Text: Barton Levi St. Armand, “Usher Unveiled: Poe and the Metaphysic of Gnosticism,” from Poe Studies, vol. V, no. 1, June 1972, pp. 1-8


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Usher Unveiled:
Poe and the Metaphysic of Gnosticism

Brown University

It has long been a critical paradox that Edgar Allan Poe is considered to be outside the mainstream of American literature, while he is known internationally as the author of the most famous short tale in thee tradition, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The most damaging charge against Poe is surely the one that he has no metaphysic, while his contemporaries — Hawthorne, Melville, and Emerson — are said to have some identifiable structure to their work which is intellectual as well as purely aesthetic in nature. T. S. Eliot put this charge in its strongest terms in his well-known essay “From Poe to Valery,” where he states that.

Poe is indeed a stumbling block for the judicial critic. If we examine his work in detail, we seem to find in it nothing but slipshod writing, puerile thinking unsupported by wide reading or profound scholarship, haphazard experiments in various types of writing, without perfection in any detail. This would nor be just. But if, instead of regarding his work analytically, we take a distant view of it as a whole, we see a mass of unique shape and impressive size to which the eye constancy returns.(1)

One cannot deny that Poe’s work is “experimental.” But this does not condemn it to the puerile, the haphazard, or the superficial. Indeed, when his work is examined closely, we discover in Poe an incredibly detailed and, I submit, a profound metaphysic. Eliot’s judgment is that of a believing and quite orthodox Christian. But Poe’s metaphysic derives precisely from those very unorthodox and even heretical doctrines which were current at the beginnings of Christianity itself and then suppressed or driven underground by the actions of such dogmatic Church councils as that of Nicea. It was from the philosophical tree of peculiar images and mystic speculation which flourished at Alexandria in the Egypt of the first and second centuries A.D. that Poe drew much of his own imagery. In particular, he drew upon that heterogeneous school of thought known today as “Hermeticism.”

A reading of Hans Jonas’ recent study of the background of this school, The Gnostic Religion, forcibly suggests, to the Poe scholar, the general outlines of Poe’s metaphysic. This metaphysic, like that of the Gnostics, with whom he was certainly familiar,(2) is basically one of a radical dualism that sees the soul trapped in the materiality of a prison-house world, with escape possible only through a supreme act of knowing, or gnosis, of the [column 2:] kind which Poe details for us fully in his last work, Eureka. Even the symbolic language of Gnostic terms which Jonas isolates for us (the Alien — Mixture, Dispersal, the One, and the Many — Fall, Sinking, and Capture — Forlornness, Dread, and Homesickness — Numbness, Sleep, and Intoxication) can be applied directly, almost mechanically, to similar images in Poe’s poems and tales. Poe’s God, like that of Valentinus and Marcion, was a God of the Abyss, just as his world was their fallen and constricted one where “Our flowers are merely — flowers.”(3) The fact that in Alexandria there were two contending schools of mystic thought (along with the old Classical system of the Stoics) and that these systems were Neo-Platonism, on the one hand, and Gnosticism, on the other, also explains a good deal about the peculiar metaphysical antipathy between Emerson and Poe, which is almost a reincarnation of this ancient debate in mid-nineteenth-century America.

Emerson and Poe have been seen as mirror images of one another, with Poe’s consciousness somehow inverted in the dark glass of his “Gothic” imagination. Thus Richard Wilbur speaks of Poe’s “destructive transcendence,”(4) while he reconstructs Poe’s “cosmic myth” in what are fundamentally Neo-Platonic terms. Hyatt Waggoner claims that Poe, “intending to affirm the reality of the transcendent Ideal, . . . made of Transcendentalism a doctrine of negation and despair.”(5) But Wilbur and Waggoner, like Eliot, consider Poe from an orthodox angle without suspecting that his supposed “negation and despair” is only one fragment of a much deeper metaphysic — the metaphysic of Gnosticism. Poe and Emerson seem so tantalizingly similar and apart at the same time because Emerson drew his inspiration from such Neo-Platonists as Plotinus. Plotinus in his own day was famous for treatises written against the “dangerous,” “perfidious,” and “blasphemous” teachings of those very Gnostics whose heretical thought parallels so exactly that of Poe.

Moreover, the two schools shared a similar structural picture of the universe, so that it is quite easy to confuse their doctrines if one is not acutely aware of the totally different approaches they take toward this cosmology. Where Neo-Platonism sought to uplift the soul through contemplation of the monistic order of the cosmos and through a positive affirmation of an essential harmony between man and nature (a process which Emerson details best in essays such as “Nature” and “Circles”), Gnostics saw nothing but tyranny and restriction in the concepts of “Natural Law” and the “Music of the Spheres.” Rather than expanding the self and pushing it gently onward and upward through the seven concentric spheres of experience, the Gnostics sought to liberate the soul, [page 2:] violently, if necessary, from its incarceration by the Archons (the seven old planetary gods of Classic mythology) in the prison-house of matter. The Gnostics sought to smash the seven planetary spheres (based on Ptolemy’s Earth-centered cosmology) by an intellectual act alone, which would free the soul from its bondage to the co ordinates of space and time (the latter imaged by Saturn, or the devouring Chronos), and they sought to send the soul hurtling toward its ultimate union with the hidden god of the Aeons, the Theos Agnostos. This act of gnosis was thus both Genesis and Apocalypse rolled into one, “a novel Universe swelling into existence, and then subsiding into nothingness, at every throb of the Heart Divine,” as Poe put it in Eureka, where he calls the Gnostic god “absolute Unity.”(6)

