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Unformatted text preview: A DESCENT INTO THE MAELSTROM
by Edgar Allan Poe
1841 The ways of God in Nature, as in Providence, are not as our ways; nor are the models
that we frame any way commensurate to the vastness, profundity, and unsearchableness
of His works, which have a depth in them greater than the well of Democritus.
WE had now reached the summit of the loftiest crag. For some minutes the old man
seemed too much exhausted to speak.
"Not long ago," said he at length, "and I could have guided you on this route as well as
the youngest of my sons; but, about three years past, there happened to me an event such
as never happened before to mortal man --or at least such as no man ever survived to tell
of --and the six hours of deadly terror which I then endured have broken me up body and
soul. You suppose me a very old man --but I am not. It took less than a single day to
change these hairs from a jetty black to white, to weaken my limbs, and to unstring my
nerves, so that I tremble at the least exertion, and am frightened at a shadow. Do you
know I can scarcely look over this little cliff without getting giddy?"
The "little cliff," upon whose edge he had so carelessly thrown himself down to rest that
the weightier portion of his body hung over it, while he was only kept from falling by the
tenure of his elbow on its extreme and slippery edge --this "little cliff" arose, a sheer
unobstructed precipice of black shining rock, some fifteen or sixteen hundred feet from
the world of crags beneath us. Nothing would have tempted me to within half a dozen
yards of its brink. In truth so deeply was I excited by the perilous position of my
companion, that I fell at full length upon the ground, clung to the shrubs around me, and
dared not even glance upward at the sky --while I struggled in vain to divest myself of the
idea that the very foundations of the mountain were in danger from the fury of the winds.
It was long before I could reason myself into sufficient courage to sit up and look out into
"You must get over these fancies," said the guide, "for I have brought you here that you
might have the best possible view of the scene of that event I mentioned --and to tell you
the whole story with the spot just under your eye."
"We are now," he continued, in that particularizing manner which distinguished him -"we are now close upon the Norwegian coast --in the sixty-eighth degree of latitude --in
the great province of Nordland --and in the dreary district of Lofoden. The mountain
upon whose top we sit is Helseggen, the Cloudy. Now raise yourself up a little higher -- hold on to the grass if you feel giddy --so --and look out beyond the belt of vapor beneath
us, into the sea."
I looked dizzily, and beheld a wide expanse of ocean, whose waters wore so inky a hue as
to bring at once to my mind the Nubian geographer's account of the Mare Tenebrarum. A
panorama more deplorably desolate no human imagination can conceive. To the right and
left, as far as the eye could reach, there lay outstretched, like ramparts of the world, lines
of horridly black and beetling cliff, whose character of gloom was but the more forcibly
illustrated by the surf which reared high up against it its white and ghastly crest, howling
and shrieking for ever. Just opposite the promontory upon whose apex we were placed,
and at a distance of some five or six miles out at sea, there was visible a small, bleaklooking island; or, more properly, its position was discernible through the wilderness of
surge in which it was enveloped. About two miles nearer the land, arose another of
smaller size, hideously craggy and barren, and encompassed at various intervals by a
cluster of dark rocks.
The appearance of the ocean, in the space between the more distant island and the shore,
had something very unusual about it. Although, at the time, so strong a gale was blowing
landward that a brig in the remote offing lay to under a double-reefed trysail, and
constantly plunged her whole hull out of sight, still there was here nothing like a regular
swell, but only a short, quick, angry cross dashing of water in every direction --as well in
the teeth of the wind as otherwise. Of foam there was little except in the immediate
vicinity of the rocks.
"The island in the distance," resumed the old man, "is called by the Norwegians Vurrgh.
