In a letter to Edgar Allan Poe (Cambridge, May 19, 1841), Longfellow wrote: “You are mistaken in supposing that you are not ‘favorably known to me.’ On the contrary, all that I have read, from your pen, has inspired me with a high idea of your power; and you are destined to stand among the first romance-writers of the country, if such is your aim.”
Poe returned the favor the following year with a heavy-handed review of Longfellow’s ‘Ballads and Other Poems’ in Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine, 20 (March – April, 1842) 189-190; 248-251. “Much as we admire the genius of Mr. Longfellow,” he wrote, “we are fully sensible to his many errors of affectation and imitation. His artistical skill is great, and his ideality high. But his conception of the aims of poesy is all wrong…” Then he picks up a line later, “He has written brilliant poems – by accident; that is to say when permitting his genius to get the better of his conventional habit of thinking – a habit deduced from German study.”
This, as it turns out, is a rather more clear-eyed criticism of Longfellow than Poe will render later, when he becomes absolutely obsessed with the claim that Longfellow was a plagiarist in the matter of the Kalavala and ‘The Song of Hiawatha’.
Edgar’s parents were both actors but his mother died while he was still in infancy. He did endure some poverty for a time but then began to make a name for himself as an editor and critic at the ‘Southern Literary Magazine’. He married his thirteen year old cousin Virginia Clemm. Then, because he tended to drink overmuch, he lost his position at ‘Southern’. His bent toward Romanticism caused his concern with the occult and the satanic. His own feverish dreams seem to have driven him on. He may even have been bi-polar or to have had, as they called it, a double personality. That would certainly explain his bizarre mood swings and obsession with things macabre. His ‘Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym’ is believed to have had an influence on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.
Who can forget the first time they read Poe? Whether it was ‘The Raven’ or ‘Masque of the Red Death’ or ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ – (or ‘The Gold Bug’; ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’; ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’; ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’; ‘The Cask of Amontillado’) – one can have started almost anywhere and still have the same strong impression; the same strong memory.
‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ begins with a quote by Pierre Jean de Be’ranger from his ‘Le Refus’: “Son Coeur est un luth suspendu; Silot qu on le touché il resonne.” (See accents). Why does Poe choose to begin this dreary Gothic account with such a peculiar epigraph? “His heart,” it reads, “is a suspended lute; which resounds at once when it is touched.” Whose heart resounds – the narrator’s? (Why has Poe changed the quote from ‘My heart’ to ‘His heart’? What does that have to do with a man visiting this “melancholy House of Usher”? One who felt “with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom…” A man who was forced at the outset to, “…grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth.”
Poe uses the atmosphere and tone of the work to create an emotional response in his reader, using the first person narration (narrator as character), to forge a bond – to grab hold and not let go until they – narrator and reader – have reached the desired conclusion together. Desired, in any case, by the author, Poe himself.
Roderick Usher had been a boyhood companion, the narrator claims, but it had been years since their last meeting. Then, out of the depths of an oppressive mental and physical disorder a letter arrived asking for a visit. Usher had always been a private soul, so even though they had been close friends in some ways, the narrator claims he didn’t really know him at all. Thus our narrator arrives on horseback at the House of Usher.
The impression of the house itself and the atmosphere surrounding it was that it had been cut off from Heaven’s good graces, and was instead a place of rot and decay. Of death. It was as if the rot had occurred, and was still occurring, but nothing had fallen apart because there was no force; not the slightest force, that could complete the task. The narrator comments, “I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow.” Certainly this is a world far from the open expanses and good air of wild country.
The Usher he met was quite a different man from the one he remembered. He seemed to believe that the mansion itself controlled his behavior and shaped his destiny. Usher was afflicted, he said, by “a constitutional and family evil…” His sister, the lady Madeline, was also afflicted by this elusive illness. There was, “A settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person…” These strange afflictions may have been the result of familial intermarriage, “…the entire family lay in the direct line of decent.”
Poe includes his poem, published earlier, ‘The Haunted Palace’, in which people dance to a lute around a throne upon which the King of the realm sits in all his glory. But some evil “in robes of sorrow” had entered in and now a discordant melody was being played.
There was a poison, it seems, that had gotten down deep into the soul of this place. Was this, perhaps, representative of the Europe of old with her monarchs and traditions; a place that could not change. Or was it something more – a warning – against any form of rigidity in life. Life is supple and spontaneous and animated. Death is rigid, airless, and motionless.
A list of books is included in the tale, a list that proves Usher was fascinated with the occult. The list includes, in part, ‘The Subterranean Voyage of Nicholan Klimm’ by Ludvig Holberg, a novel published originally in Latin. ‘Chiromancy’ by Robert Flud (1574 – 1637), who studied chemistry, medicine, and the occult. ‘Journey into the Blue Distance’ (‘Das alte Buch und die Reise ins Blave hinein’ by Johann Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853). And ‘Directorium Inquisitorum’ by Nicoau Eymerich (1320-1399), the Inquisitor general of the Inquisition of the Crown of Aragon. This ‘Directorium’ defined witchcraft and ways of discovering witches. “Over which,” the narrator claims, “Usher would sit dreaming for hours.”
At this point in the story, Usher informed him that the lady Madeline was no more. He was keeping her corpse hidden away (lest her physician snatch her body – a specimen for medical study). She was, it turns out, his twin. Now Usher roamed about the place aimlessly. “The pallor of his countenance had assumed if possible a more ghastly hue – but the luminousness of his eye had utterly gone out.”
To pass the night as Usher slowly sinks into madness, the narrator chooses to read aloud from an “antique volume” called the ‘Mad Trist of Sir Launcelot Canning’. (This may, in fact, have been another work by Poe, but one which has never yet been discovered). As he reads he hears unusual screaming or grating sounds which correspond, oddly, with the final shriek of the slain dragon in the tale. Then he reads of the sound of a brass shield falling upon a silver floor, and again there is the corresponding sound in the house of Usher.
Now Usher claims that the lady Madeline has been placed in her coffin still alive! (An attempt, perhaps, to keep her entombed just as she is. To keep her from being changed in any way by this stranger’s visit). And there she is now in shrouds, come to bear her brother also off to death. (The only one who could touch Roderick Usher’s suspended lute of a heart was his twin sister).
It had been the narrator’s hope, one thinks, to save his long lost friend. But by entering that world of fantasy and madness, one risks being infected as well. One must escape back into the real, the natural world, if he is to save himself.
The narrator flees and along his path a wild light flashes. He turns to witness the house rent from roof to foundation, and the walls come crashing down – the fall of the house of Usher.
This article (along with Part Two) was first published by The Smoking Poet and is adapted from a chapter from 'American Masters' to be published in September 2012. It is Copyright 2011 By James D. Sanderson. All Rights Reserved.