One of the most important and lasting of the Gnostic schools was Hermeticism, or the philosophy of Alchemy, which centered its efforts on the transmutation of base metals into gold through the generation of the so-called Philosopher’s Stone, which became a representational symbol for the act of gnosis itself. Alchemy was a means of liberating the primal spirit trapped in the layers of materiality, as it was also a means of liberating the immortal human soul from its enforced sojourn in the confines of the fleshly body. The school took its name from the Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of books and treatises ascribed to a legendary sage called Hermes Trismegistus. The figure of Hermes derived ultimately from the Egyptian god Thoth, helper and scribe of the sungod Osiris, who, like the ancient Pharaoh of Dynastic Egypt, was “Thrice Great” because he combined the powers of king, judge, and law-giver all in one.

The Greeks identified the Egyptian Thoth with their trickster god, Hermes, while the Romans subsumed both deities under the rubric of Mercurius or Mercury, the messenger of the gods and guide of souls in the underworld, so that Hermes Trismegistus became, through the process of transposition, the alchemical demi-god of guidance, revelation, and arcane knowledge all in one. The Hermetic canon eventually contained hundreds of works ascribed to his name, though at first Hermes was considered to be a real figure, as much a supreme hierophant as Plato or Pythagoras had been before him. Only a few Hermetic tomes stand out as being of genuine authority and antiquity, however, and these compose the Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of fifteen treatises assigned to the second and third centuries A.D. Among these documents are the “Divine Pymander” and the so-called “Emerald Table,” which were among the miscellaneous occult texts handed down not only to Poe, but to earlier Romantics such as Blake, whose own metaphysic resembles Poe’s so closely, once again because of their common Gnostic sources.(7)

Emerson considered the possibility of taking this occult direction himself, for in his second essay on “Beauty” he writes:

Astrology interested us, for it tied man to the system. Instead of an isolated beggar, the farthest star felt him and he felt the star. However rash and however falsified by pretenders and traders in it, the hint was true and divine, the soul’s avowal of its large relations, and that climate, century, remote natures as well as near, are part of its biography. Chemistry takes to pieces, but it does not construct. Alchemy, which sought to [column 2:]transmute one element into another, to arm with power — that was in the right direction(8).

The sage of Concord actually owned a “much used” copy of a seventeenth-century “Divine Pymander” of Hermes, translated by Dr. John Everard, whose tone was decidedly Gnostic, and it is not surprising that for part of his life Everard was under suspicion for heresy.(9) Emerson, however, ultimately saw alchemy as only a minor alloy of the larger Neo-Platonic ore he was hammering into that newest form of New England heresy called Transcendentalism. It was not for him fully “the right direction”; yet it is similarly characteristic of Poe that he should have amplified the same rejected source in order to darken further the shadows of his own alien “Dark Romanticism.”

Here an apologia might be in order. We are, with Eliot, so used to conceiving of Poe as a shallow “Gothicist” or as a “puerile” thinker whose writing is “unsupported by wide reading or profound scholarship” that what I am about to detail is, I suspect, likely to strike the general reader as improbable and even ingenious rather than compelling and valid. All I ask is that the reader follow my argument to the end and weigh the evidence. I have already traced out the influence of alchemical philosophy as a unifying feature in two other Poe stories, “don Kempelen and His Discovery” and “The Gold-Bug.”(10) The present effort traces out a similar skein of occultism in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” with the purpose, as I have said, of showing that there is not only an aesthetic unity to Poe’s work, but an intriguing and wholly respectable metaphysical unity as well.

Actually, we should be prepared for the presence of such symbolism by the mention of Robert Flud[d]’s name in the catalogue of strange books and authors in Usher’s library. The narrator tells us that among those books, the titles of which all suggest a dangerous journey to the underworld ending at last in a transcendent “City of the Sun,” is to be found “the Chiromancy of Robert Flud.” Robert Fludd was a follower of the Pythagorean musical philosophy (and here we remember Usher’s “passionate devotion to the intricacies, even more than to the orthodox and easily recognizable beauties, of musical science”), as well as of the alchemical theories derived from another seventeenth-century master, Michael Maier.(11) It is suggestive of Poe’s interests that “Chiromancy” is one of Fludd’s minor works. Among his voluminous writings, as Desiree Hirst writes, “speculation on Creation and the nature of man is mixed with theories about thunderbolts and storms, disquisitions on anatomy and various crafts, including military strategy” (Hidden Riches, p. 131). But it is Fludd’s work on alchemy that was his chief contribution to seventeenth-century thought; and it is the alchemical work, even though not mentioned by the narrator of “Usher,” rather than fortune-telling through palmistry, that has the greatest relevance to the fate of Roderick Usher. Like Fludd himself, Usher “absolutely refused to separate the natural from the supernatural” (Hidden Riches, p. 131).