The one midway is Moskoe. That a mile to the northward is Ambaaren. Yonder are
Iflesen, Hoeyholm, Kieldholm, Suarven, and Buckholm. Farther off --between Moskoe
and Vurrgh --are Otterholm, Flimen, Sandflesen, and Skarholm. These are the true names
of the places --but why it has been thought necessary to name them at all, is more than
either you or I can understand. Do you hear any thing? Do you see any change in the
We had now been about ten minutes upon the top of Helseggen, to which we had
ascended from the interior of Lofoden, so that we had caught no glimpse of the sea until
it had burst upon us from the summit. As the old man spoke, I became aware of a loud
and gradually increasing sound, like the moaning of a vast herd of buffaloes upon an
American prairie; and at the same moment I perceived that what seamen term the
chopping character of the ocean beneath us, was rapidly changing into a current which set
to the eastward. Even while I gazed, this current acquired a monstrous velocity. Each
moment added to its speed --to its headlong impetuosity. In five minutes the whole sea,
as far as Vurrgh, was lashed into ungovernable fury; but it was between Moskoe and the
coast that the main uproar held its sway. Here the vast bed of the waters, seamed and
scarred into a thousand conflicting channels, burst suddenly into phrensied convulsion -heaving, boiling, hissing --gyrating in gigantic and innumerable vortices, and all whirling
and plunging on to the eastward with a rapidity which water never elsewhere assumes
except in precipitous descents. In a few minutes more, there came over the scene another radical alteration. The general
surface grew somewhat more smooth, and the whirlpools, one by one, disappeared, while
prodigious streaks of foam became apparent where none had been seen before. These
streaks, at length, spreading out to a great distance, and entering into combination, took
unto themselves the gyratory motion of the subsided vortices, and seemed to form the
germ of another more vast. Suddenly --very suddenly --this assumed a distinct and
definite existence, in a circle of more than half a mile in diameter. The edge of the whirl
was represented by a broad belt of gleaming spray; but no particle of this slipped into the
mouth of the terrific funnel, whose interior, as far as the eye could fathom it, was a
smooth, shining, and jet-black wall of water, inclined to the horizon at an angle of some
forty-five degrees, speeding dizzily round and round with a swaying and sweltering
motion, and sending forth to the winds an appalling voice, half shriek, half roar, such as
not even the mighty cataract of Niagara ever lifts up in its agony to Heaven.
The mountain trembled to its very base, and the rock rocked. I threw myself upon my
face, and clung to the scant herbage in an excess of nervous agitation.
"This," said I at length, to the old man --"this can be nothing else than the great whirlpool
of the Maelstrom."
"So it is sometimes termed," said he. "We Norwegians call it the Moskoe-strom, from the
island of Moskoe in the midway."
The ordinary accounts of this vortex had by no means prepared me for what I saw. That
of Jonas Ramus, which is perhaps the most circumstantial of any, cannot impart the
faintest conception either of the magnificence, or of the horror of the scene --or of the
wild bewildering sense of the novel which confounds the beholder. I am not sure from
what point of view the writer in question surveyed it, nor at what time; but it could
neither have been from the summit of Helseggen, nor during a storm. There are some
passages of his description, nevertheless, which may be quoted for their details, although
their effect is exceedingly feeble in conveying an impression of the spectacle.
"Between Lofoden and Moskoe," he says, "the depth of the water is between thirty-six
and forty fathoms; but on the other side, toward Ver (Vurrgh) this depth decreases so as
not to afford a convenient passage for a vessel, without the risk of splitting on the rocks,
which happens even in the calmest weather. When it is flood, the stream runs up the
country between Lofoden and Moskoe with a boisterous rapidity; but the roar of its
impetuous ebb to the sea is scarce equalled by the loudest and most dreadful cataracts;
the noise being heard several leagues off, and the vortices or pits are of such an extent
and depth, that if a ship comes within its attraction, it is inevitably absorbed and carried
down to the bottom, and there beat to pieces against the rocks; and when the water
relaxes, the fragments thereof are thrown up again. But these intervals of tranquillity are
only at the turn of the ebb and flood, and in calm weather, and last but a quarter of an
hour, its violence gradually returning. When the stream is most boisterous, and its fury
heightened by a storm, it is dangerous to come within a Norway mile of it. Boats, yachts,
and ships have been carried away by not guarding against it before they were within its reach. It likewise happens frequently, that whales come too near the stream, and are
overpowered by its violence; and then it is impossible to describe their howlings and
bellowings in their fruitless struggles to disengage themselves. A bear once, attempting to
swim from Lofoden to Moskoe, was caught by the stream and borne down, while he
roared terribly, so as to be heard on shore. Large stocks of firs and pine trees, after being
absorbed by the current, rise again broken and torn to such a degree as if bristles grew
upon them. This plainly shows the bottom to consist of craggy rocks, among which they
are whirled to and fro. This stream is regulated by the flux and reflux of the sea --it being
constantly high and low water every six hours. In the year 1645, early in the morning of
Sexagesima Sunday, it raged with such noise and impetuosity that the very stones of the
houses on the coast fell to the ground."
