Text: Thomas Ollive Mabbott (E. A. Poe), “The Masque of the Red Death,” The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe — Vol. II: Tales and Sketches (1978), pp. 667-678 (This material is protected by copyright)


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[page 667, continued:]

THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH

This masterpiece is unsurpassed, perhaps unequaled, among Poe’s very short stories. The author made few revisions, but they show supreme artistry. Critics have differed widely in interpreting [page 668:] the tale,* but I see in it a clear moral that one cannot run away from responsibility.

The plot involves the supernatural, but the chief incidents are historical. During the epidemic of cholera at Paris in 1832, people were determined to make what might be a short life a merry one, and many balls were given. The following description comes from the sixteenth letter of “Pencillings by the Way” of N. P. Willis:

At a masque ball at the Théatre des Varietés. . . at the celebration of the Mi-Careme, or half-lent . . . were some two thousand people . . . in fancy dresses . . . and one man, immensely tall, dressed as a personification of the Cholera itself, with skeleton armor, bloodshot eyes, and other horrible appurtenances of a walking pestilence.

This was first printed in the New-York Mirror, June 2, 1832, and there can be little doubt that Poe was familiar with it. In his eighteenth letter Willis observed that there had been “two cases within the palace-walls.” Since the letters of Willis were so well known in Poe’s day, it is needless to seek other sources for the terrifying costume.

Poe’s setting for his tale recalls that of Boccaccio’s Decameron, where the narrators are members of a group of people who retire to a remote castle to avoid the plague. Prince Prospero’s name is Italian, and Poe had another Italian source. In Graham’s Magazine for September 1841, he had reviewed Thomas Campbell’s Life of Petrarch, and presumably saw there a grim story of a nobleman named Barnabo, who during a plague shut himself up in his castle and set a sentinel to ring a bell if anyone approached. Yet a party entered unannounced, and Barnabo, finding the sentry dead, fled [page 669:] to the forest where, it was reported, he too died. In his review, Poe cites as inappropriately humorous Campbell’s sentence, “This was a dance of the king of terrors over the earth, and a very rapid one.”§

Poe also may have read of the clock at Strasbourg Cathedral, where, shortly before the stroke of the clock, a figure representing Death emerged from the center and sounded the full hour, while at the quarter and half hours the statue of Christ came out, repelling the destroyer.*

The Red Death is imaginary; its name parallels the medieval Black Death of 1348-1349, and the “blue Plague” of Shelley’s Revolt of Islam, X, xx-xxvi, but it also reminds one a little of the first plague of the Egyptians described in Exodus.

Other analogues have been pointed out which are more remote, or unlikely to have been known to Poe. There is a legend of a ghostly skeleton dancing at the wedding feast of Alexander III of Scotland, at Jedburgh Castle in 1285. Masquerades gave an advantage to assassins. King Gustav III of Sweden was killed at a masqued ball in 1792 — the basis of Verdi’s opera Un Ballo in Maschera (1859). The eleventh chapter of J. K. B. Eichendorff’s Ahnung und Gegenwart (1815) is “Die Maskenball,” but I think it most improbable that Poe “may have perused”§ that German romance. [page 670:]

Poe presumably composed “The Masque of the Red Death” about March 1842.

TEXTS

(A) Graham’s Magazine for May 1842 (20:257-259); (B) Broadway Journal, July 19, 1845 (2:17-19); (C) Works (1850), I, 339-345. PHANTASY-PIECES, title only.

Griswold’s text (C) is chosen. It shows one verbal change from (B) and corrects a misprint.

Reprints

The Baltimore Saturday Visiter, April 30, 1842, “Selected from Graham’s Magazine for May”; The Literary Souvenir (Lowell, Mass.), June 4, 1842, from Graham’s Magazine.

THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH.   [C]   [[n]]   [[v]]

The “Red Death” had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been{a} so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar{b} and its seal — the redness and the horror of blood.(1) There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding{c} at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellowmen. And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour.

But the Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious.(2) When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his castellated abbeys. This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince’s own eccentric yet august taste. A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers, having entered, brought [page 671:] furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress or egress to the sudden impulses of despair{d} or of frenzy from within. The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve,{e} or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians,{f} there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the “Red Death.”