Hirst summarizes Fludd’s alchemical system in terms which apply to the larger Hermetic tradition of which it is a part. These terms also suggest, however, the symbols which appear in the last of the secret books mentioned [page 3:] in “The Fall of the House of Usher” — the “Mad Trist” of Sir Launcelot Canning, which is the only truly fictitious author and volume among all those mentioned by the narrator. “The basic document for all alchemy,” Hirst writes,

is the famous “Emerald Table of Hermes” or “Smaragdine Tablet,” ascribed to the semi-mythical philosopher Hermes Trismegistus. . . . Its thirteen cryptic propositions were accepted as the key to the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone and the mystery of the universe itself. But the general pattern of alchemical teaching never varies. It asserts the union of spirit, symbolized by the eagle, or by mercury, with the serpent or sulphur, matter. This union forms the dragon, or winged serpent out of a conflict between opposites. The “mortification,” or death of the dragon was necessary before that resurrection could take place which alone produces the “philosophers” stone. By Fludd’s time the process was taken more and more in a purely symbolic sense. (Hidden Riches, pp. 123-124)

In such a way, too, could we take Canning’s “Mad Trist,” though the obtuse or deliberately secretive narrator remarks that “there is little in its uncouth and unimaginative prolixity which could have had interest for the lofty and spiritual ideality of my friend” (III, 292). If we consider Roderick Usher both as a master alchemist and as a hierophant of its mysteries, however, the “Mad Trist” is not a “burlesque extravagance . . . portentously empty of meaning,”(12) but, for one of the cognoscenti like Roderick, rather a Hermetic manuscript full of occult truth and “ideality.” The thing that strikes us first about the “Mad Trist” is that it is about the “mortification,” or killing, of a dragon, and second, that there is a very definite progression of metals mentioned in its text.

Alchemy was all about the transmutation of base metals into gold; and, just as in Pythagorean harmonic theory each planet was linked with a corresponding tone or semi-tone, so in Hermeticism each crystalline sphere had its corresponding planetary metal. The pantheon of the planetary metals ran: Saturn/lead; Jupiter/tin; Mercury/mercury (quicksilver); Mars/iron; Venus/copper; Moon/silver; and Sun/gold. The hierarchy of the planetary metals is not confined in Poe’s tale solely to the “Mad Trist,” however, for it actually begins with the first sight of the House of Usher by the narrator and the corresponding impressions aroused in his soul.

The very concept of the house can be referred not only to the stock props of Gothic fiction, but also to the metaphors of imprisonment, transiency, and falling which were so important to the Gnostic philosophers. As Hans Jonas writes of the occult significance of the house or dwelling:

The sojourn “in the world” is called “dwelling,” the world itself a “dwelling” or “house,” and in contrast to the bright dwellings, the “dark” or the “base” dwelling, “the mortal house.” The idea of “dwelling” has two aspects: on the one hand it implies a temporary state, something contingent and therefore revocable — a dwelling can be exchanged for another, it can be abandoned and even allowed to go to ruin; on the other hand, it implies the dependence of life on its surroundings — the place where he dwells makes a decisive difference to the dweller and determines his whole condition. (The Gnostic Religion, p. 55)

Surely this latter fact is doubly true for the unhappy Roderick, who [column 2:]

. . . 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 gray walls and turrets, and of the dim tarn into which they all looked down, had, at length brought about the morale of his existence. (III, 280-281)

Usher and his “house” or “dwelling” are in turn enchained by the manacles of place and time, and so by time’s great Archon, Chronos or Saturn. Both the house and Usher himself begin at the bottom of the alchemical ladder with the planet Saturn and its corresponding metal, lead. For emotionally both house and master are in the thrall of melancholy, which is the hallmark of the sphere of Saturn. As C. G. Jung tells us, “Gray and black correspond to Saturn and the evil world; they symbolize the beginning in darkness, in the melancholy, fear, wickedness, and wretchedness of ordinary human life,”(13) since Saturn is, traditionally, the dark, cold planet furthest from the light of the sun. Saturn naturally became associated with the darkness in which the soul must remain buried until it is resurrected by purification and what Thomas Vaughan said was vulgarly called “a torture of Metals.” And in “Ligeia,” which was Poe’s own favorite tale, the narrator says of his love for the heroine, his “Liege Lady,” that “Wanting the radiant lustre of her eyes, letters, lambent and golden, grew duller than Saturnian lead” (II, 254).

