Into the Moment of Crisis

In "MS. Found in a Bottle" Edgar Allan Poe thrusts us into a situation that has fascinated, even obsessed, artists and writers since the later eighteenth century — into the moment of crisis. Poe's narrator, a wealthy wanderer who had taken passage on a merchant vessel sailing from Java, sets his tale by establishing a mood of complete peace, which he then transforms into a situation of great movement, excitement, and danger. Unable to sleep during one night of almost preternatural calm, he climbed a ladder to the deck.

As I placed my foot upon the upper step of the companion-ladder, I was startled by a loud, humming noise, like that occasioned by the rapid revolution of a mill-wheel, and before I could ascertain its meaning, I found the ship quivering to its centre. In the next instant a wilderness of foam hurled us upon our beam-ends, and, rushing over us fore and aft, swept the entire decks from stem to stern. . . . Stunned by the shock of the water, I found myself, upon recovery, jammed in between the stern-post and rudder. With great difficulty I regained my feet, and looking dizzily around, was at first struck with the idea of our being among breakers; so terrific, beyond the wildest imagination, was the whirlpool of mountainous and foaming ocean within which we were engulfed. After a while I heard the voice of an old Swede, who had shipped with us at the moment of leaving port.... All on deck, with the exception of ourselves, had been swept overboard; the captain and mates must have perished while they slept, for the cabins were deluged with water

In Poe's tale the moment of crisis takes the specific form of shipwreck in which a vessel and all those upon it are battered by natural forces. The sudden crash of the totally unexpected sea upon the ship produces a moment of crisis, a flash-point, one of those brief instants in time when the primal isolation and helplessness of the human condition are revealed.

Like the analogous situations of becoming a victim of avalanche, deluge, volcano, or alien invasion, that of the man shipwrecked and cast away presents human beings impinged upon by powerful external forces. These forces besiege the perceiving consciousness here that of a narrator — and threaten him with total loss of existence. Since such experiences are often presented from within the situation (even when it does not result in death, the final crisis), the one who relates it does not yet know the eventual outcome. The essence of this compelling situation, in other words, lies in its isolation and discontinuity, for it is cut off or set off from what precedes and what follows. As Poe's "MS. Found in a Bottle" makes clear, the situation of crisis creates or generates an entirely new imaginative cosmos for those who experience it. The old world of boredom and monotony that drove Poe's narrator to board the merchant ship in the first place suddenly comes to an end, for he finds himself in a new life, a new situation, a new world. But at the same moment that this new imaginative world comes into being, it also threatens to end — and to end with it the human being who finds himself or herself there.

Equivalent Structures

This situation of crisis and cataclysm, which has so attracted the imaginations of novelists, poets, and painters for the last two hundred years, takes several major forms, all of which are variations upon single basic structure in which human beings are surrounded, assaulted, and often finally engulfed by powerful external forces. This basic intellectual structure appears, for example, in Poe's "MS. Found in a Bottle" in the form of a literal narrative, but in Anghelos Sikelianos's "The Sacred Way" the paradigmatic situation takes the form of a complex analogy:

Through the new wound which fate had opened in me
it seemed the setting sun entered my heart
with the impetus of water entering suddenly the breach in a sinking ship. [trans. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard]

Cottage destroyed by AvalancheThe same structure of crisis and cataclysm also informs J. M. W. Turner's Cottage Destroyed by an Avalanche (c. 1810, Tate Gallery), which is also known as The Fall of an Avalanche in the Grissons . Turner's image of natural disaster depicts the instant at which a gigantic boulder and mass of snow crash into a small Alpine dwelling. He freezes time at the moment of crisis, for although the rock has already touched the cottage, it has not yet crushed it, and, similarly, the painter has suspended in mid-air the snow and smaller rocks that will obliterate the building and the people inside it. Like Poe's tale, this painting contrasts a quiet, peaceful, essentially static world with one of crisis. "MS. Found in a Bottle," we recall, begins with the pre-crisis world, and the destroying sea transforms this calm existence into a perilous kinetic one. Turner's Cottage Destroyed by an Avalanche, which must work with the means available to the pictorial image, juxtaposes the pre- and post-crisis worlds spatially rather than by temporal succession. The bottom fifth of the picture thus depicts the quiet world of mountain, trees, and cottage upon which the avalanche bursts from above. To this peaceful world, which occupies such a small portion of the image, Turner juxtaposes a series of visually opposing natural forces: the giant boulder that has just reached the cottage inclines on an axis that parallels a line drawn from the picture's upper left corner to lower right, the snowslide behind the boulder forms a sharply opposing diagonal, and the storm in the left distance parallels the axis of the boulder. As Allen Staley has pointed out, this painting has often been compared to the artist's Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps (1812, Tate Gallery), another of his many images of the destructive forces of nature:

Both pictures contain driving storm and huge boulders, but whereas in the Hannibal the composition consists of a great swirling vortex which pulls the eye into a deep space, in . . . [Cottage Destroyed by an Avalanche] the crossed diagonals of boulder, avalanche, and storm stay near the surface and there is little suggestion of space.1

The effect of such flattened treatment of space, one may add, is to reinforce the picture's stopping time at the very instant of crisis.

Curiously, when Turner appended lines of his own composition to the picture when he exhibited it in 1810, he used the same basic situation but emphasized another moment in it:

The downward sun a parting sadness gleams,
Portentous lurid thro' the gathering storm;
Thick drifting snow, on snow,
Till the vast weight bursts thro' the rocky barrier;
Down at once, its pine clad forests,
And towering glaciers fall, the work of ages
Crashing through all! extinction follows,
And the toil, the hopes of man — o'erwhelms

Turner's lines do not emphasize or even mention directly the moment when the avalanche hurls itself into the cottage. Instead, they concentrate upon explaining the physical (or natural) causes of this Alpine disaster. The lines build to the moment the "vast weight burst thro" the rocky barrier," after which they contrast the present moment of destruction to the ages required to create that which is now being destroyed. Unlike the painting, which presents a particularly powerful image of nature destroying man, the verses that accompany it only present this fact in very general terms: "extinction follows,/ And the toil, the hopes of man — o'erwhelms." Turner's Cottage Destroyed by an Avalanche, then, provides a specific instance of the general phenomenon the lines describe; or to state the relationship between verbal and visual embodiments of the basic situation in a way that is more probably appropriate: after having been attracted to this visual image of the avalanche, Turner then appended his lines to explain how that situation came about. Both the painting and the verse epigraph, however, present a basic structure or situation in which man, or the objects which represent him, are about to be destroyed by surrounding natural forces that burst in upon him.

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Last modified 16 July 2007