Stories of Edgar Allan Poe MS Found in a Bottle
A quotation begins this tale, from a French play entitled Atys written by Phillip Quinault, "Qui n'a plus qu'un moment a vivre/N'a plus rien a dissimuler." The translated words mean, "He who doesn't have another moment to live, does not have anything more to hide," suggesting that this story will feature someone telling a story soon before his death. An unnamed narrator then introduces himself as a man from a wealthy family and a strong education, although he has always been an underachiever who does not really apply himself, referring to the "aridity [lacking interest] of my genius" and "a deficiency of imagination," because he resists being creative. In spite of his aristocratic upbringing, he does not fit into this lifestyle; rather than accepting life and its givens at face value, he refers to his Pyrrhonism, or skepticism, about the ways of the world. To this we can attribute his supposed lack of creativity, for to do so would mean to use the human imagination, and as such, to deviate into fantasy. This would certainly contradict his skeptical philosophy. He is also doubtful of superstition for the same reason, choosing instead to seek a firm hold on a deeper reality by refusing to blindly accept the world as people believe it to be, filled with baseless fears that their minds have merely conjured up.
Having introduced himself, the actual story begins. After traveling all over the world, in 18-- the narrator embarks on yet another trip out of Batavia, Java to go to the Sunda Islands, because he feels inwardly restless and chooses to move around as a way to cope with this anxiety. The ship itself was strongly built in the Indian city of Bombay, and it is well provisioned for the journey that lies ahead. Upon departing from Batavia, initially the narrator notices an odd cloud far away in the water, but gives it little thought until later, when another strange phenomenon occurs. Later, once out of sight from land, "My notice was soon afterwards attracted by the dusky-red appearance of the moon, and the peculiar character of the sea. The latter was undergoing a rapid change, and the water seemed more than usually transparent...The air now became intolerably hot, and was loaded with spiral exhalations similar to those arising from heated iron. As night came on, every breath of wind died away, and a more entire calm it is impossible to conceive" Poe, pg. 74. The narrator already mentioned his skepticism, and as such, this makes his claims of how the weather at sea transformed in such an unusual way, more believable. As a result, the ship's captain decides to pull up the sails and cast anchor for awhile until the wind returns.
However, the narrator later has a terrible premonition that something is going to happen, and wanders up on the ships' upper deck. Sure enough, the ship is suddenly pulled down under the water and overwhelmed without explanation or warning by a massive explosion of waves. The man is nearly swept off of the deck where he had been standing but gets wedged in between the sternpost and the rudder. Recovering, he explores the boat only to discover that every other member of the crew has been swept overboard and apparently drowned, except for one old Swede. Gazing around, the men discover that the sea is still ablaze with fierce waves and sea foam, as if a storm has suddenly struck. The anchor rope had been snapped off because of the gale's force, and the ship haphazardly tumbles amongst the waves, while these two survivors cling on for safety. The ship begins to slowly break apart, as the mast snaps in half along with the other sectors, rendering it unable to be navigated and completely at the mercy of the ocean. The ship suffers a terrible beating for five days straight without any end at all, and on this fifth day the weather becomes extremely frigid, and the sun looks strange, glowing with a dull light until the nighttime approached and "It was a dim, silver-like rim, alone as it rushed into the unfathomable ocean." The sun appeared to be swallowed up by the sea, except its light was already dull and extinguished before it even set. The ship continues to be carried along by the wind and current to some unknown destination.
However, this night is very black, and there was not a single spot of light to shine forth the way to them, as they "had been accustomed in the tropics," where the sea had always glowed in certain areas, due to the presence of phosphoescent fish and seaweed. The storm continues to rage nevertheless in this darkness, and the Swede becomes very afraid, while the skeptical narrator is merely curious and amazed at what is happening to them, watching each enormous wave as it threatens to overturn the ship. The ship rises and falls with these waters, and when the ship descends at one point, the Swede cries out violently at another approaching vessel which looks unlike any other ship the narrator has ever seen before, "Her huge hull was of a deep dinghy black, unrelieved by any of the customary carvings of a ship. A single row of brass cannon protruded from her open ports, and dashed from their polished surfaces the fires of innumerable battle-lanterns, which swung too and fro about her rigging. But what mainly inspired us with horror and astonishment, was that she bore up under a press of sail in the very teeth of that supernatural sea, and of that ungovernable hurricane" Poe, pg. 78 . In spite of the storm, this enormous and exotic black ship nevertheless manages to stay afloat and steady on its course. The narrator's broken ship is lower than the waves at this point, and the huge ship towers above him at the crest of the waves, preparing to fall down on top of these two survivors.
