Loss of Breath:
by Edgar Allan Poe(1850)
O breathe not, &c. -- Moore's
A Tale Neither In nor Out of
THE MOST notorious ill-fortune, must, in the
end, yield to the untiring
courage of philosophy -- as the most stubborn city to the
vigilance of an enemy. Salmanezer, as we have it in the holy
lay three years before Samaria; yet it fell. Sardanapalus -- see
Diodorus -- maintained himself seven in Nineveh; but to no
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 Psammitticus, after having barred them for the fifth
of a century....
"Thou wretch! -- thou vixen! -- thou shrew!" said I to my
morning after our wedding, "thou witch! -- thou hag! -- thou
whipper-snapper! -- thou sink of iniquity! -- thou fiery-faced
of all that is abominable! -- thou -- thou --" here standing upon
seizing her by the throat, and placing my mouth close to her ear,
was preparing to launch forth a new and more decided epithet of
opprobrium, which should not fail, if ejaculated, to convince her
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,"
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
There is a good genius, however, which has never entirely
me. In my most ungovernable moods I still retain a sense of
et le chemin des passions me conduit -- as Lord Edouard in
says it did him -- à la philosophie veritable.
Although I could not at first precisely ascertain to what
occurrence had affected me, I determined at all events to conceal
matter from my wife, until further experience should discover to
the extent of this my unheard of calamity. Altering my
therefore, in a moment, from its bepuffed and distorted
an expression of arch and coquettish benignity, I gave my lady a
on the one cheek, and a kiss on the other, and without saying one
syllable, (Furies! I could not), left her astonished at my
I pirouetted out of the room in a Pas de Zéphyr.
Behold me then safely ensconced in my private
instance of the ill consequences attending upon
irascibility -- alive,
with the qualifications of the dead -- dead, with the
the living -- an anomaly on the face of the earth -- being very
Yes! breathless. I am serious in asserting that my breath
entirely gone. I could not have stirred with it a feather if my
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
my wife, I then concluded to be totally destroyed, were in fact
partially impeded, and I discovered that had I at that
crisis, dropped my voice to a singularly deep guttural, I might
still have continued to her the communication of my sentiments;
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
meditation. My reflections, be sure, were of no consolatory kind.
thousand vague and lachrymatory fancies took possession of my
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
own pulmonary incapacity.
Oppressed with a tumult of vague hopes and fears, I at
heard the footsteps of my wife descending the staircase. Being
assured of her absence, I returned with a palpitating heart to
scene of my disaster.
Carefully locking the door on the inside, I commenced a
search. It was possible, I thought that, concealed in some
corner, or lurking in some closet or drawer, might be found the
object of my inquiry. It might have a vapory -- it might even
tangible form. Most philosophers, upon many points of philosophy,
are still very unphilosophical. William Godwin, however, says in
"Mandeville," that "invisible things are the only realities," and
this all will allow, is a case in point. I would have the
reader pause before accusing such asseverations of an undue
absurdity. Anaxagoras, it will be remembered, maintained that
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
billets-doux from Mr. Windenough to my wife. I might as
observe that this confirmation of my lady's partiality for Mr. W.
occasioned me little uneasiness. That Mrs. Lackobreath should
anything so dissimilar to myself was a natural and necessary
am, it is well known, of a robust and corpulent appearance, and
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
the eyes of Mrs. Lackobreath. But to return.
My exertions, as I have before said, proved fruitless.
after closet -- drawer after drawer -- corner after corner --
scrutinized to no purpose. At one time, however, I thought myself
of my prize, having, in rummaging a dressing-case, accidentally
demolished a bottle of Grandjean's Oil of Archangels -- which, as
agreeable perfume, I here take the liberty of recommending.
With a heavy heart I returned to my boudoir -- there
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
with some probability of success, endeavor to conceal my unhappy
calamity -- a calamity calculated, even more than beggary, to
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
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
which I found myself deficient were altogether unnecessary, and
deep guttural was expected to reign monotonously throughout.
