Text: J. Lasley Dameron,“Arthur Symons on Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’,” Poe Studies, December 1976, Vol. IX, No. 2, 9:46-49


[page 46, column 2:]

Arthur Symons on Poe’s
“The Fall of the House of Usher”

Memphis State University

The following introduction to an edition of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” was written by Arthur Symons (1865-1945), the distinguished critic of Romanticism and Symbolism, and published privately in France in 1928 (1). Although including some passages from Symons’ other critical writings, the essay as a whole is relatively rare and difficult to procure. To my knowledge, only three libraries in the United States house the edition in which it appears — the Harvard University, the New York Public, and the University of California at Davis.

This nineteen-page essay, though composed after 1908 when Symons suffered a breakdown impairing his critical powers (2), is an early landmark of criticism that finds in Poe the techniques and concerns of the Decadent movement. Symons dwells upon Poe’s images, implicitly finding an impressionistic and symbolic method at work in the story. And his comments upon Alastair’s illustrations (3) to Poe’s text, and upon the text itself, emphasize the atmosphere of foreboding evil and the theme of fear in the tale (Symons is largely in line with recent Poe critics who find Roderick Usher to be a contemporary man struggling in a hostile environment) .

As a leading critic of his day, Symons was very aware of the essential qualities of decadence in late nineteenth-century poetry and prose. In his essay “The Decadent Movement in Literature” (4), he focuses his discussion upon “impression and symbolism” through which, he writes, the artists of the movement seek the essence of Truth. By means of impression, they emphasize an altered vision of reality; through symbolism, they convey the deeper meaning of things, both seen and unseen. Late nineteenth-century Decadence, as Symons sees it, marks the end of qualities found in Latin and Classic Greek literature and posits “an intense self-consciousness, a restless curiosity in research, an overutilizing refinement upon refinement, a spiritual and moral perversity” (p. 97).

In the following essay, Symons points to such elements in “The Fall of the House of Usher” with a series of somewhat rambling comparisons. In them, he links the story, at times indirectly, to a variety of other literary works and to a number of Alastair’s illustrations. The particular illustrations by Alastair that appeared in the text are as follows: Figure 1, a darkly clad male on horseback (facing page 4); Figure 2, a Gothic mansion seen across water and framed with foliage (facing page 8); Figure 3, a woman in a white dress with closed eyes and long arms (facing page 18); Figure 4, two facesune male and one female — tangled in a spider’s web (facing page 32); and Figure 5, a woman walking in a long passageway formed of eight lofty Norman arches (facing page 48) . I have attempted to cull out passages in the introduction which add little to Symons’ assessment of the tale itself. With the exception of these omissions (specifically, passages found on pages x-xii, xvi-xvii, xviii-xix of the original), [page 48:] the essay is complete. Other discussions of Poe by Symons are (1) “Edgar Allan Poe,” Figures of Several Centuries (New York: Dutton, 1906), pp. 115-121, first appearing as an introductory essay to The Lyrical Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1906), pp. v-ix; (2) “Edgar Allan Poe,” Life and Letters, 2 (March 1929), 163-178; and (3) “On a Certain Misconception of Poe,” Vanity Fair (October 1916), p. 57.


I find in The Fall of the Hovse of Usher, together with a dozen [other Poe] stories whose incredible horror is only equalled by their unsurpassable beauty (did not Baudelaire (5), whose versions of Poe are, to me at least as they were to Walter Pater, inconceivably finer in warmth of expression, in vital heat, in sinister splendour, call Poe “The master of the horrible, the prince of mystery?”) [,] the zenith of Poe’s genius. Enigmatical, elusive, his women are mere ghosts, curiously lacking in flesh and blood — ‘mourant de maux bizarres’: a death Poe himself might have desired. Are not most of his men malign, perverse, atrocious, abnormal, never quite normal, evocations of himself? From Dupin to Fortunato, from the Man in the Crowd to the Man in the Pit, from Prospero to Roderick Usher, are not these, in the French sense of the word, revenants? There is something diabolical in his imagination; for Poe never, I might say almost never, lets his readers have an instant’s rest. And are not most of his creations ‘nes marques pour le Mal’? Poe was a master of the grotesque, of the extraordinary, never of the passionate.

