Text: Jerry A. Herndon, “The Masque of the Red Death: A Note on Hawthorne’s Influence,” Masques, Mysteries and Mastodons: A Poe Miscellany (2006), pp. 38-44 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 38, unnumbered:]


Jerry A. Herndon

It is well known that Edgar Allan Poe qualified his high praise for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s skill as a story-teller by suggesting that “Howe’s Masquerade,” one of the “Legends of the Province-House” in Twice-Told Tales (1842), might contain a significant plagiarism from Poe’s own tale, “William Wilson.”(1) As Thomas O. Mabbott has pointed out, the accusation was shown to be baseless long ago. Hawthorne’s story appeared in print in May 1838, well over a year before “William Wilson” was published, in October 1839 (M 2:451n9). Robert Regan has argued convincingly that Poe’s motive for leveling such an easily-disproved charge was not malice, but a desire to distract the unwary reader’s attention from Poe’s own “borrowing” of elements from two of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales for his story, “The Masque of the Red Death.” The stories Regan identifies are “Howe’s Masquerade” and “Lady Eleanore’s Mantle,” two of the four stories styled by Hawthorne as “Legends of the Province-House.”(2) Regan suggests that Poe was presumably writing his own story in April 1842, while reading Hawthorne’s collection for review, a review which appeared in the May 1842 issue of Graham’s Magazine. “The Masque of the Red Death” was published in the same issue.

As Regan points out, “Howe’s Masquerade” has as its setting a masquerade ball given by Sir William Howe, the Royal Governor of Massachusetts, whose intention it is to use the entertainment to distract the minds of his guests from the danger posed by Washington’s besieging army. But the ball is interrupted by the mournful music of a funeral march half an hour after the clock of Boston’s Old South Church has struck eleven, and a ghostly procession, representing the former governors of the colony, are seen descending the great staircase of the Governor’s mansion and leaving the building. The light grows dim as they descend, and they look “rather like shadows than persons of fleshly substance.” The last figure, with his face muffled in his cloak, is challenged for his mockery by the furious Howe, but when the figure reveals his face to him, the Royal Governor drops his sword, and the figure leaves the Province-House. The stunned Howe discovers that he has challenged his own image, and the funeral procession’s dirge is heard dying away as the Old South’s clock strikes the hour of midnight. [page 39:] The supernatural masquers have foretold the end of British rule in the colony.

Thus “Howe’s Masquerade” portrays the futility of a sense of security sought in an evening of pleasure by a beleaguered garrison and its Royalists allies. Regan also points out that the third of the Province-House “Legends,” “Lady Eleanore’s Mantle,” has as its subject the introduction into Boston of a deadly pestilence, smallpox, in the folds of the lady’s garment referred to in the title. The sign of the pestilence, he notes, is “a blood-red flag” raised over each house containing smallpox victims. Regan argues that Poe could have developed the idea of a masquerade ball interrupted by a deadly pestilence displaying the horror of blood simply by pondering the possibilities for imitation in these two stories (pp. 285-287).

With somewhat less conviction, Regan notes that Poe’s reference to Prince Prospero’s maskers as “dreams” may have its inspiration in “Old Esther Dudley,” the fourth of the Province-House Legends. After the departure of the colony’s last Royal Governor, this old tory stays on as the lonely caretaker of the Province-House. One of the crotchets attributed to Old Esther by the local citizens is the summoning forth of the Royalists of by-gone times into the shadowy world of “a tall, antique mirror,” where these “shadows of old life” live once again. Regan comments that these might be thought of as “dream-fantasies,” and he suggests that this aspect of Hawthorne’s tale may have supplied grist for Poe’s literary mill (pp. 287-288).

I find Regan’s argument persuasive, and, for the most part, convincing. It may well be, as he suggests, that Poe brazenly accused Hawthorne of plagiarizing from one of his stories to put the reader “off his own fresh track,” as he “plunder[ed] Twice-Told Tales undetected.” It may also be true that Regan is right in suggesting that Poe intended the whole affair as a jest, a “quiz” — in the British sense — for his readers, and expected the most alert to see through his mock accusation to the ironic humor behind it (pp. 288, 292-297).

I will now go a bit further than Regan, and suggest that Poe may have silently borrowed elements of still another of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, “The May-Pole of Merry Mount,” in putting together the elements of “Masque.”

In his May 1842 Graham’s review, Poe singles out eighteen of the Twice-Told Tales for particular notice, but he does not mention “TheMay-Pole of Merry Mount.” The omission might be deliberate. He may have wished to avoid calling attention to a story which shared a [page 40:] number of elements with his own “Masque” published in that same Graham’s.

