David Grantz has lived for 23 years in the Ouachita Mountains of eastern Oklahoma, where he and his wife Sharron are educators in a small, rural K-12 public school. David and Sharron have two teenaged children. David earned his BA in history, from Pan American University in Edinburg, Texas, USA; and his MA in English from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, USA. The series of essays in Qrisse's Poe Pages are extensive revisions of chapters from his Masters Thesis, which is entitled In a Strange City Lying Alone: The Theme of Perversity in Selected Works of Edgar Allan Poe. One day the author plans to publish his collected revisions into a scholarly volume. Click here to email David Grantz.
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The opening chapter of this study discussed Poe's expansion-contraction principal as it operates within the universe of stars. Subsequent chapters have examined perversity, the psychic manifestation of the universal contraction sequence as it applies to Poe and his male protagonists and then, finally, to their female counterparts. Readers who have persevered this far have witnessed, perhaps, a more diverse Poe than they had expected, a psyche which sought to penetrate to the very causes and effects of all that is and of all that will ever be, a mind which elucidated the impulses which ignite creation or incite destruction. As the protagonists Roderick Usher and Egaeus suffer their way into to the abyss of psychic disintegration, a reader of "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "Berenice" witnesses Poe's entropic literary thesis enacted, as well as the author's belief that perverseness in the individual reflects his innate desire for Oneness. Yet a reader should not assume that Poe accomplished no other purpose than revelation of cosmic or psychic collapse in his oeuvre. Even the works which are most heavily imprinted with cataclysms of nature or of mind are splendid adventures for a reader without prior knowledge of his symbolism. However, it is when Poe's characters struggle against nature that they seem so powerless, as though nature were an unsprung trap, waiting. And in Poe what is nature if it is not the agent of God's powerful will "pervading all things." The gallant drama that the tragedy "man" mimes upon Ligeia's stage always ends with victory for the conqueror worm; thus man's heroism is relegated to his struggle and to his suffering, which, according to Poe's Una, becomes the bliss of paradise. This chapter attempts to trace this thread through several of Poe's narratives, illustrating the process by which the dissolution of the rudimentary, organic man becomes the unifying event for what Poe calls the "ultimate life of Heaven." (Poe 513)
This essay also purposes examination of a Poe character who deserves a special medallion for suffering. He is called Arthur Gordon Pym, a name which reads in the same syllabic meter as Edgar Allan Poe. By necessity, Pym must be very durable because he is the protagonist of Poe's only novel, The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym. The name "Pym" suggests "ymp" or imp, heralding the title of a future story, "The Imp of the Perverse," published several years later.
Literary Assessment of Pym
Pym was harshly criticized in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine as an "'impudent attempt at humbugging the public.'" (Kaplan 146) Rufus Griswold, unsurprisingly, disparaged it, as well. Yet the work's reputation since Poe's time has gradually improved. Still, the novel suffers most at the hands of critics who believe that novels must adhere to parameters that apply to all successful works of the genre; and most critics concur that Poe truly did have trouble executing the traditional novel. The crux of the problem, according to the Pym's detractors, is structural. In his effort to achieve intense unity of effect, Poe fails miserably at pacing the story. What we have, then, rather than a novel, is a series of sea adventures, several short stories with the same protagonist. And the character development is abysmal. John Barth assesses, "To compare Pym and company with Billy Budd and company...is to be reminded how little gift Poe had for the "realistic" aspects of characterization..." (229) In all fairness to Poe, readers might ask if realistic characterization is what Poe sought in his best tales. Nevertheless, of all of Poe's works, Pym seems to suffer the most for its lack. Why? The answer lies in the expectations of readers of novels. They must know the characters more completely. In fact, in a novel realistic characterization can become the most important element in reader involvement. On the other hand, when Poe penned his short stories, the characters that he fashioned within them reside not in realities, but in idealities. He deliberately "seeks to disengage the reader's mind from reality and propel it toward the ideal." (Wilbur 100) If anything, Poe often expects his readers to suspend reality for the duration of the tale's telling. Asking for more would be akin to requiring realism with a dream.
Yet Pym fares only somewhat better when adjudged on Poe's own terms. Intensity of effect, Poe's hallmark in the best of his poems and tales, proves unsustainable in so long a work. The rising action and climax that one expects to find in the structure of a novel are instead, achieved repetitiously as Pym's wretches face disaster after disaster. Seemingly, the mood fits Poe's own blueprint for his art; for its chief effects--gloom and horror--are successfully achieved; yet they are also unsustained, and probably, unsustainable, especially with inadequate dimension in characterization. Yet the pendulous retracement of the suffering that Pym endures through the novel's successive stages of horror reflect a consistency within the Poe oeuvre. Quite plainly, Poe did not shine in his first novel, himself calling it "a very silly book," and never returning to it for republication or revision. Even accounting for the Pym's limitations, the novel reveals much, albeit less successfully, of Poe's visionary spirituality which had found adolescent expression in Tamerlane, somewhat more mature expression here, and then, resonation in "Descent into the Maelstrom," "MS Found in Bottle," and finally, in Eureka.