I practised for some time by the borders of a well
marsh; -- herein, however, having no reference to a similar
of Demosthenes, but from a design peculiarly and conscientiously
own. Thus armed at all points, I determined to make my wife
that I was suddenly smitten with a passion for the stage. In
succeeded to a miracle; and to every question or suggestion found
myself at liberty to reply in my most frog-like and sepulchral
with some passage from the tragedy -- any portion of which, as I
took great pleasure in observing, would apply equally well to any
particular subject. It is not to be supposed, however, that in
delivery of such passages I was found at all deficient in the
looking asquint -- the showing my teeth -- the working my knees
shuffling my feet -- or in any of those unmentionable graces
now justly considered the characteristics of a popular performer.
be sure they spoke of confining me in a straight-jacket -- but,
they never suspected me of having lost my breath.
Having at length put my affairs in order, I took my seat
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
The coach was crammed to repletion; but in the uncertain
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
larger, requesting pardon for the liberty he was about to take,
threw himself upon my body at full length, and falling asleep in
instant, drowned all my guttural ejaculations for relief, in a
which would have put to blush the roarings of the bull of
Happily the state of my respiratory faculties rendered
an accident entirely out of the question.
As, however, the day broke more distinctly in our approach
outskirts of the city, my tormentor arising and adjusting his
shirt-collar, thanked me in a very friendly manner for my
Seeing that I remained motionless, (all my limbs were dislocated
head twisted on one side), his apprehensions began to be excited;
and arousing the rest of the passengers, he communicated in a
decided manner, his opinion that a dead man had been palmed upon
them during the night for a living and responsible
here giving me a thump on the right eye, by way of demonstrating
truth of his suggestion.
Hereupon all, one after another, (there were nine in
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
a true bill; and the whole party expressed a determination to
tamely no such impositions for the future, and to proceed no
with any such carcasses for the present.
I was here, accordingly, thrown out at the sign of the
which tavern the coach happened to be passing,) without meeting
any farther accident than the breaking of both my arms, under the
hind wheel of the vehicle. I must besides do the driver the
state that he did not forget to throw after me the largest of my
trunks, which, unfortunately falling on my head, fractured my
a manner at once interesting and extraordinary.
The landlord of the "Crow," who is a hospitable man, finding
trunk contained sufficient to indemnify him for any little
he might take in my behalf, sent forthwith for a surgeon of his
acquaintance, and delivered me to his care with a bill and
The purchaser took me to his apartments and commenced
immediately. Having cut off my ears, however, he discovered signs
animation. He now rang the bell, and sent for a neighboring
with whom to consult in the emergency. In case of his suspicions
with regard to my existence proving ultimately correct, he, in
meantime, made an incision in my stomach, and removed several of
viscera for private dissection.
The apothecary had an idea that I was actually dead. This
endeavored to confute, kicking and plunging with all my might,
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
information, performed several curious experiments, in which,
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
my powers of speech were so entirely in abeyance, that I could
even open my mouth; much less then make reply to some ingenious
but fanciful theories of which, under other circumstances, my
acquaintance with the Hippocratian pathology would have afforded
a ready confutation.
Not being able to arrive at a conclusion, the practitioners
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
I now discovered to my extreme delight that I could have
had not my mouth been tied up with the pocket handkerchief.
myself with this reflection, I was mentally repeating some
of the "Omnipresence of the Deity," as is my custom before
myself to sleep, when two cats, of a greedy and vituperative
entering at a hole in the wall, leaped up with a flourish
Catalani, and alighting opposite one another on my visage, betook
themselves to indecorous contention for the paltry consideration
But, as the loss of his ears proved the means of elevating
throne of Cyrus, the Magian or Mige-Gush of Persia, and as the
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
room I cast a glance of contempt at the belligerents, and
open the sash to their extreme horror and disappointment,
myself, very dexterously, from the window.
The mail-robber W---, to whom I bore a singular resemblance,
at this moment passing from the city jail to the scaffold erected
execution in the suburbs. His extreme infirmity and long
health, had obtained him the privilege of remaining unmanacled;
habited in his gallows costume -- one very similar to my own --
full length in the bottom of the hangman's cart (which happened
be under the windows of the surgeon at the moment of my
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
W---, who was an acute fellow, perceived his opportunity.
up immediately, he bolted out behind, and turning down an alley,
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
felon, standing upright in the cart before their eyes, they were
opinion that the rascal (meaning W---) was after making his
(so they expressed themselves,) and, having communicated this
opinion to one another, they took each a dram, and then knocked
down with the butt-ends of their muskets.
