrontation with blackness, “The Pit and the Pendulum” contains other elements recurring in Gothic fiction — a disorientation from physical objects and a blurred line of separation between sleep and the waking state — both of which are discussed in the Enquiry. According to Burke, the sublimity of darkness affects all mankind, “for in utter darkness, it is impossible to know in what degree of safety we stand; we are ignorant of the objects that surround us; we may every moment strike against some obstruction; we may fall down a precipice the first step we take; and if an enemy approach, we know not in what quarter to defend ourselves . . .” (p. 143). The narrator’s dangerous proximity to the pit and uncertain location with regard to surrounding objects conform to Burke’s general description of man’s predicament in total darkness. At several points, the narrator swoons into a fitful sleep only to awaken to more intense and more frightening sensations. Similarly, Burke, after acknowledging that Lockean associationists regard sleep as relaxing, argues that awaking to an unexpected darkness is among man’s most startling experiences: “And I have often experienced, and so have a thousand others, that on first inclining towards sleep, we have been suddenly awakened with a most violent start; and that this start was generally preceded by a sort of dream of our falling down a precipice. . .” (9). Following the import of Burke’s comments, the narrator claims that nothing is quite “so potent” as “the effect of total darkness upon one arousing from lethargy or sleep” (II, 688) (10).

The potency of darkness is so extreme that the narrator’s horror is not amenable to explanation by prior association — that is, he fails to account for the intensity of his terror by appealing to previous fearful experiences, either imagined or real. He strains for unique metaphors and tortured descriptions in order to communicate a degree of horror bordering on delirium, but all such rhetorical attempts can be only rough approximations, as murky and obscure as the black pit from which he shrinks. It is, therefore, no facile trick of aesthetic terminology to claim that “The Pit and the Pendulum,” perhaps Poe’s most famous “tale of sensations,” follows the radically sensationist aesthetics of Burke. All the narrator’s attempts to explain his plight by the dynamics of association — either by imagining the fiendish ingenuity of the monks or by pondering the weight of his own possible guilt — fall short. He may say, for example, that the flickering candles remind him of charity, but the flames ultimately induce only nausea and subside into meaningless spectres. The white-robed forms may elicit thoughts of music or of the sweet rest of the grave, but these figures [column 2:] vanish into blackness, too. In spite of the rhetorical flourishes of the opening paragraphs in which the narrator hopes that his swoon is attended by eloquent spiritual memories (11), the net effect is to invite further unbidden shadows that promise a more frightening horror: total annihilation. Associations, in a Lockean sense, proliferate, but they are “swallowed up in a mad rushing descent. . . . Then silence, and stillness, and night were the universe” ( II, 682).

In an associationist framework, memories would be helpful for the comprehension of novel emotional states, but Poe’s narrator discovers that memories are useless in gaining a perspective on his condition. He distinguishes two stages in awakening from a delirious swoon: spiritual uplift is quickly replaced by a return to his physical, sensory state. He must acknowledge, however, that after reaching the second stage, it is all but impossible to recall the first. If recollection fails, sensations may arise that are potentially more terrifying because they are uninvited: “It seems probable that if upon reaching the second stage, we could not recall the impressions of the first, we should find these impressions eloquent in memories of the gulf beyond. . . . But if the impressions of what I have termed the first stage, are not, at will, recalled, yet, after long interval, do they not come unbidden, while we marvel whence they come?” (II, 682-683). Ideally, an individual who has experienced a swoon would be capable of facing painful stress through memory association — by finding familiar signs in novel experiences. He should, for example, find “strange’ palaces and wildly familiar faces in the coals that glow” (II, 683). Despite the narrator’s “frequent and thoughtful endeavors to remember” (II, 683) his initial incarceration the results are, at best, uncertain and ambiguous. Rather than achieving lucid memory, he is beset by more troubling sensations: “a vague horror at my heart,” “a sense of sudden motionlessness throughout all things,” and “a feeling of flatness and dampness” (II, 683). These sensations degenerate, significantly, into “the madness of a memory which busies itself among forbidden things” (II, 683). On the verge of grasping a potentially “eloquent” memory, the narrator must acknowledge “a tingling sensation pervading my frame” (II, 683). Subsequently, he manages to reach “a full memory of the trial,” but this clarity of mind is temporary and fleeting: “Then entire forgetfulness of all that followed; of all that later day and much earnestness of endeavor have enabled me vaguely to recall” (II, 684). Because the narrator’s consciousness is discontinuous, the possibility of clear recollection is vitiated. With memory in abeyance, he strains to see what might come into the chamber, but his overriding fear is that there will be nothing to see: “The blackness of eternal night encompassed me. . . . The intensity of darkness seemed to oppress and stifle me” (II, 684).

