MS. FOUND IN A BOTTLE by Edgar Allan Poe


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1833
MS. FOUND IN A BOTTLE
by Edgar Allan Poe

Qui n’a plus qu’un moment a vivre
N’a plus rien a dissimuler. –Quinault –Atys.

OF my country and of my family I have little to say. Ill usage and
length of years have driven me from the one, and estranged me from the
other. Hereditary wealth afforded me an education of no common
order, and a contemplative turn of mind enabled me to methodize the
stores which early study very diligently garnered up. –Beyond all
things, the study of the German moralists gave me great delight; not
from any ill-advised admiration of their eloquent madness, but from
the ease with which my habits of rigid thought enabled me to detect
their falsities. I have often been reproached with the aridity of my
genius; a deficiency of imagination has been imputed to me as a crime;
and the Pyrrhonism of my opinions has at all times rendered me
notorious. Indeed, a strong relish for physical philosophy has, I
fear, tinctured my mind with a very common error of this age –I
mean the habit of referring occurrences, even the least susceptible of
such reference, to the principles of that science. Upon the whole,
no person could be less liable than myself to be led away from the
severe precincts of truth by the ignes fatui of superstition. I have
thought proper to premise thus much, lest the incredible tale I have
to tell should be considered rather the raving of a crude imagination,
than the positive experience of a mind to which the reveries of
fancy have been a dead letter and a nullity.
After many years spent in foreign travel, I sailed in the year 18–,
from the port of Batavia, in the rich and populous island of Java,
on a voyage to the Archipelago of the Sunda islands. I went as
passenger –having no other inducement than a kind of nervous
restlessness which haunted me as a fiend.
Our vessel was a beautiful ship of about four hundred tons,
copper-fastened, and built at Bombay of Malabar teak. She was
freighted with cotton-wool and oil, from the Lachadive islands. We had
also on board coir, jaggeree, ghee, cocoa-nuts, and a few cases of
opium. The stowage was clumsily done, and the vessel consequently
crank.
We got under way with a mere breath of wind, and for many days stood
along the eastern coast of Java, without any other incident to beguile
the monotony of our course than the occasional meeting with some of
the small grabs of the Archipelago to which we were bound.
One evening, leaning over the taffrail, I observed a very
singular, isolated cloud, to the N.W. It was remarkable, as well for
its color, as from its being the first we had seen since our departure
from Batavia. I watched it attentively until sunset, when it spread
all at once to the eastward and westward, girting in the horizon
with a narrow strip of vapor, and looking like a long line of low
beach. 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. Although I could distinctly see the bottom,
yet, heaving the lead, I found the ship in fifteen fathoms. The air
now became intolerably hot, and was loaded with spiral exhalations
similar to those arising from heat iron. As night came on, every
breath of wind died away, an more entire calm it is impossible to
conceive. The flame of a candle burned upon the poop without the least
perceptible motion, and a long hair, held between the finger and
thumb, hung without the possibility of detecting a vibration. However,
as the captain said he could perceive no indication of danger, and
as we were drifting in bodily to shore, he ordered the sails to be
furled, and the anchor let go. No watch was set, and the crew,
consisting principally of Malays, stretched themselves deliberately
upon deck. I went below –not without a full presentiment of evil.
Indeed, every appearance warranted me in apprehending a Simoom. I told
the captain my fears; but he paid no attention to what I said, and
left me without deigning to give a reply. My uneasiness, however,
prevented me from sleeping, and about midnight I went upon deck.
–As I placed my foot upon the upper step of the companion-ladder, I
was startled by a loud, humming noise, like that occasioned by the
rapid revolution of a mill-wheel, and before I could ascertain its
meaning, I found the ship quivering to its centre. In the next
instant, a wilderness of foam hurled us upon our beam-ends, and,
rushing over us fore and aft, swept the entire decks from stem to
stern.
The extreme fury of the blast proved, in a great measure, the
salvation of the ship. Although completely water-logged, yet, as her
masts had gone by the board, she rose, after a minute, heavily from
the sea, and, staggering awhile beneath the immense pressure of the
tempest, finally righted.
By what miracle I escaped destruction, it is impossible to say.
Stunned by the shock of the water, I found myself, upon recovery,
jammed in between the stern-post and rudder. With great difficulty I
gained my feet, and looking dizzily around, was, at first, struck with
the idea of our being among breakers; so terrific, beyond the
wildest imagination, was the whirlpool of mountainous and foaming
ocean within which we were engulfed. After a while, I heard the
voice of an old Swede, who had shipped with us at the moment of our
leaving port. I hallooed to him with all my strength, and presently he
came reeling aft. We soon discovered that we were the sole survivors
of the accident. All on deck, with the exception of ourselves, had
been swept overboard; –the captain and mates must have perished as
they slept, for the cabins were deluged with water. Without
assistance, we could expect to do little for the security of the ship,
and our exertions were at first paralyzed by the momentary expectation
of going down. Our cable had, of course, parted like pack-thread, at
the first breath of the hurricane, or we should have been
instantaneously overwhelmed. We scudded with frightful velocity before
the sea, and the water made clear breaches over us. The frame-work
of our stern was shattered excessively, and, in almost every
respect, we had received considerable injury; but to our extreme Joy
we found the pumps unchoked, and that we had made no great shifting of
our ballast. The main fury of the blast had already blown over, and we
apprehended little danger from the violence of the wind; but we looked
forward to its total cessation with dismay; well believing, that, in
