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The Fall of the House of Usher


Son coeur est un luth suspendu;
Sitot qu'on le touche il resonne.
DE BERANGER.



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. I know not how it was - but, with the
first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom
pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was
unrelieved by any of that half-pleasureable, because poetic,
sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest
natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the
scene before me - upon the mere house, and the simple landscape
features of the domain - upon the bleak walls - upon the vacant
eye-like windows - upon a few rank sedges - and upon a few white
trunks of decayed trees - with an utter depression of soul which I
can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the
after-dream of the reveller upon opium - the bitter lapse into
everyday life - the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was
an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart - an unredeemed
dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could
torture into aught of the sublime. What was it - I paused to
think - what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of
the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I
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. It was possible, I reflected,
that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the
scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to
modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful
impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse
to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in
unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down - but with a
shudder even more thrilling than before - upon the remodelled and
inverted images of the grey sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems,
and the vacant and eye-like windows.

Nevertheless, in this mansion of gloom I now proposed to
myself a sojourn of some weeks. Its proprietor, Roderick Usher,
had been one of my boon companions in boyhood; but many years had
elapsed since our last meeting. A letter, however, had lately
reached me in a distant part of the country - a letter from
him - which, in its wildly importunate nature, had admitted of no
other than a personal reply. The MS gave evidence of nervous
agitation. The writer spoke of acute bodily illness - of a mental
disorder which oppressed him - and of an earnest desire to see me,
as his best, and indeed his only personal friend, with a view of
attempting, by the cheerfulness of my society, some alleviation
of his malady. It was the manner in which all this, and much
more, was said - it was the apparent heart that went with his
request - which allowed me no room for hesitation; and I
accordingly obeyed forthwith what I still considered a very
singular summons.

Although, as boys, we had been even intimate associates, yet
I really knew little of my friend. His reserve had been always
excessive and habitual. I was aware, however, that his very
ancient family had been noted, time out of mind, for a peculiar
sensibility of temperament, displaying itself, through long ages,
in many works of exalted art, and manifested, of late, in
repeated deeds of munificent yet unobtrusive charity, as well as
in a passionate devotion to the intricacies, perhaps even more
than to the orthodox and easily recognisable beauties of musical
science. I had learned, too, the very remarkable fact, that the
stem of the Usher race, all time-honoured 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.
It was this deficiency, I considered, while running over in
thought the perfect keeping of the character of the premises with
the accredited character of the people, and while speculating
upon the possible influence which the one, in the long
lapse of centuries, might have exercised upon the other - it was
this deficiency, perhaps, of collateral issue, and the consequent
undeviating transmission, from sire to son, of the patrimony with
the name, which had, at length, so identified the two as to merge
the original title of the estate in the quaint and equivocal
appellation of the "House of Usher" - an appellation which seemed
to include, in the minds of the peasantry who used it, both the
family and the family mansion.

I have said that the sole effect of my somewhat childish
experiment - that of looking down within the tarn - had been to
deepen the first singular impression. There can be no doubt that
the consciousness of the rapid increase of my superstition - for
why should I not so term it? - served mainly to accelerate the
increase itself. Such, I have long known, is the paradoxical law
of all sentiments having terror as a basis. And it might have
been for this reason only, that, when I again uplifted my eyes to
the house itself, from its image in the pool, there grew in my
mind a strange fancy - a fancy so ridiculous, indeed, that I but
mention it to show the vivid force of the sensations which
oppressed me. I had so worked upon my imagination as really to
believe that about the whole mansion and domain there hung an
atmosphere peculiar to themselves and their immediate vicinity - an
atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but
which had reeked up from the decayed trees, and the grey wall,
and the silent tarn - a pestilent and mystic vapour, dull,
sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued.

Shaking off from my spirit what must have been a dream,
I scanned more narrowly the real aspect of the building. Its
principal feature seemed to be that of an excessive antiquity.
The discoloration of ages had been great. Minute fungi
overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine tangled web-work
from the eaves. Yet all this was apart from any extraordinary
dilapidation. No portion of the masonry had fallen; and there
appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect
adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of the
individual stones. In this there was much that reminded me of
the specious totality of old wood-work which has rotted for long
years in some neglected vault, with no disturbance from the
breath of the external air. Beyond this indication of
extensive decay, however, the fabric gave little token of
instability. Perhaps the eye of a scrutinizing observer might
have discovered a barely perceptible fissure, which, extending
from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the
wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sullen
waters of the tarn.