As this memory-inhibiting arena of sensations moves Poe’s protagonist toward confrontation with the pit, the narrator uses a vocabulary that constitutes a series of “ultimates.” The bearers of his body “outran, in their descent, the limits of the limitless” (II, 683). Supposing himself dead at one point, he entertains a “supposition . . . inconsistent with real existence” (II, 684). Associationism fails again when, in a recollection of the Inquisition’s horrors, he cites a punishment “strange and too ghastly to repeat, save [page 28:] in a whisper” (II, 685). Under the swinging pressure of the pendulum, he acknowledges the insufficiency of human vocabulary: “What boots it to tell of the long, long horrors more than mortal, during which I counted the rushing vibrations of steel!” (II, 691). At this moment, he can no longer resist the pendulum: “I might as well have attempted to arrest an avalanche!” (II, 692). Lapsing into a state of despair in which death might be a welcomed boon, he exclaims: “how unspeakable!” (II, 692). In its unutterable mystery, the pit looms as the ne plus uItra of horrors. The narrator never describes it; he calls it “the abyss’ the “Ultima Thule” ( II, 690) of the Inquisition’s punishments. When forced closer to the pit by the burning iron, he finds human language all but useless: “Oh! for a voice to speak! Oh! horror! — oh! any horror but this!” (II, 696). As the dungeon collapses into the shape of a lozenge, even human articulation fails, and the narrator lapses into a “final scream of despair” (II, 697).

Seeking to describe an experience of terror involving inexpressible ultimates, Poe drew upon the sublime, an aesthetic that was traditionally used to connote the ineffable. The descriptions in “The Pit and the Pendulum” are consequently as darkly obscure as the colors of the fiendish portraitures are “blurred and indefinite” (II, 695) — in reading Burke, of course, Poe found an aesthetic which required such indefiniteness (12). The size and contours of the narrator’s prison are deceptive, and the precise means of his execution, as well as the degree of its enormity, shift in succeeding paragraphs. Physical and moral proportions are obliterated in the all-consuming blackness. Thus in contrasting the blackness of the pit with the deceiving “sulphurous light” shimmering above it, Poe utilized an aesthetic whose main virtue was a kind of obscurity. He also found a means of giving terror an aesthetic cast, an artistic vocabulary by which to approach the inexpressible (13).

For Poe, as well as for Burke, sublime terror contained equal measures of repulsion and exhilaration, abhorrence and exaltation. In the face of obvious danger, the narrator in “The Pit and the Pendulum” significantly watches the downrushing blade “in fear, but more in wonder” (II, 689). At the same time that he is aware of the grotesquerie of the monks, he can still smile at his agony. As the pendulum’s sweep cuts his robe, he gives it “a pertinacity of attention” and acknowledges a “peculiar thrilling sensation” (II, 692). In a passage similar to the old mariner’s moment of equanimity in “A Descent into the Maelstrom’’ (14), the narrator says, “I fell suddenly calm, and lay smiling at the glittering death, as a child at some rare bauble” ( II, 691). As if minimizing his previous bouts with fear, the narrator says, as the walls close about him, that he is “no more dallying with the king of Terrors” (II, 696).

Burke’s radical sensationism made the sublime a likely literary tool in dealing with a range of violent and unpleasant sensory experiences. By balancing a state close to utter delirium with a later condition of resignation and calm, however, authors could use the sublime aesthetic to distance and control the presentation of the experience of fear. As Robert Kiely has noted, the sublime was often used to exploit, rather than to wallow in, strange states of the [column 2:] human imagination (15). Poe’s strategy in “The Pit and the Pendulum” was to immerse his narrator in a welter of sensations evoked by confrontation with utter darkness. He distanced his reader from such painful sensations by using several techniques, the most notable of which is the retrospective narration which allows the narrator to glory in sublime terror in the act of describing the most intense emotional stress (16). The reader need look no further than the exclamations in the concluding paragraphs to note the ecstasy with which he relates his torment and eventual salvation. A more obvious distancing device is the terse final paragraph which proclaims the narrator’s rescue and thereby defuses the tension of narrator and reader alike. Most significantly, Poe relieves terror by tracing the narrator’s plunge downward to black despair followed by a moment of wondrous resignation. For Poe, the “power of blackness” could heighten — sometimes to the pitch of sublime transport — the terror of the human soul.



I wish to thank Professors Richard S. Moore and Richard H. Roche, as well as the editorial board of Poe Studies, for assistance in the preparation of this essay.

(1) “A Reinterpretation of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ “ Comparative Literature, 4 (1952), 351-363; reprinted in Essays on English and American Literature (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1962), pp. 51-66.

(2) Works, 11, 682. All other references to this edition will be noted in the text.

(3) The Power of Blackness (New York: Knopf, 1958), p. 26. The phrase, “blackness of darkness,” also used in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (Complete Works, 111, 205), has an interesting biography. David Hirsch discusses its origin in Jude: 13 in “The Pit and the Apocalypse,” Sewannee Review, 76 (1968), 632-652. But the phrase also appears in Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, a work Poe and Melville knew intimately. Herr Diogenes Teufelsdrockh plumbs the mysterious riddles of the universe and comments: “In red streaks of unspeakable grandeur, yet also in the blackness of darkness, was Life, to my too unfurnished thought unfolding itself” — Sartor Rosartus (New York: Scribner’s, 1931), 1, 102. The aesthetic collocation of bright red and impenetrable blackness may have intrigued Poe as he developed the contrasting imagery in Pym and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” For Melville’s knowledge of the phrase, see Luther S. Mansfield and Howard P. Vincent, eds., Moby-Dick (New York: Hendricks House, 1962), p. 604.

