Poe’s story (if that is what it is), ‘The Premature Burial’ (1844), rehearses the action of ‘Descent into the Maelstrom’ (1841) in another medium, earth rather than sea:
To be buried while alive is, beyond question, the most terrific of these extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality. That it has frequently, very frequently, so fallen will scarcely be denied by those who think. The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins? We know that there are diseases in which occur total cessations of all the apparent functions of vitality, and yet in which these cessations are merely suspensions, properly so called. They are only temporary pauses in the incomprehensible mechanism. A certain period elapses, and some unseen mysterious principle again sets in motion the magic pinions and the wizard wheels. The silver cord was not for ever loosed, nor the golden bowl irreparably broken. But where, meantime, was the soul?
just where and when (“a certain period”) are “the boundaries which divide Life from Death”? And what occurs to the soul, ‘there’ and ‘then’, between identities, or between identity and its annihilation? Poe’s wonderfully formulated suggestion is that such trans-formation is the working of an “incomprehensible mechanism”:
some unseen mysterious principle again sets in motion the magic pinions and the wizard wheels. The silver cord was not for ever loosed, nor the golden bowl irreparably broken.
This process of metamorphosis is the precondition of rebirth, psychological or otherwise. ‘The Premature Burial’ concludes:
My soul acquired tone — acquired temper. I went abroad. I took vigorous exercise. I breathed the free air of Heaven. I thought upon other subjects than Death. I discarded my medical books. “Buchan” I burned.1 I read no “Night Thoughts” — no fustian [speech] about churchyards — no bugaboo tales —such as this2. In short, I became a new man, and lived a man’s life.
- “Buchan” has not definitively been identified. Candidates include William Buchan (1729-1805), author of a popular medical book, and Peter Buchan (1790-1854), a collector of dark tales. See The Short Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe: An Annotated Edition. Night Thoughts is the famous book of Edward Young (1683-1765). ↩
- Poe’s genial self-reference within his own “bugaboo tale” — “such as this” — also functions to describe the metamorphosis at stake in it as an “incomprehensible” flip in awareness. ↩