Text: Edgar Allan Poe, Critical Notices, Southern Literary Messenger, Vol. II, no. 7, November 1836, 2:???-???


[page 787:]



The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club: Containing a Faithful Record of the Perambulations, Perils, Travels, Adventures, and Sporting Transactions of the Corresponding Numbers. Edited by “Boz.” Philadelphia: Republished by Carey, Lea and Blanchard.

In our June “Messenger,” we spoke at some length of the “ Watkins Tottle and other Papers,” by “Boz.” We then expressed a high opinion of the comic power, and of the rich imaginative conception of Mr. Dickens — an opinion which “The Pickwick Club” has fully sustained. The author possesses nearly every desirable quality in a writer of fiction, and has withal a thousand negative virtues. In his delineation of Cockney life he is rivalled only by the author of “ Peter Snook,” while in efforts of a far loftier and more difficult nature, he has greatly surpassed the best of the brief tragic pieces of Bulwer, or of Warren. Just now, however, we can only express our opinion that his general powers as a prose writer are equalled by few. The work is to be continued, and hereafter we may give at some length the considerations which have led us to this belief. From the volume before us we quote the concluding portion of a vigorous sketch, entitled “A Madman's MS.” The writer is supposed to be an hereditary madman, and to have labored under the disease for many years, but to have been conscious of his condition, and thus, by a strong effort of the will, to have preserved his secret from the eye of even his most intimate friends.

I don’t remember forms or faces now, but I know the girl was beautiful. I know she was; for in the bright moonlight nights, when I start up from my sleep, and all is quiet about me, I see, standing still and motionless in one corner of this cell, a slight and wasted figure, with long black hair, which, streaming down her back, stirs with no earthly wind, and eyes that fix their gaze on me, and never wink or close. Hush! the blood chills at my heart as I write it down — that form is hers; the face is very pale, and the eyes are glassy bright: but I know them well. That figure never moves — it never frowns and mouths as others do, that fill this place sometimes; but it is much more dreadful to me, even than the spirits that tempted me many years ago — it comes flesh from the grave; and is so very death-like.

For nearly a year I saw that face grow paler: for nearly a year I saw the tears steal down the mournful cheeks, and never knew the cause. I found it out at last though. They could not keep it from me long. She had never liked me; I had never thought she did: she despised my wealth, and hated the splendor in which she lived; — I had not expected that. She loved another. This I had never thought of. Strange feelings came over me, and thoughts forced upon me by some secret power, whirled round and round my brain. I did not hate her, though I hated the boy she still wept for. I pitied — yes, I pitied — the wretched life to which her cold and selfish relations had doomed her. I knew that she could not live long, but the thought that before her death she might give birth to some ill-fated being, destined to hand down madness to its offspring, determined me. I resolved to kill her.

For many weeks I thought of poison, and then of drowning, and then of fire. A fine sight the grand house in flames, and the madman's wife smouldering away to cinders. Think of the jest of a large reward, too, and of some sane man swinging in the wind, for a deed he never did, and all through a madman's cunning! I thought often of this, but I gave it up at last. Oh! the pleasure of strapping the razor day after day, feeling the sharp edge, and thinking of the gash one stroke of its thin bright point would make!

At last the old spirits who had been with me so often before, whispered in my ear that the time was come, and thrust the open razor into my hand. I grasped it firmly, rose softly from the bed, and leaned over my sleeping wife. Her face was buried in her hands. I withdrew them softly, and they fell listlessly on her bosom. She had been weeping, for the traces of the tears were still wet upon her cheek. Her face was calm and placid; and even as I looked upon it, a tranquil smile lighted up her pale features. I laid my hand softly on her shoulder. She started — it was only a passing dream. I leaned forward again. She screamed, and woke.

One motion of my hand, and she would never again have uttered cry or sound. But I was startled, and drew back. Her eyes were fixed on mine. I know not how it was, but they cowed and frightened me; and I quailed beneath them. She rose from the bed, still gazing fixedly and steadily on me. I trembled; the razor was in my hand, but I could not move. She made towards the door. As she neared it, she turned, and withdrew her eyes from my face. The spell was broken. I bounded forward, and clutched her by the arm. Uttering shriek upon shriek, she sunk upon the ground.

Now I could have killed her without a struggle; but the house was alarmed. I heard the tread of footsteps on the stairs. I replaced the razor in its usual drawer, unfastened the door, and called loudly for assistance.

They came, and raised her, and placed her on the bed. She lay bereft of animation for hours; and when life, look, and speech returned, her senses had deserted her, and she raved wildly and furiously.

Doctors were called in — great men who rolled up to my door in easy carriages, with fine horses and gaudy servants. They were at her bedside for weeks. They had a great meeting, and consulted together in low and solemn voices in another room. One, the cleverest, and most celebrated among them, took me aside and bidding me prepare for the worst, told me — me, the madman! that my wife was mad. He stood close beside me at an open window, his eyes looking in my face, and his hand laid upon my arm. With one effort I could have hurled him into the street beneath. It would have been rare sport to have done it; but my secret was at stake, and I let him go. A few days after, they told me I must place her under some restraint: I must provide a keeper for her. I! I went into the open fields where none could hear me, and laughed till the air resounded with my shouts!

She died next day. The white-headed old man followed her to the grave, and the proud brothers dropped a tear over the insensible corpse of her whose sufferings they had regarded in her lifetime with muscles of iron. [page 788:] All this was food for my secret mirth, and I laughed behind the white handkerchief which I held up to my face as we rode home, till the tears came into my eyes.

