LOSS OF BREATH
LOSS OF BREATH
Edgar Allan Poe, 1850
O Breathe not, etc.
THE MOST notorious ill-fortune must in the end yield to the untiring
courage of philosophy- as the most stubborn city to the ceaseless
vigilance of an enemy. Shalmanezer, as we have it in holy writings,
lay three years before Samaria; yet it fell. Sardanapalus- see
Diodorus- maintained himself seven in Nineveh; but to no purpose.
Troy expired at the close of the second lustrum; and Azoth, as
Aristaeus declares upon his honour as a gentleman, opened at last
her gates to Psammetichus, after having barred them for the fifth part
of a century....
"Thou wretch!- thou vixen!- thou shrew!" said I to my wife on the
morning after our wedding; "thou witch!- thou hag!- thou
whippersnapper- thou sink of iniquity!- thou fiery-faced quintessence
of all that is abominable!- thou- thou-" here standing upon tiptoe,
seizing her by the throat, and placing my mouth close to her ear, I
was preparing to launch forth a new and more decided epithet of
opprobrium, which should not fail, if ejaculated, to convince her of
her insignificance, when to my extreme horror and astonishment I
discovered that I had lost my breath.
The phrases "I am out of breath," "I have lost my breath," etc., are
often enough repeated in common conversation; but it had never
occurred to me that the terrible accident of which I speak could bona
fide and actually happen! Imagine- that is if you have a fanciful
turn- imagine, I say, my wonder- my consternation- my despair!
There is a good genius, however, which has never entirely deserted
me. In my most ungovernable moods I still retain a sense of propriety,
et le chemin des passions me conduit- as Lord Edouard in the "Julie"
says it did him- a la philosophie veritable.
Although I could not at first precisely ascertain to what degree the
occurence had affected me, I determined at all events to conceal the
matter from my wife, until further experience should discover to me
the extent of this my unheard of calamity. Altering my countenance,
therefore, in a moment, from its bepuffed and distorted appearance, to
an expression of arch and coquettish benignity, I gave my lady a pat
on the one cheek, and a kiss on the other, and without saying one
syllable (Furies! I could not), left her astonished at my drollery, as
I pirouetted out of the room in a Pas de Zephyr.
Behold me then safely ensconced in my private boudoir, a fearful
instance of the ill consequences attending upon irascibility- alive,
with the qualifications of the dead- dead, with the propensities of
the living- an anomaly on the face of the earth- being very calm, yet
Yes! breathless. I am serious in asserting that my breath was
entirely gone. I could not have stirred with it a feather if my life
had been at issue, or sullied even the delicacy of a mirror. Hard
fate!- yet there was some alleviation to the first overwhelming
paroxysm of my sorrow. I found, upon trial, that the powers of
utterance which, upon my inability to proceed in the conversation with
my wife, I then concluded to be totally destroyed, were in fact only
partially impeded, and I discovered that had I, at that interesting
crisis, dropped my voice to a singularly deep guttural, I might
still have continued to her the communication of my sentiments; this
pitch of voice (the guttural) depending, I find, not upon the
current of the breath, but upon a certain spasmodic action of the
muscles of the throat.
Throwing myself upon a chair, I remained for some time absorbed in
meditation. My reflections, be sure, were of no consolatory kind. A
thousand vague and lachrymatory fancies took possesion of my soul-
and even the idea of suicide flitted across my brain; but it is a
trait in the perversity of human nature to reject the obvious and
the ready, for the far-distant and equivocal. Thus I shuddered at
self-murder as the most decided of atrocities while the tabby cat
purred strenuously upon the rug, and the very water dog wheezed
assiduously under the table, each taking to itself much merit for
the strength of its lungs, and all obviously done in derision of my
own pulmonary incapacity.
Oppressed with a tumult of vague hopes and fears, I at length
heard the footsteps of my wife descending the staircase. Being now
assured of her absence, I returned with a palpitating heart to the
scene of my disaster.
