The Fall of the House of Usher
To understand “The Haunted Palace,” one must understand the context in which it appears. The short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” is one of Poe’s most acclaimed, famous works. It tells of the fall — literal and figurative — of the House of Usher, an old family in a state of decline. It is narrated from the perspective of Victor Reynolds, a friend of the last heir of Usher who visits to comfort him in his twin sister’s final illness.
There is an old curse of illness and evil on the Ushers, and though never specified what exactly this evil is, it is hinted that it is incest. Incest would certainly make the family ingrown, weak and mentally unstable. Indeed, the Ushers seem to be ingrown into the house itself — everything from its cracked foundation to gloomy aspect reflects the state of the family that lives there.
An outsider, Victor does not understand Usher’s presentiments, obsessions and strange connections to the literal mansion of his forefathers. In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the word “house” is synonymous with both the mansion and the family. When one falls, so does the other. The house of Usher has cracked walls, empty windows, dark rooms and gloomy halls that symbolize the last two Ushers’ descent into madness and eventually death. The house itself is haunted; it is a tangible, real example of the insanity and illness that has overtaken its inhabitants. It is vital to understand this when reading the poem “The Haunted Palace.”
The Haunted Palace
The poem “The Haunted Palace” is a ballad — a poem or song that tells a story, often one of tragedy. The haunted palace in the ballad symbolizes the same thing that the house of Usher does: an ancestral home and name fallen into mental and physical decline. Even the way Poe introduces the poem suggests this. Usher sings the poem to his friend Victor, introducing it as a half-remembered, ancient melody about the state of his house.
The first four stanzas describe a beautiful, stately palace in a fair valley, ruled “in the monarch Thought’s dominion” (l. 5) by a fair and wise ruler. Furthermore,
Wanderers in that happy valley,
Through two luminous windows, saw
Spirits moving musically
To a lute’s well-tunéd law (ll. 17-20).
The palace is a symbol for the mind; the “two luminous windows” are the ruler’s eyes. The “spirits” are the ruler’s qualities, skills and thoughts; they move gracefully in time and in tune to regular, harmonic music. Everything is in harmony; the ruler is sane and wise; thought and reason rule in his mind.
Contrast that with the last two stanzas, in which the poem shifts to tell of the palace’s — and its monarch’s — decline into insanity. Stanza nine marks this abrupt turn of fortunes with the lines, “But evil things in robes of sorrow / Assailed the monarch’s high estate” (ll. 33-34). Just as Usher never specifies what evils have befallen his house, the poem never specifies what the “evil things in robes of sorrow” refer to. Their effect, however, is clear:
And round about his home the glory
That blushed and bloomed,
is but a dim-remembered story
of the old time entombed (ll. 37-40).
This description of faded glory as “a dim-remembered story” is exactly how Usher presents the poem to his friend in the first place: as a melody he barely remembers. It is also worth noting the contrast between “blushed and bloomed” and “entombed.” The two contrasting images are linked by rhyme scheme. “Blushed and bloomed” evokes the image of a vigorous blood flow that would create a blush, whereas “entombed” evokes a dead face drained of blood and life.
The Last Stanza
The last stanza of “The Haunted Palace” is pure Poe: a hellish picture of a palace, and a mind, gone completely wrong:
And travellers, now, within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows see
Vast forms, that move fantastically
To a discordant melody,
While, like a ghastly rapid river,
Through the pale door
A hideous throng rush out forever
And laugh — but smile no more (ll. 41-48).
This last stanza is significant for its stark and total contrast to all the virtues of the palace described in the earlier stanzas, and in particular the first stanza. While the first stanza describes a palace where angels and seraphs would be happy to stay, the only visitors here are frightened travellers and a “hideous throng.” Likewise, the “two luminous windows,” or eyes, are now “red-litten” and bloodshot. The thoughts behind them are equally as twisted: as opposed to “spirits moving musically / to a lute’s well-tuned law,” the person’s virtues have been overturned into madness personified by “vast forms” that, instead of dancing in harmony, “move fantastically / to a discordant melody.” The “pale door” contrasts with the “glory that blushed and bloomed” so radiantly in better days. Finally, the hideous laughter that ends the poem is not the joyful noise of good times, happiness and reason, but the laughter of insanity and despair.
The contrast between order and chaos, reason and insanity, could not be more clear.
- Image: Edgar Allan Poe by W.S. Hartshorn under Public Domain
- Poe, E.A. “The Fall of the House of Usher.” American Museum, 1839.