Much of Poe's novel was likely written in Richmond, but after but two installments in the Southern Literary Messenger, Poe discontinued publication. Harpers copyrighted the entire work in June of 1837, though they did not publish the volume until July of the next year. The tale is prefaced with some comments of Pym's in reference to his own misgivings about publishing the accounts of his South Sea adventures. He relates that it was only at the encouragement of a Mr. Poe that his story appears in print, Mr. Poe having assisted in its actual composition. One can perceive how The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym was, thus, conceived by Poe as a ruse. It is worth noting that British reviewers took the bait, citing the unlikelihood of the incidents of this work of non-fiction. Contributing to the confusion, the London edition had left out the mysterious white figure in the novel's conclusion. (Kaplan 145) Of course, there was no Pym outside of Poe's imagination.
Sailing with Augustus
The fictional Arthur Gordon Pym hails from Nantucket. While in school, he meets Augustus, the son of a sea captain. Augustus has been often at sea, and his adventures stimulate Pym's imagination. He will not be satisfied until he, too, is enabled to go to sea. One of his voyages is a harrowing misadventure. Augustus convinces Pym to go on a night-sail with him; unfortunately, he does not realize the extent of his friend's intoxication. When their boat gets lee of land, Augustus loses consciousness. Only a novice at sailing, Pym manages the boat as best as he can while in the meantime,
Finally, when it seemed that the predicament could be no more dire, a whaling ship crashes down upon them. Miraculously, both Augustus and Pym escape with their lives.
Then commences the "momentous narrative," which actually comprises a chronicle of assorted misadventures. Augustus prepares to go to sea aboard the Grampus, an old vessel captained by his father Mr. Barnyard. Because Pym is too young to serve as a crewman on the boat, he and Augustus contrive a scheme so that Pym, too, may participate in the voyage. Pym will hide in the ship's hold until the Grampus has sailed far enough from port that returning him to Edgarton (Poe's autobiographically associated point of departure) would be simply out of the question. The plan succeeds, but in a way which could not have been anticipated by the two fashioners of it. Shortly after departure, the ship is mutinied, and most of its crew, killed. Augustus is tied and handcuffed, leaving Pym starving and thirsting to death in the hold. When his meager supplies are depleted, he suffers horribly. His weakened condition and the foul air of the hold combine forces, inducing in him a hypnogogic state of consciousness. As he sleeps for increasingly long periods, lurid dreams mix with the conscious horrors of his dire situation. Pym's entrapment represents more than just a physical event; it is also a psychic event, a premature burial replete with the horrors which Poe could so effectively engender. Pym recounts,
It turns out that the hideous monster is only Tiger, Pym's dog; yet we can see by this passage how Pym's consciousness swims in and out of waking reality much like the ordinary pattern of waking and sleeping, but with one important difference. Pym may exercise little control over these functions while he is entombed in the hold of the Grampus. His waking consciousness despairs of its situation while his dreamscapes accentuate his desolation and despair. Richard Wilbur notes that Poe's circumscription of his characters--such as Pym, trapped in the hold of the Grampus--serves as the catalyst for their achieving a hypnogogic state, in which the imagination takes a powerful hold upon the psyche, as the closed eye "beholds a continuous procession of vivid and constantly changing forms...Poe regarded the hypnogogic state as the visionary condition par excellence." (Wilbur 108) In Poe's own words the hypnogogic state is "of a character supernal to the Human Nature--is a glimpse of the spirit's outer world." (Poe, Marginalia 99)
Returning to the narrative, the mutineers spare the life of Augustus after setting his father out to sea without provisions, in a lifeboat. Augustus finally sneaks into the Grampus's hold and rescues the Pym from the brink of death. Shortly, Augustus, Pym, and Dirk Peters (one of the mutiny's defectors) formulate a plan to recapture the Grampus. They will exploit the superstitious natures of the mutineers by dressing Pym in the captain's clothes, and by otherwise endowing him with the ghastly appearance of the dead. Pym so startles their opponents that the counter-mutineers quickly overcome them. Sadly, Augustus sustains an injury to his arm, which contributes to his misery in the next episode.
Worth mentioning here is Susan F. Beegel's article, "Mutiny and Atrocious Butchery," in which she attributes a mutiny on the whaling ship Globe as a major contributing source for the mutiny aboard the Grampus, citing not only the likelihood of Poe's knowledge of the event, but also his friendship and camaraderie with Jeremiah N. Reynolds, a maritime explorer, who would have taken much interest the Globe mutiny. Also, Poe would likely have been aware of a narrative composed by William Lay and Cyrus Hussey, aged 18, who, were the only Globe mutineers not killed by the natives of the Mulgraves Islands. Though the evidence presented by Beegel is circumstantial, the parallels between the two mutinies are striking. For example, in both mutinies, the captains are attacked in their cabins; both receive head wounds. The crew had encouraged the sole surviving officer to hide in the Globe's hold, just as Pym had done aboard the Grampus. First mate William Beetle and Pym's Englishmen were both killed by the blow of an axe, after pleading "piteously" for their lives. (13-15) Both mutinies also sport counter-mutinies. The many similarities between the Globe and Grampus mutinies lend credence to Beegle's assertions.