Noticing these things, I rode over a short causeway to the
house. A servant in waiting took my horse, and I entered the
Gothic archway of the hall. A valet, of stealthy step, thence
conducted me, in silence, through many dark and intricate
passages in my progress to the studio of his master. Much
that I encountered on the way contributed, I know not how, to
heighten the vague sentiments of which I have already spoken.
While the objects around me - while the carvings of the ceilings,
the sombre tapestries of the walls, the ebon blackness of the
floors, and the phantasmagoric armorial trophies which rattled as
I strode, were but matters to which, or to such as which, I had
been accustomed from my infancy - while I hesitated not to
acknowledge how familiar was all this - I still wondered to find
how unfamiliar were the fancies which ordinary images were
stirring up. On one of the staircases, I met the physician of
the family. His countenance, I thought, wore a mingled
expression of low cunning and perplexity. He accosted me with
trepidation and passed on. The valet now threw open a door and
ushered me into the presence of his master.

The room in which I found myself was very large and lofty.
The windows were long, narrow, and pointed, and at so vast a
distance from the black oaken floor as to be altogether inaccessible
from within. Feeble gleams of encrimsoned light made their way
through the trellised panes, and served to render sufficiently
distinct the more prominent objects around; the eye, however,
struggled in vain to reach the remoter angles of the chamber, or
the recesses of the vaulted and fretted ceiling. Dark draperies
hung upon the walls. The general furniture was profuse,
comfortless, antique, and tattered. Many books and musical
instruments lay scattered about, but failed to give any vitality
to the scene. I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow.
An air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom hung over and
pervaded all.

Upon my entrance, Usher rose from a sofa on which he had
been lying at full length, and greeted me with a vivacious warmth
which had much in it, I at first thought, of an overdone
cordiality - of the constrained effort of the ennuye man of
the world. A glance, however, at his countenance, convinced me
of his perfect sincerity. We sat down; and for some moments,
while he spoke not, I gazed upon him with a feeling half of pity,
half of awe. Surely, man had never before so terribly altered,
in so brief a period, as had Roderick Usher! It was with
difficulty that I could bring myself to admit the identity of the
wan being before me with the companion of my early boyhood. Yet
the character of his face had been at all times remarkable. A
cadaverousness of complexion; an eye large, liquid, and luminous
beyond comparison; lips somewhat thin and very pallid, but of a
surpassingly beautiful curve; a nose of a delicate Hebrew model,
but with a breadth of nostril unusual in similar formations; a
finely-moulded chin, speaking, in its want of prominence, of a
want of moral energy; hair of a more than web-like softness and
tenuity; these features, with an inordinate expansion above the
regions of the temple, made up altogether a countenance not
easily to be forgotten. And now in the mere exaggeration of the
prevailing character of these features, and of the expression
they were wont to convey, lay so much of change that I doubted to
whom I spoke. The now ghastly pallor of the skin, and the now
miraculous lustre of the eye, above all things startled and even
awed me. The silken hair, too, had been suffered to grow all
unheeded, and as, in its wild gossamer texture, it floated rather
than fell about the face, I could not, even with effort, connect
its Arabesque expression with any idea of simple humanity.

In the manner of my friend I was at once struck with an
incoherence - an inconsistency; and I soon found this to arise
from a series of feeble and futile struggles to overcome an
habitual trepidancy - an excessive nervous agitation. For
something of this nature I had indeed been prepared, no less by
his letter, than by reminiscences of certain boyish traits, and
by conclusions deduced from his peculiar physical conformation
and temperament. His action was alternately vivacious and
sullen. His voice varied rapidly from a tremulous indecision
(when the animal spirits seemed utterly in abeyance) to
that species of energetic concision - that abrupt, weighty,
unhurried, and hollow-sounding enunciation - that leaden,
self-balanced and perfectly modulated guttural utterance, which may
be observed in the lost drunkard, or the irreclaimable eater of
opium, during the periods of his most intense excitement.

It was thus that he spoke of the object of my visit, of his
earnest desire to see me, and of the solace he expected me to
afford him. He entered, at some length, into what he conceived
to be the nature of his malady. It was, he said, a
constitutional and a family evil, and one for which he despaired
to find a remedy - a mere nervous affection, he immediately added,
which would undoubtedly soon pass off. It displayed itself in a
host of unnatural sensations. Some of these, as he detailed
them, interested and bewildered me; although, perhaps, the terms,
and the general manner of the narration had their weight. He
suffered much from a morbid acuteness of the senses; the most
insipid food was alone endurable; he could wear only garments of
certain texture; the odours of all flowers were oppressive; his
eyes were tortured by even a faint light; and there were but
peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments, which did
not inspire him with horror.

