Friday, September 11, 2009

The clouds hung oppressively low

September is a busy month for Poeists. Some heavy-hitters from Poe's collected works were first published in September or September issues of periodicals. The earliest was a mostly-forgotten poem published on September 15, 1827, when Poe was 18 years old, referred to as "The Happiest Day, The Happiest Hour."

His prose works which first see circulation in September include "King Pest" (1835), "Shadow — A Parable" (1835), "Ligeia" (1838), "Never Bet the Devil Your Head" (1841) and "The Oblong Box" (1844). Perhaps the most famous, however, is "The Fall of the House of Usher," published in the September 1839 issue of Burton's Magazine (the cover of that issue is pictured at left).

Regarded by some as the most perfect Gothic story ever written, "The Fall of the House of Usher" features all the tropes of that genre. The most important image, of course, is the decaying castle. The story follows an unnamed narrator who serves no purpose in the action of the story (unlike more involved narrators which play pivotal roles as main characters, like those in "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Cask of Amontillado"). Instead, through the eyes of this narrator, the reader meets Roderick Usher — a man broken down by his own sense of foreboding and impending doom. When Madeline Usher, Roderick's sister, dies after an illness, his feelings of doom turn to guilt. He loses his reason and goes mad (or so we assume), believing he has buried his sister before she was truly dead. Whether he was right or not is debatable — but, whether it's his undead sister or his own emotional instability, Roderick dies, leading to a very literal fall of the "house of Usher."

The story is nearly perfect. Poe's literary theory tells us that emotional response is the most important. In this story, emotions run rampant throughout and the reader feels the same sense of foreboding that Roderick does. We are left to ponder and question many aspects of the story, including its symbolism. The most alluring might be Roderick's library and his decision to recite the story of "The Mad Tryst." Somewhat distracting is the possibility of incest in the Usher family. The evidence lies only in the following lines:
I had learned, too, the very remarkable fact, that the stem of the Usher race, all time-honored as it was, had put forth, at no period, any enduring branch; in other words, that the entire family lay in the direct line of descent, and had always, with very trifling and very temporary variation, so lain.
Incest, though possible, is not certain (I read it only to say there are no remaining heirs of the Usher estate) — not that it matters. The story stands strong either way.

What amazes the most about "The Fall of the House of Usher" is its composition. Poe clearly put substantial effort into the story and, following his own literary theory, did not distract with unnecessary details. Scott Peeples, of the Poe Studies Association, notes the genius in the first line of the story which sets the tone (and buries the subject — the nameless narrator who does little to push the plot of the story forward):
During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.
More on another of my favorite September stories in my next post.

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