The short story begins with an epigraph in French, "Son coeur est un luth suspendu". This is taken from the work of the popular poet and songwriter Pierre-Jean de Béranger (1780 – 1857) who was quite unlike Poe himself in disapproving of art for art's sake and being an ardent supporter of the French Republic whose songs sympathized with the downtrodden and praised freedom, equality, and liberty.
Usher's family is described as:
... displaying itself, through ... many works of exalted art, ... as well as in a passionate devotion to the intricacies, perhaps even more than to the orthodox and easily recognisable beauties, of musical science.
No specific authors or composers are mentioned in this passage. The house itself is Gothic (or perhaps neo-gothic) in style and Usher's room is filled with books (no titles are named) and musical instruments.
When the narrator describes how they spent days in literary, musical, and artistic pursuits, he names the Romantic composer Carl Maria Friedrich Ernst von Weber and the painter Fuseli (known for supernatural subject matter) but no authors.
Next, the reader encounters the long poem, "In the greenest of our valleys" attributed to Usher, but actually by Poe himself.
Shortly after presenting readers with the poem, the narrator mentions poring over certain specific works with Usher, mainly concerned with religion, mysticism and the supernatural:
- Ververt et Chartreuse of Gresset
- the Belphegor of Machiavelli;
- the Heaven and Hell of Swedenborg
- the Subterranean Voyage of Nicholas Klimm by Holberg;
- the Chiromancy of Robert Flud, of Jean D'Indaginé,
- De la Chambre; the Journey into the Blue Distance of Tieck;
- City of the Sun of Campanella.
- Directorium Inquisitorum, by the Dominican Eymeric de Gironne
Greatly disturbed by his sister's having "succumbed to the prostrating power of the destroyer" in her deathly illness, Usher is attended by the narrator, who busies himself in attempts to alleviate the severe melancholy of his old school friend. Together they paint and read, and Usher plays the guitar in haunting tunes, one of which is a waltz by the Romantic composer, Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826). As he plays his instrument, Roderick Usher also composes verses, "rhymed verbal improvisations" of the "tottering of his lofty reason upon her throne," as the narrator describes them. This poem is about a haunted place where the monarch of the palace is reason and thought. Usher mourns the breakdown of this "high estate."
Usher's books to which he has so long turned in his isolated existence are in "keeping with this character of phatasm" which characterizes his poem. For, they are all works that are concerned with magic, myticism, and horror. The last one that the narrator mentions is a "curious book in quarto Gothic," the Vigiliae Mortuorum secundum Chorum Ecclesiae Maguntinae--a macabre account of the vigil of the dead. This work is significant because Usher himself keeps a "vigil of the dead" over his sister Madeline. In fact, the narrator himself suggests that the "wild ritual" of this work affected Roderick in his intention of not burying her immediately, but instead preserving her corpse in one of the vaults below.