Poe and the Apocalyptic Sublime: "The Fall of the House of Usher"

Article excerpt

Among the many interpretations of the idea of the "sublime" during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the concept of an "apocalyptic sublime" was not formally recognized; indeed, it had to wait until the late twentieth century to emerge as a distinct aesthetic category. The term was pioneered by Morton Paley, whose study The Apocalyptic Sublime (1986) examined this concept in British art from the late eighteenth to the mid nineteenth century in works by Benjamin West, Philip James de Loutherbourg, William Blake, J.M.W. Turner, John Martin, Samuel Colman, and Francis Danby. Created during the violence and unrest of the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, and the Age of Reform, some of the most distinctive paintings, drawings, and engravings by these artists depicted a variety of apocalyptic events largely taken from the books of Daniel and Revelation (along with a few other popular catastrophic biblical scenes) while simultaneously drawing on the pervasive contemporary influence of Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). (1)

Despite Paley's pioneering work, the notion of an "apocalyptic sublime" that we find in English Romantic art has not been extended to the work of contemporaneous English and American Romantic writers, for some of whom it would seem particularly apt--for example, Edgar Allan Poe. It has long been recognized that Poe was steeped in contemporary aesthetic theory; indeed, Poe's poetry, tales, and critical writings demonstrate a familiarity with Burkean and other eighteenth-century theories of the sublime and beautiful as well as more recent writings on the picturesque. (2) Yet one aspect of Poe's aesthetic practice that has gone largely unnoticed is the synthesis, in a small body of his fiction and poetry, of contemporary notions of the sublime combined with a number of well-known motifs of biblical apocalyptic.

"The Fall of the House of Usher" provides a representative example of the author's use of the apocalyptic sublime. "Usher" is notable for its iconographic depiction of the terrors of death. The main character of the story, Roderick Usher, attempts to transcend mortality in an idealized realm given over to the creation and enjoyment of art; yet death reappears in the form of Usher's prematurely buried "twin" sister, whose advent catalyzes the collapse of the Usher mansion and line. Poe seems to have carefully designed "Usher" around its final moments of sublime apocalyptic terror. In "The Philosophy of Composition" (1846), Poe would argue that a writer should begin a narrative with the denouement already in mind, creating a plot in which both action and tone are ineluctably related to a final dramatic effect (13-16). In keeping with this aesthetic credo, Poe designed "Usher" with a view to depicting the ineluctable onset of what the book of Job called "the king of terrors" (18:14), creating a supreme unity of effect of apocalyptic sublimity.

First published in September 1839 in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, "The Fall of the House of Usher" has since assumed its place as perhaps Poe's best-known story and in the process attracted a wide range of critical commentary. (3) The tale is a tour de force of Gothic fiction, extensively borrowing from the basic components of the form as found in some of its classic productions by Walpole, Radcliffe, Lewis, Hoffman, and others. "Usher" thus features a haunted castle, medieval decor, a family curse, symbolic doubling, a morally challenged hero-villain, a physically entrapped maiden, a self-consciously naive narrator, and a deeply buried secret exposed at the climax to the story. (4) To this list of representative Gothic features in Poe's tale we may add the influence of the discourse of the sublime. It has long been recognized that Burkean ideas of sublime terror provided an important aesthetic rationale for the efflorescence of Gothic fiction in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century. …