Text: Thomas Ollive Mabbott (E. A. Poe), “Shadow -- A Parable,” The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe — Vol. II: Tales and Sketches (1978), pp. 187-192 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 187:]


This very brief tale is one of the finest of all Poe’s productions and, with its companion piece, “Silence — A Fable,” has had great influence on later writers, especially in France. Woodberry remarked:

Shadow . . . is at once the most noble and most artistic expression of Poe’s imagination during the first period of his career, and . . . is alone distinguished by the even flow and delicacy of transition that belong to his best prose style. The elements in this rhapsody of gloom are simple and massive, the accessories in perfect keeping; the . . . emotion . . . is just sustained at its initial pitch until the . . . emergence of the shadow from the black draperies of the chamber. . .*

The style recalls the King James Bible, as do the styles of Bulwer and De Quincey (whom Poe seems to have had in mind when writing “Silence”) — and if the reader is reminded of Macpherson’s “Ossian” or of Coleridge’s unfinished “Wanderings of Cain,” he need not doubt that Poe was acquainted with both.

The story may be easily understood by the unlearned but the historical setting is surprisingly correct. The action takes place in the twilight of Greco-Roman civilization in Egypt, where even older cultures had flourished and were no more. The scene is appropriately laid in the city of Ptolemais, where the Sun casts no shadow at noon during the summer solstice; what better city could have been chosen for the ever-present Shadow, Death, than that in which the Sun himself casts none? The idea of speaking with many [page 188:] voices is as old as the Odyssey. The names of the characters are both significant. Oinos means One. Zoilus is the name of an Alexandrian — critic who found faults in Homer — but his name is connected with zoë, meaning life. The whole story may be likened to a richly embroidered robe; the sources from which Poe took details are discussed in the notes below.

Although it has not been proved that “Shadow” was one of the original eleven tales in the series described by Poe in May 1833, its kinship to “Silence” (“Siope”) leads me to place it here, just ahead of “Silence,” which seems without question to have been the final tale in Poe’s little manuscript volume.


(A) Southern Literary Messenger, September 1835 (1:762-763); (B) Duane copy of last with one manuscript change, 1839; (C) Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840), I, 153-156; (D) PHANTASY-PIECES, manuscript revision of last, 1842; (E) Broadway Journal, May 31, 1845 (1:341-342); (F) Works (1850), II, 292-294.

Griswold’s text (F) showing one verbal change is followed.

SHADOW. — A PARABLE.   [F]  [[v]]

Yea! though I walk through the valley of the Shadow:Psalm of David  [[v]]   [[n]]

Ye who read are still among the living;{a} but I who write shall have long since gone my way into the region of shadows. For indeed [page 189:] strange things shall happen, and{b} secret things be known, and many centuries shall pass away, ere these memorials be seen of men. And, when seen, there will be some to disbelieve, and some to doubt, and yet a few who will find much to ponder upon in the characters here graven with a stylus of iron.(1)

The year had been a year of terror, and of feelings more intense than terror for which there is no name upon the earth. For many prodigies and signs had taken place, and far and wide, over sea and land, the black wings of the Pestilence were spread abroad.(2) To those, nevertheless, cunning in the stars, it was not unknown that the heavens wore an aspect of ill; and to me, the Greek Oinos, among others, it was evident that now had arrived the alternation of that seven hundred and ninety-fourth year when, at the entrance of Aries, the planet Jupiter is conjoined with the red ring of the terrible Saturnus.(3) The peculiar spirit of the skies, if I mistake not greatly, made itself manifest, not only in the physical orb of the earth, but in the souls, imaginations, and meditations of mankind.

