Book Review: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, by Edgar Allan Poe

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (which I read in the 1965 AMS Press edition of The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe) is two books in one: a survival at sea story and a tale of Antarctic exploration. Actually, it’s one and a half books in one, as the latter epic becomes a survival story and ends abruptly.

The writing is as over-articulate and replete with nautical terms as Melville’s, but Poe’s themes of terror and the macabre frequently raise their horrifying heads, as in:

It was not until some time after dark that we took courage to get up and throw the body overboard. It was then loathsome beyond expression, and so far decayed that, as Peters attempted to lift it, an entire leg came off in his grasp. As the mass of putrefaction slipped over the vessel’s side into the water, the glare of phosphoric light with which it was surrounded plainly discovered to us seven or eight large sharks, the clashing of whose horrible teeth, as their prey was torn to pieces among them, might have been heard at the distance of a mile. We shrunk within ourselves in the extremity of horror at the sound. (p. 140)

Perhaps the most obvious imprint of Poe’s signature is his exploration of the ideas of confusion and irrationality, his suggestion that our minds may fail us and become our enemies, as in:

I found my imagination growing terribly excited by thoughts of the vast depth yet to be descended, and the precarious nature of the pegs and soap-stone holes which were my only support. It was in vain I endeavored to banish these reflections, and to keep my eyes steadily bent upon the flat surface of the cliff before me. The more earnestly I struggled not to think, the more intensely vivid became my conceptions, and the more horribly distinct. At length arrived that crisis of fancy, so fearful in all similar cases, the crisis in which we begin to anticipate the feelings with which we shall fall – to picture to ourselves the sickness, and dizziness, and the last struggle, and the half swoon, and the final bitterness of the rushing and headlong descent. And now I found these fancies creating their own realities, and all imagined horrors crowding upon me in fact. I felt my knees strike violently together, while my fingers were gradually yet certainly relaxing their grasp. There was a ringing in my ears, and I said, ‘This is my knell of death!’ And now I was consumed with the irrepressible desire of looking below. I could not, I would not, confine my glances to the cliff; and with a wild, indefinable emotion, half of horror, half of a relieved oppression, I threw my vision far down into the abyss. For one moment my fingers clutched convulsively upon their hold, while, with the movement, the faintest possible idea of ultimate escape wandered, like a shadow, through my mind – in the next my whole soul was pervaded with a longing to fall; a desire, a yearning, a passion utterly uncontrollable. (pp. 229-230)

“Crisis of fancy” is genius. “Violently” is Poe’s favorite adverb.

And what would a Poe story be without living inhumation.