The foundation of The Fall of the House of Usher is Fear in its most intense and ineradicable form, fear that gnaws at the entrails, that poisons the blood, that infects the senses; fear that excites the nerves like a damp mist coiling up out of a valley. It is his ancestral sense of fear that makes Usher shudder before the blood-stained figure of Madeline whom he has fastened down in her coffin, who [sic] he has heard cry, knowing that he has put her living into the tomb, knowing that the crime is his, as she surges before him. “She [. . .] fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother, and in her violent and final death-agonies, bore him to the floor a corpse, and a victim ro the terrors he had anticipated” (6). The sense of Fatality haunted Poe in whom hysteria usurped the place of the will, analysing the most imponderable forms of the nerves, man’s evil instincts, his at times enforced chastity, his hallucinations; and, to quote Baudelaire: “Like our Delacroix, who has elevated art to the height of poetry, Poe loves to move his figures upon a ground of green or violet where the phosphorescence of putrefaction (as in The Case of M. Valdemar) and the odour of the hurricane, reveal themselves” (7). And there is the sense of impending Doom: Doom, in the form of that fissure, which widens as the mighty walls rush asunder in the final destruction of that fated House. “And the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the House of Usher” (8).

There is a story in Contes Cruels of Villiers de l’IsleAdam named L’lntersigne — one of his masterpieces — in which there is one passage that I can only compare, for [column 2:] its effects, with other sombre effects in Poe’s story. It is this.

“After a few instants, as the night air freshened, the sense of reality returned to me. I got up rapidly and again laid hold of the door knocker, gazing on the house’s aspect. But, no sooner had I looked at it again, than my hand remained motionless. Was I really the plaything of an hallucination? What antiquity did I find, now, in the long stains between the pale leaves? This building assumed a strange aspect; the window-panes illuminated by the agonising rays of the sunset burning with so intense a heat: the hospitable doorway invited me with its three stone steps: but in concentrating my attention on these grey slabs, I saw that they had been polished, and that traces of half erased letters still remained there, and I saw to a certainty they had come from some cemetery — whose black crosses appeared to me, at present, on one side of me, a hundred steps away. And the house seemed to me to have suddenly changed shape, so suddenly that it gave me a shudder, and the echoes of the lugubrious door knocker that I let fall, in my nervous seizure, resounded in the interior of the house, like the vibration of a death-knell” (9).

La Reine Ysabeau and Le Convive des Dernieres Fetes sound a new note, the note of horror. The former stands almost by itself in the calm cruelty of its style, the singular precision of the manner in which its atrocious complication of love, vengeance, and fatality is unrolled before our eyes — the something enigmatical in the march of the horrible narrative told almost with tenderness. Its serenity is the last ‘refinement’ [sic] of the irony with which this incredible episode arraigns the justice of things. From the parenthesis of the first sentence to the “Priez pour eux,” every touch tells, and every touch is a surprise. Very different, and yet in certain points akin to it, is the strange tale of Le Convive des Dernieres Fetes, perhaps after the more epic chronicle of La Reine Ysabeau, the finest of Villiers’ tales of enigmatical horror. Of them all I think the masterpiece is Les Demoiselles de Bienfilatre; and it is one of the most perfect little works of art in the world. The mockery of the thing is elemental; cynicism touches its zenith. It becomes tender, it becomes sublime. A perversion simply monstrous appears, in the infantine simplicity of its presentment, touching, credible, heroic. The edge of laughter is skirted by the finest of inches; and, as a last charm, one perceives, through the irony itself — the celestial, the elementary irony — a faint and sweet perfume as of a perverted odour of sanctity. The style has the delicacy of the etcher’s needle. From beginning to end every word has been calculated, and every word is an inspiration (10).

The question of what is bizarre in Poe’s genius as a poet (I quote Baudelaire who says that Poe’s poetry is a thing “deep and shimmering as dreams, mysterious and perfect as crystal”) (11) brings me to a consideration of Mr. Harry Crosby’s sonnets in Red Skeletons (12). Rossetti’s sonnets come next after Shakespeare’s in supreme mastery of genius. Shakespeare’s have at times a far more passionate and instant force, a sharper note of agony. Rossetti’s have more fervour and more intensity of desire and more delicate intricacy. The most wonderful sonnet (13) ever written is the one that begins: [page 48:]

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame

Is lust in action —

And next after this, “Nuptial Sleep” (14), which is primitive and elemental. As naturally, as inevitably, the greatest sonnets written in French are Baudelaire’s. In Mr. Crosby’s sonnets I find a strange originality, something macabre, violent, abnormal, sinister, and also — “shadows hot from hell.” In Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads the influence of Les Flears du Mal is evident — but with much less luxury of the flesh and spirit, much less depraved perversity — as for instance when he turns the wonderful sonnet “Satia Te Sanguine” (15) into an erotic lyric. This is from Baudelaire.

By those black eyes, vent-holes of thy soul’s shame,

Oh pitiless Demon, pour on me less flame;

I am not the Styx to embrace thee nine times, nay

Alas! I cannot, Maegera of the Sorrows nine,

To break thy courage and to set thee at bay

In the hell of thy bed become thy Proserpine! (16)

I would trace the influence of Baudelaire in such sonnets as these: “Partout des Prunelles Flamboient” and in “Uncoffined.” Among the finest, after these, are “Necrophile” (where one feels the adder’s venom) “Salome”(17) and “Our Lady of Pain” (18). From these I turn to Alastair’s Illustrations. . . (19).

