The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“Metzengerstein” was written by Edgar Allan Poe and first appeared in The Saturday Courier (Jan. 14, 1832). Poe (1809-1849) was somewhat well-regarded in his own time, but since his early and untimely death he has become a major figure in world literature, regarded as the architect of the modern short story, the inventor of the mystery fiction, a major poet and literary critic, and a writer extremely influential on the French Symbolists of the late nineteenth century, among a number of other achievements.
“Metzengerstein” is about the feud between two Hungarian families, the Berlifitzings and the Metzengersteins. Both are illustrious houses, but the Metzengersteins are more powerful and the last Count Berlifitzing is “an infirm and doting old man, remarkable for nothing but an inordinate and inveterate personal antipathy to the family of his rival, and so passionate a love of horses, and of hunting, that neither bodily infirmity, great age, nor mental incapacity, prevented his daily participation in the dangers of the chase.”1 Frederick, Baron Metzengerstein, on the other hand, is a young man, only eighteen years of age and energetic and wild (“self-willed and impetuous...through a career of unfeeling, wanton, and reckless dissipation”2) where the last Count Berlifitzing is old and infirm. So wild is Frederick, in fact, that when he inherits the Metzengerstein fortune a debauch follows: “for the space of three days, the behavior of the heir out-Heroded Herod, and fairly surpassed the expectations of his most enthusiastic admirers.”3 Unfortunately, part of this revel includes the firing of the stables of Castle Berlifitzing. Frederick listens to the stables burn as he admires one of the Metzengerstein paintings, of an “enormous, and unnaturally colored horse”4—a painted horse which begins changing position in the painting:
The neck of the animal, before arched, as if in compassion, over the prostrate body of its lord, was now extended, at full length, in the direction of the Baron. The eyes, before invisible, now wore an energetic, and human expression; while they gleamed with a fiery, and unusual red; and the distended lips of the apparently enraged horse left in full view his sepulchral and disgusting teeth.5
Then a mysterious and powerful horse is found on the Metzengerstein property. It has the brand of the Berlifitzings but their grooms deny any knowledge of it. Frederick is happy to claim it, and from that point after is inseparable from it, to the point of declining all other engagements and giving the horse special stables. He rides it day and night, but he does not pleasure in the horse:
Among all the retinue of the Baron, however, none were found to doubt the ardor of that extraordinary affection which existed on the part of the young nobleman for the fiery qualities of his horse; at least, none but an insignificant and misshapen little page, whose deformities were in everybody's way, and whose opinions were of the least possible importance. He--if his ideas are worth mentioning at all--had the effrontery to assert that his master never vaulted into the saddle without an unaccountable and almost imperceptible shudder, and that, upon his return from every long-continued and habitual ride, an expression of triumphant malignity distorted every muscle in his countenance.6
Things end badly for Frederick. Chateau Metzengerstein burns to the ground, and the Baron rides into the flames on the back of the mysterious horse. Or, rather, the horse rides into the flames, carrying the unwilling Baron into it. When that happens, the “fury of the tempest” dies, and a cloud of smoke in the shape of a horse settles above the castle.
“Metzengerstein” was the first of Poe’s published stories, and is generally well-regarded by critics. The story is concise, which is good; “Metzengerstein” is not a story which would benefit by padding or extended character interaction. Even with his baroque phrasing and sentence construction Poe still nails the characterization of Frederick and draws out the horror of what Frederick did and what is done to him. And even the jaded modern reader, who might yawn at the ending, will still feel a jolt at the moment when the portrait of the horse changes its expression to look right at the Baron. The Gothic elements work well together:
Several gothic elements are present in “Metzengerstein”—death, decay, madness, a menacing chateau, a murder plot, supernatural transformations—but in Poe’s hands they are used not only to thrill and frighten but to extend the limits of narrative point of view, portray the perverse, and explore the world of the imagination and the role of the artist.7
But there is a less innocent interpretation of “Metzengerstein,” one which relies on the historical context in which the story was written as well as knowledge of Poe’s politics for its force. Maurice S. Lee convincingly argues that “Metzengerstein” is
an exemplary story that offers an early and surprisingly cogent position on the American slavery debate. However, the racist anti-abolitionism evident in ‘‘Metzengerstein’’ and beyond conflicts with transcendentalist concepts Poe borrows from Schelling and Coleridge. Here Enlightenment dualisms threaten to collapse into romantic absolutism as blackness and bondage are figured as dangers immanent in the unwitting white mind. For Poe, the slavery crisis is a crisis of the unconscious, which he dramatizes with a repetition more compelling than compulsive. Poe, that is, seems less an author bedeviled by buried racial fears than one who prejudicially enacts a strategic metaphysics of race.8
Lee’s reasoning is based on Poe’s own published views:
But while Poe learned to resent the aristocratic mores he enjoyed as a youth in Virginia, he also expressed reactionary ire against progressive causes in general and abolitionism in particular. Poe lambasted the antislavery movement in critiques of Lowell and Longfellow; his correspondence with proslavery thinkers can imply his concurring beliefs; and he may have condoned as writer or editor the disputed Paulding-Drayton review, a text that celebrates chattel bondage as a positive good. For the most part, Poe’s literary practice and criticism support the racist stereotypes of plantation fiction.9
This pro-slavery ethos manifests itself in “Metzengerstein:” “Published five months after Nat Turner’s revolt, ‘Metzengerstein’ stands as Poe’s first serious treatment of slavery and race, offered in the form of a cautious—and cautionary—political commentary.”10 The story “speaks to American sectionalism by exploiting regional stereotypes. In the antebellum era, hunting and horsemanship were standard features of the Southern cavalier, and by 1831, the South was depicted as a passionate, feudal, failing place.”11 These elements manifest themselves in “Metzengerstein,” which additionally “dwells on black savagery and the dangers of masterless chattel.”12
It’s possible to read and enjoy “Metzengerstein,” but only until one is aware of its message.
Print: Edgar Allan Poe, The Collected Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Modern Library, 1992.
1 Edgar Allan Poe, “Metzengerstein,” in Kevin J. Hayes, ed., The Annotated Poe (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2015), 26.
2 Poe, “Metzengerstein,” 27.
3 Poe, “Metzengerstein,” 27.
4 Poe, “Metzengerstein,” 28.
5 Poe, “Metzengerstein,” 28.
6 Poe, “Metzengerstein,” 33.
7 Kevin J. Hayers, ed., The Annotated Poe (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2015), 25.
8 Maurice S. Lee, “Absolute Poe: His System of Transcendental Racism,” American Literature 75, no. 4 (Dec. 2003): 752.
9 Lee, “Absolute Poe,” 752.
10 Lee, “Absolute Poe,” 753.
11 Lee, “Absolute Poe,” 754.
12 Lee, “Absolute Poe,” 756.