Carefully locking the door on the inside, I commenced a vigorous
search. It was possible, I thought, that, concealed in some obscure
corner, or lurking in some closet or drawer, might be found the lost
object of my inquiry. It might have a vapory- it might even have a
tangible form. Most philosophers, upon many points of philosophy,
are still very unphilosophical. William Godwin, however, says in his
"Mandeville," that "invisible things are the only realities," and
this, all will allow, is a case in point. I would have the judicious
reader pause before accusing such asseverations of an undue quantum of
absurdity. Anaxagoras, it will be remembered, maintained that snow
is black, and this I have since found to be the case.
Long and earnestly did I continue the investigation: but the
contemptible reward of my industry and perseverance proved to be
only a set of false teeth, two pair of hips, an eye, and a bundle of
billets-doux from Mr. Windenough to my wife. I might as well here
observe that this confirmation of my lady's partiality for Mr. W.
occasioned me little uneasiness. That Mrs. Lackobreath should admire
anything so dissimilar to myself was a natural and necessary evil. I
am, it is well known, of a robust and corpulent appearance, and at the
same time somewhat diminutive in stature. What wonder, then, that
the lath-like tenuity of my acquaintance, and his altitude, which
has grown into a proverb, should have met with all due estimation in
the eyes of Mrs. Lackobreath. But to return.
My exertions, as I have before said, proved fruitless. Closet
after closet- drawer after drawer- corner after corner- were
scrutinized to no purpose. At one time, however, I thought myself sure
of my prize, having, in rummaging a dressing-case, accidentally
demolished a bottle of Grandjean's Oil of Archangels- which, as an
agreeable perfume, I here take the liberty of recommending.
With a heavy heart I returned to my boudoir- there to ponder upon
some method of eluding my wife's penetration, until I could make
arrangements prior to my leaving the country, for to this I had
already made up my mind. In a foreign climate, being unknown, I might,
with some probability of success, endeavor to conceal my unhappy
calamity- a calamity calculated, even more than beggary, to estrange
the affections of the multitude, and to draw down upon the wretch
the well-merited indignation of the virtuous and the happy. I was
not long in hesitation. Being naturally quick, I committed to memory
the entire tragedy of "Metamora." I had the good fortune to
recollect that in the accentuation of this drama, or at least of
such portion of it as is allotted to the hero, the tones of voice in
which I found myself deficient were altogether unnecessary, and the
deep guttural was expected to reign monotonously throughout.
I practised for some time by the borders of a well frequented
marsh;- herein, however, having no reference to a similar proceeding
of Demosthenes, but from a design peculiarly and conscientiously my
own. Thus armed at all points, I determined to make my wife believe
that I was suddenly smitten with a passion for the stage. In this, I
succeeded to a miracle; and to every question or suggestion found
myself at liberty to reply in my most frog-like and sepulchral tones
with some passage from the tragedy- any portion of which, as I soon
took great pleasure in observing, would apply equally well to any
particular subject. It is not to be supposed, however, that in the
delivery of such passages I was found at all deficient in the
looking asquint- the showing my teeth- the working my knees- the
shuffling my feet- or in any of those unmentionable graces which are
now justly considered the characteristics of a popular performer. To
be sure they spoke of confining me in a strait-jacket- but, good God!
they never suspected me of having lost my breath.
Having at length put my affairs in order, I took my seat very
early one morning in the mail stage for --, giving it to be
understood, among my acquaintances, that business of the last
importance required my immediate personal attendance in that city.
The coach was crammed to repletion; but in the uncertain twilight
the features of my companions could not be distinguished. Without
making any effectual resistance, I suffered myself to be placed
between two gentlemen of colossal dimensions; while a third, of a size
larger, requesting pardon for the liberty he was about to take,
threw himself upon my body at full length, and falling asleep in an
instant, drowned all my guttural ejaculations for relief, in a snore
which would have put to blush the roarings of the bull of Phalaris.
