"Metzengerstein" follows many conventions of Gothic fiction and, to some, exaggerates those conventions. Because of this, critics and scholars debate if Poe intended the story to be taken seriously or as a satire of Gothic stories. Regardless, many elements introduced in "Metzengerstein" would become common in Poe's future writing, including the gloomy castle and the power of evil. Because the story follows an orphan raised in an aristocratic household, some critics suggest an autobiographical connection with its author.
The story was submitted as Poe's entry to a writing contest at the Saturday Courier. Though it did not win, the newspaper published it in January 1832. It was re-published with Poe's permission only twice during his lifetime; its subtitle was dropped for its final publication. Poe intended to include it in his collection Tales of the Folio Club or another called Phantasy Pieces, though neither collection was ever produced.
The story takes place in Hungary, between two rival families: the Metzengersteins and the Berlifitzings. The bitter enmity between the two families is so old that no one knows how far back it dates. The narrator states that its origin appears to rely on an old 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."
Young Frederick, Baron of Metzengerstein, inherits the family fortune at age 18 (though the age changes throughout its many re-publications) and begins to exhibit particularly cruel behavior. "The behavior of the heir out-Heroded Herod". A few days after he receives his inheritance, the stables of the rival family Berlifitzing catch fire, killing the family's patriarch, William Von Berlifitzing. It is implied that Metzengerstein himself may have been responsible for this act of arson. That day, Metzengerstein sits staring at an old tapestry depicting a Metzengerstein who kills a Berlifitzing who lies at the feet of his horse. He thinks he sees the horse move and take on "an energetic and human expression." A few minutes later, he's told that a new, remarkable "fiery-colored" horse has been found in his stables with the letters "W.V.B." branded on its forehead, "I supposed them, of course, to be the initials of William Von Berlifitzing, but all at the castle are positive in denying any knowledge of the horse."
The horse displays "ferocious and demonlike" qualities. Only the baron is brave enough to try to break the mysterious horse. Day after day, Metzengerstein rides it as if addicted, and becomes less and less interested in the affairs of his house. During a nocturnal ride, the Metzengerstein castle catches fire. The runaway horse, against the horseman's orders, jumps into the flames with its rider, killing the last of the Metzengerstein clan. The horrified onlookers see a cloud of smoke settle above the castle in the shape of "the distinct colossal figure of — a horse."
Though not explicitly stated, it is implied that the horse is really Berlifitzing. The first paragraph of the story references metempsychosis, when the soul of a person is transferred to another living being. Other evidence is the tapestry, the lack of a history or recognition in the horse and, certainly, the prophecy referencing the immortality of the Berlifitzings. The story can be read as an allegory, a warning that a human soul can be overtaken by the evil it has created, though Poe himself doesn't suggest such a moral. Such evil can be created by a person's hatred and pride.
Poe imitates many traditional "Germanic" elements in this tale. The most obvious example is the gloomy old castle, typical of Gothic fiction. The story also includes typical Gothic themes, which scholar Dawn Sova refers to as, "hints at secret obsessions and sins, foreboding prophecies, family rivalry". These Gothic conventions had been a staple of popular fiction in Europe and the United States for several decades by the time Poe utilized them. Considering the subtitle, "A Tale in Imitation of the German", critics and scholars disagree if Poe may have, in fact, intended the story as a satire or burlesque of the genre, purposely exaggerating the elements of the Gothic to be humorous. Other evidence is that all of the other three stories Poe published in 1832 ("The Duc de l'Omelette", "A Tale of Jerusalem", and "Bon-Bon") are comic tales written, as Poe said, "intended for half banter, half satire". The story also uses irony as a form of humor: Despite the family's prophecy that "the mortality of Metzengerstein shall triumph over the immortality of Berlifitzing", the opposite occurs. The suggestion that "Metzengerstein" is purposefully written as a satire has been disputed, especially because of Poe's revisions throughout its many republications where he removed some of the more exaggerated material.