Thus the narrator of “Usher” notes “the decayed trees, and the gray wall, and the silent tarn — a pestilent and mystic vapour, dull sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-h?’ed” (II, 276; italics mine), while Usher’s voice, for example, “varied rapidly from a tremulous indecision” to “that abrupt, weighty, unhurried, and hollow-sounding enunciation — that leaden, self-balanced, and perfectly modulated gutteral utterance, which may be observed in the lost drunkard, or the irreclaimable eater of opium, during the periods of his most intense excitement” (II, 279; italics mine). The landscape of the House of Usher is gray and colorless because it is sculpted out of dull, dark, and soundless “Saturnian lead.” Even Usher’s studio, in which “Many books and musical instruments lay scattered about, but failed to give any vitality to the scene” (II, 278), might be modelled on Durer’s famous engraving of “Melancholy,” which depicts the leaden malaise of the Saturnine temperament, drawing on the same alchemical sources which influenced Poe.(14)

Usher, however, because he is “alternately vivacious and sullen,” is himself neither completely melancholic nor saturnine in temperament (according to the conventions of the “four humours”) but rather decidedly mercurial in nature. This is again a natural corollary resulting from the alchemical lexicon of symbols, which presupposed that Mercurius, or Hermes, was the guiding spirit of the transmutation process. As Edouard Schure writes of the term “Hermes,” it “designates a man, a caste, and a god at the same time,” for “as a man, Hermes is the first and great initiator of Egypt; as a caste, Hermes is the priesthood, the depository of esoteric traditions; as a god, Hermes is the planet Mercury, including in its sphere a [page 4:] category of spirits and divine initiators; in brief, Hermes presides in the supraterrestrial region of celestial initiation.”(15)

Roderick Usher, to some extent, partakes of all these qualities, but he is also the questing alchemist par excellence who is conducting an experiment in transmutation which risks the life of his mind as well as the state of his soul. When he exclaims to the narrator that “I shall perish . . . I must perish in this deplorable folly” (III, 280), the folly to which he refers can be considered as the “Great Folly” of alchemy, as viewed by its most skeptical critics, while unconsciously the words are prophetic, in that the old life of the alchemist had to die, the old material self had to perish, if the experiment was to be fully a spiritual success. Just as the Mystery rites of the ancient world involved a descent into the infernal regions and the symbolic death of the self, so did alchemy require a killing of the old and a putting on of the new.

Thus the symbols of the House of Usher form yet another occult significance when seen under the rubric of alchemy. The vault, for example, which is pictured in Roderick’s painting and is later paralleled by the crypt in which the Lady Madeline is entombed, is very like a peculiar tunnel which appears in a seventeenth-century alchemical illustration done for Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens, a work, as we have seen, which influenced Robert Fludd’s thought.

The mention of Usher’s painting in relation to developments in modern art also gains some perspective when we consider John Read’s comment on this particular design, for he observes, “The engraving is reminiscent of nothing so much as one of Chirico’s paintings of some empty courtyard with marble statue and cold, blue shadows; and indeed Surrealists have lighted upon alchemical engravings with enthusiasm, finding in them the disturbing and incongruous juxtapositions of their own work” (The Alchemist, pp. 21-22). The same tunnel appears in magnified form as the subterranean cavern of Hermetic wisdom, illuminated by six divine rays, in an allegorical plate done for Heinrich Khunrath’s Amphitheater of Eternal Wisdom (1609). It is my belief, from evidence in “The Gold-Bug” as well as “The Fall of the House of Usher,” that Poe lighted upon these kinds of engravings long before the Surrealists did, but what Carl Gustav Jung has to say about the vault or crypt as a symbol for the alchemical vessel, the vas or furnace itself, illuminates even more the process which is taking place in the subterranean recesses of Usher.

Commenting on Michael Maier’s explication of a pseudo-alchemical riddle, which referred to a feminine entity named “Aelia” and “a tomb that has no body in it, . . . a body that has no tomb in it,/But body and tomb are the same,” Jung writes that “Mater’s opinion is that this has nothing to do with the tomb, which was no tomb, but that Aelia herself is meant.” He continues:

The explanation of Aelia herself as the “tomb” would naturally appeal to an alchemist, as this motif plays a considerable role in the literature. He called his vessel a “tomb,” or, as in the Rosarium, a “red tumulus of rock.” The Turba says that a tomb must be dug for the dragon and the woman. Interment is identical with the nigredo [the alchemical stage of blackness or “mortification”]. A Greek treatise describes the alchemical process as the “eight graves.” Alexander found the “tomb of [column 2:] Hermes” when he discovered the secret of the art. The “king” is buried in Saturn, an analogy of the buried Osiris. “While the nigredo of the burial endures, the woman rules,” referring to the eclipse of the sun or the conjunction with the new moon.