The ship quickly descends, smashing down upon the ship and causing the narrator to be catapulted onto this strange black vessel, while the narrator's sinking ship is completely destroyed, apparently drowning the old Swede as it sinks beneath the waves. Not wanting to be noticed, the narrator hides on this ship just underneath the deck in the ship's hold, observing also how odd the crew are as well, like no one whom he has ever seen before, "A man passed by...His knees tottered beneath a load of years, and his entire frame quivered under the burthen. He muttered to himself, in a low broken tone, some words of a language which I could not understand, and groped among a pile of singular-looking instruments, and decayed charts of navigation. His manner was a wild mixture of the peevishness of second childhood, and the solemn dignity of God" Poe, pg. 79. This crew member appears to be very old and uses unusual tools. More time passes as the narrator remains hidden on the ship, noting how much this experience is changing him very much from the person who he was before, and that "A new sense -- a new entity is added to my soul."
The man later adds that much time has passed since he first arrived on the ship, and his presence has still gone unnoticed by members of this strange crew; he decides to sneak into the captain's quarters and steal some paper and writing materials, upon which he is writing this entire story. If he does not survive the voyage, then he will put the paper into a bottle and hurl it into the sea, hoping that someone will at least know what has happened to him. On another day he randomly decides to paint the word "Discovery" upon the ship's furled sail, and when it is hoisted up the mast the words billow in the wind upon the sail. Later still, he explains some observations about the ship, that "Although well armed, she is not, I think, a ship of war. Her rigging, build, and general equipment, all negative a supposition of this kind. What she is not, I can easily perceive -- what she is I fear it is impossible to say...[B]ut in scrutinizing her strange model and singular cast of spars, her huge size and overgrown suits of canvass, her severely simple bow and antiquated stern, there will occasionally flash across my mind...an unaccountable memory of old foreign chronicles and ages long ago" Poe, pg. 80. He doesn't think that the ship is going to war, but nor does he know what its purpose is; everything on the ship including the vessel itself and the crew, is very old and aged, however, as if from a different time.
On another day, the narrator emerges from hiding and walks within full view of the ship's crew, but they don't even notice his presence; he notes that they are all very old, as "their shriveled skins rattled in the wind" and the deck of the ship was covered yet again with the strange mathematical instruments that he had once seen upon first arriving on the ship. Surely these men have embarked upon some mission, but it remains a mystery! The ship continues to be propelled southwards by some strong underwater current after the wind leaves them and the sails hangs limply, roughly pulling the ship along and making the narrator fear that he'll fall off of the ship's deck, so he hides down below in the hold again. Then he finally gets to see what the captain of the ship looks like, and he is very aged and wise with gray hair, "his grayer eyes are Sybils of the future." The narrator has become fascinated and even envious of the old age that these men all seem to have, because they appear to be so enlightened and calm. The captain's cabin is filled with maps and more of these strange instruments; he mutters to himself in an unknown language like the rest of the crew have done. Next the narrator calls the crew "ghosts of buried cemetaries," noting that the lanterns on the ship are so old and unlike anything he's ever seen, even though he has been an antiques dealer for much of his life and has explored such ancient places as Balbec, Tadmor, and Persepolis. As the ship progresses on its journey to the south, the water becomes icy and the air becomes very cold, and the ship is violently tossed about upon the waves to and fro, until suddenly the ship begins to spin in a huge circle around a gigantic whirlpool.
Lower and lower the ship is pulled, nor do the crew members try to avoid being pulled into it. Rather, this is obviously the end result that they have sought for so long, thus ending their long journey. The narrator, expecting that such an end would come to him, finishes writing his message with the words "But little time will be left me to ponder upon my destiny -- the circles rapidly grow small -- we are plunging madly within the grasp of the whirlpool -- and amid a roaring, and bellowing, and thundering of ocean and of tempest, the ship is quivering, oh God! and -- going down" Poe, pg. 83-4. Apparently, the message is hurled into a bottle as the narrator plunges into the abyss, and the message is published and made available for the reader once the bottle is discovered washed up upon shore, or while floating at sea. In spite of the narrator's initial skepticism, he learns to embrace the supernatural and the unknown, as his entire understanding of the world is cast away into darkness, while he is transformed into someone new, embracing true discovery after having lapsed into a restless and lethargic period in his life. Although the black ship's final journey cures him of this restlessness, the price to be paid is his life. Only ink and paper preserve his last words, in hopes that his revelations may not remain unknown and unnoticed, as the supernatural world had once been to him. A note from Poe follows the story, declaring that he did not know about Mercator's maps, which show the Earth's Polar region not as a whirlpool, but rather as four rushing mouths of water from the four corners of the world and surrounding a tall black rock at the pole's center.