(4) See, for example, Richard S. Moore, “Burke, Melville, and the ‘Power of Blackness,’” American Transcendental Quarterly, No. 29 (Winter 1976), pp. 30-33. Moore perceptively traces Burke’s and Melville’s sensationist bias. Other studies of Melville’s aesthetics include Klaus Poenicke, “A View from the Piazza: Herman Melville and the Legacy of the European Sublime,” Comparative Literature Studies, 4 (1967), 267-281; and Barbara Glenn, “Melville and the Sublime in Moby-Dick,” American Literature, 48 (1976), 165-182.

(5) See Kent Ljungquist, “Poe and the Sublime: His Two Short Sea Tales in the Context of an Aesthetic Tradition,” Criticism, 17 (1975), 131-151; Ljungquist, “Descent of the Titans: The Sublime Riddle of Arthur Gordon Pym,” Southern Literary Journal, 10 (1978), 75-92; and Alan C. Golding, “Reductive and Expansive [page 29:] Language: Semantic Strategies in Eureka,” Poe Studies, (1978), 1-5.

(6) Poe also disparaged associationism in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” in the narrator’s attempt to plumb the mysterious landscape, according to Barton Levi St. Armand, “Poe’s Landscape of the Soul: Association Theory and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ “ Modern Language Studies, 7 (1977), 32-41.

(7) Ed. J. T. Boulton (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1958), pp. 143-149. In Burke’s litany of superlatives, the sublime “is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (p. 39).

(8) “I must observe, that the ideas of blackness and darkness are much the same; and they differ only in this, that blackness is a more confined idea” — Burke, p. 144. For Poe’s knowledge of Locke, see S. Gerald Sandler, “Poe’s Indebtedness to Locke’s An Essay on Human Understanding,” Boston University Studies in English, 5 (1961), 107-121.

(9) P. 148. Although silence and darkness are sometimes relaxing, Burke notes that sudden shifts from the sleeping to waking state may evoke the sublime: “In like manner, if a person . . . were falling asleep, to introduce a sudden darkness would prevent his sleep for that time, though silence and darkness in themselves, and not suddenly introduced, are favourable to it” — p. 148.

(10) I do not mean to minimize the influence of Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly on this passage, as outlined by David Lee Clark “The Sources of Poe’s ‘The Pit and the Pendulum,’” Modern Language Notes, 44 (1929), 349-356. I do suggest that Burke’s aesthetics may be behind both Brown’s and Poe’s explorations of the shadowy borderline between sleep and waking. See Kenneth Bernard, “Charles Brockden Brown and the Sublime,” The Personalist, 45 (1964), 235-249.

(11) Robert M. Adams notes the stylistic virtuosity of the opening pages of “The Pit and Pendulum” but calls attention to a certain disingenuousness; however stunning the opening description, Poe has constructed a situation in which his narrator, stubbornly but inevitably, must confront the void. See NIL: Episodes in the Literary Conquest of the Void During the Nineteenth Century (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1966), pp. 42, 45.

(12) Poe espoused “indefiniteness” as a chief value in poetry as early as the preface to his 1831 volume of Poems, otherwise known as the “Letter to B ——.” A passage in his review of George Pope Morris’ songs cites “indefiniteness” in a manner that recalls the paradox of pleasure and pain in the sublime. Poetry should insist “upon a certain wild license and indefinitiveness — an indefinitiveness recognized by every musician who is not a mere fiddler, as an important point in the philosophy of his science — as the soul, indeed, of the sensations derivable from its practice — sensations which bewilder while they enthrall — and which would not so enthrall if they did not so bewilder” — Complete Works, X, 41.

(13) David Halliburton makes a similar point in Poe: A Phenomenological View (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1973), pp. 313-333.

(14) Stuart and Susan Levine link “A Descent into the Maelstrom” and “The Pit and the Pendulum” as tales marking a “progression down to despair and insanity and up to insight” — The Short Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1976), p. 39. See also Stuart Levine, Edgar Poe: Seer and Craftsman (Deland, Florida: Everett Edwards, 1972), pp. 19-26.

(15) The Romantic Novel in England (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1972), p. 180. Burke’s enormous influence on Gothic fiction is discussed in general, pp. 15-23.

(16) A distancing device is also found in “A Descent into the Maelstrom,” which uses an opening frame narration to enclose the old sailor’s tale. A retrospective view on the mariner’s experiences is thereby achieved. For comment on the dual perspective of sublime scenes — with one vantage point “terrifying” and with a second “delightful” — see John Conron’s discussion of Burke’s influence in America, The American Landscape: A Critical Anthology of Prose and Poetry (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1974), pp. 143-145.


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