Wasting on the Ocean's Face
Meanwhile, onboard the Grampus, the mutiny against the mutineers is, thus, a success, though the victors are not permitted to indulge in celebration. The storm that had aided them blows itself into a veritable hurricane, and they are swamped. The Grampus does not sink, however, because of the nature of her ballast. This fortunate circumstance saves their lives, but alas! Saves it for what? Pym, Peters, Augustus and Parker (whose life was spared in the counter-mutiny) find themselves upon the deck of a swamped boat in the middle of the blank ocean. What set of circumstances could be more grim? They dive into the waterlogged ship, hoping to recover food and water from the cabins. They succeed only marginally; since much of what they recover--ham and wine, in particular-- merely enkindles their thirst.
Soon the four are set up in hope as they spy a vessel bearing down upon them. They can even see people on board. But when the ship comes near to them, they catch wind of its terrible stench. The ship bears not a solitary survivor, as all its crew exist in an advanced stage of putrefaction. As from a nightmare, the suffering wretches are presented with an eyeful from their worst imaginings, the most likely harbinger of their own fates. This scene conjures Coleridge's ancient mariner, becalmed, witnessing the ship of the "Nightmare Life-in-Death," who wins in a game of dice the lives of the mariner's crew.
The sufferers eventually become so maddened by hunger that they draw lots for their lives. The shortest straw falls to Parker (originator of the scheme), who gives his life to sustain the others. Augustus rots away from his wounds, and also perishes. His body is thrown overboard to the clattering teeth of sharks. If this were not enough, the boat rolls over so that the remnants of their food and drink go by the board. Bordering on death, Pym and Peters are rescued by a British ship, the Jane Guy. Then begins the next sequence.
Peters and Pym sail on the Jane Guy's voyage, and for awhile, meet with no further calamity. They gather furs for the expedition, assisting in the goals of captain and crew. One might view this section of the novel as its tranquil relief, to coin a literary term. Although this middle section of the novel allows the reader to put behind him any queasiness of the stomach suffered from the contemplation of the rotting away of Augustus and the feasting upon the flesh of Parker, it represents the nadir of involvement in the novel. While Poe exhibits through Pym a thorough knowledge of what a South Sea voyage may have involved, the section is reminiscent of the rendition of nautical and whaling terminology in a factual part of Melville's Moby Dick. Perhaps both writers believed that such citations lent authenticity to the narrative voice; however, modern readers find themselves faunching for a return to the plot. Near the end of the section, the reader learns that Captain Guy, commander of the Jane Guy, wants to sail to the South Pole if weather and seas should permit such a passage. Since their progress to the south continues with little difficulty into open seas, Captain Guy decides that the time is ripe for the attempt. But the expedition also encounters a disconcerting southerly current which accelerates as they venture further.
Black and White
Soon members of the crew sight an island, and then agree to investigate it. The island, which they name Tsalal, is populated by black people with black teeth, and, as the entire crew will soon discover, with black intentions. They pretend to befriend Captain Guy and his crew. Members of the expedition onto the island soon notice an idiosyncrasy of these natives: they shrink from anything white; even the sight of a white handkerchief sends them into a panic, and nothing white can be found anywhere on the island. They view the strangers as a threat to their existence, for here are men who possess complexions of the color which they most fear.
The islanders soon reveal their actual purposes. After luring the expeditionary force inland, they trigger an avalanche which buries all but Pym and Peters. The natives burn the ship, killing the remainder of the crew. Pym and Peters spend the next few days looking for a way to escape the island. During the interlude, they discover in a cave certain hieroglyphs which provide the reader clues regarding the fear of whiteness observed in the Tsalalians. Pym and Peters do not understand the symbols they find; however, their decoding involves two verb roots, which, translated to English, mean "to be white" and "to be shady." Some scholars have drawn their own conclusions from Poe's use of the hieroglyphs, utilizing these symbols and the behavior of the black men on the island as evidence of Poe's racism. After all, Poe's roots can be traced to Virginia.
Sydney Kaplan points out that although Poe "seemed to many an anguished man set apart from his times," his beliefs were very much in concert with other Southerners regarding slavery. When Poe reviewed "Paulding's Slavery in the United States the year before Pym came off the press, he enthusiastically endorsed its scriptural-genetic defense of slavery..." (163) The phrenological studies to which many Southerners (including Poe) subscribed further buttressed their belief that slavery existed because God willed it so.
