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PPHS English 332
American Modernism Project
American Romanticism Project
Aspects of American Romanticism
List of Romanticism Works
A Dream Within a Dream by Edgar Allan Poe
A Rainy Day by Nathaniel Hawthorne
A Walk at Sunset by William Cullen Bryant
Alone by Edgar Allan Poe
Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe
Bartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville
Dream-Land by Edgar Allan Poe
Eldorado by Edgar Allan Poe
Eleonora by Edgar Allan Poe
Forms of Heroes by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Hop-Frog by Edgar Allan Poe
Ligeia by Edgar Allan Poe
Little Annie's Ramble by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Mr. Higginbotham's Catastrophe by Nathaniel Hawthorne
My Love by James Russell Lowell
My Low and Humble Home by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Paradise of Bachelors and the Tarturus of Maid by Herman Melville
Silence by Edgar Allan Poe
Spirits of the Dead by Edgar Allan Poe
The Ambitious Guest by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Balloon Hoax by Edgar Allan Poe
The Bells by Edgar Allan Poe
The Black Cat by Edgar Allan Poe
The Bridal Ballad by Edgar Allan Poe
The Canterbury Pilgrims by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe
The City in the Sea by Edgar Allan Poe
The Coliseum by Edgar Allan Poe
The Darkened Mind by James Russell Lowell
The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar by Edgar Allan Poe
The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe
The Gold Bug by Edgar Allan Poe
The Happiest Day by Edgar Allan Poe
The Haunted Palace by Edgar Allan Poe
The Lake by Edgar Allan Poe
The Last Leaf by Oliver Wendell Holmes
The Lightning Rod Man by Herman Melville
The Man of the Crowd by Edgar Allan Poe
The Martyr by Herman Melville
The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe
The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe
The Oval Portrait by Edgar Allan Poe
The Premature Burial by Edgar Allan Poe
The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe
The Sleeper by Edgar Allan Poe
The Spectacles by Edgar Allan Poe
The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether by Edgar Allan Poe
The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe
The Valley of Unrest by Edgar Allan Poe
To the River by Edgar Allan Poe
Ulalume by Edgar Allan Poe
What the Birds Said by John Greenleaf Whittier
William Wilson by Edgar Allan Poe
The Masque of the Red Death by Edgar Allan Poe
The stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe no doubt mirror typical characteristics found in the literature subgenre of Dark Romanticism, and Poe’s short story, The Masque of the Red Death is a perfect example of this observation. An allegory of life and death with the twisted element of a plague, this story exhibits typical dark Romantic characteristics that were possibly influenced by Poe’s witnessing of the cholera epidemic that spread throughout New England, New York and Philadelphia (Vora and Ramanan). Poe's experience of living in poverty could have also possibly contributed to the theme between the wealthy and poor in The Masque of the Red Death (“Poe’s Life”). This same inspiration can be tied and compared to The Sphinx, another short story by Poe with a similar plot and style. Additionally, the aspects and style that The Masque of the Red Death revolves around can be compared to the same style found in Poe’s poem, The Lake. Considering these ideas, it is obvious that The Masque of the Red Death is a carefully integrated work that clearly exemplifies typical issues of Dark Romanticism, especially when compared to similar ones found in other works of Poe, such as The Sphinx and The Lake, and real-life events like the Cholera epidemic that took place in Poe’s life.