Over some flasks of the red Chian wine,(4) within the walls of a noble hall, in a dim city {cc}called Ptolemais,{cc} we sat, at night, a company of seven. And to our chamber there was no entrance save by a lofty door of brass: and the door was fashioned by the artisan Corinnos,(5) and, being of rare workmanship, was fastened from within. Black draperies, likewise, in the gloomy room, shut out from our view the moon, the lurid stars, and the peopleless streets — but the boding and the memory of Evil, they would not be so excluded. There were things around us and about of which I can render no distinct account — things material and {dd}spiritual — heaviness{dd} in the atmosphere — a sense of suffocation — anxiety — and, above all, that terrible state of existence which the nervous experience when the senses are keenly living and awake, and meanwhile the powers of thought lie dormant. A dead-weight hung upon us. It hung upon our limbs — upon the household furniture — upon the goblets from which we drank; and all things were depressed, and borne down thereby — all things save only the flames of the seven [page 190:] iron lamps which illumined our revel.(6) Uprearing themselves in tall slender lines of light, they thus remained burning all pallid and motionless; and in the mirror which their lustre formed upon the round table of ebony at which we sat, each of us there assembled beheld the pallor of his own countenance, and the unquiet glare in the downcast eyes of his companions. Yet we laughed and were merry in our proper way — which was hysterical; and sang the songs of Anacreon — which are madness;(7) and drank deeply — although the purple wine reminded us of blood. For there was yet another tenant of our chamber in the person of young Zoilus. Dead, and at full length he lay, enshrouded; — the genius and the demon of the scene. Alas! he bore no portion in our mirth, save that his countenance, distorted with the plague, and his eyes in which Death had but half extinguished the fire of the pestilence, seemed to take such interest in our merriment as the dead may haply{e} take in the merriment of those who are to die. But although I, Oinos, felt that the eyes of the departed were upon me, still I forced myself not to perceive the bitterness of their expression, and, gazing down steadily into the depths of the ebony mirror, sang with a loud and sonorous voice the songs of the son of Teios.(8) But gradually my songs they ceased, and their echoes, rolling afar off among the sable draperies of the chamber, became weak, and undistinguishable,{f} and so faded{g} away. And lo! from among those sable draperies where the sounds of the song departed, there came forth a dark and undefined shadow — a shadow such as the moon, when low in heaven, might fashion from the figure of a man: but it was the shadow neither of man, nor of God, nor of any familiar thing. And,{h} quivering awhile among the draperies of the room, it at length rested in full view upon the surface of the door of brass. But the shadow was vague, and formless, and indefinite,{i} and was the shadow neither of man nor{j} God — neither God of Greece, nor God of Chaldæa, nor any Egyptian God. And the shadow rested upon the brazen doorway, and under the arch of the entablature of the door, and moved not, nor spoke any word, but there became [page 191:] stationary and remained. And the door whereupon the shadow rested was, if I remember aright, over against the feet of the young Zoilus enshrouded. But we, the seven there assembled, having seen the shadow as it came out from among the draperies, dared not steadily behold it, but cast down our eyes, and gazed continually into the depths of the mirror of ebony. And at length I, Oinos, speaking some low words, demanded of the shadow its dwelling and its appellation. And the shadow answered, “I am SHADOW, and my dwelling is near to the Catacombs of Ptolemais, and hard by those dim plains of Helusion(9) which border upon the foul Charonian canal.” And then did we, the seven, start from our seats in horror, and stand trembling, and shuddering, and aghast: for the tones in the voice of the shadow were not the tones of any one being, but of a multitude of beings,(10) and, varying in their cadences from syllable to syllable, fell duskily upon our ears in the well remembered and familiar accents of many{k} thousand departed friends.



[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 188:]

Title:  Shadow. A Fable — By — (A) By canceled in B; Shadow. A Fable (C, D); Shadow — A <Fable> Parable (in table of contents of D)

Motto:  This first appears in D

a  living, (A, B, C); living: (F) comma changed to semicolon in D, followed by E where at first glance it looks like a colon. In this text it is changed back to semicolon to follow D and E.

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 189:]

b  and many (A, B)

cc . . . cc  by the melancholy sea, (A, B)

dd . . . dd  spiritual. Heaviness (A, C) The punctuation was changed in B and again in D to the present reading.