In regard to the depth of the water, I could not see how this could have been ascertained
at all in the immediate vicinity of the vortex. The "forty fathoms" must have reference
only to portions of the channel close upon the shore either of Moskoe or Lofoden. The
depth in the centre of the Moskoe-strom must be immeasurably greater; and no better
proof of this fact is necessary than can be obtained from even the sidelong glance into the
abyss of the whirl which may be had from the highest crag of Helseggen. Looking down
from this pinnacle upon the howling Phlegethon below, I could not help smiling at the
simplicity with which the honest Jonas Ramus records, as a matter difficult of belief, the
anecdotes of the whales and the bears; for it appeared to me, in fact, a self-evident thing,
that the largest ships of the line in existence, coming within the influence of that deadly
attraction, could resist it as little as a feather the hurricane, and must disappear bodily and
The attempts to account for the phenomenon --some of which, I remember, seemed to me
sufficiently plausible in perusal --now wore a very different and unsatisfactory aspect.
The idea generally received is that this, as well as three smaller vortices among the Feroe
islands, "have no other cause than the collision of waves rising and falling, at flux and
reflux, against a ridge of rocks and shelves, which confines the water so that it
precipitates itself like a cataract; and thus the higher the flood rises, the deeper must the
fall be, and the natural result of all is a whirlpool or vortex, the prodigious suction of
which is sufficiently known by lesser experiments." --These are the words of the
Encyclopaedia Britannica. Kircher and others imagine that in the centre of the channel of
the Maelstrom is an abyss penetrating the globe, and issuing in some very remote part -the Gulf of Bothnia being somewhat decidedly named in one instance. This opinion, idle
in itself, was the one to which, as I gazed, my imagination most readily assented; and,
mentioning it to the guide, I was rather surprised to hear him say that, although it was the
view almost universally entertained of the subject by the Norwegians, it nevertheless was
not his own. As to the former notion he confessed his inability to comprehend it; and here
I agreed with him --for, however conclusive on paper, it becomes altogether
unintelligible, and even absurd, amid the thunder of the abyss.
"You have had a good look at the whirl now," said the old man, "and if you will creep
round this crag, so as to get in its lee, and deaden the roar of the water, I will tell you a
story that will convince you I ought to know something of the Moskoe-strom." I placed myself as desired, and he proceeded.
"Myself and my two brothers once owned a schooner-rigged smack of about seventy tons
burthen, with which we were in the habit of fishing among the islands beyond Moskoe,
nearly to Vurrgh. In all violent eddies at sea there is good fishing, at proper opportunities,
if one has only the courage to attempt it; but among the whole of the Lofoden coastmen,
we three were the only ones who made a regular business of going out to the islands, as I
tell you. The usual grounds are a great way lower down to the southward. There fish can
be got at all hours, without much risk, and therefore these places are preferred. The
choice spots over here among the rocks, however, not only yield the finest variety, but in
far greater abundance; so that we often got in a single day, what the more timid of the
craft could not scrape together in a week. In fact, we made it a matter of desperate
speculation --the risk of life standing instead of labor, and courage answering for capital.
"We kept the smack in a cove about five miles higher up the coast than this; and it was
our practice, in fine weather, to take advantage of the fifteen minutes' slack to push across
the main channel of the Moskoe-strom, far above the pool, and then drop down upon
anchorage somewhere near Otterholm, or Sandflesen, where the eddies are not so violent
as elsewhere. Here we used to remain until nearly time for slackwater again, when we
weighed and made for home. We never set out upon this expedition without a steady side
wind for going and coming --one that we felt sure would not fall us before our return -and we seldom made a mis-calculation upon this point. Twice, during six years, we were
forced to stay all night at anchor on account of a dead calm, which is a rare thing indeed
just about here; and once we had to remain on the grounds nearly a week, starving to
death, owing to a gale which blew up shortly after our arrival, and made the channel too
boisterous to be thought of. Upon this occasion we should have been driven out to sea in
spite of everything, (for the whirlpools threw us round and round so violently that, at
length, we fouled our anchor and dragged it) if it had not been that we drifted into one of
the innumerable cross currents-here to-day and gone to-morrow --which drove us under
the lee of Flimen, where, by good luck, we brought up.
