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A discussion of the symbolism of death in Edgar Allen Poe

Death plays a crucial role in much of Edgar Allen Poe’s poetry and prose, whether as an aspect of allegory or poetic symbolism as in works such as “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” or “The Raven,” or as a crucial component of Poe’s literary theories, especially regarding the composition of poetry, as manifested in “The Poetic Principle” adn to a lesser extent, “The Rationale of Verse.

” For a writer like Poe, death formed not only a symbolic and thematic point of departure for many of his prose and poetic creations, but the contemplation of death as an active principle in the creative process allowed Poe to attain a style (or idiom) in American letters which is as philosophically charged as it is Gothic and is as immersed in mysticism and archetypal reality as it is based in sound writing mechanics and theories of narrative technique.

In Poe’s “most famous tale, “The Fall of the House of Usher, ”” the writer “presents a multilayered allegory of the disordered mind in which the house itself may be understood as the domain of unreason, its physical collapse analogizing the psychological disintegration of Roderick Usher,” (Kennedy 7) but within this complex allegorical structure, Poe’s Gothic imagination actually begins to take flight and, as we will now discuss, the end result of “The Fall of the House of Usher” is that of genuine novelty and invention within the extant principles and notions of Gothic fiction, where Poe’s literary and philosophical visions are given free reign and are, in fact, united within Poe’s ubiquitous death-symbolism which , in turn, is offered with myriad variations and connotations, all of which are readily discernable for the careful and dedicated reader who begins to peel away the layers of Poe’s exceedingly complex Gothic tale, in the long run, discovering a vision which is both grotesque and universal, life-affirming and terrifying — mortal and immortal — rational and insane.

Although the symbolism of death in “The Fall of the House of Usher” is — of course — allegorical at leat in regards to the major thematic elements of the story, death-as-a-symbol played such a large role in Poe’s own biography that a short discussion of biographical materials relative to the symbolism of his various works is warranted prior to our investigation of the death-symbolism in “The Fall of the House of Usher. ” By tracking the “trajectory” of the presence of death in both Poe’s private life and his literary works and theories, the unique symbolism of death in “The Fall of the House of Usher” will be much easier to discern adn appreciate.

While it would be sheer folly to suggest that Poe’s poetic and prose works are, prima facia, autobiographical, it would be equally irresponsible to imagine the symbolism of “The Fall of the House of USher” as having emerged, whole-cloth, from the mind of Edgar Allen Poe without precedent or previous annunciation. This is, of course, far from the case. Though Poe’s biography is well-documented, the actual details of his life are steeped in myth and heresy, most notable due the impact of his literary executor, Arthur Griswold. Griswold was Poe’s enemy and after Poe’s untimely death, the responsibility for his literary legacy fell into the hands of one of his enemies. That this twist of fate falls right into Poe’s sense of irony and grotesque humor in no way diminishes the malevolent influence Griswold exerted over Poe’s subsequent reputation.

During his life, Poe acted in a confrontational manner when dealing with his literary rivals and exerted much energy engaging in literary disagreements and arguments which were played out in the small press of the day. Poe’s poem “The Raven” gave him celebrity status late in his career, but his premature death cut-short his chances to capitalize on these gains and he died in relative obscurity. Poe would know the misfortune of being both an orphan and a widower during his brief and difficult life: “Poe’s first act on arriving in Baltimore early in May, 1829, was to seek out his family” (Bittner 59) with the sad admission that he had never before met any of them. Poe’s literary career can be envisioned as truly beginning when he was a cadet at West Point, under the auspices of his foster-father father, John Allan.

Poe’s career at West Point was short and turbulent and ultimately resulted in Poe’s expulsion from the Academy and a complete break between Allan and Poe. During this time, Poe found a subscription list among cadets for his poetry and convinced a publisher to bring out his first book of poems. The stay at West Point can be considered “as an interruption of his real career. He was not aided by such education as he consented to receive, and he simply declined to continue, under circumstances which hampered his creative work. ” This observation is true, of course, but it begs the question as to why Poe entered military service to begin with. (Quinn 174).

