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Poe Study Guides
Michael J. Cummings...©
was a time long ago when some Hungarians believed that the soul of a human
being could pass at death into the body of another creature, a phenomenon
known as metempsychosis. Is such a transmigration of the soul possible?
For example, could the soul of a deceased person inhabit the body of a
horse or a dog? On these questions, “I say nothing," the narrator asserts.
But he goes on to tell a story that lends credibility to the belief.
concerns two very old aristocratic families that lived in the Holy Roman
Empire when it included Germany and Hungary. These families, the Berlifitzings
and the Metzengersteins, despised each other for centuries. At the time
that the story unfolds, the hatred that passes between them is as strong
as it ever was in past generations, for they are rivals for influence in
the conduct of government. Moreover, they are neighbors–their estates running
one against the other–and “near neighbors," the narrator says, “are seldom
what really stirs their enmity–what keeps it alive–are the words of an
ancient 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 prophecy is particularly hateful
to the Berlifitzings, since it predicts ultimate victory for the Metzengersteins.
Is there a way to defeat the prophecy–that is, to make the Berlifitzings
triumph over the Metzengersteins?
doubt that question roils in the heart of old Count Wilhelm von Berlifitzing.
His hatred for the Metzengersteins is his only passion in life–save for
his love of horses and hunting. He seizes every opportunity to chase a
quarry. Each time he rides out, one of his rivals–Baron Frederick von Metzengerstein,
a teenager–follows him. Though he shares the old count’s love of horses,
Frederick hates him and the rest of the Berlifitzing family just as much
as the count hates the Metzengersteins.
his father and mother die, Frederick inherits vast estates with numberless
castles, the biggest and most magnificent of which is his home, Château
Metzengerstein. Immediately after his succession to power, he engages in
“shameful debaucheries" and executes “flagrant treacheries" and “unheard-of
atrocities." His appalling behavior turns him into a “petty Caligula."
On the fourth night of his reign, the stables of the rival Berlifitzing
family catch fire. Rumors arising later blame Frederick for setting it.
the fire rages, Frederick engages in deep meditation in an upper apartment
of Metzengerstein Palace. In that vast room over the centuries, the Metzengerstein
rulers exercised their power, imposing “a veto on the wishes of a temporal
king," or checking “with the fiat of papal supremacy the rebellious sceptre
of the Arch-enemy."
the glow of the fire enters the room, the young baron fixes his gaze instead
on a rich wall tapestry picturing an enormous horse that had belonged to
a Saracen ancestor of the Berlifitzings. In the background is its rider
suffering a mortal dagger wound from a Metzengerstein. The scene holds
Frederick spellbound while anxiety falls “like a pall upon his senses."
Only for the briefest moment can he look away from it to the glow of the
fire below. When his gaze returns to the tapestry, the narrator says, Frederick
notices “to his extreme horror and astonishment [that] the head of the
gigantic steed had . . . altered its position." Before, it was arched over
the body of its rider; now it extends toward the Frederick. He can see
its fiery eyes and its teeth. Horrified, he decides to go outside for air.
When he opens the door of the room, light from the fire casts his shadow
onto the tapestry. There it assumes the shape of the man wielding the dagger.
the baron reaches the gate outside, three men are trying to control a gigantic
horse like the one pictured in the tapestry. When Frederick asks who owns
it, one man tells him that it is one of the young baron’s own steeds–or
at least that is their conclusion. When they bridled it after it raced
from the burning Berlifitzing stables, they naturally assumed that the
horse belonged to the old count and tried to return it. However, his grooms
disclaimed it; it was not a Berlifitzing horse, they said, even though
it was branded with the letters W.V.B. (Wilhelm von Berlifitzing). The
baron then claims ownership, believing he has what it takes to ride the
powerful, unruly a horse.
a page from the Palace whispers to Frederick that part of a tapestry in
a room in the house is missing. The young baron orders the room locked
up and the key given to him.
later, one of the baron’s vassals informs him that old Count Berlifitzing
died trying to save one of his favorite horses from the flames.
that day forward, Frederick is a changed young man. Never is he seen traveling
beyond the boundaries of his domain. Never does he cultivate companionship–except
with the horse, which he rides often. Never does he accept invitations
to festivals and hunting expeditions.
the neighboring aristocrats–insulted by his snubbing–stop sending him invitations.