How, then, should modern readers view Poe's use of the huge, white figure in the novel's conclusion? As a colossal racial epithet? Probably not, Poe's racial views notwithstanding. First, Poe may have only edited, not composed, the Paulding review. In addition, Poe's writings regarding the Southern Negro show no invective. Even his stereotyping of the Tsalalians--the tendency to loud laughter, the large lips, and the feasting on domestic fowl--and his straightforward presentation of of slavery as reflective God's will (providing that Kaplan's attribution is accurate) simply are not sufficient cause for Poe to have written a novel asserting that wickedness controls the hearts of all Negroes as it did the hearts of the Tsalalians. But let us proceed to the novel's conclusion before discussing further its mysterious white figure.
During the escape scene, Pym narrowly avoids death on his and Peters' desperate climb down a steep cliff. Pym is overcome with the thought of falling.
The figure that Pym had seen beneath him was Peters, who caught him as he fell, saving his life. This episode suggests the concept of perversity, the desire of the soul to vex itself, which Poe described in a later work, "The Imp of the Perverse." In fact, the narrator of "The Imp..." uses the longing to fall from a great height as an example of perversity. Likewise, Pym's soul twists into a waking horror--that a phantom shrieks for him to release his grasp. However, as in the episode with Tiger, Pym's perverse vision spells only his ultimate rescue, this time by Peters. In this iteration, Poe has reinforced two suggestions--first, that "latent, perverse, impulses of the unconscious mind...can annihilate personality in favor of the frightening ecstasy of its reintegration" (Hoffman 283) into unity; secondly, that the unified state (death) represents regeneration. Pym lives anew! Like many visionaries, Poe sensed that the unconscious mind, which spawns the worlds of dreams and of the imagination, resides much closer to the unity which he sought. In having Pym actually survive several near-death phantasmagoric experiences, he sweeps his reader to the grand finale.
After capturing a native named Nu-Nu, Pym and Peters flee the island in a fragile Tsalalian boat. Immediately, they are swept into the accelerating current which had been the cause of concern aboard the Jane Guy. The velocity of the current increases as they go, as does the temperature of the water. A gray mist become apparent on the horizon, gradually assuming the form of a great curtain. These are Pym's final descriptions of the bizarre events that conclude his final adventure.
The end! Finis! And what of Pym? Obviously, Poe intends for the reader to know that Pym survives even this momentous encounter with the white, shrouded figure. Does he merely survive? Does he lose consciousness during the event? Has he survived simply to narrate the tale? The abrupt conclusion of the novel does not sate most readers, and neither does having Pym merely survive the episode, then die without disclosing more information. If Pym were a successful movie script, the viewer would expect a sequel. Yet one should be undismayed that Pym is "reborn" at the feet of the white figure, since he had already survived five other scrapes.
We also witness another of Poe's cataracts, this time spiraling off into the skies above the South Pole. But the shrouded human figure within does not appear elsewhere in Poe. What or who might this figure represent? God? Now we know why the islanders were alarmed by whiteness, as well as their desperate cries of Tekeli-li when they encountered white objects. And rather than a disquisition on race, Poe has created a symbolic dichotomy in his use of black and white. Black represents mankind, who has "fallen away from God...by putting its[his] trust in fact rather than in visionary knowledge" (Wilbur 101) He lives in error, and will kill anyone who conjures the image of his fears. The island of Tsalal, then, becomes representative of a world which lives in mortal fear of death, a fear which itself reveals man's lost trust. Pym, a white man, and Peters, a crossbreed, must escape this darkened world where mankind has been "weighed in the balances and found wanting." (Kaplan 157) They must transcend the terror of the thought of death. Like the narrator in conclusion of "The Descent into the Maelstrom," Pym and Peters, as they are swept into the cataract, become passive observers of powers that they cannot begin to fathom. The problem is, neither can the reader, as Poe's mystification turns the waters to milk.
Poe's white figure is suggestive of the magnificent embryonic rebirth from the conclusion of Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the novel's conclusion, the character Dave is hurtled into the atmosphere of the planet Jupiter. As does Pym, he accelerates into a cataract which cannot be explained in purely physical terms. Dave enters another reality, which seems to have rapidly aged him, but which also allows him to see himself as he was--embryonic, and as how he will be--incredibly aged. Finally, he witnesses his own death before the monolith, the recurring symbol of the source self which makes continual renewal inevitable. The shrouded figure in Pym, like the gigantic embryonic figure in 2001, represents the rebirth of the self from the source self, the rebirth of self into yet another aspect of personality. Is this not what Poe, too, has already done five times, in five different ways? Although Pym again survives this colossal cataclysm, the reader learns little else, and is thus, both disappointed and confused. Again 2001: A Space Odyssey provides a modern parallel to Pym's less-than-satisfying conclusion. What has happened to Dave? What has he become, and to what purpose? Many years later came Clarke's sequel, 2010, in which the Russians and Americans join forces to solve the mystery and to learn the purpose.