It was not long ere we arrived at the place of destination.
course nothing could be said in my defence. Hanging was my
inevitable fate. I resigned myself thereto with a feeling half
half acrimonious. Being little of a cynic, I had all the
a dog. The hangman, however, adjusted the noose about my neck.
I forbear to depict my sensations upon the gallows; although
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
himself to matters of experience. Thus Mark Antony composed a
upon getting drunk.
I may just mention, however, that die I did not. My body
I had no breath to be, suspended; and but for the knot
ear (which had the feel of a military stock) I dare say that I
should have experienced very little inconvenience. As for the
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
For good reasons, however, I did my best to give the crowd
of their trouble. My convulsions were said to be extraordinary.
spasms it would have been difficult to beat. The populace
Several gentlemen swooned; and a multitude of ladies were carried
in hysterics. Pinxit availed himself of the opportunity to
from a sketch taken upon the spot, his admirable painting of the
"Marsyas flayed alive."
When I had afforded sufficient amusement, it was thought
remove my body from the gallows; -- this the more especially as
real culprit had in the meantime been retaken and recognized, a
which I was so unlucky as not to know.
Much sympathy was, of course, exercised in my behalf, and
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
and I was left alone. A line of Marston's "Malcontent"--
Death's a good fellow and keeps open
struck me at that moment as a palpable lie.
I knocked off, however, the lid of my coffin, and stepped
place was dreadfully dreary and damp, and I became troubled with
ennui. By way of amusement, I felt my way among the
ranged in order around. I lifted them down, one by one, and
open their lids, busied myself in speculations about the
"This," I soliloquized, tumbling over a carcass, puffy,
rotund -- "this has been, no doubt, in every sense of the word,
unhappy -- an unfortunate man. It has been his terrible lot not
but to waddle -- to pass through life not like a human being, but
an elephant -- not like a man, but like a rhinoceros.
"His attempts at getting on have been mere abortions, and
circumgyratory proceedings a palpable failure. Taking a step
forward, it has been his misfortune to take two towards the
and three towards the left. His studies have been confined to the
poetry of Crabbe. He can have had no idea of the wonder of a
him a pas de papillon has been an abstract conception. He
ascended the summit of a hill. He has never viewed from any
the glories of a metropolis. Heat has been his mortal enemy. In
dog-days his days have been the days of a dog. Therein, he has
of flames and suffocation -- of mountains upon mountains -- of
Ossa. He was short of breath -- to say all in a word, he was
breath. He thought it extravagant to play upon wind instruments.
was the inventor of self-moving fans, wind-sails, and
patronized Du Pont the bellows-maker, and died miserably in
attempting to smoke a cigar. His was a case in which I feel a
interest -- a lot in which I sincerely sympathize.
"But here," -- said I -- "here" -- and I dragged spitefully
receptacle a gaunt, tall, and peculiar-looking form, whose
appearance struck me with a sense of unwelcome familiarity --
a wretch entitled to no earthly commiseration." Thus saying, in
order to obtain a more distinct view of my subject, I applied my
and fore-finger to its nose, and causing it to assume a sitting
position upon the ground, held it thus, at the length of my arm,
I continued my soliloquy.
--"Entitled," I repeated, "to no earthly commiseration. Who
would think of compassionating a shadow? Besides, has he not had
full share of the blessings of mortality? He was the originator
tall monuments -- shot-towers -- lightning-rods -- lombardy
treatise upon "Shades and Shadows" has immortalized him. He
with distinguished ability the last edition of "South on the
He went early to college and studied pneumatics. He then came
talked eternally, and played upon the French-horn. He patronized
bag-pipes. Captain Barclay, who walked against Time, would not
against him. Windham and Allbreath were his favorite
writers, -- his
favorite artist, Phiz. He died gloriously while inhaling gas --
flatu corrumpitur, like the
fama pudicitae in Hieronymus.* He was
indubitably a " ---
"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
Lackobreath, be so infernally cruel as to pinch me in that manner
the nose? Did you not see how they had fastened up my mouth --
must know -- if you know any thing -- how vast a
of breath I
have to dispose of! If you do not know, however, sit down
shall see. -- In my situation it is really a great relief to be
open one's mouth -- to be able to expatiate -- to be able to
with a person like yourself, who do not think yourself called
every period to interrupt the thread of a gentleman's discourse.