Hawthorne describes the Merry Mount colonists as people who try to live by “a wild philosophy of pleasure,” and who try to turn every event, even death, into a jest.(3) They were “once. . .seen following a flower-decked corpse, with merriment and festive music, to his grave,” Hawthorne remarks, but in an authorial aside, he asks: “Did the dead man laugh?” (p. 61). The sober facts of man’s life, including his morality, he suggests, cannot be laughed away. They are stern realities, and must be reckoned with. It is the sense of life’s reality wrought by their commitment to one another which causes the young lovers of the tale to sense that their thoughtless, youthful joys will soon be past. Edith tells Edgar, “I struggle as with a dream, and fancy that these shapes of our jovial friends are visionary, and their mirth unreal . . .” (p. 58; italics mine). The reference to their hedonism as a “dream” is significant, in terms of a comparison with Poe, who refers to his maskers as “dreams” not just once, but four times.

The Merry Mounters are dressed in costume — in masquerade, if you will — to celebrate the rites of Midsummer’s Eve, but Hawthorne refers to their determined gaiety as a “day-dream” (p. 59). Then, as the sun sets, the Puritans rush forward from the dark woods to arrest “the ring of gay masquers”; Hawthorne describes these stern Christians as symbolic of “waking thoughts”, i.e., reality, “start[ing] up amid the scattered fantasies of a dream” (p. 62). The “dream” is the willful hedonism which has served the Merry Mounters as a way of life. The Puritans play the part of a momento mori, awakening the young couple, Edith and Edgar, from “the idle pleasures” symbolized by their companions “to the sternest cares of life, personified by the dark Puritans” (p. 65).

As soon as Edith and Edgar had commited themselves to one another by their love, they had “felt a dreary presentiment of inevitable change.” But Hawthorne’s tale, unlike Poe’s, has a positive conclusion; it ends in an affirmation of life. As Hawthorne reminds us, life’s “doom” consists not only of “care, and sorrow,” but of “troubled joy” as well, and Edith and Edgar’s love lifts them above their giddy companions. Hawthorne describes the Merry Mounters as “sworn triflers of a lifetime,” who refuse to “venture among the sober truths oflife,” even though, as the author reminds us, this is the only way “to be truly blest” (p. 58-60). Those who run away from life’s moral responsibilities weaken their own souls in failing to face the challenges [page 41:] which, through sorrow and suffering, will develop strength of character. Because of their love, Edgar and Edith will have children, and because of the primitive medical science of that day, some of these children will almost inevitably die. These young lovers will learn that love means sorrow, a sorrow that each will wear like a crown of thorns. But, Hawthorne tells us, the “wreath of roses” which Endicott takes from the Maypole and places around both their heads is “a deed of prophecy” (p. 66). It symbolizes the love that unites them, and it also foretells that “the purest and best of their early joys” will not be lost, but will go with them through life, as they struggle “heavenward, supporting each other along the difficult path which it was their lot to tread . . .” (p. 67).

Hawthorne’s prefatory note to “The May-Pole of Merry Mount” calls the story “a sort of allegory,” and it clearly is an allegory, or parable, about the awakening of life’s responibilities wrought by youthful love. “Masque” is also an allegorical tale, but it moves in an opposite direction — toward death (M 2:670-677).

Prince Prospero’s sequestration of himself and his “thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court” (M. 2:670) is clearly a violation of moral responsibility, both to God and to their fellow men. Like Hawthorne’s Merry Mounters, the Prince and his subjects intend to devote themselves to a life of self-indulgence and pleasure. They mock the sufferings of their fellow men in their merriment, which reaches its climax in the masquerade ball decreed by Prince Prospero. Significantly, the maskers are described as “a multitude of dreams” (M 2:673), and, as in Hawthorne’s story, there is soon a rude awakening to reality.

Preceding the appearance of the ultimate memento mori — the mummer disguised as the corpse of someone killed by the Red Death — the “gigantic clock of ebony” (M 2:672) seems to remind the dancers of their own mortality. In Hawthorne’s preface to “Edward Randolph’s Portrait,” one of his “Legends of the Province-House,” he says that the clock of Boston’s Old South Church “had warned” generation after generation of “how transitory was their life-time . . .”(4) Regan does not mention this particular reference in his essay, but Poe may have noted it.

In any case, the frenzy of Prospero’s merrymakers is involuntarily suspended when they hear the chimes of the ebony clock:

. . .there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and, while the chimes of the clock yet rang. . .the giddiest grew [page 42:] pale, and the more aged and sedate [who had less time left] passed their hands over their brows as if in confused revery or meditation. (M 2: 672-673)

The longest interruption occurs as the revelers listen to the striking of midnight — perhaps, as Poe suggests, because “more of thought crept, with more of time, into the meditations of the thoughtful. . .” (M 2:674). It is at this point that the figure of the Red Death appears, and his appearance creates “terror,” “horror,” and “disgust.” One is reminded of Hawthorne’s suggestion that the grim fact of death was not nullified by the Merry Mounters’ attempts to turn a funeral into a gala affair. At Prospero’s ball, almost any costume would have been acceptable, no matter how tasteless or grotesque — “the masquerade license of the night was nearly unlimited,” — but not one reminding the light-hearted dancers of death, especially the Red Death itself. Hawthorne’s remark on the Merry Mount funeral may be reflected in Poe’s remark on the Prince and his subjects: “Even with the utterly lost, to whom life and death are equally jests, there are matters of which no jest can be made” (M 2:674-675).