A magnificent design of Alastair for The Fall of the House of Usher (20) in which one seizes the sense of doom and destruction, the malice of unnatural shapes and forms that float and exult in that atmosphere which is impregnated with horror, where one feels the pestilent vapour, dull and stagnant and sluggish, in the lurid tarn, where the vast battlements and the tall sinister trees stand stark against a blood-red sky — excites in the imagination a spell almost equal to Poe’s. The vague touches of colour are intricate and delirious, as of scarlet lilies: and in the sombre aspect in which broods something imminent and deadly, there comes, almost like a poison in one’s blood, a sudden bewildered sickening of things invisible.

There is a strange linear imagination in Alastair’s design for the rectangular vault in which Madeline was buried (21): the vast arches, the sense of space, the flood of intense rays, ghastly white and slightly stained with touches of red, red as blood, issuing from the iron door. Here and there this creator of mystery strikes one’s arrested senses, striking straight to the nerves of delight. A wild and exquisite imagination builds up shadowy structures which seem to have arisen by some strange hazard and to the sound of an unfamiliar music, and which are often — as in the case of Poe’s fantastically inhuman verses, as also in the case of Alastair, who shares in the inhumanity of Poe, Poe who sought for perfection and who has left us at least a few poems, “ciascun distinto e di folgore e d’arte,” [each distinct both in inspiration and in skill] in which he has found within his own limits, the Absolute (22) — literally like music in the cadence of their design. All have vastness, dignity, remoteness; a sense of mystery which becomes morbid, an actual emotion in their lines and faint colours.

The ghastly heads of Usher and Madeline (23) (between whom sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature had always existed) have on them the wan pallor of death; the [column 2:] heads pressed close together, Usher, with his masses of tangled hair, has closed his eyes, the wild eyes of Madeline are wide open, foreseeing death: and over their heads, with subtle malice, a spider has spun its delicate web, and the threads intersect these two faces. The ghastly pallor of the skin is accentuated by this gossamer texture. In a sense this reminds me of Odilon Redon’s’ (24) “La Mort.” the death’s head, the little vague poverty-stricken face is white, frail, faint, glimmering under tendrils of hair and roses; tresses of winding roses which stream along and away, the lines running out in delicate curves, to be lost in the night.

The apparition of the emaciated Madeline (25), cadaverously wan, is a masterpiece. Behind her one imagines a crushing force which weighs on her like a great weight, something external and horrible, something that suggests madness and the Chimera’s power over the mind and over souls. Here, then, as in his other designs, we have a kind of abstract spiritual corruption, revealed in beautiful form: sin transfigured by beauty. And here is an art in which evil purifies itself by its own intensity, and by the beauty that transfigures it. . . (26)

Huysmans, in Certains, refers to Bianchi’s picture in the Louvre, a “Virgin and Child,” which interests him only because, he says, “de cette toile s’exhalent pour moi des emanations delicieuses, des captations dolentes, dtinsidieux sacrileges, des prieres troubles. Le sourire mort de ses levres s’explique ainsi lorsqu’on se souvient des haines qui l’assaillerent, des attentats surtout de ce pretre qui voulut l’empoisonner et s’effor,ca de pervertir ses moines en priere, par la vue de filles dont les pales nudites s’ouvraient en de seditieuses danses [. . .]” (27) These sentences might be applied to the two victims of an hereditary evil who expiate their sins in the House of Usher, and equally to some of the designs of Alastair, whose vision is haunted by tragic women. . . (28)



(1) “Introduction,” The Fall of the House of Usher. Illustrations by Alastair (Paris: Editions Narcisse, 1928), pp. i-xix. I am indebted to Mr. Edward Weeks, Senior Editor and Consultant of the Atlantic Monthly Press, for permission to reproduce passages from this essay. Mr. Weeks was commissioned in 192S by Mr. Harry Crosby (publisher of the book and at that rime proprietor of the Black Sun Press) to distribute this edition throughout the United States.

(2) Roger Lhombreaud, Arthur Symons: A Critical Biography (Lon don: Unicorn Press, 1963), pp. 239-252.