Unfortunately, death played a large role throughout the life of Edgar Allan Poe, seeing as he was constantly faced with death through the losses of many whom he held close relationships with (“Poe’s Life”). His parents died within three years of his birth, his foster mother and older brother died in his early twenties, and his true love Virginia died when he was in his late thirties, which seemed to devastate him the most (“Poe’s Life). Many of these deaths seem to be linked to a chronic, long-term disease, specifically Tuberculosis (“Poe’s Life”). Consequently, the presence of disease most likely impacted Poe emotionally and psychologically to a certain extent. Many epidemics also took place during the life of Poe, including the cholera epidemic of 1831, which hit Baltimore around the same time that Poe went to visit some relatives there (Vora and Ramanan). The disease also spread to New York in the same year, where Poe also lived for some time (Vora and Ramanan). It’s safe to assume that Poe was a witness to the morbid stories and narratives of victims of these diseases through newspapers and common media, further aiding to his exposure to the presence of death and disease. The role that death played in Poe’s life, specifically through epidemics and disease, no doubt provided a background and inspiration for some of his gruesome stories, especially The Masque of the Red Death. The most obvious evidence of this is the fact that the whole story revolves around the presence of the “Red Death”, a plague that Poe claims “had long devastated the country” and would kill its victims within half an hour through sharp pains, sudden dizziness, and profuse bleeding of the pores (Poe, “The Masque...”). It would cause the victim to look quite hideous with “scarlet stains upon the body, and especially upon the face of the victim” (Poe, “The Masque...”) A second factor that links historical disease with Poe’s influences and inspiration is his short story, The Sphinx. Within the first line of The Sphinx, Poe opens up the story with the description “During the dread reign of the Cholera in New York” (Poe, “The Sphinx”). Note this is the same disease discussed earlier that caused turmoil in the same of the cities Poe stayed, and even possibly claimed the life of his brother, as some theorize (Vora and Ramanan). These two stories reveal the factor of disease that influenced Poe and his mindset, and brought upon the birth of another dark idea that Poe could use in emphasizing the morbidity and melancholy of his stories, further allowing him to demonstrate Dark Romanticism and its aspects.
This brings about another factor of Poe’s life that possibly helped influence and inspire another sinister theme for Poe to use in order to portray Dark Romanticism. Besides the presence of disease, Poe also struggled with poverty throughout his life when his foster father refused to fully pay for his college education (“Poe’s Life”). This led to Poe accumulating enormous debts and dropping out, only making his financial situation worse, which Poe seemed to struggle with the rest of his life (“Poe’s Life). With this poor lifestyle encompassing Poe, it most likely gave him an interesting viewpoint on the differences between the privileged and poor. In The Masque of the Red Death, Poe seems to use death as a tool to declare the ignorance and misuse of wealth in order to get ahead. His character, Prospero, is a wealthy Prince who believes he can avoid and ignore the Red Death by closing off his luxurious castle and throwing extravagant parties (Poe, “The Masque...”). His attempt to defeat the natural process of life is an ultimate failure due to a mysterious masked figure who seems to bring the Red Death upon the Prince and kill him, ultimately showing that death is inescapable despite the extravagance and wealth of one’s life (Poe, “The Masque...”. The manner of Poe’s style and writing seems not only to just kill the Prince to show this theme, but also punish him for having such an arrogant belief. This style dramatizes and successfully emphasizes the point that Poe is trying to get across, which happens to be a sinister light casted on the typical sinful actions of people, a strong Dark Romantic theme (“Dark...”). Since Poe commonly faced poverty in his life to the point where some say he burned his own furniture for warmth, it's likely that he chose to portray this theme of death through an additional theme of privileged versus poor (“Poe’s Life). Considering this little influence in addition to the role of disease and death in Poe’s life, the link between the external influences and inspiration of Poe vividly brings the style of Dark Romanticism to the surface.