Happily the state of my respiratory faculties rendered suffocation
an accident entirely out of the question.
As, however, the day broke more distinctly in our approach to the
outskirts of the city, my tormentor, arising and adjusting his
shirt-collar, thanked me in a very friendly manner for my civility.
Seeing that I remained motionless (all my limbs were dislocated and my
head twisted on one side), his apprehensions began to be excited;
and arousing the rest of the passengers, he communicated, in a very
decided manner, his opinion that a dead man had been palmed upon
them during the night for a living and responsible fellow-traveller;
here giving me a thump on the right eye, by way of demonstrating the
truth of his suggestion.
Hereupon all, one after another (there were nine in company),
believed it their duty to pull me by the ear. A young practising
physician, too, having applied a pocket-mirror to my mouth, and
found me without breath, the assertion of my persecutor was pronounced
a true bill; and the whole party expressed a determination to endure
tamely no such impositions for the future, and to proceed no farther
with any such carcasses for the present.
I was here, accordingly, thrown out at the sign of the "Crow" (by
which tavern the coach happened to be passing), without meeting with
any farther accident than the breaking of both my arms, under the left
hind wheel of the vehicle. I must besides do the driver the justice to
state that he did not forget to throw after me the largest of my
trunks, which, unfortunately falling on my head, fractured my skull in
a manner at once interesting and extraordinary.
The landlord of the "Crow," who is a hospitable man, finding that my
trunk contained sufficient to indemnify him for any little trouble
he might take in my behalf, sent forthwith for a surgeon of his
acquaintance, and delivered me to his care with a bill and receipt for
The purchaser took me to his apartments and commenced operations
immediately. Having cut off my ears, however, he discovered signs of
animation. He now rang the bell, and sent for a neighboring apothecary
with whom to consult in the emergency. In case of his suspicions
with regard to my existence proving ultimately correct, he, in the
meantime, made an incision in my stomach, and removed several of my
viscera for private dissection.
The apothecary had an idea that I was actually dead. This idea I
endeavored to confute, kicking and plunging with all my might, and
making the most furious contortions- for the operations of the
surgeon had, in a measure, restored me to the possession of my
faculties. All, however, was attributed to the effects of a new
galvanic battery, wherewith the apothecary, who is really a man of
information, performed several curious experiments, in which, from
my personal share in their fulfillment, I could not help feeling
deeply interested. It was a course of mortification to me,
nevertheless, that although I made several attempts at conversation,
my powers of speech were so entirely in abeyance, that I could not
even open my mouth; much less, then, make reply to some ingenious
but fanciful theories of which, under other circumstances, my minute
acquaintance with the Hippocratian pathology would have afforded me
a ready confutation.
Not being able to arrive at a conclusion, the practitioners remanded
me for farther examination. I was taken up into a garret; and the
surgeon's lady having accommodated me with drawers and stockings,
the surgeon himself fastened my hands, and tied up my jaws with a
pocket-handkerchief- then bolted the door on the outside as he
hurried to his dinner, leaving me alone to silence and to meditation.
I now discovered to my extreme delight that I could have spoken
had not my mouth been tied up with the pocket-handkerchief. Consoling
myself with this reflection, I was mentally repeating some passages
of the "Omnipresence of the Deity," as is my custom before resigning
myself to sleep, when two cats, of a greedy and vituperative turn,
entering at a hole in the wall, leaped up with a flourish a la
Catalani, and alighting opposite one another on my visage, betook
themselves to indecorous contention for the paltry consideration of my
But, as the loss of his ears proved the means of elevating to the
throne of Cyrus, the Magian or Mige-Gush of Persia, and as the cutting
off his nose gave Zopyrus possession of Babylon, so the loss of a
few ounces of my countenance proved the salvation of my body.