Thus, concludes Maier, tomb and body are the same. (Mysterium Coniunctionis, pp. 64-65)

Such is the chain of casuistic symbolism which alchemy forges, very much in its essence like the eclectic manipulation of images in Poe’s work. The vault in which Madeline is entombed, or “hermetically sealed” (as an alchemical term which has passed into popular usage might put it), continues the metallurgical imagery of Mars/iron and Venus/copper, which is in turn picked up in the “Mad Trist” of Sir Launcelot Canning. The narrator notes of the vault that “a portion of its floor, and the whole interior of a long archway through which we reached it, were carefully sheathed in copper. The door, of massive iron, had been, also, similarly protected. Its immense weight caused an unusually sharp grating sound, as it moved upon its hinges” (III, 288).

illustration 01

Alchemical Allegory: The Philosopher’s Egg. Note the Hermetic Tunnel or vault in the background.

Michael Maier: Scrutinium Chymicum, Frankfort, 1687.

Ex. Coll. S. Foster Damon, courtesy Brown University Library.

   The hierarchical symbolism of alchemy culminates in the “Mad Trist,” which, when it is read aloud by the narrator to the seething Roderick, seems to initiate that most mystical of coincidences, the self-resurrection of Madeline from her premature burial alive in the vault. As the narrator reads, the melodramatic events mentioned in the romance are paralleled by the sounds of Madeline freeing herself from the confines of her inhumation. Yet, at one and the same time as well, Madeline is the Gnostic soul trying to tear itself free from the imprisoning materiality of the prison-house world. In the text, the alchemical hero, Ethelred, synchronistically completes his own progress through the “trials” of the metals in order to reach the final perfection of sun-golden transcendence: [page 5:]

“But the good champion Ethelred, now entering within the door, was sore enraged and amazed to perceive no signal of the maliceful hermit; but in the stead thereof, a dragon of scaly and prodigious demeanour, and of a fiery tongue, which sate in guard before a palace of gold, with a floor of silver, and upon the wall there hung a shield of shining brass with this legend enwritten —

Who entereth herein, a conqueror hath bin; Who slayeth the dragon, the shield he shall win;

And Ethelred uplifted his mace, and struck upon the head of the dragon, which fell before him, and gave up his pesty breath, with a shriek so horrid and harsh, and withal so piercing, that Ethelred had fain ro close his ears with his hands against the dreadful noise of it, the like whereof was never before heard.” (III, 293-294)

The hermit, “who, in sooth, was of an obstinate and maliceful turn,” is but Hermes in the lowest form of Saturn, a deity often depicted as a cantankerous old man (“Father Time” with his scythe and hourglass is another of his more familiar variant forms), while the killing of the dragon by Ethelred is perfectly illustrated by the second figure of The Book of Lambspring, a seventeenth-century volume of alchemical emblems which shows the clash of opposites as a death-struggle between Mars (iron), the knight of “doughty heart,” and Mercurius (quicksilver), the fiery-tongued dragon.(16) As John Read tells us, “Winged and wingless serpents or dragons symbolise the volatile and fixed principles (mercury and sulphur) respectively,”(17) while he describes another pictorial parallel to the battle scene in Poe’s “Mad Trist,” this time once again from the engravings in Michael Maier’s work:

illustration 01

Alchemical Allegory: Mortification (The Killing of the Hermetic Dragon).

The Book of Lambspring; Musaeum Hermeticum Frankfort, 1749.

Ex. Coll. S. Foster Damon, courtesy Brown University Library.

Sol (sophic sulphur) and Luna (sophic mercury), however, usually play the male and female parts in alchemical drama, and [column 2:]Maier shows them in the act of slaying the Dragon. In this emblem, as in so many others, the Dragon represents base matter, containing nevertheless the seed of gold; at the same time he is the guardian of the garden of the Hesperides and the fabled apples of gold. When he is killed, his seed is able to germinate and fructify; the gate of the Hesperian garden is thrown open, and the golden apples may be plucked. Ir is usually stated that the Dragon must die in the company of his brother and sister, Sol and Luna, the particular function of Luna (sophic mercury) being ro render him volatile and susceptible to change. (Prelude to Chemistry, pp. 239-240)

Another of Khunrath’s alchemical illustrations presents the Hermetic citadel as a fortress protecting the treasure of the Philosopher’s Stone, which is further defended by the winged dragon and Hermes himself, who operates the drawbridge of faith. In Poe’s allegory, the dragon, which can be either Mercurius as “quicksilver” or as base-matter, defends neither a fortress nor the golden garden of the Hesperides but rather “a palace of gold, with a floor of silver.” And Ethelred, who is suggestive of the alchemist, Mars, and “sophic sulphur” (for his name can be construed as “red ether,” and we remember that Roderick Usher’s “ideality” threw “a sulphureous lustre over all”), will surely be an alchemical conqueror if he wins the shield of the lapis, the Philosopher’s Stone. Jung further explains of the connection between sulphur and Mercury, with reference to the “pesty breath” of the dragon in the “Mad Trist” that:

