A descent into the maelstrom by Edgar Allan Poe

by Edgar Allan Poe

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.
Joseph Glanville.

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
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 the distance.
“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, bleak-looking
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
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 water?”
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 at once.
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
collect my senses so as to see what was to be done, when I felt
somebody grasp my arm. It was my elder brother, and my heart leaped
for joy, for I had made sure that he was overboard –but the next
moment all this joy was turned into horror –for he put his mouth
close to my ear, and screamed out the word ‘Moskoe-strom!’
“No one ever will know what my feelings were at that moment. I
shook from head to foot as if I had had the most violent fit of the
ague. I knew what he meant by that one word well enough –I knew
what he wished to make me understand. With the wind that now drove
us on, we were bound for the whirl of the Strom, and nothing could
save us!
“You perceive that in crossing the Strom channel, we always went a
long way up above the whirl, even in the calmest weather, and then had
to wait and watch carefully for the slack –but now we were driving
right upon the pool itself, and in such a hurricane as this! ‘To be
sure,’ I thought, ‘we shall get there just about the slack –there
is some little hope in that’ –but in the next moment I cursed myself
for being so great a fool as to dream of hope at all. I knew very well
that we were doomed, had we been ten times a ninety-gun ship.
“By this time the first fury of the tempest had spent itself, or
perhaps we did not feel it so much, as we scudded before it, but at
all events the seas, which at first had been kept down by the wind,
and lay flat and frothing, now got up into absolute mountains. A
singular change, too, had come over the heavens. Around in every
direction it was still as black as pitch, but nearly overhead there
burst out, all at once, a circular rift of clear sky –as clear as I
ever saw –and of a deep bright blue –and through it there blazed
forth the full moon with a lustre that I never before knew her to
wear. She lit up every thing about us with the greatest distinctness
–but, oh God, what a scene it was to light up!
“I now made one or two attempts to speak to my brother –but in
some manner which I could not understand, the din had so increased
that I could not make him hear a single word, although I screamed at
the top of my voice in his ear. Presently he shook his head, looking
as pale as death, and held up one of his fingers, as to say ‘listen!’
“At first I could not make out what he meant –but soon a
hideous thought flashed upon me. I dragged my watch from its fob. It
was not going. I glanced as its face by the moonlight, and then
burst into tears as I flung it far away into the ocean. It had run
down at seven o’clock! We were behind the time of the slack, and the
whirl of the Strom was in full fury!
“When a boat is well built, properly trimmed, and not deep
laden, the waves in a strong gale, when she is going large, seem
always to slip from beneath her –which appears very strange to a
landsman –and this is what is called riding, in sea phrase.
“Well, so far we had ridden the swells very cleverly; but
presently a gigantic sea happened to take us right under the
counter, and bore us with it as it rose –up –up –as if into the
sky. I would not have believed that any wave could rise so high. And
then down we came with a sweep, a slide, and a plunge, that made me
feel sick and dizzy, as if I was falling from some lofty
mountain-top in a dream. But while we were up I had thrown a quick
glance around –and that one glance was all sufficient. I saw our
exact position in an instant. The Moskoe-strom whirlpool was about a
quarter of a mile dead ahead –but no more like the every-day
Moskoe-strom, than the whirl as you now see it, is like a mill-race.
If I had not known where we were, and what we had to expect, I
should not have recognised the place at all. As it was, I
involuntarily closed my eyes in horror. The lids clenched themselves
together as if in a spasm.
“It could not have been more than two minutes afterwards until
we suddenly felt the waves subside, and were enveloped in foam. The
boat made a sharp half turn to larboard, and then shot off in its
new direction like a thunderbolt. At the same moment the roaring noise
of the water was completely drowned in a kind of shrill shriek
–such a sound as you might imagine given out by the water-pipes of
many thousand steam-vessels, letting off their steam all together.
We were now in the belt of surf that always surrounds the whirl; and I
thought, of course, that another moment would plunge us into the abyss
–down which we could only see indistinctly on account of the
amazing velocity with which we were borne along. The boat did not seem
to sink into the water at all, but to skim like an air-bubble upon the
surface of the surge. Her starboard side was next the whirl, and on
the larboard arose the world of ocean we had left. It stood like a
huge writhing wall between us and the horizon.
“It may appear strange, but now, when we were in the very jaws
of the gulf, I felt more composed than when we were only approaching
it. Having made up my mind to hope no more, I got rid of a great
deal of that terror which unmanned me at first. I suppose it was
despair that strung my nerves.
“It may look like boasting –but what I tell you is truth –I
began to reflect how magnificent a thing it was to die in such a
manner, and how foolish it was in me to think of so paltry a
consideration as my own individual life, in view of so wonderful a
manifestation of God’s power. I do believe that I blushed with
shame when this idea crossed my mind. After a little while I became
possessed with the keenest curiosity about the whirl itself. I
positively felt a wish to explore its depths, even at the sacrifice
I was going to make; and my principal grief was that I should never be
able to tell my old companions on shore about the mysteries I should
see. These, no doubt, were singular fancies to occupy a man’s mind
in such extremity –and I have often thought since, that the
revolutions of the boat around the pool might have rendered me a
little light-headed.
“There was another circumstance which tended to restore my
self-possession; and this was the cessation of the wind, which could
not reach us in our present situation –for, as you saw yourself,
the belt of surf is considerably lower than the general bed of the
ocean, and this latter now towered above us, a high, black,
mountainous ridge. If you have never been at sea in a heavy gale,
you can form no idea of the confusion of mind occasioned by the wind
and the spray together. They blind, deafen and strangle you, and
take away all power of action or reflection. But we were now, in a
great measure, rid of these annoyances –just as death-condemned
felons in prison are allowed petty indulgences, forbidden them while
their doom is yet uncertain.
“How often we made the circuit of the belt it is impossible to
say. We careered round and round for perhaps an hour, flying rather
than floating, getting gradually more and more into the middle of
the surge, and then nearer and nearer to its horrible inner edge.
All this time I had never let go of the ring-bolt. My brother was at