Poe’s reference to Prospero and his subjects as “utterly lost” indicates that his allegory, like Hawthorne’s, is meant to make a universal statement about the human condition. In fact, as the Biblical allusions indicate, this story is a parable of God’s Judgement at the End of Time. The figure of the Red Death is a supernatural visitor — the Prince’s subjects seize him, only to find that the mummer’s garments were “untenanted by any tangible form” — and that “he had come like a thief in the night” (M 2:676). The phrasing is a close verbal echo of St. Paul’s statement in I Thessalonians 5:2 that “the day of the lord. . .cometh as a thief in the night,” as well as of St. Peter’s similar phrasing in II Peter 3:10 and St. John’s in Revelation 3:3 and 16”15.(5)

The mysterious masked figure is clearly Christ, portrayed in the Scriptures as God’s avenging judge at the End of Time. This is also indicated by Poe’s description of the figure’s blood-spattered white robes and face: “His vesture was dabbled in blood — and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet [page ???:] horror” (M 2:675). In Revelation 19:13, “The Word of God,” Christ, is described as “clothed with a vesture dipped in blood. . . .” The verbal parallel is close; Poe borrows the word “vesture” and changed “dipped” to “dabbled.” A prophetic reference to Christ’s Second Coming in Isaiah 63:1-6 is also suggested, complete with the original for Poe’s [page 43:] word, “besprinkled”: The Messiah tells the Prophet why his garments are red:

‘I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment.’ (63:3)

As the last of the revelers falls dead, the clock stops, signifying the End of Time prophesied in Revelation 10:6, and they are left in darkness, the “outer darkness” which Christ had foretold as the fate of the wicked in Matthew 8:12.

The seven rooms in which the masquerade ball is held may be meant to suggest an event preceding the Judgement: the opening of the seven seals of the earth’s sacred history, foretold in St. John’s Revelation. Perhaps Poe meant these rooms to correspond to the seven days of the Creation and the seven thousand years of the earth’s history; the colors of the first six rooms may also be meant to suggest the colors of the rainbow, the sign of God’s covenant of mercy with ancient man.(6) If so, Poe’s point is that the morally irresponsible revelers of this story will not be subject to God’s mercy, and will not enter into the Heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the just ablaze with the light of God’s glory. They suffer the wrath of God, and will spend Christ’s Millennial reign, thrust out from his presence, in “outer darkness,” where, in Poe’s words, “Darkness and Decay and the Red Death [hold] illimitable dominion over all” (M 2:677).

If Poe did not mention “The May-Pole of Merry Mount” in his review of Twice-Told Tales because of fear that sophisticated readers might notice his borrowings for his own tale, and deem him guilty of plagiarism, his concern was surely misplaced. His sensitivity to plagiarism was almost a paranoia. It led him, on the basis of the flimsiest parallels, to accuse literary giants like Longfellow and Hawthorne of literary theft, when surely not even an imitation hadtaken place. In his own case, Poe’s over-sensitivity did him a disservice. He should have proclaimed his story’s parallels with Hawthorne’s “May-Pole of Merry Mount” and Province-House “Legends” instead of concealing them. After all, his response to Hawthorne’s genius was an example of what Melville meant when he wrote of a literary “shock of [page 44:] recognition”(7): As his imagination responded to Hawthorne’s, Poe created a memorable tale that is very much his own, very much a product of his own creative genius. Our literature is the richer for its existence, and would be much poorer without it.



1.  See also “Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales,” Literary Criticism of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Robert L. Hough (Lincoln, Neb., 1965) pp. 133-141, esp. 139-140. Richard P. Benton offers yet antoher reasonable origin for Poe’s famous tale; see “ ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ — The Primary Source,” ATQ 1 (1969) 12-13. See also the essay by M. Denise Schimp Magnuson in the present volume.

2.  Robert Regan, “Hawthorne’s ‘Plagiary’; Poe’s Duplicity,” NCF 25 (1970-71) 281-298.

3.  Twice-Told Tales: Centenary Edition, ed. J. Donald Crowley (Columbus, Oh., 1974) pp. 54-67. Pagination for quotations will be cited parenthetically in the paper.

4.  Twice-Told Tales p. 257.

5.  All references to the Bible are to the King James Version.

6.  The colors of the rooms, in order, are blue, purple, green, orange, while, and violet. The seventh room, the black one, is lit by a red light streaming through the blood-colored window. Of course, Poe did not repeat the colors of the spectrum exactly, and he even made one room white, the undifferentiated color of light itself. I think that he did this in order to avoid making his symbolism too blatant.

7.  “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” The Portable Melville, ed. Jay Leyda (New York, 1952; rpt. 1970) p. 415.






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