our shattered condition, we should inevitably perish in the tremendous
swell which would ensue. But this very just apprehension seemed by
no means likely to be soon verified. For five entire days and nights
–during which our only subsistence was a small quantity of
jaggeree, procured with great difficulty from the forecastle –the
hulk flew at a rate defying computation, before rapidly succeeding
flaws of wind, which, without equalling the first violence of the
Simoom, were still more terrific than any tempest I had before
encountered. Our course for the first four days was, with trifling
variations, S.E. and by S.; and we must have run down the coast of New
Holland. –On the fifth day the cold became extreme, although the wind
had hauled round a point more to the northward. –The sun arose with a
sickly yellow lustre, and clambered a very few degrees above the
horizon –emitting no decisive light. –There were no clouds apparent,
yet the wind was upon the increase, and blew with a fitful and
unsteady fury. About noon, as nearly as we could guess, our
attention was again arrested by the appearance of the sun. It gave out
no light, properly so called, but a dull and sullen glow without
reflection, as if all its rays were polarized. Just before sinking
within the turgid sea, its central fires suddenly went out, as if
hurriedly extinguished by some unaccountable power. It was a dim,
sliver-like rim, alone, as it rushed down the unfathomable ocean.
We waited in vain for the arrival of the sixth day –that day to
me has not arrived –to the Swede, never did arrive. Thenceforward
we were enshrouded in patchy darkness, so that we could not have
seen an object at twenty paces from the ship. Eternal night
continued to envelop us, all unrelieved by the phosphoric
sea-brilliancy to which we had been accustomed in the tropics. We
observed too, that, although the tempest continued to rage with
unabated violence, there was no longer to be discovered the usual
appearance of surf, or foam, which had hitherto attended us. All
around were horror, and thick gloom, and a black sweltering desert
of ebony. –Superstitious terror crept by degrees into the spirit of
the old Swede, and my own soul was wrapped up in silent wonder. We
neglected all care of the ship, as worse than useless, and securing
ourselves, as well as possible, to the stump of the mizen-mast, looked
out bitterly into the world of ocean. We had no means of calculating
time, nor could we form any guess of our situation. We were,
however, well aware of having made farther to the southward than any
previous navigators, and felt great amazement at not meeting with
the usual impediments of ice. In the meantime every moment
threatened to be our last –every mountainous billow hurried to
overwhelm us. The swell surpassed anything I had imagined possible,
and that we were not instantly buried is a miracle. My companion spoke
of the lightness of our cargo, and reminded me of the excellent
qualities of our ship; but I could not help feeling the utter
hopelessness of hope itself, and prepared myself gloomily for that
death which I thought nothing could defer beyond an hour, as, with
every knot of way the ship made, the swelling of the black
stupendous seas became more dismally appalling. At times we gasped for
breath at an elevation beyond the albatross –at times became dizzy
with the velocity of our descent into some watery hell, where the
air grew stagnant, and no sound disturbed the slumbers of the kraken.
We were at the bottom of one of these abysses, when a quick scream
from my companion broke fearfully upon the night. “See! see!” cried
he, shrieking in my ears, “Almighty God! see! see!” As he spoke, I
became aware of a dull, sullen glare of red light which streamed
down the sides of the vast chasm where we lay, and threw a fitful
brilliancy upon our deck. Casting my eyes upwards, I beheld a
spectacle which froze the current of my blood. At a terrific height
directly above us, and upon the very verge of the precipitous descent,
hovered a gigantic ship of, perhaps, four thousand tons. Although
upreared upon the summit of a wave more than a hundred times her own
altitude, her apparent size exceeded that of any ship of the line or
East Indiaman in existence. Her huge hull was of a deep dingy 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 to 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. When we first discovered her, her bows were alone to be
seen, as she rose slowly from the dim and horrible gulf beyond her.
For a moment of intense terror she paused upon the giddy pinnacle,
as if in contemplation of her own sublimity, then trembled and
tottered, and –came down.
At this instant, I know not what sudden self-possession came over my
spirit. Staggering as far aft as I could, I awaited fearlessly the
ruin that was to overwhelm. Our own vessel was at length ceasing
from her struggles, and sinking with her head to the sea. The shock of
the descending mass struck her, consequently, in that portion of her
frame which was already under water, and the inevitable result was
to hurl me, with irresistible violence, upon the rigging of the
stranger.
As I fell, the ship hove in stays, and went about; and to the
confusion ensuing I attributed my escape from the notice of the
crew. With little difficulty I made my way unperceived to the main
hatchway, which was partially open, and soon found an opportunity of
secreting myself in the hold. Why I did so I can hardly tell. An
indefinite sense of awe, which at first sight of the navigators of the
ship had taken hold of my mind, was perhaps the principle of my
concealment. I was unwilling to trust myself with a race of people who
had offered, to the cursory glance I had taken, so many points of
vague novelty, doubt, and apprehension. I therefore thought proper
to contrive a hiding-place in the hold. This I did by removing a small
portion of the shifting-boards, in such a manner as to afford me a
convenient retreat between the huge timbers of the ship.
I had scarcely completed my work, when a footstep in the hold forced
me to make use of it. A man passed by my place of concealment with a
feeble and unsteady gait. I could not see his face, but had an
opportunity of observing his general appearance. There was about it an
evidence of great age and infirmity. 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 in a corner 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 a God. He at length went on deck, and I
saw him no more.