Moving past this integration of Poe’s oeuvre and influence that provoked it, the matter of Poe’s display of Dark Romanticism within his works, specifically in The Masque of the Red Death, as well as The Lake and The Sphinx, is fairly straightforward and vivid. Primarily, Dark Romanticism is illustrated for a focus on the more tragic side of life, belief in sin and evil, the dark mysteries of life, and the general struggles of humanity. Typically, it explores these focuses through the use of symbolism, descriptive words, and psychological suspense and mystery. The first sign pointing towards Dark Romanticism is the overall theme of the story, one that revolves around the idea of death, and how it holds “illimitable dominion over all” (Poe, “The Masque...”). Poe chooses to have death take the form of a mysterious figure who has the mask of a hideous corpse and is dripping and covered with blood - an obvious victim of the “Red Death” (Poe, “The Masque...”). As this figure appears, he walks through the seven magnificent rooms of Prince Prospero’s castle, each one unique in style and colors and coincidentally fitting to the progressing stages of life (Poe, “The Masque...”). Each room is solely decorated in one color, these being blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet, and black (Poe, “The Masque...”). The black room with its blood-red windows is the most obvious, symbolizing death; the others could be analyzed in various ways, but the majority of critics seem to believe that blue represents birth, purple represents intensity mixed with calamity of blue, which could mean the start of youth, while green is commonly associated with growth, and orange is related to autumn and therefore the beginning of a descent (Sova). White could be associated with white hair, and violet is a darker shade, and hence could be the comings of death (Sova). The arrangement of the rooms is also meaningful, as they proceed from east to west, parallel to the rising and falling of the sun (Sova). The big, eerie pendulum and its chiming is also associated with death, especially since the visitors fear and grow pale at the sound of it (Poe, “The Masque..). It is conveniently placed in the black room, which everyone seems to avoid too. On the same note, Poe describes the room in such a fashion that it exhibits quite a feeling of dark mystery. As the clock periodically chimes, this could represent a reminder that life passes with time, and continues to grow closer to death. Together, this grouping of symbolism and feelings of mystery contribute to the Dark Romanticism of this story. Additionally, the ending concludes the theme that death is inescapable as Prospero confronts the masked, plagued figure and dies, with the numerous deaths of everyone following (Poe, “The Masque...”). Since decay and death ultimately triumph, this makes the theme very dark, and therefore a wonderful example of Dark Romanticism.
Going back to the subject of disease, this is another aspect that exhibits Dark Romantic traits. The disease is described and named similarly to that of the Black Death Plague which took place during Medieval times, and this subtly gives the reader the impression that the setting with castle and it’s surroundings are in a Medieval setting (Poe, “The Masque...”). This is a very Gothic aspect, and consequently could be another sign of Dark Romanticism found in the story.
Reiterating on the symbol of death found in The Masque of the Red Death, a similar style of symbolism is found in Poe’s poem The Lake. As stated earlier, the presence of the Red Death and the gothic black room with the blood-red windows both symbolize death in the story (Poe, “The Red...). In The Lake, Poe chooses to reference and explore death in conveying the symbol of loneliness, and the style he uses to do this is also similar to his short story. The most straightforward line representing this is “Death was in that poisonous wave”, obviously describing the lake (Poe, “The Lake). The rest of Poe’s descriptions are in a similar melancholy fashion, such as the last of the poem, “Whose solitary soul could make an Eden of that dim lake” (Poe, “The Lake”). This can be compared to “Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all” (Poe, “The Masque..). This is also the last line of the short story; comparably, the context of these two lines contrast very differently, but do reveal how Poe saves the best for last in order to place the most emphasis on his final point. This line in “The Lake” is used to describe how the narrator finds pleasure in wallowing in loneliness, while the line from “The Masque of the Red Death” conveys the final triumph of death. Correspondingly, these two works differ in their content, but demonstrate the similar style of emphasizing that Poe uses.
To go further past these interpretations of symbols, one can enter the psychological demise that Poe is notorious for twisting into his stories. This is also a large element of Dark Romanticism (Langley). Throughout the story, there are some phrases and descriptions that suggest the events of The Masque of the Red Death were a complete hallucination of a maddened mind, most likely of Prince Prospero. The context of these lines also may also suggest that Prince Prospero himself is the narrator of the story (Sova). The line "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 he was not" exemplify a defensive tone of the narrator towards criticisms of the prince, and "In an assembly of phantasms such as I have painted" seems to directly insinuate that the narrator is admitting the characters and events are fictional of his or her mind (Poe, “The Masque...”). This is very tricky and deceiving of Poe, but also a common trait of his stories, and Dark Romanticism in general (Langley).
Collectively, these symbols, styles, and traits create a portrait of Dark Romanticism with the integration of Poe’s background in poverty and chronic diseases, giving him dark, morbid elements that are comparable to his other works such as “The Sphinx” and “The Lake”. He successfully captures the attention of the reader through this story with his sinister plot and rhythmic, flowing writing style. His allegory between life and death is one of intensity and beauty and is certainly unique.
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