But though I had carried my object and killed her, was restless and disturbed, and I felt that before long my secret must be known. I could not hide the wild mirth and joy which boiled within me, and made me when! was alone, at home, jump up and beat my hands together, and dance round and round, and roar aloud. When I went out, and saw the busy crowds hurrying about the streets: or to the theatre, and heard the sound of music, — and beheld the people dancing, I felt such glee, that I could have rushed among them, and torn them to pieces limb from limb, and howled in transport. But I ground my teeth, and struck my feet upon the floor, and drove my sharp nails into my hands. I kept it down; and no one knew that I was a madman yet.

I remember — though it is one of the last things I can remember: for now I mix realities with my dreams, and having so much to do, and being always hurried here, have no time to separate the two, from some strange confusion in which they get involved — I remember how I let it out at last. Ha! ha! I think I see their frightened looks now, and feel the ease with which I flung them from me, and dashed my clenched fists into their white faces, and then flew like the wind, and left them screaming and shouting far behind. The strength of a giant comes upon me when I think of it. There — see how this iron bar bends beneath my furious wrench. I could snap it like a twig, only there are long galleries here with many doors — I don’t think I could find my way along them: and even if I could, I know there are iron gates below which they keep locked and barred. They know what a clever madman I have been and they are proud to have me here to show.

Let me see; — yes, I had been out. It was late at night when I reached home, and found the proudest of the thee proud brothers, waiting to see me — urgent business he said: I recollect it well. I hated that man with all a madman's hate. Many and many a time had my fingers longed to tear him. — They told me he was there. I ran swiftly up stairs. He had a word to say to me. I dismissed the servants. It was late, and we were alone together — for the first time.

I kept my eyes carefully from him at first, for I knew what he little thought — and I gloried in the knowledge — that the light of madness gleamed from them like fire. We sat in silence for a few minutes. He spoke at last. My recent dissipation. and strange remarks, made so soon after his sister's death, were an insult to her memory. Coupling together many circumstances which had at first escaped his observation, he thought I had not treated her well. He wished to know whether he was right in inferring that I meant to cast a reproach upon her memory, and a disrespect upon her family. It was due to the uniform he wore, to demand this explanation.

This man had a commission in the army — a commission, purchased with my money, and his sister's misery. This was the man who had been foremost in the plot to ensnare me, and grasp my wealth. This was the man who had been the main instrument in forcing his sister to wed me; well knowing that her heart was given to ’that puling boy. Due! Due to his uniform! The livery of his degradation! I turned my eyes upon him — I could not help it — but I spoke not a word.

I saw the sudden change that came upon him, beneath my gaze. He was a bold man, but the color faded from his face, and he drew back his chair. I dragged mine nearer to him; and as I laughed — I was very merry then — I saw him shudder. I felt the madness rising within me. He was afraid of me.

’You were very fond of your sister when she was alive’ — I said — ‘Very.’

He looked uneasily round him, and I saw his hand grasp the back of his chair: but he said nothing.

‘You villain,’ cried I, ‘I found you out; I discovered your hellish plots against me; I know her heart was fixed on some one else before you compelled her to marry me. I know it — I know it.’

He jumped suddenly from his chair, brandished it aloft, and bid me stand back-for I took care to be getting closer to him all the time I spoke.

I screamed rather than talked, for I felt tumultuous passions eddying through my veins, and the old spirits whispering and taunting me to tear his heart out.

‘Damn you,’ said I, starting up, and rushing upon him;’I killed her. I am a madman. Down with you. Blood, blood, I will have it.’

I turned aside with one blow, the chair he hurled at me in his terror, and closed with him; and with a heavy crash, we rolled upon the floor together.

It was a fine struggle that, for he was a tall strong man, fighting for his life; and I, a powerful madman, thirsting to destroy him. I knew no strength could equal mine, and I was right. Right again, though a madman! His struggles grew fainter. I knelt upon his chest, and clasped his brawny throat firmly with both hands. His face grew purple; his eyes were starting from his head, and with protruded tongue he seemed to mock me. I squeezed the tighter.

The door was suddenly burst open with a loud noise, and a crowd of people rushed forward, crying aloud to each other to secure the madman.

My secret was out; and my only struggle now, was for liberty and freedom. I gained my feet before a hand was on me, threw myself among my assailants, and cleared my way with my strong arm as if 1 bore a hatchet in my hand, and hewed them down before me. I gained the door, dropped over the banisters, and in an instant was ill the street.

Straight and swift I ran, and no one dared to stop me. I heard the noise of feet behind, and redoubled my speed. It grew fainter and fainter in the distance, and at length died away altogether: but on I bounded, through marsh and rivulet, over fence and wall, with a wild shout, which was taken up by the strange beings that flocked around me on every side, and swelled the sound, till it pierced the air. I was borne upon the arms of demons who swept along upon the wind, and bore down bank and hedge before them, and spun me round and round with a rustle and a speed that made my head swim, until at last they threw me from them with a violent shock, and I fell heavily upon the earth. When I awoke I found myself here — here in this gay cell where the sun-light seldom comes, and the moon steals in, in rays which only serve to show the dark shadows about me, and that silent figure in its old corner. When I lie awake, I can sometimes hear strange shrieks and cries from distant parts of this large place. What they are, I know not; but they neither come from that pale form, nor does it regard them. For from the first shades of dust till the earliest light of morning, it still stands motionless in the same place, listening to the music of my iron chain, and watching my gambols on my straw bed.



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[S:0 - SLM, 1836] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Criticism - Criticial Notices (November 1836)