A feeling, for which I have no name, has taken possession of my soul
–a sensation which will admit of no analysis, to which the lessons of
bygone times are inadequate, and for which I fear futurity itself will
offer me no key. To a mind constituted like my own, the latter
consideration is an evil. I shall never –I know that I shall never
–be satisfied with regard to the nature of my conceptions. Yet it
is not wonderful that these conceptions are indefinite, since they
have their origin in sources so utterly novel. A new sense –a new
entity is added to my soul.

It is long since I first trod the deck of this terrible ship, and
the rays of my destiny are, I think, gathering to a focus.
Incomprehensible men! Wrapped up in meditations of a kind which I
cannot divine, they pass me by unnoticed. Concealment is utter folly
on my part, for the people will not see. It was but just now that I
passed directly before the eyes of the mate –it was no long while ago
that I ventured into the captain’s own private cabin, and took
thence the materials with which I write, and have written. I shall
from time to time continue this Journal. It is true that I may not
find an opportunity of transmitting it to the world, but I will not
fall to make the endeavour. At the last moment I will enclose the
MS. in a bottle, and cast it within the sea.

An incident has occurred which has given me new room for meditation.
Are such things the operation of ungoverned Chance? I had ventured
upon deck and thrown myself down, without attracting any notice, among
a pile of ratlin-stuff and old sails in the bottom of the yawl.
While musing upon the singularity of my fate, I unwittingly daubed
with a tar-brush the edges of a neatly-folded studding-sail which
lay near me on a barrel. The studding-sail is now bent upon the
ship, and the thoughtless touches of the brush are spread out into the
word DISCOVERY.
I have made many observations lately upon the structure of the
vessel. 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. I know not how it is, but in scrutinizing her
strange model and singular cast of spars, her huge size and
overgrown suits of canvas, her severely simple bow and antiquated
stern, there will occasionally flash across my mind a sensation of
familiar things, and there is always mixed up with such indistinct
shadows of recollection, an unaccountable memory of old foreign
chronicles and ages long ago. I have been looking at the timbers of
the ship. She is built of a material to which I am a stranger. There
is a peculiar character about the wood which strikes me as rendering
it unfit for the purpose to which it has been applied. I mean its
extreme porousness, considered independently by the worm-eaten
condition which is a consequence of navigation in these seas, and
apart from the rottenness attendant upon age. It will appear perhaps
an observation somewhat over-curious, but this wood would have
every, characteristic of Spanish oak, if Spanish oak were distended by
any unnatural means.
In reading the above sentence a curious apothegm of an old
weather-beaten Dutch navigator comes full upon my recollection. “It is
as sure,” he was wont to say, when any doubt was entertained of his
veracity, “as sure as there is a sea where the ship itself will grow
in bulk like the living body of the seaman.”
About an hour ago, I made bold to thrust myself among a group of the
crew. They paid me no manner of attention, and, although I stood in
the very midst of them all, seemed utterly unconscious of my presence.
Like the one I had at first seen in the hold, they all bore about them
the marks of a hoary old age. Their knees trembled with infirmity;
their shoulders were bent double with decrepitude; their shrivelled
skins rattled in the wind; their voices were low, tremulous and
broken; their eyes glistened with the rheum of years; and their gray
hairs streamed terribly in the tempest. Around them, on every part
of the deck, lay scattered mathematical instruments of the most quaint
and obsolete construction.
I mentioned some time ago the bending of a studding-sail. From
that period the ship, being thrown dead off the wind, has continued
her terrific course due south, with every rag of canvas packed upon
her, from her trucks to her lower studding-sail booms, and rolling
every moment her top-gallant yard-arms into the most appalling hell of
water which it can enter into the mind of a man to imagine. I have
just left the deck, where I find it impossible to maintain a
footing, although the crew seem to experience little inconvenience. It
appears to me a miracle of miracles that our enormous bulk is not
swallowed up at once and forever. We are surely doomed to hover
continually upon the brink of Eternity, without taking a final
plunge into the abyss. From billows a thousand times more stupendous
