Of all of the works of Edgar Allan Poe’s, one of my favorites is The Premature Burial (1844). The narrator of the story is a man who suffers from cataleptic attacks which leave him insensate and seemingly lifeless. He develops a fear of dying and of the worst form of death: being buried alive.
I recently took another look at the tale, in particular at some obscure books which are referenced within it. In this post I take a look at each of these references, after a spoiler-laden discussion of the story. If you haven’t read The Premature Burial yet, I encourage you to do so; it’s not quite what you think it is. Then come back here and I’ll have a few words about it.
The story goes into great detail about a number of ‘true’ cases of premature burial; obviously the narrator is completely obsessed with the topic and overwhelmed with dreams and thoughts of his own demise. These thoughts culminate in an experience in which he believes himself to be buried alive, when in fact he is simply in a darkened narrow berth of a river sloop. The narrator comes to an important realization:
The tortures endured, however, were indubitably quite equal for the time, to those of actual sepulture. They were fearfully- they were inconceivably hideous; but out of Evil proceeded Good; for their very excess wrought in my spirit an inevitable revulsion. 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. I read no “Night Thoughts“- no fustian about churchyards- no bugaboo tales- such as this. In short, I became a new man, and lived a man’s life. From that memorable night, I dismissed forever my charnel apprehensions, and with them vanished the cataleptic disorder, of which, perhaps, they had been less the consequence than the cause.
There are moments when, even to the sober eye of Reason, the world of our sad Humanity may assume the semblance of a Hell- but the imagination of man is no Carathis, to explore with impunity its every cavern. Alas! the grim legion of sepulchral terrors cannot be regarded as altogether fanciful- but, like the Demons in whose company Afrasiab made his voyage down the Oxus, they must sleep, or they will devour us- they must be suffered to slumber, or we perish.
(Emphasis mine.) I especially like the not-too-subtle jab at the reader: “I read… no bugaboo tales – such as this.”
Poe wrote often about premature burial; it is one of his most prominent themes, appearing for instance in, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Cask of Amontillado, and The Black Cat. I have read two theories of this thematic focus: either Poe was taking advantage of – and sometimes mocking – a popular obsession of his era, or premature burial was a genuine fear of his own. In the latter case, one can interpret The Premature Burial as a cathartic story in which he faces and overcomes one of his own concerns. Whichever theory one favors, the story is undoubtedly one of Poe’s most positive.
There are two books referred to in the concluding paragraphs of the tale which I’ve always wondered about: “Buchan” and “Night Thoughts”. Neither of them is well-known in modern times. However, thanks to the wonder of Google books, both of these books are readily found!
“Buchan” evidently refers to the book Domestic Medicine (1769) by William Buchan, a Scottish physician. This was the first ‘home remedy’ medical book published, and probably ushered in a new era of hypochondria! The book was an immense success, and sold 80,000 copies over 19 English editions, not to mention editions in other languages. The section which might have captured Poe’s attention was on apoplexy:
Of the apoplexy
The apoplexy is a sudden loss of sense and motion, during which the patient is to all appearance dead; the heart and lungs however still continue to move. Though this disease proves often fatal, yet it may sometimes be removed by proper care. It chiefly attacks sedentary persons of a gross habit, who use a rich and plentiful diet, and indulge in strong liquors. People in the decline of life are most subject to the apoplexy. It prevails most in winter, especially in rainy seasons, and very low states of the barometer.
CAUSES – The immediate cause of an apoplexy is a compression of the brain, occasioned by an excess of blood, or a collection of watery humours. The former is called a sanguine, and the latter a ferous apoplexy. It may be occasioned by any thing that increases the circulation towards the brain, or prevents the return of blood from the head; as intense study; violent passions; viewing objects for a long time obliquely; wearing any thing too tight around the neck; a rich and luxurious diet; suppression of urine; suffering the body to cool suddenly after being greatly heated; continuing long in a warm or cold bath; the excessive use of spiceries, or high seasoned food; excess of venery…
One can see how Poe might have been inspired by the idea of apoplexy being brought about by ‘violent passions’.
“Night Thoughts” (1742) refers to a collection of poems by the English poet Edward Young. The full title is Night-Thoughts on Life, Death & Immortality, and the poem is the musings of Young on these subjects over the course of nine nights. The book was quite successful and new editions were still being produced in the early 1800s. With its subject matter, it is not surprising that Poe would have found it a useful reference for “mood”, if nothing else. A sampling:
Mine d’yd with thee, PHILANDER! thy last sigh
Dissolv’d the charm; the disenchanted earth
Lost all her lustre. Where her glitt’ring towers?
Her golden mountains, where? all darken’d down
To naked waste; a dreary vale of tears:
The great magician’s dead! Thou poor, pale piece
Of out-cast earth, in darkness! what a change
From yesterday! Thy darling hope so near,
(Long-labour’d prize!) O how ambition flush’d
Thy glowing cheek! Ambition truly great,
of virtuous praise. Death’s subtle seed within
(Sly, treach’rous miner!) working in the dark,
Smil’d at thy well-concerted scheme, and beckon’d
The worm to riot on that rose so red,
Unfaded as it fell; one moment’s prey!
Pretty heavy stuff, eh? Poe may have been influenced or inspired by such poetry, but I would personally say he surpassed it greatly.