Being the inner fire of Mercurius, Sulphur obviously partakes of his most dangerous and most evil nature, his violence being personified in the dragon and the lion. . . . The dragon whose nature sulphur shares is often spoken of as the “dragon of Babel” or, more accurately, the “dragon’s head” (caput draconic) , which is a “most pernicious poison,” a poisonous vapour breathed out by the flying dragon. The dragon’s head “comes with great swiftness from Babylon.” However, the “winged dragon” that stands for quicksilver becomes a poison-breathing monster only after its union with the “wingless dragon,” which corresponds to sulphur. Sulphur here plays an evil role that accords well with the sinful “Babel.” (Mysterium Coniunctionis, p. 117)

But, as Read has emphasized, the brother and sister, Sol and Luna, must suffer destruction along with the dragon if the complete alchemical work is to be accomplished. This prepares us for the climax of the passion drama enacted in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the state of ultimate union between gold and silver, Sol and Luna, Osiris and Isis, or Hermes and Aphrodite, as all these terms appear in the Hermetic canon. The stage is set for the sudden apparition of Isis, unveiled and linked by a mystic marriage, a “hieros gamos, “ a “mad trist,” with the hierophant in his part as her long-sought brother-bridegroom. It is thus appropriate that the vault in which Madeline is entombed be sheathed in copper, since copper was the planetary metal associated with Venus, whose “regimen” had to occur before the mysterium coniunctionis of moon/silver and sun/gold could be reached.

In “The Mad Trist” of Sir Launcelot Canning, when the hero Ethelred, having slain the Mercurial dragon, strides “valorously” over the silver floor of the golden palace to claim the “brazen shield,” it “in sooth tarried not for his full coming, but fell down at his feet upon the silver floor, with a mighty great and terrible ringing sound.” Having arrived at this point in his reading, the narrator of “The Fall of the House of Usher” reports, [page 6:] “No sooner had these syllables passed my lips, than — as if a shield of brass had indeed, at the moment, fallen heavily upon floor of silver — I became aware of a distinct, hollow, metallic, and clangorous, yet apparently muffled reverberation” (III, 295). When Lucius Apuleius, whose account in the Golden Ass was popular with Medieval alchemists, sees the vision of Queen Isis, she tells him that she is the “Infernal Proserpine” of the Sicilians as well as the Eleusinian Ceres and the Paphian Venus. He then notes that Isis carries in her hand a “timbre! of brass,” or sistrum, a “flat piece of metal carved in the manner of a girdle, wherein passed not many rods through the periphery of it; and when with her arm she moved these triple chords, they gave forth a shrill and clear sound.”(18) More recently Robert Graves has celebrated the universality of this vision in his curious study, The White Goddess.(19)

Only now, announced by this characteristic noise, does the “lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline of Usher,” with “blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame,” make her appearance, almost immediately to fall “heavily inward upon the person of her brother” and bear him, like her, “to the floor, a corpse” (III, 296). This is the vision vouchsafed the narrator, a vision which is awesome and dreadful, horrible and sublime, all in one. As Richard Wilbur has noted, “When the House of Usher disintegrates or dematerializes at the close of the story, it does so because Roderick Usher has become all soul.”(20) And, indeed, Roderick, locked in the liberating embrace of his sister-bride, according to the canons of Gnostic initiation, has become even more than pure soul — he has become one with the hidden god — he has achieved gnosis.

Roderick has also become “all soul” or “god” in a very particular way. That way, as I have attempted to demonstrate, is the ancient way of the alchemists. Roderick Usher has climbed the seven-runged ladder of the planetary metals as surely as he has passed through all seven of the crystalline spheres and endured the trials of the four elements. His final, traumatic “love-death” is, for a believing alchemist, the hermaphroditic mysterium coniunctionis of “Rex” and “Regina” which frees him completely from the dwelling house of matter. Here the final paragraph of “The Fall of the House of Usher” gains a new relevance:

From that chamber, and from that mansion, I fled aghast. The storm was still abroad in all its wrath as I found myself crossing the old causeway. Suddenly there shot along the path a wild light, and I turned to see whence a gleam so unusual could have issued; for the vast house and its shadows were alone behind me. The radiance was that of the full, setting and blood-red moon, which now shone vividly through that once barely-discernible fissure, of which I have before spoken as extending from the roof of the building, in a zigzag direction, to the base. While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened — there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind — the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight — my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder — there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters — and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the “House of Usher.” (III, 297)

What we notice is the presence of the four elements — the dark and earthly “tenement” of the house, the [column 2:]“fierce breath of the whirlwind,” the fiery radiance of the “wild light,” and “unusual gleam” of the “blood-red” moon, and the “long, tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters” — all described in terms of an apocalypse. Yet these elements (earth, air, fire, and water) are now in conjunction; and the ghastly scarlet radiance heralds a final alchemical stage known as the “rubedo,” for the appearance of Madeline Usher, “with blood upon her white robes,” has already signaled the materialization of the “albedo,” the penultimate moon/silver stage of the alchemical work.

illustration 01

Alchemical Allegory: The Hermetic Dragon (Mercurius as Ouroboros).

