In which the young Baron Metzengerstein runs into a peculiar sort of trouble involving a tapestry and a horse.
First published in 1832
Available online from The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore
Bear with me for a moment.
About 480 years ago, give or take, Giorgio Vasari was ticked off. An influential writer on architecture, Vasari had seen the new cathedral designs sweeping western Europe, and found them uncool. Flying buttresses? Ribbed vaults? What was this stuff?
Vasari wrote that these forms were so different from the familiar Greco-Roman architectural traditions that they deserved their own classification. He labeled them Gothic, in reference to the Germanic tribes who’d made life in the Roman Empire such a colorful thing during the 4th and 5th centuries A.D. In other words, those gargoyles, pointed arches, etc., were the work of barbarians.
Now, pejoratives are funny things. Some manage to escape the control of those who coin them, becoming value-free descriptors in the process (see Big Bang). Eventually, they may even be ascribed meanings far removed from what was originally intended. So it was with “Gothic.”
Over two hundred years after Vasari, enter Horace Walpole. Walpole was the 4th Earl of Orford, a Whig MP from Cornwall, and a most talented individual. When he was in his late forties, Walpole wrote a new kind of novel, one that fused horror, suspense, parody, and romance, along with a smattering of what would later be called surrealism.
The book, entitled The Castle of Otranto, was a smash hit in 1764. Its setting was a crumbling Italian castle, festooned with kind the architectural elements that Vasari found so distasteful. Because of this, Walpole gave the novel a fitting subtitle: A Gothic Story.
And so Gothic literature was born.
This genre was instantly and wildly successful, but it didn’t stop there. Over the next two-and-a-half centuries, the influence of Gothic fiction spread to other media, first painting and music, then radio, film, television, computer games, and the web. All of this led eventually to those tattooed and pierced folks with the unnaturally black hair that you’ve seen in the food court at the mall.
So, if you ever wondered why a contemporary subculture shares its name with an amalgamation of tribal peoples from late antiquity, the answer is that it’s due to an unwitting collaboration between a testy Italian architecture critic of the early Renaissance and an eccentric 18th-century British politician. Such are the twisted ways of history.
And that brings us to “Metzengerstein.”
This was the first story that Poe published; it appeared in 1832, when he was a mere stripling of 23. Critics have called “Metzengerstein” (a) a prime example of Gothic short fiction and (b) a prime example of a spoof on Gothic short fiction. It’s hard to tell which Poe intended. I suspect that the answer is “both.”
One thing that can be said with certainty: Edgar was showing off, projecting an air of erudition. The story begins with an untranslated Latin epigram from Martin Luther. This is followed, within the first couple paragraphs, by two equally untranslated bits of French.
As a public service, I provide English translations of these below. Please note that I studied German for six years, and my knowledge of Romance languages is really sketchy, so I had to rely on others for these:
Epigram: Pestis eram vivus—moriens tua mors ero.
Via Stephen Peithman’s The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe:
“Living, I have been your plague—dying I shall be your death.”
(This was directed at the Pope. Jeez, it’s no wonder that His Holiness never got along with Marty.)
French bit #1: vient de ne pouvoir etre seuls
Via Google Translate: “is unable to be alone”
(This is apparently a riff on Jean de La Bruyère‘s well-known quote “All men’s misfortunes spring from their hatred of being alone.”)
French bit #2: ne demeure qu’un seul fois dans un corps sensible: au reste—un cheval, un chien, un homme meme, n’est que la ressemblance peu tangible de ces animaux.
Via Google Translate: “not remain a single time in a sensitive body: the rest—a horse, a dog, even a man, is that little tangible resemblance of these animals.”
(OK, well…good luck with that one.)
Perhaps this is how Poe tried to impress the ladies. In any case, he gets such tomfoolery out of his system early on.
“Metzengerstein” takes place in a part of Hungary where the families are named “Berlifitzing” and, well, “Metzengerstein,” and the male characters go by “Wilhelm” and “Frederick.” From these clues, I get the impression that the story is set in one of Hungary’s little known far-western provinces, such as…Bavaria. It is also revealed that the Berlifitzings are descended from Saracens, which would make their ethnicity Germano-Hungaro-Arabic. I find that unlikely for a number of reasons, but I’m trying to keep an open mind.
Now, naturally, the Berlifitzings (Bs) and the Metzengersteins (Ms) are not getting along. The Bs are from a lower socio-economic stratum than the Ms, and their patriarch is an elderly equestrian. Meanwhile, young Baron M, a lad of 18, has just lost both of his parents and has decided to drown his grief in a multi-day debauch that includes arson. Unfortunately for the Bs, the target of the Baron’s firebug mania is their stables.
After this point, things start to go immediately downhill for Baron M, although he doesn’t recognize that immediately. He should know something is up, however, because he has one of those typical Gothic supernatural experiences (involving a tapestry that changes as he looks at it) that he nonetheless manages to shrug off.
The villains in Gothic fiction engage in that sort of selective perception a lot. For example, Lord Manfred in The Castle of Otranto manages to overlook his son being unexpectedly crushed to death by a huge helmet that materializes out of nowhere, as well as a painting of an ancestor that pulls itself out of its own frame as he watches. Gothic heavies live Adam Savage‘s famous adage: “I reject your reality and substitute my own.”
I realize that I’m at the point where spoilers might creep into this article, so I’ll draw it to a close by saying that if you enjoy “Metzengerstein,” you will probably find Gothic fiction as a whole congenial to your taste. I’d suggest following this story with any of Poe’s later works, plus Otranto and J. Sheridan LeFanu‘s Uncle Silas. After that, you’re on your own, so beware the gargoyles, and be sure to dodge the flying buttresses.