But for Poe, there would be no revisiting Pym. For more answers, modern readers must look to Eureka, where they see the culmination of Poe's quest for unity with an inorganic self. Nevertheless, the mysterious white figure which has mystified Pym's readers should at least provide a glimpse of what would eventually flower into Poe's unified theory of creation. In Eureka, Poe had predicted that a primary particle (unparticled matter) was located at the center of all galaxies and that, indeed, all particulate matter must rejoin this particle when drawn beyond its event horizon. Could he have foreseen yet another coincident image when he penned Pym--the super-white glow of energy and a jet of positrons, as matter consumed by that maelstrom of maelstroms is crushed into oneness? (See illustration at the top of this essay)
Although Poe elaborately portrayed his conception of our identity within Jehovah, the source self, in Eureka; he also believed that only in the phantasmagoric incubus of receding into death, or into dream, could man expect to recognize his existence beyond mortality. Death presents man with his perversely sought-after reunion with that which gave him life. Whereas Eureka presents this reunion in terms which transcend human suffering, Pym suffers repeated recessions into death, except in that final, awful scene when his observations of the transference of energy from self to source-self seem, too, absented from mortal pain.
Similarly, in the apocalyptic conclusion of "A Descent into the Maelstrom," the narrator must transcend his terror in order to save himself. Though he emerges from the strom an old man, he has, in a sense, been reborn; this time he is returned to the physical reality of his diffused self. Unlike the narrator of "A Descent into the Maelstrom," Pym glimpses even beyond the obscuring mist of the cataract to the very source of his being. The giant figure which he encounters is shrouded, as within the womb (or the tomb depending upon which room one looks into). In Poe the womb can be a tomb; the tomb, a womb--because the time of birth can be, simultaneously, the time of death. This concept we saw vividly illustrated in "Morella," a tale in which birth and death are unified within the simultaneous moment. Aspects of personality transpire concurrently, pendulously. Only the waking consciousness of mortals can make it seem otherwise. Despite Pym's encounter with the figure behind the mist, Poe has also allowed him to survive the final episode, a fictional accomplice in Poe's ruse to make the story seem sooth.
In Eureka, Poe illustrates the transcendence of individuality within the unity of the Godhead. Because this unity negates particularity, its influence on a person's waking existence is mostly unseen, except in dreams, which can reveal passageways, or cataracts, from one aspect of personality to another. Thus the blackness which Pym encounters on the Isle of Tsalal presents itself as a symbol of terror, specifically, the terror of the thought of dying--of losing individuation. But as he and Peters approach the object of their fears (represented by the horrified Nu-Nu), the fears die, for they prove unfounded in Poe's scheme of "Life within Life--the less within the greater, and all within the Spirit Divine." (Poe 155)
Readers of Pym are left with a mystery that Poe himself discerned he had not solved. His novel had attempted much, but he must have sensed that his audience would need some answers that he was, as yet, unable to provide; nevertheless, he would not stop seeking them. Other forays into the great mystery would be forthcoming. Some of the most intriguing of these include Poe's narrators who transcend the world of the flesh to the ethereal realm where Poe believed that his answers awaited.
Poe composed several works which constitute conversations between beings who exist in other dimensions, astral spirits and angels who at one time inhabited physical bodies, but who have since, grown beyond further need of them. "The Colloquy of Monos and Una," published in Graham's in 1841, exhibits this unusual device which Poe employs for asserting notions which are "beyond" the ken of mere mortals. And what do these astral spirits discuss? The same topics that Poe pondered, of course.
Foremost in their discussion is the folly of humans and the degradation of Nature which mankind has caused. They also exalt poetic intellect and scorn the new materialists of the utilitarian age. They reflect Poe's belief that man has fallen out of Nature through incomplete thought, through knowledge devoid of imagination. This fallen man defies the laws of nature; Una describes how "huge cities arose, innumerable. Green leaves shrank before the breath of furnaces. The fair face of Nature was deformed as with the ravages of some loathsome disease." Monos and Una see little hope for mankind. They anticipate "no regeneration save in death. That man, as a race, should not become extinct...he must be 'born again.'" (Poe 167) This rebirth requires individual deaths--sleeps from which one awakens into "the light of enduring love." While he lives, man may simulate death in the realm of dreams, for only in dreams can mortals transcend to worlds beyond. In the twilight of dreams
Only one enraptured by dreams could have written the preceding. In fact, one finds Poe's own belief in the fallen state of mankind reflected in "rectangular obscenities," the angular, utilitarian buildings of his age. In his fiction, Poe avoided the linear and the angular, preferring circular rooms, or rooms in which the angles were disguised by niches or sarcophagi. Paths or passageways must be winding, windows colored or leaden, suffusing the natural light. To Poe, straight lines, angles, and sunlight represented the male principle, or reason, which he believed had corrupted the poetic soul. On the other hand, circles, curves, and suffused light represented feminine aspect, imagination, which, to Poe, represented the poet's means of exaltation. A reader of Poe, thus, encounters streams that wander, spiraling forms, apartments laid out in curves. In the building housing Dr. Bransby's academy in "William Wilson," there
"were no end to its windings, to its incomprehensible subdivisions...Then the lateral branches were innumerable--inconceivable--and so returning in upon themselves, that our most exact ideas in regard to the whole mansion were not very far different from those with which we pondered upon infinity. During the five years of my residence here, I was never able to ascertain with precision, in what remote locality lay the little sleeping apartment assigned to myself and some eighteen or twenty other scholars." (Poe 158)
In other of flights of fantasy such as "Landor's Cottage, "Eleonora," and "The Island of the Fay," Poe attempts to convey his narrators' sentience, or oneness, with nature, much as Monos and Una suggested the redeemed man should experience it, and, in vivid contrast to the sere images surrounding the House of Usher, the dwelling of the as-yet-unredeemed Roderick Usher. The reader can, in fact, note a striking resemblance between Monos' portrayal of an Earth purified and again clothed "in the verdure and the mountain-slopes and the smiling waters of paradise" (Poe 597) and the craggy mountains, meandering streams, and lush foliage of the narrators' walking tours in the country. In "The Island of the Fay," Poe goes so far as to disparage man's arrogance in thinking he is "of more moment in the universe than that vast 'clod of the valley' which he tills and contemns [sic], and to which he denies a soul for no more profound reason than that he does not behold it in operation." (Poe 565) How different seems the benevolence of these "natural majesties" when laid beside the hurricanes, maelstroms, whirlwinds, and other agents of natural horror in many of Poe's best known tales. According to Monos, Death not only redeems man, but restores his sentience within nature.
