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    The Sphinx

    by Edgar Allan Poe
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    DURING the dread reign of the Cholera in New York, I had accepted the
    invitation of a relative to spend a fortnight with him in the retirement
    of his _cottage ornee_ on the banks of the Hudson. We had here around us
    all the ordinary means of summer amusement; and what with rambling in the
    woods, sketching, boating, fishing, bathing, music, and books, we should
    have passed the time pleasantly enough, but for the fearful intelligence
    which reached us every morning from the populous city. Not a day elapsed
    which did not bring us news of the decease of some acquaintance. Then as
    the fatality increased, we learned to expect daily the loss of some
    friend. At length we trembled at the approach of every messenger. The very
    air from the South seemed to us redolent with death. That palsying
    thought, indeed, took entire possession of my soul. I could neither speak,
    think, nor dream of any thing else. My host was of a less excitable
    temperament, and, although greatly depressed in spirits, exerted himself
    to sustain my own. His richly philosophical intellect was not at any time
    affected by unrealities. To the substances of terror he was sufficiently
    alive, but of its shadows he had no apprehension.

    His endeavors to arouse me from the condition of abnormal gloom into which
    I had fallen, were frustrated, in great measure, by certain volumes which
    I had found in his library. These were of a character to force into
    germination whatever seeds of hereditary superstition lay latent in my
    bosom. I had been reading these books without his knowledge, and thus he
    was often at a loss to account for the forcible impressions which had been
    made upon my fancy.

    A favorite topic with me was the popular belief in omens -- a belief
    which, at this one epoch of my life, I was almost seriously disposed to
    defend. On this subject we had long and animated discussions -- he
    maintaining the utter groundlessness of faith in such matters, -- I
    contending that a popular sentiment arising with absolute spontaneity-
    that is to say, without apparent traces of suggestion -- had in itself the
    unmistakable elements of truth, and was entitled to as much respect as
    that intuition which is the idiosyncrasy of the individual man of genius.

    The fact is, that soon after my arrival at the cottage there had occurred
    to myself an incident so entirely inexplicable, and which had in it so
    much of the portentous character, that I might well have been excused for
    regarding it as an omen. It appalled, and at the same time so confounded
    and bewildered me, that many days elapsed before I could make up my mind
    to communicate the circumstances to my friend.

    Near the close of exceedingly warm day, I was sitting, book in hand, at an
    open window, commanding, through a long vista of the river banks, a view
    of a distant hill, the face of which nearest my position had been denuded
    by what is termed a land-slide, of the principal portion of its trees. My
    thoughts had been long wandering from the volume before me to the gloom
    and desolation of the neighboring city. Uplifting my eyes from the page,
    they fell upon the naked face of the bill, and upon an object -- upon some
    living monster of hideous conformation, which very rapidly made its way
    from the summit to the bottom, disappearing finally in the dense forest
    below. As this creature first came in sight, I doubted my own sanity -- or
    at least the evidence of my own eyes; and many minutes passed before I
    succeeded in convincing myself that I was neither mad nor in a dream. Yet
    when I described the monster (which I distinctly saw, and calmly surveyed
    through the whole period of its progress), my readers, I fear, will feel
    more difficulty in being convinced of these points than even I did myself.

    Estimating the size of the creature by comparison with the diameter of the
    large trees near which it passed -- the few giants of the forest which had
    escaped the fury of the land-slide -- I concluded it to be far larger than
    any ship of the line in existence. I say ship of the line, because the
    shape of the monster suggested the idea- the hull of one of our
    seventy-four might convey a very tolerable conception of the general
    outline. The mouth of the animal was situated at the extremity of a
    proboscis some sixty or seventy feet in length, and about as thick as the
    body of an ordinary elephant. Near the root of this trunk was an immense
    quantity of black shaggy hair- more than could have been supplied by the
    coats of a score of buffaloes; and projecting from this hair downwardly
    and laterally, sprang two gleaming tusks not unlike those of the wild
    boar, but of infinitely greater dimensions. Extending forward, parallel
    with the proboscis, and on each side of it, was a gigantic staff, thirty
    or forty feet in length, formed seemingly of pure crystal and in shape a
    perfect prism, -- it reflected in the most gorgeous manner the rays of the
    declining sun. The trunk was fashioned like a wedge with the apex to the
    earth. From it there were outspread two pairs of wings- each wing nearly
    one hundred yards in length -- one pair being placed above the other, and
    all thickly covered with metal scales; each scale apparently some ten or
    twelve feet in diameter. I observed that the upper and lower tiers of
    wings were connected by a strong chain. But the chief peculiarity of this
    horrible thing was the representation of a Death's Head, which covered
    nearly the whole surface of its breast, and which was as accurately traced
    in glaring white, upon the dark ground of the body, as if it had been
    there carefully designed by an artist. While I regarded the terrific
    animal, and more especially the appearance on its breast, with a feeling
    or horror and awe -- with a sentiment of forthcoming evil, which I found
    it impossible to quell by any effort of the reason, I perceived the huge
    jaws at the extremity of the proboscis suddenly expand themselves, and
    from them there proceeded a sound so loud and so expressive of wo, that it
    struck upon my nerves like a knell and as the monster disappeared at the
    foot of the hill, I fell at once, fainting, to the floor.