Some of them attribute his behavior to the loss of his father and the recent
death of his mother. Others, including his family physician, suggest that
melancholy or poor health–which ran in the family–has adversely affected
him. Still others believe his reclusiveness is due to his inordinate attachment
to the steed he acquired on the night of the fire. This attachment, “became,
in the eyes of all reasonable men, a hideous and unnatural fervor. In the
glare of noon–at the dead hour of night–in sickness or in health–in calm
or in tempest–the young Metzengerstein seemed rivetted to the saddle of
that colossal horse, whose intractable audacities so well accorded with
his own spirit." Witnesses say the horse can leap an astounding distance.
Frederick has no name for it, he treats it with special care, grooming
it himself and keeping it separate from the other horses. It comes to light
that the three men who bridled it on the night of the fire could not swear
that they actually laid a hand on the beast.
observers believe Frederick is greatly fond of the horse. But a dwarfish
page, to whom no one pays attention, observes that Baron Metzengerstein
always mounts the giant horse with trepidation but returns from a ride
with a look of "triumphant malignity," suggesting perhaps that Frederick
believes that each time he rides the horse successfully he registers a
victory over the Berlifitzings.
night during a storm, Frederick rides off into a forest. After many hours
pass, his servants wonder why he is gone for so long. Suddenly, a fire
breaks out and rages through Metzengerstein Palace. So swift is its progress
that it is impossible to save the building. Onlookers notice a horse leaping
wildly up the oak-lined road leading to the entrance of the palace. The
rider is struggling so hard to maintain control that he has bitten through
his lips. Winds shriek. The fire roars. And the horse enters the castle
with its rider, bounds up a staircase, and disappears in the flames.
storm subsides. All is dead calm. A white flame from the building blazes
with otherworldly light, and a cloud of white smoke appears in the shape
of a horse.
The narrator identifies Baron
Frederick von Metzengerstein as a “nobleman of Hungary." However, his name–and
that of his rival, Count Wilhelm von Berlifitzing–are German. Therefore,
it seems reasonable to conclude that the action in the story takes place
in Hungary when it was under the rule of Ferdinand I (1503-1564). He became
Governor of the German duchy of Württemberg in 1521, King of Bohemia
and Hungary in 1527, King of Germany in 1531, and Holy Roman Emperor in
1558. The castles of the Metzengersteins and the Berlifitzings are, of
Baron Frederick von Metzengerstein:
Teenage nobleman who inherits his father's vast estates. He despises the
Count Wilhelm von Berlifitzing:
Elderly nobleman with a passion for two things: riding his horse and despising
the Metzengerstein family. After he dies, his soul apparently inhabits
the body of a gigantic horse.
Person who tells the story of the baron and the count. He leaves open the
possibility that the count's soul transmigrated to the body of the horse
that carried the baron to his death.
Three men who bridle the gigantic horse during the fire at the Berlifitzing
Page 1: Servant who
informs Metzengerstein that part of a tapestry is missing.
Page 2: Dwarfish
servant who observes that Baron Metzengerstein after he rides the giant
horse he always returns with a look of "triumphant malignity."
Father, Mother of Metzengerstein:
Deceased parents of the young baron. The mother is mentioned in earlier
editions of "Metzengerstein" but not in later editions.
Widow of Count Wilhelm:
In response to Frederick's snubbing of local aristocrats, she observes
that "the Baron might be at home when he did not wish to be at home, since
he disdained the company of his equals; and ride when he did not wish to
ride, since he preferred the society of a horse."
“Metzengerstein" is a short
story containing elements of Gothic
horror, such as shadowy castles, howling winds, and seemingly supernatural
phenomena. Whether Poe intended the story as a straightforward tale of
terror or as a parody of Gothic storytelling is open to question. After
all, one can easily interpret the bizarre happenings in the story as burlesque
derisions of Gothic fare. On the other hand, one can also interpret them
as events intended to demonstrate a universal truth: bad things happen
to bad people.
The Philadelphia Saturday
Courier, a magazine, published Metzengerstein in 1832. It was the first
Poe short story to see print. In 1836, the Southern Literary Messenger
published the story with an enlarged title, "Metzengerstein: A Tale in
Imitation of the German." Today the story is known simply as "Metzengerstein."
As in many other Poe stories,
horror is a central theme. The narrator introduces this theme in the first
sentence of the story: "Horror and fatality have been stalking abroad in
all ages." He then tells the story of how the soul of a deceased nobleman,
Count Wilhelm von Berlifitzing, seemingly inhabits a gigantic horse and
carries his enemy to a fiery death.
For centuries, the Metzengerstein
and Berlifitzing families have practiced the devil's commandment: Hate
they neighbor. The narrator hints at the causes of the enmity: rivalry
in government affairs as well as the contempt that often develops between
neighbors. No doubt, too, envy played a major role in fueling the hatred,
for the Metzengersteins had more money and a more magnificent palace than
the Berlifitzings. Presumably the old count became a horse after his death
in order to take Metzengerstein on a ride to hell. And, presumably, Metzengerstein
rode the horse in order to dominate Berlifitzing and perhaps carry out
the words of the prophecy: "The mortality of Metzengerstein shall triumph
over the immortality of Berlifitzing." Retribution against both Berlifitzing
and Metzengerstein for their monomaniacal hatred comes when they enter
the burning palace together.
Old Count Berlifitzing had
long entertained the hope of gaining revenge against the Metzengerstein
family for the hostility the latter showed toward the Berlifitzing family
over the ages.
In first-person point of
view, the narrator opens the story by telling the reader that some Hungarians
at one time accepted an ancient belief in metempsychosis–the transmigration
of a soul of a dead person into the body of another being, animal or human.
He then presents his account of the Metzengerstein-Berlifitzing feud and
the role metempsychosis may have played in bringing about the horrifying
death of young Baron Frederick von Berlifitzing. However, unlike the narrator
in other Poe stories, the narrator in "Metzengerstein" plays no role in
the action; he is merely a reporter with a tale to tell. After the two
introductory paragraphs, he stops using the first-person pronoun I
and uses only third-person pronouns the rest of the way.
The climax of “Metzengerstein"
occurs when the horse bears Baron Frederick von Metzengerstein into the
Preceding the story is a
Latin quotation attributed to Martin Luther (1483-1546), the onetime Roman
Catholic priest who led the Protestant revolt against the Vatican. Poe
reports the quotation as follows: Pestis eram vivus - moriens tua mors
ero, a loose translation of which is My life has been a plague to
you [the pope]; my death will be your death. However, numerous
other sources report the quotation with slightly different wording and
punctuation: Pestis eram vivus, moriens ero mors tua, Papa. (Living,
I was a plague to you, O Pope; dying I will be your death.) Luther was
said to have expressed the words on various occasions after he broke with
Roman Catholicism. He appears to have directed the quotation to the papacy
in general rather than to a specific pope, since several pontiffs occupied
the chair of Peter during Luther's lifetime. They included Leo X (who excommunicated
Luther in a papal bull in January 1521), Adrian VI, Clement VII, and Paul
III. In "Metzengerstein," Poe seems to apply Luther's defiance to Count
Wilhelm von Berlifitzing. After he dies, his soul presumably inhabits the
body of a horse that carries Baron Frederick von Metzengerstein to death
in the burning palace. Thus, old Count Berlifitzing's death (or double
death, considering that he dies as a human and then as a horse) becomes
young Baron Metzengerstein's death. Of course, in real life, Luther's death
did not bring about the death of the papacy or the Roman Catholic church.
Poe infuses his writing with
sound effects as well as visual effects. For example, he frequently uses
anaphora, the repetition of a word (and sometimes a group of words) at
the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, or sentences that are parallel
in construction. Here are examples of anaphora from “Metzengerstein":
the glare of
the dead hour of
sickness or in health–in
calm or in tempest–the young Metzengerstein
seemed rivetted [riveted] to the saddle of that colossal horse, whose intractable
audacities so well accorded with his own spirit.
You may have noticed that the
third passage above also uses another sound effect, alliteration, with
the repetition of the s sound in succession,
and speculation and the c
sound in course and
Here are two other examples from the story:
Comment: Note that the sentence
begins with four balanced groups of words that each have two prepositional
phrases and that the word in begins five of the phrases and that
the word of begins two of the phrases. Such repetition imparts a
musical quality to the writing.
longer he gazed
the more absorbing became the
more impossible did it appear that he could ever withdraw his glance
from the fascination of that tapestry.
Comment: Here, the aural
effect of the more absorbing became the spell carries over to the
next clause, the more impossible did it appear.
Upon the succession of
proprietor so young,
character so well known, to
a fortune so
unparalleled, little speculation was afloat in regard to his probable
course of conduct.
Comment: This sentence begins
with three parallel groups of words that repeat key words, a and
One instant, and
the clattering of hoofs resounded sharply
and shrilly above the roaring of the
flames and the shrieking of the winds.
The fury of the tempest immediately
away, and a dead calm sullenly
The narrator's comparison
of Baron Metzengerstein to Caligula is apt. Caligula (12-41 AD) was emperor
of Rome from 37 to 41 AD. He engaged in many debaucheries, worked many
cruelties, and exhibited strange behavior–manifested
on one occasion by his appointment of his favorite horse as a consul.
Questions and Essay Topics
an essay arguing that young Baron Metzengerstein knows that the soul of
Count Berlifitzing inhabits the gigantic steed branded with the initials
of the count. Among passages from the story that might support your argument
are the following:
There were circumstances,
moreover, which coupled with late events, gave an unearthly and portentous
character to the mania of the rider, and to the capabilities of the steed.
The space passed over in a single leap had been accurately measured, and
was found to exceed, by an astounding difference, the wildest expectations
of the most imaginative.
an informative essay explaining the role of metempsychosis in "Metzengerstein"
and two other Poe stories, "Ligeia," and ....."Morella."
The Baron, besides, had no
particular name for the animal, although all the rest in his collection
were distinguished by characteristic appellations.
He [a page] . . . 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.
a psychological profile of Baron Metzengerstein.
fires occur in the story. One consumes the Berlifitzing stables and the
other consumes the Metzengerstein castle. Did the young .....baron
cause the first fire, as the story suggests? Did Berlifitzing revenge cause
the second fire?
observes in the story that "near neighbors are seldom friends." Is Poe
right? Is it true that, as the old saying says, familiarity .....breeds
Edgar Allan Poe was born
on January 19, 1809, in Boston. After being orphaned at age two, he was
taken into the home of a childless couple–John Allan, a successful businessman
in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was believed to be Poe’s godfather.
At age six, Poe went to England with the Allans and was enrolled in schools
there. After he returned with the Allans to the U.S. in 1820, he studied
at private schools, then attended the University of Virginia and the U.S.
Military Academy, but did not complete studies at either school. After
beginning his literary career as a poet and prose writer, he married his
young cousin, Virginia Clemm. He worked for several magazines and joined
the staff of the New York Mirror newspaper in 1844. All the while,
he was battling a drinking problem. After the Mirror published his
poem “The Raven" in January 1845, Poe achieved national and international
fame. Besides pioneering the development of the short story, Poe invented
the format for the detective story as we know it today. He also was an
outstanding literary critic. Despite the acclaim he received, he was never
really happy because of his drinking and because of the deaths of several
people close to him, including his wife in 1847. He frequently had trouble
paying his debts. It is believed that heavy drinking was a contributing
cause of his death in Baltimore on October 7, 1849.