It was toward{g} the close of the fifth or sixth month of his seclusion, and while the pestilence raged most furiously abroad, that the Prince Prospero entertained his thousand friends at a masked ball of the most unusual magnificence.

It was a voluptuous scene, that masquerade. But first let me tell of the rooms in which it was held. There were seven — an imperial suite. In many palaces, however, such suites form a long and straight vista, while the folding doors slide back nearly to the walls on either hand, so that the view of the whole extent is scarcely impeded. Here the case was very different; as might have been expected from the duke’s love of the bizarre. The apartments were so irregularly disposed that the vision embraced but little more than one at a time. There was a sharp turn at every twenty or thirty yards, and at each turn a novel effect. To the right and left, in the middle of each wall, a tall and narrow Gothic window looked out upon a closed corridor which pursued the windings of the suite. These windows were of stained glass whose color varied in accordance with the prevailing hue of the decorations of the chamber into which it opened. That at the eastern extremity was hung, for example,{h} in blue — and vividly blue were its windows. The second chamber was purple in its ornaments and tapestries, and here the panes were purple. The third was green throughout, and so were the casements. The fourth was furnished and lighted{i} [page 672:] with orange — the fifth with white — the sixth with violet. The seventh apartment was closely shrouded in black velvet tapestries that hung all over the ceiling and down the walls, falling in heavy folds upon a carpet of the same material and hue. But in this chamber only, the color of the windows failed to correspond with the decorations. The panes here were scarlet — a deep blood color. Now in no one of the seven apartments was there any lamp or candelabrum, amid the profusion of golden ornaments that lay scattered to and fro or depended from the roof. There was no light of any kind emanating from lamp or candle within the suite of chambers. But in the corridors that followed the suite, there stood, opposite to each window, a heavy tripod, bearing a brazier of fire{j} that projected its rays through the tinted glass and so glaringly illumined the room. And thus were produced a multitude of gaudy and fantastic appearances. But in the western or black chamber the effect of the fire-light that streamed upon the dark hangings through the blood-tinted panes, was ghastly in the extreme, and produced so wild a look upon the countenances of those who entered, that there were few of the company bold enough to set foot within its precincts at all.(3)

It was in this apartment, also, that there stood against the western wall, a gigantic clock of ebony. Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the{k} minute-hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came{l} from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of{m} the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily,{n} in their performance, to harken to the sound; and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions;(4) and there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and, while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and{o} the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if [page 673:] in confused revery or meditation. But when the echoes had fully ceased, a light laughter at once pervaded the assembly; the musicians looked at each other and smiled as if at their own nervousness and folly, and made whispering vows, each to the other, that the next chiming of the clock should produce in them no similar emotion; and then, after the lapse of sixty minutes, (which embrace three thousand and six hundred seconds of the Time that flies,)(5) there came yet another chiming of the clock, and then{p} were the same disconcert and tremulousness and meditation as before.

But, in spite of these things, it was a gay and magnificent revel. The tastes of the duke were peculiar. He had a fine eye for colors and effects. He disregarded the decora of mere fashion.(6) His plans were bold and fiery, and his conceptions glowed with barbaric lustre. There are some who would have thought him mad. His followers felt that he was not. It was necessary to hear and see and touch him to be sure that he was not.

He had directed, in great part, the moveable embellishments of the seven chambers, upon occasion of this great fête;{q} and it was his own guiding taste which had given character to the{r} masqueraders. Be sure they were grotesque. There were much glare and glitter and piquancy and phantasm — much of what has been since seen in “Hernani.”(7) There were arabesque figures with unsuited limbs and appointments. There were delirious fancies such as the madman fashions. There were{s} much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust.(8) To and fro in the seven chambers there stalked, in fact, a multitude of dreams.(9) And these — the dreams — writhed in and about, taking hue from the rooms, and causing the wild music of the orchestra to seem as the echo of their steps. And, anon, there strikes the ebony clock which stands in the hall of the velvet. And then, for a moment,{t} all is still, and all is silent save the voice of the clock. The dreams are stiff-frozen as they stand. But the echoes of the chime die away — they have endured but an instant — and a light, half-subdued [page 674:] laughter floats after them as they depart. And now again the music swells, and the dreams live, and writhe to and fro more merrily than ever, taking hue from the many tinted windows through which stream the rays from the tripods. But to the chamber which lies most westwardly of the seven, there are now none of the maskers who venture; for the night is waning away; and there flows a ruddier light through the blood-colored panes; and the blackness of the sable drapery appals; and to him whose foot falls upon the sable carpet, there comes from the near clock of ebony a muffled peal more solemnly{u} emphatic than any which reaches their ears who indulge in the more remote gaieties of the other apartments.

