Saturday, October 16, 2010

The epigraph to Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum ("Impia tortorum...")

I've been reading Edgar Allen Poe, something I haven't done since high school. In my present, Classically educated state, all his tags in Latin stand out for me much more––such as the Latin verses that are the epigraph to "The Pit and the Pendulum" (first published in 1842):
Impia tortorum longas hic turba furores
Sanguinis innocui, non satiata, aluit.
Sospite nunc patria, fracto nunc funeris antro,
Mors ubi dira fuit, vita salusque patent.

[Quatrain composed for the gates of a market to be erected upon the site of the Jacobin Club House at Paris.]
I've copied this version of the lines, along with the explanation, from an edition of Poe's works that appeared in 1849, the year of his death. The Latin isn't quite right (more on that in a bit), but here's how the translation goes if we follow the punctuation given above:
Here an impious mob of torturers, insatiable, fed their long-lasting frenzies for innocent blood. Now that the fatherland is safe, now that the cave of murder has been destroyed, in the place where foul death once was, life and health are open to all.
The "impious mob" are the Jacobins, the political club responsible, during the French Revolution, for the mass executions known as the Reign of Terror. After the Jacobins were suppressed in 1794, the site of their old club became a market (marché Saint-Honoré), the market for which the verses were written. "Life and health" at the end is a reference to the good stuff you can buy there, presumably.

[By the way, most translations of those lines that you find online, and in print, are wrong.]

But where did these lines come from? Baudelaire translated the story into French in 1857, and he attached a footnote to Poe's explanation where he mentioned (and he would know) that the market in question had no gates, and no inscription.

Poe had printed these lines before. He was a contributor to a periodical known as The Southern Literary Messenger, and in volume 2 (1835-6) the periodical printed a miscellany of mostly Classical tidbits, preciously entitled Pinakidia (ancient Greek for "Little tablets"). Though the Pinakidia are apparently unsigned, Poe was the author, and he included the following notice:
Some one after the manner of Santeuil, composed the following quatrain for the gates of the market to be erected on the site of the famous Jacobin Club at Paris,

Impia tortorum longas hic turba furores etc.
This version of the lines agrees in spellings and punctuation with the version from "The Pit and the Pendulum." Both of them contain an error: the third word, longas, ought to be longos in order to agree with furores, "frenzies." Is this Poe's mistake or just an oddly persistent misprint? Keep reading.

The ultimate source of Poe's quatrain seems to be a collection entitled Le Réveil d'Apollon ("The Awakening of Apollo"), a literary journal that may have lasted for just one issue (published 1796). Google Books doesn't have the collection itself, but an 1801 travel guide, the Manuel du voyageur à Paris, attributes the verses to it and introduces them as follows (it's in French; I'll translate):
A decree of the national Convention, rendered in the month of Floréal year 3 [= 1795?], suppressed the too-famous club of the Jacobins, and reserved its site for a market. A Latin poet made the following quatrain that appeared to us worthy of Santeuil, and that we found in a collection of verse, entitled The Awakening of Apollo. The government could ("pourrait") have it engraved on the gate of the market. Here it is:
We'll get to the version of the lines printed by the Manuel in a minute. Notice that the guide mentions "Santeuil," just as Poe did in the Pinakidia. Jean-Baptiste Santeuil (1630-1697) was famous for his Latin poems that were inscribed on the fountains of Paris, so the point of the comparison is to suggest that the quatrain for the market also deserves to be inscribed. Poe must have gotten both the quatrain and the reference to Santeuil from a source related to the Manuel (not necessarily the guide itself).

The version of the quatrain in the 1801 guide has the third word spelled correctly (longos). It also punctuates the first couplet differently:
Impia tortorum longos hîc turba furores,
Sanguinis innocui non satiata, aluit.
Unlike in the version at the beginning of this post, here the words non satiata ("not sated," second line) aren't set off by commas. Instead they're put with the two preceding words, sanguinis innocui ("innocent blood"). With this punctuation the first two lines go as follows:
Here an impious mob of torturers, who could never get their fill of innocent blood, fed their long-lasting frenzies.
I think that Latin grammar pretty much lets you put "innocent blood" here either with "frenzies" (as in my first translation) or with "not sated" (as in the second translation just above–I finessed the English a bit to make it sound more natural).

I can find one other quotation of these lines that predates Poe, and it agrees with the Manuel in all respects (even mentioning Santeuil!). So the misspelling and the variant punctuation from "The Pit and the Pendulum" do seem to originate with Poe. He interpreted the lines differently from the person who wrote them, exploiting an ambiguity in whether "innocent blood" goes with the words that come before it or after it.

In his 1857 translation, Baudelaire printed the couplet in its original version (= the version in the Manuel), with longos and no comma separating "not sated" from "innocent blood." But Baudelaire doesn't seem to have known the origin of the verses, so he must have been relying on his own knowledge of Latin to correct and repunctuate the lines.

Truth be told, "not sated of blood" does feel to me like better Latin than "frenzies of blood" (the literal meaning of Poe's version). Poe's version also makes the couplet clumsy and unbalanced, because "not sated" is all by itself.

Should I sum up this endless post? In bullet points then:
  • The Latin verses at the start of Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum" ultimately come from a collection entitled Le Réveil d'Apollon, a literary periodical published ca. 1796.
  • Poe first printed the verses in The Southern Literary Messenger (1835-6), where the third word was misspelled and the lines punctuated differently.
  • Poe maintained the same (mis)spelling and punctuation when he attached the lines to his story. He must have interpreted them in a way slightly different from what their author intended.
[Metrical note: The lines are actually two elegiac couplets: lines 2 and 4 should be indented, but I couldn't make Blogger do that for me (the Manuel indents them, as does Baudelaire, but the English editions of Poe do not). Metrically, the couplets come off as a bit rough because they don't follow all the prescriptive rules for Latin versification. For example, a couplet is supposed to end with a two-syllable word (in Latin it gives a nice rhythm), but aluit has three, and the elision with satiata is unpleasant.]

* * *

I am like the Prefect of the Parisian police in "The Purloined Letter": "A certain set of highly ingenious resources are, with the Prefect, a sort of Procrustean bed, to which he forcibly adapts his designs. But he perpetually errs by being too deep or too shallow for the matter in hand; and many a school-boy is a better reasoner than he."

The sort of ingenious analysis I have performed in this post is often referred to as Quellenforschung, "source criticism," an occupation for erudite bookkeepers and intellectual pygmies. *sigh*


  1. well done... you added to my appreciation of the umpteenth re-reading of poe's pit. -ernesto

  2. Interesting indeed

  3. Hi. This is a great piece of sleuthing and very elegantly put! I'd like to cite it in a paper--can you give me fuller details (i.e. name, if you don't mind. If you can, please send to this e-mail: nj[underscore]mann[at]hotmail[dot]com. Many thanks in advance.

  4. Very illuminating indeed .. I'm glad to have found your brilliant short treatise.

  5. Thank you very much for your more than enlightening analysis -- it was thorough, accurate and enjoyable. Bravo!

  6. Somewhat miffed when about to re-read The Pit and the Pendulum, since I know practically no Latin, I first tried Google Translate, which was predictably utterly useless, and then googled the quatrain and found your stunningly brilliant blog post. Thank you kindly.

    All the best,

  7. Thank you - thank you very much for this effort. A real treat of an Easter egg.