Taken by itself, the term Romanticism is not generally thought of in conjunction with horror. Nevertheless, even without reference to more specialized trends such as those we label Gothic and Dark Romantic, the generic concept of Romanticism encompassed qualities in evidence prior to Poe that he can be seen to...
Taken by itself, the term Romanticism is not generally thought of in conjunction with horror. Nevertheless, even without reference to more specialized trends such as those we label Gothic and Dark Romantic, the generic concept of Romanticism encompassed qualities in evidence prior to Poe that he can be seen to have used and developed further, in his unique way.
Elements of mystery and a fairytale atmosphere are present in the poetry of Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats and in the prose works of German writers such as Tieck and Hoffmann. But these aren't fairytales for children. The House of Usher is a crumbling structure showing its age and its descent from a dark past:
I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled luster by the dwelling, and gazed down—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.
There is a joining of the Romantic invocation and exalted description of nature with a fear of it, coupled with the suggestion of immense age. The past was an obsession of writers of the period. So was the ability of the human mind to create its own reality through dreams and the power of the imagination. The narrator, as is typical for Poe, asks directly, or by implication, if this is reality:
Shaking off from my spirit what must have been a dream, I scanned more narrowly the real aspect of the building...
Usher himself is a man separated from the world. His retreat into a self-contained and self-imposed exile from humanity is like that of Goethe's Faust and Byron's Manfred. Usher's "malady" is "a morbid acuteness of the senses." The story is shot through with a morbid fixation upon the essence of Usher's strange mentality, but also shows us a sense of pessimism and a rejection of the exuberant features of life that people normally celebrate and revel in. Usher has withdrawn into a private dreamworld.
It's a paradox that Romanticism often indulges in a celebration of man as an almost god-like being while simultaneously showing man as crushed, defeated by life. Shelley, whom Poe idolized, expresses this contradictory message in his "Ode to the West Wind," in which the speaker concludes with the exultant,
If winter comes, can spring be far behind?
But he has told us that his "leaves" are falling, like those of the autumn forest. Poe's stories are filled with characters who are deteriorating. This is as much a symptom of the Romantic mentality as is the remote, isolated setting. The decaying house of Usher represents a kind of symbiosis between the man and his surroundings. In Romanticism, the physical world is not just a reflection of people's inner state, but a projection of it. This corresponds to the philosophy of Kant—which, though incidentally ridiculed by Poe, was seminal in the development of the nineteenth-century mentality.
All of these elements we have named are not even necessarily among the usual ideas we associate with Poe, such as horror and terror. But they clearly are among the qualities that establish both his uniqueness as a writer and the fact of his obviously being an artist of his time, influenced by and influencing other key figures of the nineteenth century, the Romantic age. Preceding Poe and to some degree creating him are Shelley, Hoffmann, and others, while Poe's successors are figures as diverse as Baudelaire, Henry James, and Arthur Conan Doyle, among many.