But these other apartments were densely crowded, and in them beat feverishly the heart of life. And the revel went whirlingly on, until at length {vv}there commenced the sounding of midnight{vv} upon{w} the clock. And then the music ceased, as I have told; and the evolutions of the waltzers were quieted; and there was an uneasy cessation of all things as before. But now there were twelve strokes to be sounded by the bell of the clock; and thus it happened, perhaps,{x} that more of thought crept, with more of time, into the meditations of the thoughtful among those who revelled. And thus, too,{y} it happened, perhaps, that before the last echoes of the last chime had utterly sunk into silence, there were many individuals in the crowd who had found leisure to become aware of the presence of a masked figure which had arrested the attention of no single individual before. And the rumor of this new presence having spread itself whisperingly around, there arose at length from the whole company a buzz, or murmur, expressive of{z} disapprobation and surprise — then, finally, of terror, of horror, and of disgust.

In an assembly of phantasms such as I have painted, it may well be supposed that no ordinary appearance could have excited such sensation. In truth the masquerade license of the night was nearly [page 675:] unlimited; but the figure in question had out-Heroded Herod,(10) and gone beyond the bounds of even the prince’s indefinite decorum. There are chords in the hearts of the most reckless which cannot be touched without emotion. Even with the utterly lost, to whom life and death are equally jests, there are{a} matters of which no jest can be{b} made. The whole company, indeed, seemed now deeply to feel that in the costume and bearing of the stranger neither wit nor propriety existed. The figure was tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave. The mask which concealed the visage was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny must have had difficulty in detecting the cheat. And yet all this might have been endured, if not approved, by the mad revellers around. But the mummer had gone so far as to assume the type of the Red Death. His vesture was dabbled in blood — and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror.

When the eyes of{c} Prince Prospero fell upon this spectral image (which with a slow and solemn movement, as if more fully to sustain its role,{d} stalked{e} to and fro among the waltzers)(11) he was seen to be convulsed, in the first moment with a strong shudder either of terror or distaste; but, in the next, his brow reddened with rage.

“Who dares?” he demanded hoarsely of the {ff}courtiers who stood near{ff} him — “who dares {gg}insult us with this blasphemous mockery?{gg} {hh}Seize him and unmask him{hh} — that we may know whom we have to hang{i} at sunrise, from the battlements!”{j}

It was in the eastern or blue chamber in which stood the Prince Prospero as he uttered these words. They rang throughout the seven rooms loudly and clearly — for the prince was a bold and robust man, and the music had became hushed at the waving of his hand. [page 676:]

It was in the blue room where stood the prince, with a group of pale courtiers by his side. At first, as he spoke, there was a slight rushing movement of this group in the direction of the intruder, who{k} at the moment was also near at hand, and now, with deliberate and stately step, made closer approach to the speaker. But from a certain nameless awe with which the mad assumptions of the mummer had inspired the whole party, there were found none who put forth hand to seize him; so that, unimpeded, he passed within a yard of the prince’s person; and, while the vast assembly, as if with one impulse, shrank from the centres of the rooms to the walls, he made his way uninterruptedly, but with the same solemn and measured step which had distinguished him from the first, through the blue chamber to the purple — through the purple to the green — through the green to the orange — through this again to the white — and even thence to the violet, ere a decided movement had been made to arrest him. It was then, however, that the Prince Prospero, maddening with rage and the shame of his own momentary cowardice, rushed hurriedly through the six chambers, while none followed him on account of a deadly terror that had seized upon all. He bore aloft a drawn dagger, and had approached, in rapid impetuosity, to within three or four feet of the retreating figure, when the latter, having attained the extremity of the velvet apartment, turned suddenly{l} and confronted his pursuer. There was a sharp cry — and the dagger dropped gleaming upon the sable carpet, upon which, instantly afterwards, fell prostrate in death the Prince Prospero. Then, summoning the wild courage of despair, a throng of the revellers at once threw themselves into the black apartment, and, seizing the mummer, whose tall figure stood erect and motionless within the shadow of the ebony clock, gasped in unutterable horror at finding the grave cerements and corpselike mask which they handled with so violent a rudeness, untenanted by any tangible form.