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 190:]

e  may haply / may (A) changed in B

f  indistinguishable, (A, B, C, D)

g  fainted (A, B, C, D)

h  And (A, C, D, F) comma added in B, followed in E, restored here.

i  indefinitive, (A, B, C, D)

j  nor of (E)

[The following variant appears at the bottom of page 191:]

k  a (A, B)


[page 191, continued:]


Motto:  Poe, as is pointed out in my notes on the poem “Eldorado” (Mabbott, I, 464-465), knew of the two interpretations of Psalm 23:4. The Hebrew expression rendered as “shadow of death” in the Septuagint (the Greek translation made at Alexandria) some scholars think means merely “shadow.”

1.  The phrase “be seen of men” is from St. Matthew 6:5. A stylus or pen of iron is mentioned in Jeremiah 17: 1, and in job 19: 24. Poe planned to call his projected magazine The Stylus.

2.  The Plague first appeared at the port of Pelusium in the Nile Delta during the reign of Justinian, A.D. 542, as Gibbon relates in chapter xliii of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — a chapter from which Poe quoted in “Marginalia,” Number 29 (Democratic Review, November 1844, p. 489).

3.  Astrologers regard a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn as a warning of change; in the sign of the Ram, great violence and misfortune are predicted. Its occurrence there once in 794 years is mentioned in the section, “Les Mathématiques,” in Poe’s favorite little encyclopedia, Bielfeld, Book I, chapter xlix, section 78.

4.  Wine of the Greek island of Chios is praised in Pliny’s Natural History, XIV, 9. Several ancient cities were named Ptolemais; Poe may have had in mind [page 191:] Ptolemais Theron on the Red Sea, where, Pliny said (II, Ixxv, 183; VI, xxxiii, 171), for ninety days in midsummer the sun at noon cast no shadow.

5.  The name of a legendary poet who lived at the time of the Trojan War. No artist of the name is recorded. Corinthian brass, however, had gold and silver in it, and Poe may have thought there was some connection between Corinnos and Corinth.

6.  For the lamps see Paradise Lost, XII, 255f., “Sev’n Lamps as in a Zodiac representing / The Heav’nly fires.” See also Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, III, vi, 7.

7.  Compare Poe’s “Introduction” in his Poems (1831), lines 21-22, “Anacreon rhymes / Were almost passionate sometimes” (Mabbott, I, 157).

8.  Anacreon was born about 550 B.C. at Teos, a seaport of Ionia. The name of his father is not known, but the poet was obviously a son of Teios — a man of Teos. He is referred to as “the Teian” in “Morella.”

9.  Elysium. Poe took his description of the canal from Jacob Bryant’s New System . . . of Antient Mythology (Third Edition, 1807), I, 34: “The Elysian plain, near the Catacombs in Egypt, stood upon the foul Charonian canal.” For Elysium, compare “Eleonora” at n. 20; for the canal, Pliny, VI, xxxiii, 165-166.

10.  According to the Odyssey, IV, 277-279, Helen of Troy could speak with the voices of the wives of many Greek heroes.



[The following footnote appears at the bottom of page 187:]

*  Edgar Allan Poe (1885), p. 82; Life (1909), I, 127.

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 188:]

  The word is rare in ancient texts, being confined almost entirely to the ace of dice, but as it is the cognate of Latin unus, and English one, it is much discussed by scholars. (See Liddell and Scott, Greek-English Lexicon, 1968 edition.) Poe was interested in words for unity; compare his “Colloquy of Monos and Una,” and the motto of “Morella.” The word for wine is also oinos in Greek, but that was originally woinos; it has lost the initial digamma. A reference to wine would be pointless here, as would be one to Oenus, King of Calydon.

[   Burton Pollin argues convincingly that Thomas Moore’s The Epicurean (1827) was a significant influence on this tale. See his paper in Emerson Society Quarterly, Third Quarter, 1972.]





On page 188, variant “a” for version F, the 2000 paperback edition shows a period after “living” rather than a colon. A colon appears for this variant in (F) and in the edition printed by Harvard in 1978.


[S:1 - TOM2T, 1978] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (T. O. Mabbott) (Shadow -- A Parable)