This is one of my favorite short stories by Poe. I remember feeling overwhelmed the first time I read it. The imagery is so vivid and the symbolism so powerful that it made a lasting impression on me. It was over 20 years ago that I read this story last, so I decided to read it again today. I have to say; it was even more intense this time than when I read it all those years ago.
The tale is actually a story within a story, where an old man tells a younger man about an event that occurred while he was fishing. A hurricane came upon his boat while at sea and the ship was pushed into a vortex. They were drawn down into the swirling whirlpool and he was the only survivor.
In this story, the maelström is the central symbol, although there are many other symbols that Poe incorporates; such as storm, the moon, mountains, just to point out a few. For me, there are several things that the maelström represents. On one level, it is a symbol for the subconscious mind. It also represents the passage between dimensions, such as the tunnel connecting this life with the afterlife, or the passage between Heaven and Hell. Finally, on a grander scale, the maelström is God: powerful, terrifying, and beautiful all at the same time.
Water and the ocean are common symbols for consciousness: fluid, undulating, shifting. In this story, Poe uses the whirlpool as a metaphor for spiraling downward into the unseen depths of one’s consciousness. It is a terrifying experience when one loses the connection with normal reality and descends into the uncharted regions of the mind.
It could not have been more than two minutes afterward 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 a 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.
Once inside the maelström, the protagonist describes the images he sees while suspended. Above, the full moon emanates rays of light; below, darkness and mystery. The words conjure images of an Heironymus Bosch painting. He is suspended between two worlds, or two realms of existence. Floating between the two worlds, he has a unique vantage of each realm.
Never shall I forget the sensation 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.
When faced with the manifestation of God, the protagonist becomes aware of his insignificance in the cosmic scale of existence. He is awed by God’s power and experiences what could almost be described as rapture, as his fear is replaced by the wonder of gazing into the unfathomable depths of the Divine.
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 individual life, in view of so wonderful a manifestation of God’s power. I do believe I blushed with shame when this idea crossed my mind. After a while I became possessed with the keenest curiosity about the whirl itself. I positively felt a wish to explore its depths, even at the great 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.
While in college, I was introduced to Plotinus while taking a course on Yeats. One of Plotinus’ concepts which continues to fascinate me is that of emanation. He asserts that the Divine source is the center of all existence. Emanating from the source are concentric circles, each populated with forms emanated from the source. As forms are emanated farther and farther away from the Divine center, they become more and more fragmented. Poe includes this imagery in his depiction of the maelström, where fragments are caught in the concentric circles of the vortex.
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 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.
Poe was undoubtedly a master in the art of the short story. Sadly, though, I feel that this story is eclipsed by his more popular works. I hope that you take the time to read this story, if you have not done so already, because it truly is a masterpiece of short fiction.