    Upon recovering, my first impulse, of course, was to inform my friend of
    what I had seen and heard -- and I can scarcely explain what feeling of
    repugnance it was which, in the end, operated to prevent me.

    At length, one evening, some three or four days after the occurrence, we
    were sitting together in the room in which I had seen the apparition -- I
    occupying the same seat at the same window, and he lounging on a sofa near
    at hand. The association of the place and time impelled me to give him an
    account of the phenomenon. He heard me to the end -- at first laughed
    heartily -- and then lapsed into an excessively grave demeanor, as if my
    insanity was a thing beyond suspicion. At this instant I again had a
    distinct view of the monster- to which, with a shout of absolute terror, I
    now directed his attention. He looked eagerly -- but maintained that he
    saw nothing- although I designated minutely the course of the creature, as
    it made its way down the naked face of the hill.

    I was now immeasurably alarmed, for I considered the vision either as an
    omen of my death, or, worse, as the fore-runner of an attack of mania. I
    threw myself passionately back in my chair, and for some moments buried my
    face in my hands. When I uncovered my eyes, the apparition was no longer

    My host, however, had in some degree resumed the calmness of his demeanor,
    and questioned me very rigorously in respect to the conformation of the
    visionary creature. When I had fully satisfied him on this head, he sighed
    deeply, as if relieved of some intolerable burden, and went on to talk,
    with what I thought a cruel calmness, of various points of speculative
    philosophy, which had heretofore formed subject of discussion between us.
    I remember his insisting very especially (among other things) upon the
    idea that the principle source of error in all human investigations lay in
    the liability of the understanding to under-rate or to over-value the
    importance of an object, through mere mis-admeasurement of its
    propinquity. "To estimate properly, for example," he said, "the influence
    to be exercised on mankind at large by the thorough diffusion of
    Democracy, the distance of the epoch at which such diffusion may possibly
    be accomplished should not fail to form an item in the estimate. Yet can
    you tell me one writer on the subject of government who has ever thought
    this particular branch of the subject worthy of discussion at all?"

    He here paused for a moment, stepped to a book-case, and brought forth one
    of the ordinary synopses of Natural History. Requesting me then to
    exchange seats with him, that he might the better distinguish the fine
    print of the volume, he took my armchair at the window, and, opening the
    book, resumed his discourse very much in the same tone as before.

    "But for your exceeding minuteness," he said, "in describing the monster,
    I might never have had it in my power to demonstrate to you what it was.
    In the first place, let me read to you a schoolboy account of the genus
    Sphinx, of the family Crepuscularia of the order Lepidoptera, of the class
    of Insecta -- or insects. The account runs thus:

    "'Four membranous wings covered with little colored scales of metallic
    appearance; mouth forming a rolled proboscis, produced by an elongation of
    the jaws, upon the sides of which are found the rudiments of mandibles and
    downy palpi; the inferior wings retained to the superior by a stiff hair;
    antennae in the form of an elongated club, prismatic; abdomen pointed, The
    Death's -- headed Sphinx has occasioned much terror among the vulgar, at
    times, by the melancholy kind of cry which it utters, and the insignia of
    death which it wears upon its corslet.'"

    He here closed the book and leaned forward in the chair, placing himself
    accurately in the position which I had occupied at the moment of beholding
    "the monster."

    "Ah, here it is," he presently exclaimed -- "it is reascending the face of
    the hill, and a very remarkable looking creature I admit it to be. Still,
    it is by no means so large or so distant as you imagined it, -- for the
    fact is that, as it wriggles its way up this thread, which some spider has
    wrought along the window-sash, I find it to be about the sixteenth of an
    inch in its extreme length, and also about the sixteenth of an inch
    distant from the pupil of my eye."
    If you're writing a The Sphinx essay and need some advice, post your Edgar Allan Poe essay question on our Facebook page where fellow bookworms are always glad to help!

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