The German or, more generally, European overtones give the story a medieval setting, though the time and place of the plot is left indistinct. The atmosphere of the story combines both realistic and supernatural worlds while depicting pathological emotional states, likely influenced by the works of Ludwig Tieck and E. T. A. Hoffmann. It has been called a precursor to "The Fall of the House of Usher" and other later works. Among the elements Poe first uses in "Metzengerstein" which will become typical in his later works are the decaying and gloomy building with oddly-shaped rooms, the remote, secluded property, vivid colors, and underground vaults as well as themes of vengeance and the overwhelming power of evil. Future works will also depict characters of extreme wealth; besides Metzengerstein, other examples are Roderick Usher, the narrator in "Ligeia" and Legrand's restored fortune in "The Gold-Bug". Poe also uses teeth as a symbol for the first time in "Metzengerstein". The horse's teeth are described as "sepulchral and disgusting". Poe would later use teeth as a sign of mortality, as in lips writhing about the teeth of the mesmerized man in "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar", the sound of grating teeth in "Hop-Frog", and the obsession over teeth in "Berenice". Death by fire would later be reused in Poe's story "Hop-Frog" as another punishment. Though Poe was emulating popular horror fiction of the time, "Metzengerstein" shows what made Poe's horror tales stand out: rather than focusing on blood and gore, he explored the minds of the characters to better understand them.
The story has some autobiographical overtones as well, with the castle representing Moldavia, the Richmond home of Poe's foster-father John Allan. The Count, in this reading, would represent John Allan, and Poe the young Metzengerstein. Both Poe and Metzengerstein are orphaned at a young age. Poe may have found writing the story therapeutic; in it, he destroys "John Allan", though he is also destroyed in return. In focusing on the final fire scene, Poe may have been recalling the fatal Richmond Theatre fire of December 1811 which occurred three weeks after his mother, the actress Eliza Poe, had died.
"Metzengerstein", as republished in the Southern Literary Messenger in January 1836Poe originally sent "Metzengerstein" to the Saturday Courier as his entry to a writing competition. Though he did not win, the judges apparently liked the story enough to print it a few months later in their January 14, 1832 edition. It was published without Poe's name attached to it, but is the first acknowledged tale by Poe. Poe likely was not paid for its initial publication. The subtitle of "A Tale in Imitation of the German" was added when it was republished in the Southern Literary Messenger in January 1836, likely to capitalize on the popular interest in German horror. It was removed for its publication as part of the collection Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque in 1840.
"Metzengerstein" may have also been one of 11 tales Poe would have collected as Tales of the Folio Club, a tale collection Poe announced but never actually printed. The "Folio Club" would have been a fictitious literary society the author called a group of "dunderheads" out to "abolish literature". At each monthly meeting, a member would present a story. The Baltimore Saturday Visiter ran an advertisement calling for subscribers at $1 apiece. A week later, however, the newspaper announced that the author had withdrawn the pieces with the expectation they would be printed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Poe also considered publishing it in a collection of stories to be called Phantasy Pieces as "The Horse-Shade", though the edition was never printed.
In its first several publications, "Metzengestein" included a line about the mother's death by consumption. The young baron says, "It is a path I have prayed to follow. I would wish all I love to perish of that gentle disease." When Poe was still a child, his own mother, Eliza Poe, died, presumably of consumption. His wife Virginia also had tuberculosis and died in 1847. After her death, Poe altered his personal view of fictional heroines who were sick and idealized sick women while wishing for their death. This more romantic view of death was not uncommon in writing, as in John Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale", which may have inspired Poe.
The German nature of "Metzengerstein" and other stories in the collection Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque was mentioned in a review by Joseph C. Neal in the Pennsylvanian on December 6, 1839: "These grotesque and arabesque delineations are full of variety, now irresistibly quaint and droll, and again marked with all the deep and painful interest of the German school". Rudyard Kipling was an admirer of Poe and once wrote, "My own personal debt to Poe is a heavy one." "Metzengerstein" was an inspiration to his story "The Phantom Rickshaw", where the main character is punished by the horse of someone he has murdered.