The Book of Lambspring; Musaeum Hermeticum Frankfort, 1749.

Ex. Coll. S. Foster Damon, courtesy Brown University Library.

Of this, Jung writes that the albedo “denotes the first stage of completion and is identified with Luna. Luna is herself spirit, and she at once joins her husband, Sol thus initiating the second and usually final stage, the r’6bedo. With this the work is completed, and the lapis, a living being endowed with soul and an incorruptible body, has taken shape” (Mysterium Coniunctionis, p. 314). Of the “blood-red” color of this degree, he observes, “Red and rose-red are the colour of blood, a synonym for the aqua permanens and the soul, which are extracted from the prima materia and bring ‘dead’ bodies to life” (Mysterium Coniunctionis, p. 306). In fact, Jung’s full description of the conjunction, which he interprets in psycho-sexual terms as an allegory of the individuation process, can be compared to the elemental catastrophe of Poe’s strange closing scene, which is another picture of the attainment of gnosis — Genesis and Apocalypse combined. Jung writes:

The situation is now gradually illuminated as is a dark night by the rising moon. The illumination comes to a certain extent from the unconscious, since it is mainly dreams that put us on the track of enlightenment. This dawning light corresponds to the albedo, the moonlight which in the opinion of some alchemists [page 7:] heralds the rising sun. The growing redness (rubedo) which now follows denotes an increase of warmth and light coming from the sun, consciousness. This corresponds to the increasing participation of consciousness, which now begins to react emotionally to the contents produced by the unconscious. At first the process of integration is a “fiery” conflict, but gradually it leads over to the “melting” or synthesis of the opposites. The alchemists termed this the rubedo, in which the marriage of the red man and the white woman, Sol and Luna, is consummated. Although the opposites flee from one another they nevertheless strive for balance, since a state of conflict is too inimical to life to be endured constantly. They do this by wearing each other out: the one ears the other like the two dragons or the other ravenous beasts of alchemical symbolism. (Mysterisum Coniunctionis, pp. 229-230)

The brother, in fact, does eat up the sister who returns and eats up the brother. The poisonous dragon thus becomes transmuted into the prime Gnostic symbol of ultimate unity, the beneficent Ouroboros, or serpent who swallows his own tail. Moreover, the tarn “swallows” the House of Usher, while the House itself, like the Hermetic vessel of the successful alchemist, crumbles because a material shell is no longer necessary for the “incorruptible body” which Usher, the Great Initiate, has become. Yet the narrator of the tale continues to view the entire process of initiation and transmutation only in conventional “Gothic” terms, focusing on the apocalyptic and “terrific” aspects of the conflict, for his terror, in its expression at least, is definitely more of Germany than of the soul. The essence of the story, however, is ultimately metaphysical. Rather than a fable about “the total disintegration of a complex human being,”(21) or merely a tale of incestuous guilt,(22) or of Oedipal fantasy,(23) or of Gothic Vampirism,(24) or of the illusory fears of Usher and narrator(25) or of the neurasthenia of the artistic personality,(26) “The Fall of the House of Usher,” when viewed in Gnostic terms, can be seen as a tale precisely about what Jung called the “retrogressive liberation of a soul from the character imprinted by the Archons” (Mysterium Coniunctionis, p. 230). Finally, when placed in the context of Poe’s Complete Works, and of his increasingly materialistic age, it can be seen as prime evidence of Poe’s own heretical attempt to throw off not only the old manacles of Time and Space, but the chains of that newest and most threatening of the Archons, Science itself.



(1)  T. S. Eliot, “From Poe to Valery,” in The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Eric W. Carlson (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1970), p. 205.

(2)  Poe absorbed the Gnostic metaphysic mainly through his familiarity with Hermetic and Kabbalistic works. There is mention in his own works of writings of Neo-Platonic philosophers such as Plotinus, Proclus, Iamblichus, and Porphyry, and also of Church Fathers such as Origen, Tertullian, Augustine, and Epiphanius, who argued against the heretical doctrines of the Gnostics and sometimes quoted extensively from them. As Jonas points out, until the nineteenth century they were the only source for our knowledge of Christian Gnosticism, save for the treatise of Plotinus, Against the Gnostics, or Against those who say that the Creator of the World is Evil and that the World is Bad.

(3)  See Hans Jonas, “Gnostic Imagery and Symbolic Language,” The Gnostic Religion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958), pp. 48-99.

(4)  Richard Wilbur, Poe (New York: Dell Publishing, 1962), p. 17.

(5)  Hyatt H. Waggoner, American Poets (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968), p. 146.

(6)  The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (New York: Thomas W. Crowell, 1902), XVI, 310-311. Hereafter, such references will appear in the text.

(7)  For Blake’s Gnostic and alchemical sources, see Asloob Ahmad Ansari, “Blake and the Kabbalah,” and Piloo Nanavutty, “Materia Prima in a Page of Blake’s Vala, “ in William Blake: Essays for S. Foster Damon, ed. Alvin Rosenfeld (Providence: Brown University Press, 1969), pp. 199-200, 293-302. The classic study of the subject is Kathleen Raine, Blake and Tradition (Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968), 2 vols.