And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red Death. He had come like a thief in the night.(12) And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died [page 677:] each in the despairing posture of his fall. And the life of the ebony clock went out with that of the last of the gay. And the flames of the tripods expired. And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.(13)

 


VARIANTS

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 670:]

Title:  The Mask of the Red Death. A Fantasy. (A); The Mask of the Red Death. (PHANTASY-PIECES)

a  ever been / been ever (A)

b  Avator (A, B, C) misprint, corrected editorially

c  bleedings (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 671:]

d  despair from without (A)

e  grfeve, (B) misprint

f  musicians, there were cards, (A)

g  towards (A)

h  examample, (B) misprint; example (C) comma added from A, B

i  litten (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 672:]

j  fire, (C) comma deleted to follow A, B

k  its (A)

l  came forth (A)

m  in (A)

n  momently, (A)

o  and that (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 673:]

p  then there (A)

q  fete; (B) accent broken; (C) accent omitted, corrected from A

r  the costumes of the (A)

s  was (A, B)

t  for a moment, / momently, (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 674:]

u  solemly (B) misprint

vv . . . vv  was sounded the twelfth hour (A)

w  upou (B) misprint

x  perhaps (C) comma added from A, B

y  thus, too, / thus, again, (A); thus too, (C) comma added from B

z  expressive at first (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 675:]

a  are (A)

b  be properly (A)

c  of the (A)

d  rôle (A); rôle, (B)

e  stalkod (B) misprint

ff . . . ff  group that stood around (A)

gg . . . gg  thus to make mockery of our woes? (A)

hh . . . hh  Uncase the varlet (A)

i  hang tomorrow (A)

j  battlements. Will no one stir at my bidding? — stop and strip him, I say, of those reddened vestures of sacrilege!” (A)

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 676:]

k  who, (C) comma deleted to follow A and B

l  suddenly round (A)

 


[page 677, continued:]

NOTES

Title:  Masque has a double meaning.

1.  Compare Exodus 7:19-21, “Take thy rod, and stretch out thine hand upon the waters of Egypt . . . that they may become blood . . . and all the waters that were in the river were turned to blood . . . and there was blood throughout all the land of Egypt.” Virginia Poe had burst a blood vessel in singing during January 1842, and even this may have influenced her husband’s description, as William Bittner, Poe (1962), p. 177, thinks. One of my students had a greatgrandparent who saw Mrs. Clemm take Virginia into the Fordham cottage after blood had gushed from her mouth.

2.  Prince Prospero, like his namesake in The Tempest, fled from the world, but ironically Poe’s prince ceased to prosper.

3.  There is little doubt that the rooms have poetic meanings; many readers find that the possibility of seeing little more than one room at a time symbolizes man’s inability to see the future, or recapture the past. The colors seem to be significant. My student Emily Crandall observed that the absence of yellow is notable. Blue is the color of morning and beginnings, black of night and endings. The rest seem different to different readers. Professor Walter Blair, in Modern Philology, May 1944, argued for the seven ages of man, and thought the last room like a coffin. My students have also seen the seven days of the week, the seven deadly sins, and even seven parts of a day. Note also that blue and red are the poles of a compass — the beginning and the end.

4.  The waltz was still considered somewhat risqué in 1842, but Poe himself probably danced it with Mary Andre Phelps. See Woodberry Life (1909), II, 272, citing her reminiscences.

5.  The simple enumeration of the seconds in an hour is supremely effective here.

6.  Prospero shares his contempt for fashionable decora as well as his interest in richness of decoration with the hero of “The Assignation.”

7.  Hernani (1830) is a play by Victor Hugo, on which Verdi later based an opera. It was much discussed and quite evidently made an impression on Poe. See Politian and my note (Mabbott, I, 297). [The details of Poe’s use of Hernani as a source are worked out by B. Pollin in his Discoveries in Poe (1971), chapter I.]