than any I have ever seen, we glide away with the facility of the
arrowy sea-gull; and the colossal waters rear their heads above us
like demons of the deep, but like demons confined to simple threats
and forbidden to destroy. I am led to attribute these frequent escapes
to the only natural cause which can account for such effect. –I
must suppose the ship to be within the influence of some strong
current, or impetuous under-tow.
I have seen the captain face to face, and in his own cabin –but, as
I expected, he paid me no attention. Although in his appearance
there is, to a casual observer, nothing which might bespeak him more
or less than man-still a feeling of irrepressible reverence and awe
mingled with the sensation of wonder with which I regarded him. In
stature he is nearly my own height; that is, about five feet eight
inches. He is of a well-knit and compact frame of body, neither robust
nor remarkably otherwise. But it is the singularity of the
expression which reigns upon the face –it is the intense, the
wonderful, the thrilling evidence of old age, so utter, so extreme,
which excites within my spirit a sense –a sentiment ineffable. His
forehead, although little wrinkled, seems to bear upon it the stamp of
a myriad of years. –His gray hairs are records of the past, and his
grayer eyes are Sybils of the future. The cabin floor was thickly
strewn with strange, iron-clasped folios, and mouldering instruments
of science, and obsolete long-forgotten charts. His head was bowed
down upon his hands, and he pored, with a fiery unquiet eye, over a
paper which I took to be a commission, and which, at all events,
bore the signature of a monarch. He muttered to himself, as did the
first seaman whom I saw in the hold, some low peevish syllables of a
foreign tongue, and although the speaker was close at my elbow, his
voice seemed to reach my ears from the distance of a mile.
The ship and all in it are imbued with the spirit of Eld. The crew
glide to and fro like the ghosts of buried centuries; their eyes
have an eager and uneasy meaning; and when their fingers fall
athwart my path in the wild glare of the battle-lanterns, I feel as
I have never felt before, although I have been all my life a dealer in
antiquities, and have imbibed the shadows of fallen columns at Balbec,
and Tadmor, and Persepolis, until my very soul has become a ruin.
When I look around me I feel ashamed of my former apprehensions.
If I trembled at the blast which has hitherto attended us, shall I not
stand aghast at a warring of wind and ocean, to convey any idea of
which the words tornado and simoom are trivial and ineffective? All in
the immediate vicinity of the ship is the blackness of eternal
night, and a chaos of foamless water; but, about a league on either
side of us, may be seen, indistinctly and at intervals, stupendous
ramparts of ice, towering away into the desolate sky, and looking like
the walls of the universe.
As I imagined, the ship proves to be in a current; if that
appellation can properly be given to a tide which, howling and
shrieking by the white ice, thunders on to the southward with a
velocity like the headlong dashing of a cataract.
To conceive the horror of my sensations is, I presume, utterly
impossible; yet a curiosity to penetrate the mysteries of these
awful regions, predominates even over my despair, and will reconcile
me to the most hideous aspect of death. It is evident that we are
hurrying onwards to some exciting knowledge –some
never-to-be-imparted secret, whose attainment is destruction.
Perhaps this current leads us to the southern pole itself. It must
be confessed that a supposition apparently so wild has every
probability in its favor.
The crew pace the deck with unquiet and tremulous step; but there is
upon their countenances an expression more of the eagerness of hope
than of the apathy of despair.
In the meantime the wind is still in our poop, and, as we carry a
crowd of canvas, the ship is at times lifted bodily from out the sea
–Oh, horror upon horror! the ice opens suddenly to the right, and
to the left, and we are whirling dizzily, in immense concentric
circles, round and round the borders of a gigantic amphitheatre, the
summit of whose walls is lost in the darkness and the distance. 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.

NOTE.–The “MS. Found in a Bottle,” was originally published in 1831
[1833], and it was not until many years afterwards that I became
acquainted with the maps of Mercator, in which the ocean is
represented as rushing, by four mouths, into the (northern) Polar
Gulf, to be absorbed into the bowels of the earth; the Pole itself
being represented by a black rock, towering to a prodigious height.

-THE END-

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