classics

“Metzengerstein” by Edgar Allan Poe

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Time for a throwback to a classic short story by Edgar Allan Poe. “Metzengerstein” was Poe’s very first published short story. He sent it as his entry for a contest held by the Saturday Courier magazine in Philadelphia. It wasn’t chosen as the winner, but the magazine still published it a few months later. It might not be as well-read as his other stories we are more used to these days, but it still has the foundations of many of his later Gothic tales of death beyond the grave and noble families with old roots whose lives are crumbling.

The Metzengerstein and the Berlifitzings are two rival families in Hungary. They have been bitter enemies for longer than anyone can tell. Of course, the story starts off with a doomed prophecy,

“A lofty name shall have a fearful fall when, as the rider over his horse, the mortality of Metzengerstein shall triumph over the immortality of Berlifitzing.”

The prose that Poe employs is in the style of its Gothic predecessors, mostly notably German tales, which inspired him to give it the often removed subtitle: A Tale In Imitation of the German. The language is of course quite adorned, but this is the feel Poe was going for.

The tale is filled with mystery, but an astute reader will see where Poe is giving a knowing wink. The final surviving Metzengerstein, upon receiving the family fortune, begins to become a grotesque character. He is possibly a villain who has killed a rival Berlifitzing, whose spirit returns in the form of a mysterious white horse (a horse, who perhaps might have only just been on a large tapestry in the Metzengerstein house). Demon horses and castles catching fire are par for the course in “Metzengerstein” (the above illustration was included in a 1909 edition).

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I think readers who are familiar with Gothic fiction and appreciate a good Poe story will enjoy this one. I read it in an edition I own with gilded page edges, which I keep close to my bed in case of a night-time Edgar Allan Poe urge (we all get them, right?). The collection features many of his lesser known works, but I proffer the idea that many of them are known, yet, are not as widely read as others are these days.

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Allusions in Literature

As most of you know, I am reading The Woman in White (a real page turner, by the way). The book was originally published in its entirety in 1860. My copy is the Barnes & Noble Classics edition so it includes a lot of extra scholarly information: essays, timeline, footnotes, etc.

As I was reading the book last night, I would glance to the bottom of the page every now and then to see what little tidbit was being explained to me. Of course, any one of us could read this book without additional informational aids and enjoy it, but it is nice to know  that jog-trot acquaintances are habitual, routine acquaintances, not close friends [77].

However, there was a footnote to a reference about the Siren song. I thought this an easy one, especially, if you were educated in a Western school (I’ve read the Odyssey countless times when I was in school/college) and wondered why the editor would feel it necessary to include it.

It got me thinking about my academic past. I remembered that my fantastic senior year English teacher in high school emphasized how important mythical and biblical allusions are in literature and that everyone should know the basics. When I went off to college, I studied creative writing and classics. My focus in the classics department was Greek mythology and gender in society of ancient Greece (for three semesters, I even translated sections of the Old Testament in to English). I am the opposite of a religious person, but I think it very important to know stories from the Bible. I really enjoy academics and continued to take additional classes about southeast Asian religions and Islam while an undergrad.

I tried not to be a snob about the whole Siren song footnote and thought that I was just incredibly lucky in my high school schooling and in my own choices when I was a college student. I must admit that it’s been a number of years since I read up on any myths, but I really need to to keep my mind sharp. We can’t always know everything, but wouldn’t it be nice to really understand what’s happening in Faulkner’s  novels.

  • Mythology by Edith Hamilton Originally published in 1942, many people consider her book to be a good intro to classical myth. I hold the same opinion and think it’s a must have. This book has been around for decades and  you can probably find an incredibly cheap copy.
  • Theoi Greek Mythology I’ve only perused this sight for a few minutes but it seems to be jam-packed with tons of info and pictures. It also looks like the webmaster has taken great care in organizing all of the information.
  • Allusion in Prose and Poetry Some brief, yet, important examples of Biblical illusions in literature. At the top, there is also a great image of Jonah being swallowed by a whale.

The Gaze of Orpheus

Yesterday afternoon, I was invited by a very talented friend to the first part in a series of three concert-lectures she is putting on. The entire arch of the project deals with the Orphic myth and how it has influenced music and composers (my friend is studying to be a conductor). Her research was thorough and inventive, and the music performed was stellar (Haydn, Monteverdi, etc.). Besides the enjoyment I had from the music, I am always keen on anything to do with Classical Greece (full disclosure: I studied Classical Greek Civilization & Mythology in college). Before I continue, if you are unfamiliar with Orpheus, may I suggest taking a look at this quick snippet.

She mentioned that she will explore more about the “gaze of Orpheus” in her second concert-lecture. This had me thinking about Maurice Blanchot (as one does on a chilly Sunday afternoon). Even though her project is of course directed towards music, I strongly recommended Blanchot’s essay, The Gaze of Orpheus. Many people find Blanchot to be difficult and obtuse–I admit to being perplexed at times–but he is definitely worth a read to anyone interested in literature, language, art, life, death, etc. He is so fascinated with the idea of Orpheus, that he even wrote an experimental novel called Thomas the Obscure.

In The Gaze of Orpheus, Blanchot discusses Orpheus’ descent from the world of the living to Hades so he may retrieve his dead love, Eurydice. He compares this excursion to that of “the artist,” as well as examining the creative process.

Even though he is a challenge, I highly recommend Blanchot. I won’t get into it with this post, but for the past couple of years, I have been extremely interested with space in literature: both the physical space within the novel and also, the way the reader, author, and character(s) react to space. Which brings me to Blanchot’s The Space of Literature. Read it!