One might pause to ponder Poe's close association with the feminine principal. That so many of the women in his life receded into death could be part of the reason. But Poe also was a product of Romanticism, which championed imagination unfettered by the manacles of reason, and nature unspoiled by human hands. Louis Broussard believes that Poe's resolution of his own despair in Eureka more effectively defines him as a romanticist than "his tales of Gothic settings and supernatural occurrences or even the outpourings of his grieving heart." (67) Dennis Eddings notes in "Poe's Tell-Tale Clocks" that Poe has created in "A Descent into the Maelstrom" a narrator who, because he is "unfettered by a false, mechanistic formula," (14) saves himself with his own creativity. His watch, the emblem of man's measured domain, has run down at seven o'clock. Unlike Prince Prospero, who egoistically attempts to subordinate time within the empire of his own imagination, the fisherman in "A Descent..." states,
Again, unlike Prospero, who confronts death as an intruder, the fisherman welcomes death with "keenest curiosity." Having rid himself of the terror of the thought of his own demise, he divines his own salvation. He declares an apparent paradox, "I suppose it was despair that strung my nerves." (116)
Poe's astral spirit Monos reinforces this seeming paradox in asserting that man mistakes ecstasy for pain while in his differentiated, human form. What was pain to Poe's narrators would later be recognized as bliss? Small wonder, then, that Poe caused his protagonists so much agony. Sufficient suffering thrusts his protagonists into a transient state; there they acquire the knowledge of their multi-dimensional sentience. If Monos speaks truth, Poe's Roderick Usher must now recognize his pain as bliss; his awful destruction as his moment of exaltation. Poe explains in Eureka that in an apotheosis of man within "the purely Spiritual and Individual God..., the existence of Evil becomes intelligible; but in this view it becomes more--it becomes endurable. Our souls no longer rebel at a Sorrow which we ourselves have imposed upon ourselves, in furtherance of our own purposes--with a view--if even with a futile view--to the extension of our own Joy." (153) In "The Colloquy of Monos and Una" "A Descent into the Maelstrom" and Eureka, Poe has imagined more than just release from his suffering; he has constructed a raison d'etre for his own despair, even a future euphoria to supplant it. Further, through the allegories of his characters, Poe has imagined his own deliverance from evil, the source of all pain residing in the human soul.
Bothersome to many is Poe's view of God as process rather than as master adjudicator of traditional morality. One wonders about some of Poe's characters, especially those who seek vengeance. Will their pain also be exalted? Does Hop-Frog's escape through the ceiling suggest that his actions should be condoned? Do the maintainers of the status quo deserve what they get? Are the insults of Fortunato sufficient cause for murder? Are individuals their own adjudicators? Since evil in Poe is always committed within the self, isn't Poe downplaying both the social consequences of criminal action and society's need for retribution? How many of those who await the execution of Timothy McVeigh would appreciate the thought that his execution might serve as his redemption, or that his present suffering foreshadows his future bliss? As revealing as Poe's views of the criminal mind are, the social dimension of his characters is seldom developed. Poe's understanding of "the riddles of Divine Injustice--or Inexorable Fate," (Poe, Eureka 153) which make evil intelligible and self-inflicted sorrows endurable, is strictly oriented to the plight of the individual. The crimes committed in Poe do offer at least an inkling that the soul of the perpetrator may suffer consequences . In one Poe tale, "William Wilson," the narrator wonders if spiritual death may await an individual who has killed his own conscience. Wilson asks if so heinous an act might place eternally, "a cloud, dense, dismal, and limitless" (Poe 156) between his hopes and heaven. But, since the story does not answer the question, we can can infer little beyond the obvious fact that Poe pondered it. Nonetheless, since Poe viewed perverseness as the radical impulse that harms the soul, readers must simply accept that Poe's most memorable narrators dwell not in society, but in their own tortured imaginations.