Aroused by the pain, and burning with indignation, I burst, at a
single effort, the fastenings and the bandage. Stalking across the
room I cast a glance of contempt at the belligerents, and throwing
open the sash to their extreme horror and disappointment, precipitated
myself, very dexterously, from the window.
this moment passing from the city jail to the scaffold erected for his
execution in the suburbs. His extreme infirmity and long continued ill
health had obtained him the privilege of remaining unmanacled; and
habited in his gallows costume- one very similar to my own,- he lay at
full length in the bottom of the hangman's cart (which happened to
be under the windows of the surgeon at the moment of my precipitation)
without any other guard than the driver, who was asleep, and two
recruits of the sixth infantry, who were drunk.
As ill-luck would have it, I alit upon my feet within the vehicle.
immediately, he bolted out behind, and turning down an alley, was
out of sight in the twinkling of an eye. The recruits, aroused by
the bustle, could not exactly comprehend the merits of the
transaction. Seeing, however, a man, the precise counterpart of the
felon, standing upright in the cart before their eyes, they were of
(so they expressed themselves,) and, having communicated this
opinion to one another, they took each a dram, and then knocked me
down with the butt-ends of their muskets.
It was not long ere we arrived at the place of destination. Of
course nothing could be said in my defence. Hanging was my
inevitable fate. I resigned myself thereto with a feeling half stupid,
half acrimonious. Being little of a cynic, I had all the sentiments of
a dog. The hangman, however, adjusted the noose about my neck. The
I forbear to depict my sensations upon the gallows; although here,
undoubtedly, I could speak to the point, and it is a topic upon
which nothing has been well said. In fact, to write upon such a
theme it is necessary to have been hanged. Every author should confine
himself to matters of experience. Thus Mark Antony composed a treatise
upon getting drunk.
I may just mention, however, that die I did not. My body was, but
I had no breath to be, suspended; and but for the knot under my left
ear (which had the feel of a military stock) I dare say that I
should have experienced very little inconvenience. As for the jerk
given to my neck upon the falling of the drop, it merely proved a
corrective to the twist afforded me by the fat gentleman in the coach.
For good reasons, however, I did my best to give the crowd the worth
of their trouble. My convulsions were said to be extraordinary. My
spasms it would have been difficult to beat. The populace encored.
Several gentlemen swooned; and a multitude of ladies were carried home
in hysterics. Pinxit availed himself of the opportunity to retouch,
from a sketch taken upon the spot, his admirable painting of the
"Marsyas flayed alive."
When I had afforded sufficient amusement, it was thought proper to
remove my body from the gallows;- this the more especially as the
real culprit had in the meantime been retaken and recognized, a fact
which I was so unlucky as not to know.
Much sympathy was, of course, exercised in my behalf, and as no
one made claim to my corpse, it was ordered that I should be
interred in a public vault.
Here, after due interval, I was deposited. The sexton departed,
and I was left alone. A line of Marston's "Malcontent"-
Death's a good fellow and keeps open house-
struck me at that moment as a palpable lie.
I knocked off, however, the lid of my coffin, and stepped out. The
place was dreadfully dreary and damp, and I became troubled with
ennui. By way of amusement, I felt my way among the numerous coffins
ranged in order around. I lifted them down, one by one, and breaking
open their lids, busied myself in speculations about the mortality
"This," I soliloquized, tumbling over a carcass, puffy, bloated, and
rotund- "this has been, no doubt, in every sense of the word, an
unhappy- an unfortunate man. It has been his terrible lot not to walk
but to waddle- to pass through life not like a human being, but like
an elephant- not like a man, but like a rhinoceros.