To an anomalous species of terror I found him a bounden
slave. "I shall perish," said he, "I must perish in this
deplorable folly. Thus, thus, and not otherwise, shall I be
lost. I dread the events of the future, not in themselves, but
in their results. I shudder at the thought of any, even the most
trivial, incident, which may operate upon this intolerable
agitation of soul. I have, indeed, no abhorrence of danger,
except in its absolute effect - in terror. In this unnerved - in
this pitiable condition - I feel that the period will sooner or
later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together, in
some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR."

I learned, moreover, at intervals, and through broken and
equivocal hints, another singular feature of his mental
condition. He was enchained by certain superstitious impressions
in regard to the dwelling which he tenanted, and whence, for many
years, he had never ventured forth - in regard to an influence
whose supposititious force was conveyed in terms too shadowy here
to be re-stated - an influence which some peculiarities in the
mere form and substance of his family mansion, had, by
dint of long sufferance, he said, obtained over his spirit - an
effect which the physique of the grey walls and turrets, and
of the dim tarn into which they all looked down, had, at length,
brought about upon the morale of his existence.

He admitted, however, although with hesitation, that much of
the peculiar gloom which thus afflicted him could be traced to a
more natural and far more palpable origin - to the severe and
long-continued illness - indeed to the evidently approaching
dissolution - of a tenderly beloved sister - his sole companion for
long years - his last and only relative on earth. "Her decease,"
he said, with a bitterness which I can never forget, "would leave
him (him the hopeless and the frail) the last of the ancient race
of the Ushers." While he spoke, the lady Madeline (for so was
she called) passed slowly through a remote portion of the
apartment, and, without having noticed my presence, disappeared.
I regarded her with an utter astonishment not unmingled with
dread - and yet I found it impossible to account for such
feelings. A sensation of stupor oppressed me, as my eyes
followed her retreating steps. When a door, at length, closed
upon her, my glance sought instinctively and eagerly the
countenance of the brother - but he had buried his face in his
hands, and I could only perceive that a far more than ordinary
wanness had overspread the emaciated fingers through which
trickled many passionate tears.

The disease of the lady Madeline had long baffled the skill
of her physicians. A settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of
the person, and frequent although transient affections of a
partially cataleptical character, were the unusual diagnosis.
Hitherto she had steadily borne up against the pressure of her
malady, and had not betaken herself finally to bed; but, on the
closing in of the evening of my arrival at the house, she
succumbed (as her brother told me at night with inexpressible
agitation) to the prostrating power of the destroyer; and I
learned that the glimpse I had obtained of her person would thus
probably be the last I should obtain - that the lady, at least
while living, would be seen by me no more.

For several days ensuing, her name was unmentioned by either
Usher or myself: and during this period I was busied in earnest
endeavours to alleviate the melancholy of my friend. We
painted and read together; or I listened, as if in a dream, to
the wild improvisations of his speaking guitar. And thus, as a
closer and still closer intimacy admitted me more unreservedly
into the recesses of his spirit, the more bitterly did I perceive
the futility of all attempt at cheering a mind from which
darkness, as if an inherent positive quality, poured forth upon
all objects of the moral and physical universe, in one unceasing
radiation of gloom.

I shall ever bear about me a memory of the many solemn hours
I thus spent alone with the master of the House of Usher. Yet I
should fail in any attempt to convey an idea of the exact
character of the studies, or of the occupations, in which he
involved me, or led me the way. An excited and highly
distempered ideality threw a sulphureous lustre over all. His
long improvised dirges will ring for ever in my ears. Among
other things, I hold painfully in mind a certain singular
perversion and amplification of the wild air of the last waltz of
Von Weber. From the paintings over which his elaborate fancy
brooded, and which grew, touch by touch, into vagueness at which
I shuddered the more thrillingly, because I shuddered knowing not
why; - from these paintings (vivid as their images now are before
me) I would in vain endeavour to educe more than a small portion
which should lie within the compass of merely written words. By
the utter simplicity, by the nakedness of his designs, he
arrested and overawed attention. If ever mortal painted an idea,
that mortal was Roderick Usher. For me at least - in the
circumstances then surrounding me - there arose out of the pure
abstractions which the hypochondriac contrived to throw upon his
canvas, an intensity of intolerable awe, no shadow of which felt
I ever yet in the contemplation of the certainly glowing yet too
concrete reveries of Fuseli.