In addition, Monos attempts an explanation of sentience, suggesting a sixth sense which is born in man after he has died, a sense that cannot be adequately described with words, though it suggests a pendulous pulsation, "the moral embodiment of man's abstract idea of Time." Poe himself seemed haunted by this pulsation, as if he somehow possessed this sixth sense prematurely. Not only do we witness the ebony clock in "The Masque of the Red Death," which knells the welfare of Prince Prospero and his guests, we see the same concept presented in the humorous tale, "A Predicament," in which the Signora Psyche Zenobia is decapitated by the minute-hand of a tower clock. Time governs the fate of psyche. Poe demonstrates in "A Predicament" the failure of the calculative mind to imagine its own deliverance from time's inexorable march. In contrast, Poe's cosmos, exhibits plasticity, as matter and time distort and distend as matter approaches the primary particle that gave it birth. Exactly what comprises this pendulous pulsation which Monos imputes to time, this singularity of moments in space? For Poe, is it not the imprint of the beating of the heart of man within the heart of God? Can it not be suggested by the ticking of a clock, the swinging of a pendulum, or the cycling of a galaxy? How natural it is for man to construe time as his nemesis, since it measures his distance from death. Thus, time becomes also a measure for our fear. In "The Pit and the Pendulum," Poe exploits this fear masterfully in the gradual lowering of a pendulum towards the pinioned narrator, brandishing it's razor-keen crescent. In his voices from beyond the pale, Poe hoped to transcend fear. Although Prospero's guests were paralyzed by the striking of the ebony clock, Poe anticipates through the voice of Monos that they will transcend terror when they enter the dark passageway which leads them to a new space, a different aspect of their being.
Another astral spirit, Eiros, in "The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion" is just awakening from his "allotted days of stupor," (Poe 177) the days when the "film of the shadow" (176) had darkened his eyes. Eiros confirms that the "wild sickness and the terrible darkness have left" him, as has "that mad, rushing, horrible sound, like the 'voice of many waters.'" (177) Charmion is present to conduct the initiate into "the full joys and wonders" of his new life. But first, Charmion prevails upon Eiros to report the last days of Earth before its collision with a comet, which ignited its atmosphere "in a species of intense flame," (Poe 185) ending human life upon its face. Poe's utilized "The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion" to demonstrate the transience of life on Earth, and, thus, how humanity lives subjugate to nature. And yet in the transcendence of this human "clod of the valley" into Eiros, Poe's spiritual optimism also is evident; for even in the destruction of Earth, man's spirit can be redeemed.
"The Power of Words, published in 1845, "demonstrates through the instruction of Oinos by an angel named Agathos that the Deity created only in the beginning, and the "creatures which are now, throughout the universe, so perpetually springing into being, can only be considered as the mediate or indirect, not as the direct or immediate results of the Divine creative power." (Poe 592) Poe depicts in the tutelage of Oinos an afterlife in which the greatest happiness is the pursuance of knowledge. Thus, "the soul's search for knowledge is never ceasing." (Quinn 469) Not only this, but Oinos suggests that all thoughts are eternal. Agathos uses the movement of one's hands in the atmosphere and its ether--which, for a time, Poe believed permeated all of creation--as demonstrative of thoughts or actions that are set into motion, eternally affecting the cosmos in retrograde fashion, though deriving from the original impetus. Agathos attributes the same to God and his creation, stating that it is the motion caused by the creation event--not God--which creates.
As "The Power of Words" closes, we witness Agathos weeping because the words he uttered while at the feet of his beloved while he dwelled on earth, have created a beautiful, terrible star. "It's brilliant flowers are the dearest of all unfulfilled dreams, and its raging volcanoes are the passions of the most turbulent and unhallowed of hearts." (994) Agathos' brilliant green star suggests a distillation of Poe's own suffering, as if Agathos carries with him Poe's powers to create the dazzling beauty revealed within unfulfilled dreams and a turbulent heart. In the drooping wings of Agathos, "The Power of Words" also intimates that sadness may not be entirely expunged from the existence of a fledged soul.
But not all of Poe's peering over the brink involve the voices of astral spirits and angels. In the tale "Mesmeric Revelation," first published in 1845 in the Columbian Magazine, a character who doubts human immortality speculates that he might have, nonetheless, witnessed its residual effects. Vankirk is his name, and he is very ill--in fact, ill enough to request that the narrator mesmerize him, believing that his mesmeric experiences have induced the aforementioned residual effects. The narrator consents to Vankirk's request, then passes him into a "mesmeric sleep." The remainder of the story entails only the dialogue between the mesmerized Vankirk and his mesmer. First the narrator asks Vankirk what the result of his illness will be. The reply: death. The eminency of his own demise does not worry Vankirk.
Next, Vankirk chides the narrator for asking the wrong questions, and then suggests the question, "What, then, is God?" Is he material or immaterial. Though Vankirk had himself posed the question, he struggles to answer, finally stating,
The discussion then digresses into the nature of unparticled matter, accomplished by a description of it in terms of varying densities of ether (the material once believed to comprise most of the universe). Poe eventually moved beyond consideration of spirit within the context of ether in Eureka.