"I could not tell you the twentieth part of the difficulties we encountered 'on the ground' -it is a bad spot to be in, even in good weather --but we made shift always to run the
gauntlet of the Moskoe-strom itself without accident; although at times my heart has been
in my mouth when we happened to be a minute or so behind or before the slack. The
wind sometimes was not as strong as we thought it at starting, and then we made rather
less way than we could wish, while the current rendered the smack unmanageable. My
eldest brother had a son eighteen years old, and I had two stout boys of my own. These
would have been of great assistance at such times, in using the sweeps, as well as
afterward in fishing --but, somehow, although we ran the risk ourselves, we had not the
heart to let the young ones get into the danger --for, after all said and done, it was a
horrible danger, and that is the truth.
"It is now within a few days of three years since what I am going to tell you occurred. It
was on the tenth of July, 18--, a day which the people of this part of the world will never
forget --for it was one in which blew the most terrible hurricane that ever came out of the heavens. And yet all the morning, and indeed until late in the afternoon, there was a
gentle and steady breeze from the south-west, while the sun shone brightly, so that the
oldest seaman among us could not have foreseen what was to follow.
"The three of us --my two brothers and myself --had crossed over to the islands about two
o'clock P. M., and soon nearly loaded the smack with fine fish, which, we all remarked,
were more plenty that day than we had ever known them. It was just seven, by my watch,
when we weighed and started for home, so as to make the worst of the Strom at slack
water, which we knew would be at eight.
"We set out with a fresh wind on our starboard quarter, and for some time spanked along
at a great rate, never dreaming of danger, for indeed we saw not the slightest reason to
apprehend it. All at once we were taken aback by a breeze from over Helseggen. This
was most unusual --something that had never happened to us before --and I began to feel
a little uneasy, without exactly knowing why. We put the boat on the wind, but could
make no headway at all for the eddies, and I was upon the point of proposing to return to
the anchorage, when, looking astern, we saw the whole horizon covered with a singular
copper-colored cloud that rose with the most amazing velocity.
"In the meantime the breeze that had headed us off fell away, and we were dead
becalmed, drifting about in every direction. This state of things, however, did not last
long enough to give us time to think about it. In less than a minute the storm was upon us
--in less than two the sky was entirely overcast --and what with this and the driving spray,
it became suddenly so dark that we could not see each other in the smack.
"Such a hurricane as then blew it is folly to attempt describing. The oldest seaman in
Norway never experienced any thing like it. We had let our sails go by the run before it
cleverly took us; but, at the first puff, both our masts went by the board if they had been
sawed off --the mainmast taking with it my as I youngest brother, who had lashed himself
to it for safety.
"Our boat was the lightest feather of a thing that ever sat upon water. It had a complete
flush deck, with only a small hatch near the bow, and this hatch it had always been our
custom to batten down when about to cross the Strom, by way of precaution against the
chopping seas. But for this circumstance we should have foundered at once --for we lay
entirely buried for some moments. How my elder brother escaped destruction I cannot
say, for I never had an opportunity of ascertaining. For my part, as soon as I had let the
foresail run, I threw myself flat on deck, with my feet against the narrow gunwale of the
bow, and with my hands grasping a ring-bolt near the foot of the foremast. It was mere
instinct that prompted me to do this --which was undoubtedly the very best thing I could
have done --for I was too much flurried to think.
"For some moments we were completely deluged, as I say, and all this time I held my
breath, and clung to the bolt. When I could stand it no longer I raised myself upon my
knees, still keeping hold with my hands, and thus got my head clear. Presently our little
boat gave herself a shake, just as a dog does in coming out of the water, and thus rid herself, in some measure, of the seas. I was now trying to get the better of the stupor that
had come over me, and to col...
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