the stern, holding on to a large empty water-cask which had been
securely lashed under the coop of the counter, and was the only
thing on deck that had not been swept overboard when the gale first
took us. As we approached the brink of the pit he let go his hold upon
this, and made for the ring, from which, in the agony of his terror,
he endeavored to force my hands, as it was not large enough to
afford us both a secure grasp. I never felt deeper grief than when I
saw him attempt this act –although I knew he was a madman when he did
it –a raving maniac through sheer fright. I did not care, however, to
contest the point with him. I thought it could make no difference
whether either of us held on at all; so I let him have the bolt, and
went astern to the cask. This there was no great difficulty in
doing; for the smack flew round steadily enough, and upon an even keel
–only swaying to and fro, with the immense sweeps and swelters of the
whirl. Scarcely had I secured myself in my new position, when we
gave a wild lurch to starboard, and rushed headlong into the abyss.
I muttered a hurried prayer to God, and thought all was over.
“As I felt the sickening sweep of the descent, I had instinctively
tightened my hold upon the barrel, and closed my eyes. For some
seconds I dared not open them –while I expected instant
destruction, and wondered that I was not already in my death-struggles
with the water. But moment after moment elapsed. I still lived. The
sense of falling had ceased; and the motion of the vessel seemed
much as it had been before while in the belt of foam, with the
exception that she now lay more along. I took courage and looked
once again upon the scene.
“Never shall I forget the sensations of awe, horror, and
admiration with which I gazed about me. The boat appeared to be
hanging, as if by magic, midway down, upon the interior surface of a
funnel vast in circumference, prodigious in depth, and whose perfectly
smooth sides might have been mistaken for ebony, but for the
bewildering rapidity with which they spun around, and for the gleaming
and ghastly radiance they shot forth, as the rays of the full moon,
from that circular rift amid the clouds which I have already
described, streamed in a flood of golden glory along the black
walls, and far away down into the inmost recesses of the abyss.
“At first I was too much confused to observe anything
accurately. The general burst of terrific grandeur was all that I
beheld. When I recovered myself a little, however, my gaze fell
instinctively downward. In this direction I was able to obtain an
unobstructed view, from the manner in which the smack hung on the
inclined surface of the pool. She was quite upon an even keel –that
is to say, her deck lay in a plane parallel with that of the water
–but this latter sloped at an angle of more than forty-five
degrees, so that we seemed to be lying upon our beam-ends. I could not
help observing, nevertheless, that I had scarcely more difficulty in
maintaining my hold and footing in this situation, than if we had been
upon a dead level; and this, I suppose, was owing to the speed at
which we revolved.
“The rays of the moon seemed to search the very bottom of the
profound gulf; but still I could make out nothing distinctly, on
account of a thick mist in which everything there was enveloped, and
over which there hung a magnificent rainbow, like that narrow and
tottering bridge which Mussulmen say is the only pathway between
Time and Eternity. This mist, or spray, was no doubt occasioned by the
clashing of the great walls of the funnel, as they all met together at
the bottom –but the yell that went up to the Heavens from out of that
mist, I dare not attempt to describe.
“Our first slide into the abyss itself, from the belt of foam
above, had carried us to a great distance down the slope; but our
farther descent was by no means proportionate. Round and round we
swept –not with any uniform movement –but in dizzying swings and
jerks, that sent us sometimes only a few hundred feet –sometimes
nearly the complete circuit of the whirl. Our progress downward, at
each revolution, was slow, but very perceptible.
“Looking about me upon the wide waste of liquid ebony on which
we were thus borne, I perceived that our boat was not the only
object in the embrace of the whirl. Both above and below us were
visible fragments of vessels, large masses of building timber and
trunks of trees, with many smaller articles, such as pieces of house
furniture, broken boxes, barrels and staves. I have already
described the unnatural curiosity which had taken the place of my
original terrors. It appeared to grow upon me as I drew nearer and
nearer to my dreadful doom. I now began to watch, with a strange
interest, the numerous things that floated in our company. I must have
been delirious –for I even sought amusement in speculating upon the
relative velocities of their several descents toward the foam below.
‘This fir tree,’ I found myself at one time saying, ‘will certainly
be the next thing that takes the awful plunge and disappears,’ –and
then I was disappointed to find that the wreck of a Dutch merchant
ship overtook it and went down before. At length, after making several
guesses of this nature, and being deceived in all –this fact –the
fact of my invariable miscalculation, set me upon a train of
reflection that made my limbs again tremble, and my heart beat heavily
once more.
“It was not a new terror that thus affected me, but the dawn of
a more exciting hope. This hope arose partly from memory, and partly
from present observation. I called to mind the great variety of
buoyant matter that strewed the coast of Lofoden, having been absorbed
and then thrown forth by the Moskoe-strom. By far the greater number
of the articles were shattered in the most extraordinary way –so
chafed and roughened as to have the appearance of being stuck full
of splinters –but then I distinctly recollected that there were
some of them which were not disfigured at all. Now I could not account
for this difference except by supposing that the roughened fragments
were the only ones which had been completely absorbed –that the
others had entered the whirl at so late a period of the tide, or, from
some reason, had descended so slowly after entering, that they did not
reach the bottom before the turn of the flood came, or of the ebb,
as the case might be. I conceived it possible, in either instance,
that they might thus be whirled up again to the level of the ocean,
without undergoing the fate of those which had been drawn in more
early or absorbed more rapidly. I made, also, three important
observations. The first was, that as a general rule, the larger the
bodies were, the more rapid their descent; –the second, that, between
two masses of equal extent, the one spherical, and the other of any
other shape, the superiority in speed of descent was with the
sphere; –the third, that, between two masses of equal size, the one
cylindrical, and the other of any other shape, the cylinder was
absorbed the more slowly.
Since my escape, I have had several conversations on this
subject with an old school-master of the district; and it was from him
that I learned the use of the words ‘cylinder’ and ‘sphere.’ He
explained to me –although I have forgotten the explanation –how what
I observed was, in fact, the natural consequence of the forms of the
floating fragments –and showed me how it happened that a cylinder,
swimming in a vortex, offered more resistance to its suction, and
was drawn in with greater difficulty than an equally bulky body, of
any form whatever.*