The narrator next asks if Vankirk's identification of the deity in material terms suggested "nothing of irreverence."
Vankirk replies with the question, "Can you say why matter should be less reverenced than mind?...God, with all the powers attributed to spirit, is but the perfection of matter." Further, he agrees not only that, in general, the motion of unparticled matter is thought, but, in furtherance, states, "All created things are but the thoughts of God." (Poe 510)
The narrator asks, why only "in general"?
Vankirk then illustrates that other individualities, because they must necessarily be composed of "incarnate portions of the divine mind" differ in the scope of thought, since "the particular motion of the incarnated portions of the unparticled matter is the thought of man; as the motion of the whole is that of God," the less within the greater.
Vankirk also explains that man will never be entirely divested of the body, thus will never become God. His destiny is interwoven between two bodies, the one, rudimentary and organic, the other complete and perfected, ultimate and immortal. He continues to describe this ultimate life, without organs, as unorganized. In comparison,
When asked by the narrator if there are other rudimental beings than man, Vankirk replies,
Earlier, Vankirk had mentioned that without the rudimental life, there would have been no stars. The narrator chooses this time to ask why not.
The narrator asks why the impediment needed to be produced? Vankirk replies,
Asked then, "to what good end is pain thus rendered possible," Vankirk answers,
Finally, the narrator asks for clarification of an earlier rendered expression, "the truly substantive vastness of infinity." Vankirk explains that his companion has insufficient conception of the term substance, which
The last syllables were pronounced feebly, then Vankirk smiled brightly, fell back onto his pillow, and died. The narrator notices how quickly his body assumed its cold torpor--so quickly as to make him wonder if he had "during the latter portion of his discourse, been addressing me from out the region of the shadows." (513)
Some might view Vankirk's closing suppositions only as Poe's wishful thoughts; yet one can discern in them a spiritual construct that underlies much of his writing, whether one ponders the pining of his soul for his "one in paradise," or whether one delves within his vision of the cosmos. One can also perceive Poe's psychic battleground, where he grappled with the duality of his inorganic ideality and his enchained mortality; for instance, Montresor, figuratively speaking, enchaining his mortality because he abhors it. What becomes most apparent in the somewhat divergent works presented here is Poe's desire to penetrate the organic body which betrays to the ultimate one, exalted; he sought vision beyond the curtain which obscured from sight his own immortality. It seems that Poe did not accept the rendition of salvation promised by his Christian brethren; nevertheless, he still sought deliverance to "the ultimate life of Heaven." Not only did Poe consider salvation without the incorporation of Christian morality, but his particular species of "exalted life" also marks his break with Emersonian transcendentalism. Unlike Emerson, who described absorption of man's soul into an oversoul, Poe demonstrates in the voices of purified beings his belief that, after "the painful metamorphosis" of death, individual personalities persist. (Quinn 419)
Although Poe's Vankirk insists that our knowledge of the ultimate life "eludes the organic," Poe seeks it all the more passionately, even utilizing spectral voices to reveal his sublime imaginings. By the time Poe wrote "Mesmeric Revelation," his Eureka was coming into view. Indeed, the words of Vankirk seem to herald it, especially his identification of God with unparticled matter, his contention that thought is matter [God] in motion, and his declaration that all "created things are but the thoughts of God."
Also, one can rest assured that when he set out to write The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym, Poe did not plan to write "a very silly book." The novel seemed ludicrous to him only after he deemed it a failure; yet when seen within the context of his other works, Poe's intent, if not the work itself, shines like Vankirk's smile. When Poe invented Monos and Una to describe their now-unified existence, he enumerated the limitations of our earthly perceptions; but more than this, he revealed a spiritual optimism which eventually became his Eureka! If the bliss of the ultimate life truly does depend upon one's suffering in the organic, then Poe must now be very happy.
Other essays by David Grantz
Barth, John. "'Still Farther South': Some Notes on Poe's Pym." Poe's Pym: Critical Explorations (ed. by Richard
Beegle, Susan F. "'Mutiny and Atrocious Butchery': The Globe Mutiny as a Source for Pym." Poe's Pym: Critical
Broussard, Louis. The Measure of Poe. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969.
Chandra X-Ray Observatory Center
Eddings, Dennis W. Poe's Tell-Tale Clocks. Baltimore: The Enoch Pratt Free Library, the Edgar Allan Poe Society, and
Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1972.
Kaplan, Sidney. "An Introduction to Pym." Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays (ed. by Robert Regen), Englewood
Poe, Edgar Allan. Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Co., Inc.,
Poe, Edgar Allan. Marginalia, Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia, 1981.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Works of Edgar Allan Poe (Vol. II & IX), New York: Funk & Wagnalls Co., 1904.
Quinn, A. Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998 (orig.
Wilbur, Richard. "The House of Poe." Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays (ed. by Robert Regen), Englewood Cliffs,