The answer to that question lies in Poe’s birth-parents who who stage actors, poor and indigent, who could not raise him. Poe’s father deserted the family when Poe was one year old and his mother perished a year after that from tuberculosis. All of these factors surrounding Poe’s heritage are important dynamics and motifs in his literary work, including the poems written for his first published volume, secured at his expulsion from West point. With merely the above-sketched biographical information regarding Poe’s life, a picture begins to emerge of a man traumatized by death and abandonment, fatherless, motherless, straying from his true talent to fulfill a sense of social propriety, and utterly alone in the world.

This feeling pervades one of Poe’s most distinguished early lyrics “Alone,” a poem which captures with intensity the dual themes of personal confession and mortality which underline all of Poe’s literary work. The poem begins “From childhood’s hour I have not been/ As others were–I have not seen/ As others saw— I could not bring/ My passions from a common spring. ” (Poe, 47) The lingering question in the reader’s mind (and seemingly, also, in the poets) is what has set the poet and the speaker of the poem apart from the rest of the world? An answer is provided in the poem’s closing line “Of a demon in my view. ” The demon image is perceived by the speaker of the poem while gazing into a cloud.

For Poe, the poem not only signaled his status as an outsider, but as one who perceived a macabre undertone to existence. The “demon” of the poem would return in many other guises throughout Poe’s literary work, among them, a dead bride, as a raven, as a sphynx, an “orang-outan,” and as the imploding house in “The Fall of the House of Usher. ” For the “demon” in alone is, in fact, a symbol of death, of human mortality, and of mournful loss, elements that Poe would later cite in his seminal work of criticism, “The Poetic Principle,” as the primary elements of poetry. Poe remarked in “The Poetic Principle” that a “certain taint of sadness is inseparably connected with all the higher manifestations of true Beauty,” (Poe).

Poe’s fiction (and criticism) embodies the same rudimentary dual fascination with death and personal “confession” as his poetry. Although Poe’s fiction straddles both the macabre and satirical forms, the presence of death and the traceable details of Poe’s own biography can always be discovered by the interested and alert reader. In a complex philosophical and cosmological treatise, “Eureka” Poe made his expression of universal sadness and universal longing much more explicit, determining the core of beauty and sadness to be the separation of mortal man from God. However, Poe’s conception of God is not traditional, not, for example, Christian, but partakes of a rational order, which ultimately devolves into solipsism.

Poe saw the Universe as “forever, and forever; a novel Universe swelling into existence, and then subsiding into nothingness, at every throb of the Heart Divine? ” The throbbing heart is an image that pervades much of Poe’s work and here finds articulation as an image of philosophical idealism “And now—this Heart Divine– what is it? It is our own. ” (Poe, 873). In Poe could sound a note of extreme idealism and beatific optimism in “Eureka,” this expression stands apart from the majority of his literary output. The two most famous poems Poe wrote, “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee” both adhere to his “Poetic Principle” that death — and particularly the death of a beautiful young woman– makes the best theme for poetry.

Both poems also allude to details of Poe’s own romantic life following the death of his wife, who also his second-cousin. Poe’s young wife, Virginia Clemm, died of the same disease as his biological mother. By some twist of fate, Poe witnessed both deaths. (Quinn). Obviously, Poe’s absorption with the dual themes of death and personal confession were strong influences on all of his work from critical studies to poems to short-stories and works of philosophy and cosmology. Poe’s inclination to view life as a brief interlude infused with melancholy, absorbed in death, and expressing grief over the loss of love and femininity can be quite easily traced to the biographical details of his life.

However, the fact that his life gave him the inspiration to probe the nature of aloneness, of death, of alienation and also to ask “why” concerning the nature of beauty and poetic expression. in no way diminishes the overall lucidity of his philosophical insights or his literary brilliance. In Poe’s work, the subjective experience is almost always forwarded as cosmically profound experience: “Poe thus portrays in “Usher” a distinctly modern world that seems (to borrow Sass’s terms) altogether solipsistic, dehumanized, and “derealized” (32)—a realm of the bizarre” (Kennedy 7) where individual consciousness of cosmic truth creates melancholy and ennui.