"His attempts at getting on have been mere abortions, and his
circumgyratory proceedings a palpable failure. Taking a step
forward, it has been his misfortune to take two toward the right,
and three toward the left. His studies have been confined to the
poetry of Crabbe. He can have no idea of the wonder of a pirouette. To
him a pas de papillon has been an abstract conception. He has never
ascended the summit of a hill. He has never viewed from any steeple
the glories of a metropolis. Heat has been his mortal enemy. In the
dog-days his days have been the days of a dog. Therein, he has dreamed
of flames and suffocation- of mountains upon mountains- of Pelion upon
Ossa. He was short of breath- to say all in a word, he was short of
breath. He thought it extravagant to play upon wind instruments. He
was the inventor of self-moving fans, wind-sails, and ventilators. He
patronized Du Pont the bellows-maker, and he died miserably in
attempting to smoke a cigar. His was a case in which I feel a deep
interest- a lot in which I sincerely sympathize.
"But here,"- said I- "here"- and I dragged spitefully from its
receptacle a gaunt, tall and peculiar-looking form, whose remarkable
appearance struck me with a sense of unwelcome familiarity- "here is
a wretch entitled to no earthly commiseration." Thus saying, in
order to obtain a more distinct view of my subject, I applied my thumb
and forefinger to its nose, and causing it to assume a sitting
position upon the ground, held it thus, at the length of my arm, while
I continued my soliloquy.
-"Entitled," I repeated, "to no earthly commiseration. Who indeed
would think of compassioning a shadow? Besides, has he not had his
full share of the blessings of mortality? He was the originator of
tall monuments- shot-towers- lightning-rods- Lombardy poplars. His
treatise upon "Shades and Shadows" has immortalized him. He edited
with distinguished ability the last edition of "South on the Bones."
He went early to college and studied pneumatics. He then came home,
talked eternally, and played upon the French-horn. He patronized the
bagpipes. Captain Barclay, who walked against Time, would not walk
against him. Windham and Allbreath were his favorite writers,- his
favorite artist, Phiz. He died gloriously while inhaling gas- levique
flatu corrupitur, like the fama pudicitae in Hieronymus.* He was
*Tenera res in feminis fama pudicitiae, et quasi flos pulcherrimus,
cito ad levem marcessit auram, levique flatu corrumpitur, maxime,
&c.- Hieronymus ad Salvinam.
"How can you?- how- can- you?"- interrupted the object of my
animadversions, gasping for breath, and tearing off, with a
desperate exertion, the bandage around its jaws- "how can you, Mr.
Lackobreath, be so infernally cruel as to pinch me in that manner by
the nose? Did you not see how they had fastened up my mouth- and you
must know- if you know any thing- how vast a superfluity of breath I
have to dispose of! If you do not know, however, sit down and you
shall see. In my situation it is really a great relief to be able to
open ones mouth- to be able to expatiate- to be able to communicate
with a person like yourself, who do not think yourself called upon at
every period to interrupt the thread of a gentleman's discourse.
Interruptions are annoying and should undoubtedly be abolished- don't
you think so?- no reply, I beg you,- one person is enough to be
speaking at a time.- I shall be done by and by, and then you may
begin.- How the devil sir, did you get into this place?- not a word I
beseech you- been here some time myself- terrible accident!- heard of
it, I suppose?- awful calamity!- walking under your windows- some
short while ago- about the time you were stage-struck- horrible
occurrence!- heard of "catching one's breath," eh?- hold your tongue
I tell you!- I caught somebody elses!- had always too much of my own-
met Blab at the corner of the street- wouldn't give me a chance for a
word- couldn't get in a syllable edgeways- attacked, consequently,
with epilepsis- Blab made his escape- damn all fools!- they took me up
for dead, and put me in this place- pretty doings all of them!- heard
all you said about me- every word a lie- horrible!- wonderful-
outrageous!- hideous!- incomprehensible!- et cetera- et cetera- et
cetera- et cetera-"
It is impossible to conceive my astonishment at so unexpected a
discourse, or the joy with which I became gradually convinced that the
breath so fortunately caught by the gentleman (whom I soon
recognized as my neighbor Windenough) was, in fact, the identical
expiration mislaid by myself in the conversation with my wife. Time,
place, and circumstances rendered it a matter beyond question. I did
not at least during the long period in which the inventor of Lombardy
poplars continued to favor me with his explanations.