(8)  Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Beauty,” in The Conduct of Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1904), p. 282.

(9)  See Walter Harding, Emerson’s Library (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1967), pp. 133-134

(10)  See my essay “Poe’s ‘Sober Mystification’: The Uses of Alchemy in ‘The Gold-Bug,’” Poe Studies, 4 (1971), 1-7.

(11)  “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Complete Works, 111, 275. Desiree Hirst, Hidden Riches: Traditional Symbolism from the Renaissance to Blake (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1964), p. 137.

(12)  Thomas Woodson, “Introduction” to Twentieth Century Interpretations of “The Fall of the House of Usher “ (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969), p. 17; hereafter cited as TCI.

(13)  C. G. Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis: An Inquiry into the Separation and Synthesis of Psychic Opposites in Alchemy (New York: Pantheon Books, 1963), p. 229.

(14)  See John Read, The Alchemist in Life, Literature, and Art (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1947), p. 58. The connection among Samrn, lead, and melancholy can also be related to the classic figures of “Inamorato” and “Hypochondriacus,” as pictured, for example, in the frontispiece to the 1628 edition of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. These are reproduced in Floyd Dell and Paul Jordan-Smirh, eds., The Anatomy of Melancholy, by Robert Burton (New York: Tudor Publishing, 1927), p. 3. For a full discussion of the topos of “Melancholy” in relation to artistic sensitivity, see the chapter entitled “Genius, Madness, and Melancholy” in Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists, by Rudolf and Margot Wittkower (New York: W. W. Norton, 1969), pp. 98-132. Usher appears to be “pining away” from acute melancholy, while the narrator openly refers to him as a “hypochondriac.” In The Art of Albrecht Durer (New York: Phaidon, 1791 [1905]), Heinrich Wolfflin notes that the artist Durer speaks “of the education of young painters and mentions the possibility that a youth when learning might over-exert himself, that he might ‘practice too much.’ In this case ‘melancholia’ would get ‘out of hand’ and he would have to turn to the amusement of stringed instruments ‘to enliven his blood’ “ (p. 202) .

(15)  Edouard Schure, The Great Initiates: A Study of the Secret History of Religions (West Nyack, N.Y.: Sr. George Books, 1961 [1889]), p. 134.

(16)  For a reproduction of this particular print, see C. A. Burland The Arts of the Alchemists (New York: Macmillan, 1967), p. 146. It can also be found, along with the Khunrath plates, in The Mirror of Magic: A History of Magic in the Western World by Kurr Seligmann (New York: Pantheon Books, 1948). For a reproduction and interpretation of the complete set of engravings to the Book of Lambspring (1678), see A. E. Waite, The Hermetic Museum Restored and Enlarged (London, 1893), 2 vols. Cited in Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis (1963).

(17)  John Read, Prelude to Chemistry: An Outline of Alchemy (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1961 [1936]), p. 107.

(18)  Lucius Apuleius, The Golden Ass, Being the Metamorphoses of Lucius Apuleius, with an English translation by W. Adlington [1566] (London: William Heinemann, 1915), p. 545. Lucius, a first-century priest of Osiris, is among the many Neo-Platonic and pagan philosophers who are referred to throughout Poe’s Complete Works. It should be noted here that the “brass” of the ancient world could be either an amalgam of copper and tin (later segregated off as “bronze”) or an alloy of copper and zinc. This would account for the hidden presence of tin [page 8:] in the story and its associated planet-god, Jupiter, which plays a contrastingly major role in “The Gold-Bug.” Jupiter, god of thunder and lightning, makes his presence felt by conjuring up the impetuous whirlwind which materializes near the House of Usher, while the opening noise of Ethelred’s intrusion into the dwelling of the hermit, which “cracked and ripped” the wood until the sound “alarmed and reverberated throughout the forest” parallels the characteristic crackling “cry” of this planetary metal. As for the timbrel or sistrum which Isis carries, ir may be noted that Plutarch gives an elaborate description of its symbolic properties in his treatise De Iside et Osiride.

(19)  Robert Graves, The White Goddess (1st pub. 1948; rpt. New York: Vintage Books, 1968), pp. 50-65.

(20)  Richard Wilbur, “The House of Poe,” in The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe, p. 110.

(21)  Edward H. Davidson, Poe, A Critical Study (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966), p. 167.

(22)  D H Lawrence, rpt. TCI, pp. 35-42.

(23)  Marie Bonaparte, rpt. TCI, pp. 26-27.

(24)  Lyle H. Kendall, Jr., rpt. TCI, pp. 99-104.

(25)  Darrel Abel, “A Key to the House of Usher, University of Toronto Quarterly, 18 (1949), 176-185, and Leo Spitzer, rpt. TCI, pp. 56-70.

(26)  Charles Feidelson, Jr., rpt. TCI, pp. 71-81.


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1972]