Edgar Allan Poe and terror at sea
The wife of Edgar Allan Poe, Virginia Clemm Poe, was born 15 August 1822. She lived a brief life, marrying Poe at 13 (he was 27) and dying of tuberculosis at 24. Poe worked hard to support their marriage and in 1838, three years into their marriage, Poe wrote his only novel: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. While many of Poe’s works after his wife’s death were marked by the deaths of young women, terror clearly fascinated him from an early stage. Here Arthur Gordon Pym recounts a frightening incident at sea:
The wind, as I before said, blew freshly from the southwest. The night was very clear and cold. Augustus had taken the helm, and I stationed myself by the mast, on we deck of the cuddy. We flew along at a great rate — neither of us having said a word since casting loose from the wharf. I now asked my companion what course he intended to steer, and what time he thought it probable we should get back. He whistled for a few minutes, and then said crustily, ‘I am going to sea — you may go home if you think proper.’ Turning my eyes upon him, I perceived at once that, in spite of his assumed nonchalance, he was greatly agitated. I could see him distinctly by the light of the moon — his face was paler than any marble, and his hand shook so excessively that he could scarcely retain hold of the tiller. I found that something had gone wrong, and became seriously alarmed. At this period I knew little about the management of a boat, and was now depending entirely upon the nautical skill of my friend. The wind, too, had suddenly increased as we were fast getting out of the lee of the land; still I was ashamed to betray any trepidation, and for almost half an hour maintained a resolute silence. I could stand it no longer, however, and spoke to Augustus about the propriety of turning back. As before, it was nearly a minute before he made answer, or took any notice of my suggestion. ‘By and by,’ said he at length — ‘time enough — home by and by.’ I had expected such a reply, but there was something in the tone of these words which filled me with an indescribable feeling of dread. I again looked at the speaker attentively. His lips were perfectly livid, and his knees shook so violently together that he seemed scarcely able to stand. ‘For God’s sake, Augustus,’ I screamed, now heartily frightened, ‘what ails you? — what is the matter? — what are you going to do?’ ‘Matter!’ he stammered, in the greatest apparent surprise, letting go the tiller at the same moment, and falling fornrard into the bottom of the boat — ‘matter! — why, nothing is the-matter — going home — d-d-don’t you see?’ The whole truth now flashed upon me. I flew to him and raised him up. He was drunk — beastly drunk — he could no longer either stand, speak, or see. His eyes were perfectly glazed; and as I let him go in the extremity of my despair, he rolled like a mere log into the bilge-water from which I had lifted him. It was evident that, during the evening, he had drunk far more than I suspected, and that his conduct in bed had been the result of a highly-concentrated state of intoxication; a state which, like madness, frequently enables the victim to imitate the outward demeanor of one in perfect possession of his senses. The coolness of the night air, however, had had its usual effect, the mental energy began to yield before its influence, and the confused perception which he no doubt then had of his perilous situation had assisted in hastening the catastrophe. He was now thoroughly insensible, and there was no probability that he would be otherwise for many hours.
It is hardly possible to conceive the extremity of my terror. The fumes of the wine lately taken had evaporated, leaving me doubly timid and irresolute. I knew that I was altogether incapable of managing the boat, and that a fierce wind and strong ebb tide were hurrying us to destruction. A storm was evidently gathering behind us; we had neither compass nor provisions; and it was clear that, if we held our present course, we should be out of sight of land before daybreak. These thoughts, with a crowd of others equally fearful, flashed through my mind with a bewildering rapidity, and for some moments paralyzed me beyond the possibility of making any exertion. The boat was going through the water at a terrible rate — full before the wind — no reef in either jib or mainsail — running her bows completely under the foam. It was a thousand wonders she did not broach to — Augustus having let go the tiller, as I said before, and I being too much agitated to think of taking it myself. By good luck, however, she kept steady, and gradually I recovered some degree of presence of mind. Still the wind was increasing fearfully; and, whenever we rose from a plunge forward, the sea behind fell combing over our counter, and deluged us with water. I was so utterly benumbed, too, in every limb, as to be nearly unconscious of sensation. At length I summoned up the resolution of despair and, rushing to the mainsail, let it go by the run. As might have been expected, it flew over the bows, and, getting drenched with water, carried away the mast short off by the board. This latter accident alone saved me from instant destruction. Under the jib only,* I now boomed along before the wind, shipping heavy seas occasionally, but I relieved from the terror of immediate death. I took the helm, and breathed with greater freedom, as I found that there yet remained to us a chance of ultimate escape. Augustus still lay senseless in the bottom of the boat; and, as there was imminent danger of his drowning (the water being nearly a foot deep just where he fell). I contrived to raise him partially up, and keep him in a sitting position, by passing a rope round his waist, and lashing it to a ringbolt in the deck of the cuddy. Having thus arranged everything as well as I could in my chilled and agitated condition, I recommended myself to God, and made up my mind to bear whatever might happen with all the fortitude in my power.
Hardly had I come to this resolution, when suddenly a loud and long scream or yell. as if from the throats of a thousand demons, seemed to pervade the whole atmosphere around and above the boat. Never while I live shall I forget the intense agony of terror I experienced at that moment. My hair stood erect on my head — I felt the blood congealing in my veins — my heart ceased utterly to beat, and, without having once raised my eyes to learn the source of my alarm, I tumbled headlong and insensible upon the body of my fallen companion.
Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is a pivotal work in which Poe calls attention to the act of writing and to the problem of representing the truth. It is an archetypal American story of escape from domesticity tracing a young man’s rite of passage through a series of terrible brushes with death during a fateful sea voyage. Included are eight related tales which further illuminate Pym by their treatment of persistent themes — fantastic voyages, gigantic whirlpools, and premature burials — as well as its relationship to Poe’s art and life.
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