-- Interruptions are annoying and should undoubtedly be abolished
you think so? -- no reply, I beg you, -- one person is enough to
speaking at a time. -- I shall be done by-and-by, and then you
begin. -- How the devil sir, did you get into this place? -- not
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 --
occurrence! -- heard of "catching one's breath," eh? -- hold your
I tell you! -- I caught somebody else's! -- had always too much
my own --
met Blab at the corner of the street -- wouldn't give me a chance
word -- couldn't get in a syllable edgeways -- attacked,
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
discourse, or the joy with which I became gradually convinced
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.
place, and circumstance rendered it a matter beyond question. I
not, however, immediately release my hold upon Mr. W.'s proboscis
- not at least during the long period in which the inventor of
continued to favor me with his explanations.
In this respect I was actuated by that habitual prudence
ever been my predominating trait. I reflected that many
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
be derived by others from their attainment, or by themselves from
their abandonment. Might not this be the case with Mr.
In displaying anxiety for the breath of which he was at present
willing to get rid, might I not lay myself open to the exactions
his avarice? There are scoundrels in this world, I remembered
sigh, who will not scruple to take unfair opportunities with even
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
relieving them in others.
Upon considerations similar to these, and still retaining my
upon the nose of Mr. W., I accordingly thought proper to model my
"Monster!" I began in a tone of the deepest indignation,
and double-winded idiot! -- dost thou, whom, for thine
iniquities, it has
pleased heaven to accurse with a two-fold respiration -- dost
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
breath! -- all this, too, when I have it in my power to relieve
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
Windenough immediately overwhelmed me. Protestation followed upon
protestation, and apology upon apology. There were no terms with
he was unwilling to comply, and there were none of which I failed
take the fullest advantage.
Preliminaries being at length arranged, my acquaintance
the respiration; for which (having carefully examined it) I gave
afterwards a receipt.
I am aware that by many I shall be held to blame for
manner so cursory, of a transaction so impalpable. It will be
thought that I should have entered more minutely, into the
of an occurrence by which -- and this is very true -- much new
be thrown upon a highly interesting branch of physical
To all this I am sorry that I cannot reply. A hint is the
answer which I am permitted to make. There were
circumstances -- but I
think it much safer upon consideration to say as little as
about an affair so delicate -- so delicate, I repeat, and
involving the interests of a third party whose sulphurous
have not the least desire, at this moment, of incurring.
We were not long after this necessary arrangement in
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
subterranean noises." A reply -- rejoinder -- confutation -- and
justification -- followed in the columns of a Democratic Gazette.
was not until the opening of the vault to decide the controversy,
the appearance of Mr. Windenough and myself proved both parties
have been decidedly in the wrong.
I cannot conclude these details of some very singular
a life at all times sufficiently eventful, without again
to the attention of the reader the merits of that indiscriminate
philosophy which is a sure and ready shield against those shafts
calamity which can neither be seen, felt, nor fully understood.
was in the spirit of this wisdom that, among the Ancient Hebrews,
was believed the gates of Heaven would be inevitably opened to
sinner, or saint, who, with good lungs and implicit confidence,
vociferate the word "Amen!" It was in the spirit of this
that, when a great plague raged at Athens, and every means had
vain attempted for its removal, Epimenides, as Laertius relates,
his second book of that philosopher, advised the erection of a
and temple "to the proper God."
*Tenera res in feminis fama pudicitiae, et quasi flos pulcherrimus, cito ad levem marcessit auram,
levique flatu corrumpitur, maxime, &c.- Hieronymus ad Salvinam.