*See Archimedes, “De Incidentibus in Fluido.” –lib.2.

“There was one startling circumstance which went a great way in
enforcing these observations, and rendering me anxious to turn them to
account, and this was that, at every revolution, we passed something
like a barrel, or else the broken yard or the mast of a vessel,
while many of these things, which had been on our level when I first
opened my eyes upon the wonders of the whirlpool, were now high up
above us, and seemed to have moved but little from their original
“I no longer hesitated what to do. I resolved to lash myself
securely to the water cask upon which I now held, to cut it loose from
the counter, and to throw myself with it into the water. I attracted
my brother’s attention by signs, pointed to the floating barrels
that came near us, and did everything in my power to make him
understand what I was about to do. I thought at length that he
comprehended my design –but, whether this was the case or not, he
shook his head despairingly, and refused to move from his station by
the ring-bolt. It was impossible to force him; the emergency
admitted no delay; and so, with a bitter struggle, I resigned him to
his fate, fastened myself to the cask by means of the lashings which
secured it to the counter, and precipitated myself with it into the
sea, without another moment’s hesitation.
“The result was precisely what I had hoped it might be. As it is
myself who now tell you this tale –as you see that I did escape –and
as you are already in possession of the mode in which this escape
was effected, and must therefore anticipate all that I have farther to
say –I will bring my story quickly to conclusion. It might have
been an hour, or thereabout, after my quitting the smack, when, having
descended to a vast distance beneath me, it made three or four wild
gyrations in rapid succession, and, bearing my loved brother with
it, plunged headlong, at once and forever, into the chaos of foam
below. The barrel to which I was attached sunk very little farther
than half the distance between the bottom of the gulf and the spot
at which I leaped overboard, before a great change took place in the
character of the whirlpool. The slope of the sides of the vast
funnel became momently less and less steep. The gyrations of the whirl
grew, gradually, less and less violent. By degrees, the froth and
the rainbow disappeared, and the bottom of the gulf seemed slowly to
uprise. The sky was clear, the winds had gone down, and the full
moon was setting radiantly in the west, when I found myself on the
surface of the ocean, in full view of the shores of Lofoden, and above
the spot where the pool of the Moskoe-strom had been. It was the
hour of the slack –but the sea still heaved in mountainous waves from
the effects of the hurricane. I was borne violently into the channel
of the Strom and in a few minutes, was hurried down the coast into the
‘grounds’ of the fishermen. A boat picked me up –exhausted from
fatigue –and (now that the danger was removed) speechless from the
memory of its horror. Those who drew me on board were my old mates and
dally companions –but they knew me no more than they would have known
a traveller from the spirit-land. My hair, which had been
raven-black the day before, was as white as you see it now. They say
too that the whole expression of my countenance had changed. I told
them my story –they did not believe it. I now tell it to you –and
I can scarcely expect you to put more faith in it than did the merry
fishermen of Lofoden.


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