There is this famous short-story by Poe called "The Tell-Tale Heart" in which a man tries to convince the reader he is not mad by narrating the way he killed his master.

My question has to do with the very first words of the story that read as follows:

True! --nervous --very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses --not destroyed --not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily --how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

Would you know why Poe uses the definite article "the" for both "heaven" and "earth", but nor for "hell"? Is it a matter of grammar or there is some type of interpretation behind it?

Most translators of this text to my language (Portuguese) overlook this detail and translate as if they were all the same, but I do not think it is something that trivial.

I was thinking it could mean that the man hears things "from" heaven and earth (the places he is distant from), but hear things in hell, where he actually is at, although he says he is not mad. What do you think about this interpretation?

  • 1
    Poe seems to be deliberately using antiquated / poetic phrasing. For example, I think there was never a time when the sequence Above all was the sense of hearing acute would have been natural in English (as opposed to, say, Above all, the sense of hearing was acute). Don't overthink the significance of Poe switching between using and not using the article with heaven, earth, hell. Probably all he really cares about is adding a touch of "poetic grandeur" to the text. Nov 2, 2020 at 18:07
  • 1
    @FumbleFingersReinstateMonica I think you are forgetting that Poe was an American poet. He was therefore quite good at word play, and "in the heaven" is not idiomatic in the U.S. It is possible that Poe did not notice his odd phrasing, but it does not seem probable to me. Nov 2, 2020 at 18:42
  • 1
    @JeffMorrow: I'm not remotely suggesting that Poe would be "unaware" of the choices he made here! I'm simply saying that to the extent there's anything relevant to people learning English in this aspect of his phrasing, there's not much more than I set out above. And Lit Crit is Off Topic, so there's a limit to how far we want to go down that particular rabbithole. Nov 2, 2020 at 18:48
  • 2
    @FumbleFingersReinstateMonica I'd say there is something to this phrasing. "Thine, O Lord is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty: for all that is in the heaven and in the earth is thine; thine is the kingdom, O Lord, and thou art exalted as head above all." 1 Chronicles 29:11
    – Eddie Kal
    Nov 3, 2020 at 18:33
  • @EddieKal: I can't find the exact version you cited online, but I certainly can't find many apart from KJV (1611) that specifically have the singular 3-word sequence "the heaven and". And my point here is simply that the particular phrasing used would have been known (to Poe and his readers) to be antiquated / archaic. Which I think is a fairly standard "literary device" for adding "gravitas" to a text, but that's a matter of Lit Crit (Off Topic anyway, but also potentially unhelpfully distracting to learners, who really just need to know "Don't copy this style!"). Nov 4, 2020 at 14:40

2 Answers 2


It is not clear that Poe had a single thing in mind. He was a poet as well as a writer of short stories so it is quite possible that he had multiple meanings in mind.

in the heaven

is an odd phrase. The usual way of speaking would be to say "in Heaven" or "in the heavens."

In Heaven

means the singular place where, according to the Christian Bible, the souls of believers will reside after the Day of Judgment and has a strongly religious connotation. That first phrase is mirrored in the phrase "in Hell."

In the heavens

is a somewhat infrequent way to say "the sky" and has a physical, non-religious connotation.

in the earth

is a standard phrase that means inside the earth: "He dug for gold in the earth" or " "In the earth is a molten core." It is physical.

Thus, the narrator is conflating the physical (the sky) and the religious (Heaven), and the odd phrase indicates his confusion of mind. It is a complex play on words designed to help characterize the narrator. Unless Portuguese has phrases corresponding to

In heaven

singular, without an article, and with a religious connotation, and

In the heavens

plural, with an article, and without a religious connotation, the subtle bit of characterization implied by Poe by using the singular with a definite article may be impossible to render concisely in Portuguese.

  • I had a feeling there were some different meanings for such terms depending on how articles were being used. It is nice to have it confirmed by a native-speaker. Portuguese has phrases that correspond to those meanings, so the passage can be translated accordingly, but it seems to me that translators have not been bothered by these nuances.
    – Gabriel N
    Nov 2, 2020 at 18:44
  • 1
    That is only my reading. FumbleFingers is a native speaker with a great gift for the language. Notice that he did not read it as I did so I may be wrong. If my reading is correct, it is likely that even most native speakers would overlook the subtlety. Nov 2, 2020 at 18:50
  • 1
    If you look at this usage chart for in the heaven and in, comparing AmE and BrE corpuses, you'll see that we Brits were always more likely to include the article (and we kept using it for longer). But it was obviously a lot more common even in the US a couple of centuries ago. And I'd be pretty sure that although it was at least "dated" when Poe wrote it, it wasn't ridiculously so. Nov 2, 2020 at 18:56
  • If you look at this more relevant ngram usage chart , it shows that "in the heaven" was very rare in early 19th century America. books.google.com/ngrams/… Nov 2, 2020 at 19:03
  • 1
    Actually, we both think "in the heaven" is odd. Where we disagree is on Poe's primary purpose: to make the character exotic by using antiquated phrasing, or to indicate the character's mental confusion. That difference hardly seems worth arguing about. Nov 2, 2020 at 19:29

I believe Edgar Allan Poe is trying to invoke a passage from the Bible. (Credit goes to Gareth Rees for locating the passage)

Thine, O Lord is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty: for all that is in the heaven and in the earth is thine; thine is the kingdom, O Lord, and thou art exalted as head above all. (1 Chronicles 29:11)

This passage is from the King James Bible, a version that dominated American Christian worship during much of U.S. history. And by invoking this phrasing from the Bible, Poe is conjuring religion connotations. As Jeff Morrow explains, "in the earth" can be taken to mean inside the earth. You can also imply understand "in the heave" roughly as "in the sky". But the most important reason that Poe uses the definite article in "in the heave and in the earth" but not "in hell" is because he is drawing directly from scripture and conjuring religious imagery.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .