By Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
A Study Guide
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2006
........There 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.
.......It 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 friends."
.......But 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?
.......No 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.
.......After 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.
.......While 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."
.......Although 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.
.......When 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.
.......Meanwhile, 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.
.......Moments 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.
.......From 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.
.......Eventually, 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.
.......Although 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.
.......Most 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.
.......One 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.
.......The 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 course, fictional.
Baron Frederick von Metzengerstein:
Teenage nobleman who inherits his father's vast estates. He despises the
“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 allegorically 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 burning palace.
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":
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 [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, so, so, so, and speculation and the c sound in course and conduct. Here are two other examples from the story:
One instant, and the clattering of hoofs resounded sharply and shrilly above the roaring of the flames and the shrieking of the winds.Reference to Caligula
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.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
1...Write 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.2...Write an informative essay explaining the role of metempsychosis in "Metzengerstein" and two other Poe stories, "Ligeia," and ....."Morella."
3...Write a psychological profile of Baron Metzengerstein.
4...Two 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?
5...Poe observes in the story that "near neighbors are seldom friends." Is Poe right? Is it true that, as the old saying says, familiarity .....breeds contempt?
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.