Acts of betrayal pervade Poe’s written works from “The Fall of the House of Usher” to “The Cask of Amontillado” and on through even in his fragmented work such as the unfinished drama “Politian. ” That Poe’s life was dreary, short, and filled with despair and disappointment informs his fiction but does not dominate it utterly. In point of fact, the opposite is probably more true: it is Poe’s ability to transform the barren details of his admittedly lonely, impoverished, and difficult life into enduring literary expression which most clearly expresses his feelings on both his life and the fact of human mortality. In words that will endure far longer than those which comment on them, Poe expressed a concise and unambiguous vision regarding the macabre nature of life and death.

Oblivion forms the core of Poe’s fascination with death; it is the personal manifestation of the “nothingness’ mentioned in “Eureka” a personal confrontation with oblivion. Even in “minor” works, written for ephemeral publication, Poe’s philosophical and cosmic dynamics take center-stage. With oblivion as a “cosmic center” and death as a “gateway” to this imagined heart of the cosmos, it is small wonder that Poe’s Gothic masterpiece, “The Fall of the House of Usher” has both terrified and delighted audiences for generations. As we will hope to point out in the following examination of the story, “The Fall of the House of Usher” represents Poe’s aesthetic vision as previously defined in this discussion, at its most full and imaginative range.

The allegorical elements of the story are up-front and quite easily identifiable by an attentive reader: “The Fall of the House of Usher” [… ] offers an anxiety-ridden narrator–protagonist, a haunted mansion tenanted by haunted siblings – who eventually come to “haunt” the storyteller – a mysterious doctor, whose intents seem to be nefarious, plus a veritable gallery of Gothic properties: bewildering corridors, eerie chambers, a terrifying poem that descends from the interspersed “songs” in many Gothic novels [… ] not accidentally does Poe give us a tale of disintegrating bodies, but, more important, disintegrating psyches as well, which he frames with a mansion that looks like a human head. (Fisher 89)

Far from simply reiterating his connection between oblivion and death and the dual nature of human experience, Poe builds upon these ideas in “The Fall of the House of Usher” to touch upon psychological realities as well as what should be properly termed a mystical interpretation of death. “The Fall of the House of Usher” unlike “The Cask of Amontillado” or “The Masque of the Red Death” extends the allegorical symbolism beyond death as oblivion and seeks to reach an articulation of death as rebirth. This rebirth can and has been interpreted by many scholars within a Freudian or Jungian mythos of human psychology; however, critics such as Harold Bloom have regarded the death-symbolism in “The Fall of the House of Usher” as predicated on a truly mystical vision of death adn cosmic rebirth.

As Bloom points out, Egyptian thought and mysticism was undergoing a revival of sorts in America and certainly influenced Poe personally. Bloom remarks that “The haunted castles and mansions of such tales as Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” are[… ] a basically Egyptian foundation, and the mystery all insoluble of their effect has a direct relation to the larger Mysteries of Initiation into temple secrets concerned with the exaltation of the soul and its torturous rebirth” (Bloom 32) and this method of viewing Poe’s allegorical themes in “The Fall of the House of Usher” places the story firmly within Poe’s cosmic vision as described in “Eureka. “

The characters and events of “The Fall of the House of Usher” can be read of the micro/macrocosmic relationship that individual psychological differentiation has to do with the the cosmic workings of the universe itself. Humanity is a mirror of the cosmos: “Thus we can see the split in Poe’s imaginative world: there were elements of reality, and there were faculties of the mind or imagination. Between them there ought to be a union or a point of coherence. At their best, his symbols are such mediations” (Davidson 92) and this is true more-so in “The Fall of the House of Usher” regarding Poe’s use of death-as-symbol than in any other work produced by Poe.

Within the allegorical symbolism of the story, mirrors, images of objects )and people) splitting into two, and the over-riding vision of dualistic and simultaneously solipsistic cosmo looms. Images of mirrors are everywhere in “The Fall of the House of Usher:” “Many other mirror images accumulate in the story. The house is mirrored by its image in the tarn and collapses beneath its waters at the close. Roderick’s painting of the underground burial vault–at which the narrator marvels “If ever mortal painted an idea, that mortal was Roderick Usher”–preternaturally and prophetically mirrors Madeline’s escape from the vault” (Timmerman 227); which carries the cosmological overtones of Eureka into an allegorical narrative.

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