In this respect I was actuated by that habitual prudence which has
ever been my predominating trait. I reflected that many difficulties
might still lie in the path of my preservation which only extreme
exertion on my part would be able to surmount. Many persons, I
considered, are prone to estimate commodities in their
possession- however valueless to the then proprietor- however
troublesome, or distressing- in direct ratio with the advantages to
be derived by others from their attainment, or by themselves from
their abandonment. Might not this be the case with Mr. Windenough?
In displaying anxiety for the breath of which he was at present so
willing to get rid, might I not lay myself open to the exactions of
his avarice? There are scoundrels in this world, I remembered with a
sigh, who will not scruple to take unfair opportunities with even a
next door neighbor, and (this remark is from Epictetus) it is
precisely at that time when men are most anxious to throw off the
burden of their own calamities that they feel the least desirous of
relieving them in others.
Upon considerations similar to these, and still retaining my grasp
upon the nose of Mr. W., I accordingly thought proper to model my
"Monster!" I began in a tone of the deepest indignation- "monster
and double-winded idiot!- dost thou, whom for thine iniquities it has
pleased heaven to accurse with a two-fold respimtion- dost thou, I
say, presume to address me in the familiar language of an old
acquaintance?- 'I lie,' forsooth! and 'hold my tongue,' to be
sure!- pretty conversation indeed, to a gentleman with a single
breath!- all this, too, when I have it in my power to relieve the
calamity under which thou dost so justly suffer- to curtail the
superfluities of thine unhappy respiration."
Like Brutus, I paused for a reply- with which, like a tornado, Mr.
Windenough immediately overwhelmed me. Protestation followed upon
protestation, and apology upon apology. There were no terms with which
he was unwilling to comply, and there were none of which I failed to
take the fullest advantage.
Preliminaries being at length arranged, my acquaintance delivered me
the respiration; for which (having carefully examined it) I gave him
afterward a receipt.
I am aware that by many I shall be held to blame for speaking in a
manner so cursory, of a transaction so impalpable. It will be
thought that I should have entered more minutely, into the details
of an occurrence by which- and this is very true- much new light might
be thrown upon a highly interesting branch of physical philosophy.
To all this I am sorry that I cannot reply. A hint is the only
answer which I am permitted to make. There were circumstances- but I
think it much safer upon consideration to say as little as possible
about an affair so delicate- so delicate, I repeat, and at the time
involving the interests of a third party whose sulphurous resentment I
have not the least desire, at this moment, of incurring.
We were not long after this necessary arrangement in effecting an
escape from the dungeons of the sepulchre. The united strength of
our resuscitated voices was soon sufficiently apparent. Scissors,
the Whig editor, republished a treatise upon "the nature and origin of
subterranean noises." A reply- rejoinder- confutation- and
justification- followed in the columns of a Democratic Gazette. It
was not until the opening of the vault to decide the controversy, that
the appearance of Mr. Windenough and myself proved both parties to
have been decidedly in the wrong.
I cannot conclude these details of some very singular passages in
a life at all times sufficiently eventful, without again recalling
to the attention of the reader the merits of that indiscriminate
philosophy which is a sure and ready shield against those shafts of
calamity which can neither be seen, felt nor fully understood. It
was in the spirit of this wisdom that, among the ancient Hebrews, it
was believed the gates of Heaven would be inevitably opened to that
sinner, or saint, who, with good lungs and implicit confidence, should
vociferate the word "Amen!" It was in the spirit of this wisdom
that, when a great plague raged at Athens, and every means had been in
vain attempted for its removal, Epimenides, as Laertius relates, in
his second book, of that philosopher, advised the erection of a shrine
and temple "to the proper God."