One of the phantasmagoric conceptions of my friend,
partaking not so rigidly of the spirit of abstraction, may be
shadowed forth, although feebly, in words. A small picture
presented the interior of an immensely long and rectangular vault
or tunnel, with low walls, smooth, white, and without
interruption or device. Certain accessory points of the design
served well to convey the idea that this excavation lay at an
exceeding depth below the surface of the earth. No outlet was
observed in any portion of its vast extent, and no torch,
or other artificial source of light was discernible; yet a flood
of intense rays rolled throughout, and bathed the whole in a
ghastly and inappropriate splendour.

I have just spoken of that morbid condition of the auditory
nerve which rendered all music intolerable to the sufferer, with
the exception of certain effects of stringed instruments. It
was, perhaps, the narrow limits to which he thus confined himself
upon the guitar, which gave birth, in great measure, to the
fantastic character of the performances. But the fervid
facility of his impromptus could not be so accounted for.
They must have been, and were, in the notes, as well as in the
words of his wild fantasias (for he not unfrequently accompanied
himself with rhymed verbal improvisations), the result of that
intense mental collectedness and concentration to which I have
previously alluded as observable only in particular moments of
the highest artificial excitement. The words of one of these
rhapsodies I have easily remembered. I was, perhaps, the more
forcibly impressed with it, as he gave it, because, in the under
or mystic current of its meaning, I fancied that I perceived, and
for the first time, a full consciousness on the part of Usher, of
the tottering of his lofty reason upon her throne. The verses,
which were entitled "The Haunted Palace," ran very nearly, if not
accurately, thus:


I.

In the greenest of our valleys,
By good angels tenanted,
Once a fair and stately palace -
Radiant palace - reared its head.
In the monarch Thought's dominion -
It stood there!
Never seraph spread a pinion
Over fabric half so fair.


II.

Banners yellow, glorious, golden,
On its roof did float and flow;
(This - all this - was in the olden
Time long ago)
And every gentle air that dallied,
In that sweet day,
Along the ramparts plumed and pallid,
A winged odour went away.


III.

Wanderers in that happy valley
Through two luminous windows saw
Spirits moving musically
To a lute's well tuned law,
Round about a throne, where sitting
(Porphyrogene!)
In state his glory well befitting,
The ruler of the realm was seen.


IV.

And all with pearl and ruby glowing
Was the fair palace door,
Through which came flowing, flowing, flowing
And sparkling evermore,
A troop of Echoes whose sweet duty
Was but to sing,
In voices of surpassing beauty,
The wit and wisdom of their king.


V.

But evil things, in robes of sorrow,
Assailed the monarch's high estate;
(Ah, let us mourn, for never morrow
Shall dawn upon him, desolate!)
And, round about his home, the glory
That blushed and bloomed
Is but a dim-remembered story,
Of the old time entombed.


VI.

And travellers now within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows, see
Vast forms that move fantastically
To a discordant melody;
While, like a rapid ghastly river,
Through the pale door,
A hideous throng rush out forever,
And laugh - but smile no more.


I well remember that suggestions arising from this ballad,
led us into a train of thought wherein there became manifest an
opinion of Usher's which I mention not so much on account of its
novelty (for other men* have thought thus,) as on account of the
pertinacity with which he maintained it. This opinion, in its
general form, was that of the sentience of all vegetable things.
But, in his disordered fancy, the idea had assumed a more daring
character, and trespassed, under certain conditions, upon the
kingdom of inorganization. I lack words to express the full
extent, or the earnest abandon of his persuasion. The
belief, however, was connected (as I have previously hinted) with
the gray stones of the home of his forefathers. The conditions
of the sentience had been here, he imagined, fulfilled in the
method of collocation of these stones - in the order of their
arrangement, as well as in that of the many fungi which
overspread them, and of the decayed trees which stood around - above
all, in the long undisturbed endurance of this arrangement,
and in its reduplication in the still waters of the tarn. Its
evidence - the evidence of the sentience - was to be seen, he said,
(and I here started as he spoke,) in the gradual yet certain
condensation of an atmosphere of their own about the waters and
the walls. The result was discoverable, he added, in that
silent, yet importunate and terrible influence which for
centuries had moulded the destinies of his family, and which made
him what I now saw him - what he was. Such opinions need no
comment, and I will make none.

Our books - the books which, for years, had formed no small
portion of the mental existence of the invalid - were, as might be
supposed, in strict keeping with this character of phantasm. We
pored together over such works as the Ververt et Chartreuse


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Online LibraryEdgar Allan PoeThe Fall of the House of Usher → online text (page 1 of 2)