8.  N. P. Willis, in the seventeenth letter of “Pencillings by the Way” — see his Prose Works (1845), p. 28 — describes several Parisian fancy balls (both with [page 678:] and without masks), each full of a variety of costumes, ranging from the graceful and beautiful to the grotesque and absurd.

9.  Compare The Tempest, IV, i, 156, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”

10.  To “out-Herod Herod,” from Hamlet, III, ii. 16, is a favorite phrase with Poe, also used in “Metzengerstein” and “William Wilson.”

11.  Compare Politian, VII, 55, “A spectral figure, solemn, and slow, and noiseless.”

12.  The phrase “like a thief in the night” may be found in Sir Thomas Browne’s Religio Medici, Part I, section 46. Compare I Thessalonians, 5:2.

13.  The rhymes in the last sentence are, of course, intentional. In the last line, comparison has been made to Pope’s verse “And universal darkness buries all.” It certainly may have contributed to the power and finality of Poe’s conclusion. See Harry Levin, The Power of Blackness (1958), p. 150, where he says, “The closing note, echoed from the pseudo-Miltonic last line of Pope’s Dunciad, predicates a reduction of cosmos to chaos: ‘And darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.’ ”

 


[[Footnotes]]

[The following footnotes appear at the bottom of page 668:]

*  See, for example, the papers listed in J. P. Roppolo’s “Meaning and ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ ” in Tulane Studies in English, vol. 13, for 1963. [See also, for both interpretation and suggestion of sources, Robert Regan’s essay cited in n. 19 on “William Wilson.”]

  See The Prose Works of N. P. Willis (1845), pp. 24 and 30. Poe had used the horrendous costumes of masqueraders in “King Pest,” written in 1834 or 1835. An account of the ball in the Paris Constitutional, March 31, 1832, was cited by Eugène Sue. See C. P. Cambiare, Influence of . . . Poe in France (1927), p. 282.

  Killis Campbell, Mind of Poe, p. 171, picks up a suggestion of W. D. Armes in the Transactions of the American Philological Association (1907) that Poe’s source was in William Harrison Ainsworth’s Old St. Paul’s. This turns out to be merely an account of a London grocer who, during the Great Plague of 1665, stocks his house with supplies and keeps his family at home. Poe disliked Ainsworth, never mentioned that book of his, and must not be supposed wholly unacquainted with so important a work as the Decameron.

[The following variants appear at the bottom of page 669:]

§  The direct quotation is from Thomas Campbell’s Life of Petrarch (Philadelphia, 1841), p. 211. J. B. Reece, discussing this source in Modern Language Notes, February 1953, points out that Campbell offers a motive for revelry during the epidemic in “the general persuasion that sadness accelerated the infection of the malady, and that pleasant amusements were the surest defense against it” Reece comments, “ ‘Poetic’ justice, for which Poe had respect, is much better served in the story by the omission of any reference to the motive which Campbell attributes to the pleasure seekers, as is the over-all tone of horror which Poe wanted to achieve.”

*  I use Wilhelm Ruland, Legends of the Rhine (Cologne, 1906), pp. 63, 64, but the clock is famous.

  Gunnar Bjurman, Edgar Allan Poe (Lund, 1916), p. 203.

  John H. Ingram tells this in Haunted Homes of Great Britain (Second Series, 1884), p. 184, but gives his source as Thomas Heywood’s Hierarchy of the Blessed Angels (1635).

§  See Franz Karl Mohr in Modern Language Quarterly, March 1949, and Haldeen Braddy, Glorious Incense, p. 44. Poe never mentioned Eichendorff, and could read little German. For other suggestions see C. K. Holsapple in University of Texas Studies in English, July 8, 1938; Richard Cary in Nineteenth Century Fiction, June 1962: and Gerald E. Gerber in American Literature, March 1965. [B. R. Pollin, in Studies in Short Fiction, Fall 1968, and in Discoveries in Poe, pp. 80-90, adds further suggestions.]

 


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Notes:

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[S:1 - TOM2T, 1978] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (T. O. Mabbott) (The Masque of the Red Death)