(3) My thanks to Mrs. Elizabeth Reuter Usher, Chief Librarian of The Library, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, N.Y., for providing me hard-to-get information about Alastair. Alastair, pseudonym for Hans Von Voight, was an English illustrator and graphic artist. Born in 1887, he was influenced by Aubrey Beardsley and illustrated the works of Walter Pater (Sebastian Van Storck [London: John Lane, 1927]) and Oscar Wilde (Salome, plares II-IX in 50 Drawings by Alastair [New York: Knopf, 1925]). One critic called him “exquisitely fascinating, for there is that about him which often transports one into a wonderland full of beautiful and angelic creatures or peopled with cruel and diabolical creatures, but nothing which is indelicate or disagreeable to the senses” (Art World, June 1, 1926). The five illustrations by Alastair in this text of Poe’s “Usher” reflect the style of the 1920’s, art nouveau, and appear to be charcoal drawings later reproduced by photography. Symons’ essay and Poe’s story are printed on Japanese vellum, and, according to the colophon, only 300 some odd copies were printed. Most of the illustrations [page 49:] in the copy I examined (#49 from the Harvard University Library) have touches of color, perhaps done in pastel.

(4) Dramatis Personae (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1923), pp. 96-117.

(5) In his opening paragraph, Symons repeats passages found on pages 43, 45, and 46 in his Baudelaire: A Study (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1920).

(6) See Edgar Allan Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (1902; rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1965), III, 296, for the standard text of this passage. As I indicate, Symons quotes this passage inaccurately.

(7) Symons gives a translated passage from Baudelaire’s essay “Edgar Allan Poe: sa vie et ses ouvrages,” readily available in print, which first appeared in the Revue de Paris in 1852.

(8) Works, III, 297. Symons is quoting the concluding clause of Poe’s final sentence, not the complete sentence.

(9) Villiers de [’Isle-Adam’s story, like Poe’s “Usher,” is a first-person account of its narrator’s visit to a friend. The atmosphere of “L’lntersigne” is Gothic, and, like Roderick Usher, the narrator’s friend dies under mysterious circumstances. See Contes cruels (Paris: Libraire Jose Corti, 1969) for the original French text of this story, along with other stories by Villiers de l’IsleAdam.

(10) Passages throughout this paragraph appear on pages 58-60 of Baudelaire: A Study.

(11) Passage translated from Baudelaire’s “Notes nouvelles sur Edgar Poe” (1857).

(12) Red Skeletons. Illustrated by Alastair (Paris: Editions Narcisse, 1927).

(13) William Shakespeare, “Sonnet CXXIX,” The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, ed. Hardin Craig (Chicago: Scott Foresman, 1951), p. 492.

(14) Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “Nuptial Sleep,” The House of Life. A Sonnet-Sequence, ed. Paull Franklin Baum (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1928), p. 73.

(15) The Complete Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne, ed. Sir Edmund Gosse and Thomas James Wise (1925; New York: Russell and Russell, 1928), I, 219-221.

(16) Passage translated from “Sea Non Satiata,” Les fleurs du malt Oevvres completes, ed. Y.-G. Le Dantec (Paris: La Pleiade, 1931), p. 41.

(17) See Crosby, Red Skeletons, pp. [43], [48], [38], [16] respectively.

(18) Symons is no doubt alluding to Alastair’s illustration of the same title on p. [viii] of Crosby’s Red Skeletons. In it a female figure, richly dressed, wears a jewelled tiara.

(19) Deleted passages described Alastair’s “Our Lady of Pain.”

(20) Illustration (cited as Figure 1 in my prefatory comments) also appears on p. [15] in Jacques Cabau’s Edgar Poe par Iui-meme (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1960).

(21) Cited as Figure 5 in my prefatory comments.

(22) Passage appears also in Figures of Several Centuries (1916; rpt. Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1969), p. 121.

(23) Illustration (cited as Figure 4 in my prefatory comments) also appears on p. [84] in Edgar Poe par lui-meme.

(24) French artist (1840-1916). See p. [120] of Edgar Poe par lui-meme for what appears to be the particular Redon illustration cited by Symons.

(25) Cited as Figure 3 in my prefatory comments.

(26) Deleted passage is a brief but discursive comment on “spiritual corruption.” [column 2:]

(27) Joris K. Huysmans, Certains (Paris: Libraire Plon, 1908), pp. 220, 222. The second sentence of Symons’ quotation is not complete. In the original, Symons fails to break after the word “troubles,” thus rendering the passage as if it were continuous. In English, the quotation reads: “This work for me projects some delightful emanations, some painful comprehensions, some treacherous sacrileges, some troubled prayers. The dead smile of the lips is explained therefore when one remembers the hate that assailed her, the outrages especially of this priest who wanted to corrupt her and strived to pervert his praying monks by a presentation of girls whose pale nudity was being exposed in seditious dances.”

(28) The concluding two pages of the essay largely dwell upon Alastair’s illustration “Salammbo,” p. [5] of Crosby’s Red Skeletons. Also, Symons quotes two quatrains of poetry beginning with the line “Her mouth is fragrant as a vine.” I am unable to determine who wrote these lines; perhaps they were composed by Symons himself.


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