"Metzengerstein" was adapted into one component of Roger Vadim's Histoires extraordinaires in 1968. The segment starred Jane Fonda and Peter Fonda and, though it bore the title "Metzengerstein", was not based on the plot of Poe's story. Romanian composer Joan Balan wrote a musical score for piano in 1934 based on the story called Das Feuerpferd.
1.^ Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998: 193. ISBN 0801857309
2.^ Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. New York City: Checkmark Books, 2001: 155. ISBN 081604161X
3.^ Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. New York City: Harper Perennial, 1991: 89. ISBN 0060923318
4.^ Poe, Harry Lee. Edgar Allan Poe: An Illustrated Companion to His Tell-Tale Stories. New York: Metro Books, 2008: 53. ISBN 9781435104693
5.^ Neimeyer, Mark. "Poe and popular culture" in The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe, Kevin J. Hayes, ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002: 208. ISBN 0521797276
6.^ Bittner, William. Poe: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1962: 85–86.
7.^ Fisher, Benjamin Franklin. "Poe's 'Metzengerstein': Not a Hoax" in On Poe: The Best from "American Literature. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993: 142. ISBN 0822313111
8.^ Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. New York: Cooper Square Press, 1992: 64. ISBN 0-8154-1038-7
9.^ Leverenz, David. "Spanking the Master: Mind-Body Crossings in Poe's Sensationalism" in The Historical Guide to Edgar Allan Poe, J. Gerald Kennedy, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001: 99. ISBN 0-19-512150-3
10.^ Fisher, Benjamin Franklin. "Poe's 'Metzengerstein': Not a Hoax" in On Poe: The Best from "American Literature. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993: 149. ISBN 0822313111
11.^ Hutchisson, James M. Poe. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005: 38. ISBN 1-57806-721-9
12.^ Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press, 1972: 186. ISBN 0-8071-2321-9
13.^ Kennedy, J. Gerald. Poe, Death, and the Life of Writing. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987: 79. ISBN 0300037732
14.^ Hutchisson, James M. Poe. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005: 236. ISBN 1-57806-721-9
15.^ Poe, Harry Lee. Edgar Allan Poe: An Illustrated Companion to His Tell-Tale Stories. New York: Metro Books, 2008: 54. ISBN 9781435104693
16.^ Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. New York City: Harper Perennial, 1991: 88. ISBN 0060923318
17.^ Bittner, William. Poe: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1962: 85.
18.^ Bittner, William. Poe: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1962: 86–87.
19.^ Fisher, Benjamin Franklin. "Poe's 'Metzengerstein': Not a Hoax" in On Poe: The Best from "American Literature. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993: 145. ISBN 0822313111
20.^ Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998: 192. ISBN 0801857309
21.^ Thomas, Dwight and David K. Jackson. The Poe Log: A Documentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe, 1809–1849. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1987: 125. ISBN 0816187347
22.^ Hammond, Alexander. "A Reconstruction of Poe's 1833 Tales of the Folio Club, Preliminary Notes", from Poe Studies, vol. V, no. 2, December 1972: 29.
23.^ Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. New York City: Checkmark Books, 2001: 88. ISBN 081604161X
24.^ Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. Harper Perennial, 1991: 92-93. ISBN 0060923318
25.^ Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998: 336-337. ISBN 0801857309
26.^ Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. New York City: Harper Perennial, 1991: 8. ISBN 0060923318
27.^ Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. New York: Cooper Square Press, 1992: 206. ISBN 0-8154-1038-7
28.^ Thomas, Dwight and David K. Jackson. The Poe Log: A Documentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe, 1809–1849. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1987: 279. ISBN 0816187347
29.^ Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. New York: Cooper Square Press, 1992: 291. ISBN 0-8154-1038-7
30.^ Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe: A to Z. New York City: Checkmark Books, 2001: 19. ISBN 081604161X