The Theme of Decay in Poe's "The Haunted Palace".
“The Haunted Palace”
Everyone has seen a once beautiful estate fallen into disrepair: expensive satin
curtains, ripped and stained; high support columns, broken and crumbling; moss covering
the once brightly painted exterior. People look at it, sigh with disappointment at what
was and no longer is, and then move on. The cause of ruin is rarely known, but the
effects are clear. This is the scene portrayed in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Haunted Palace.”
Poe paints a picture of an elegant manor with spectacular features that comes under the
influence of evil and thus falls to pieces. Upon closer inspection, though, the reader
begins to see that the meaning of the poem delves much deeper than the destruction of a
house: it is the destruction of the human mind that truly concerns Poe. The double
meaning is central to the poem and once the pattern of symbolism is established, the other
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details fall nicely into place. Poe uses diction to establish the brilliance that pervades the
house and symbolism within the poem equating the house to a human mind to
demonstrate its susceptibility to corruption.
Poe’s diction emphasizes the initial majesty of the house. At first, the house is
“radiant” (4), “glorious” (9), “happy” (17), “fair” (26), “sparkling” (28), and “beaut[iful]”
(31). Poe goes as far as saying that “good angels tenanted” the house (2) and the home is
softer and kinder than angels’ clothing (7). Then, in the fifth stanza, the scene changes
drastically: the palace is no longer majestic and stately, it is inhabited by evil and is in
disarray. It is now permeated by “sorrow” (33) and is “desolate” (35). The sudden shift
from uplifting words to mournful ones alerts the reader to the dire change that has taken
place in the house.
After a second reading, the audience begins to notice a pattern of symbolism. Poe
equates the “Thought’s dominion” (5), “banners,” (9), “windows” (18), “door” (26), and
“Echoes” (29) to a human’s head, hair, eyes, mouth, and voice. The hair is flowing and
beautiful, the eyes are understanding and see everything transparently, the mouth has
ruby gums and pearly teeth, and the voice carries in it the wit and wisdom of the mind it
speaks for. It is clear that this mind has brilliant ideas (“spirits”) (19) constantly
formulating and expanding within it. The reader is, presumably, familiar with the sight
of a mansion that is clearly luxurious. The reader may not, however, be able to picture a
clearly brilliant mind. Poe’s use of symbolism enables the reader to visualize the
brilliance and wealth of the “monarch’s” mind prior to its destruction.
Symbolism is still essential to the poem in the final stanzas, even though the scene
has changed. The once magnificent mansion has been invaded by evil. The windows are
now “red-litten” (42), meaning the eyes are red and evil. The spirits still move through
the house (the ideas still move in the mind), but now in a distorted way. Instead of
Echoes (a voice) full of wisdom, a “hideous throng” (47) rushes out of the door (the
mouth), that will “laugh – but smile no more” (48). The eerie mad laughter escaping the
mouth of the “king” is the most horrifying aspect of change. Where the “king’s” mind
was once strong and productive, constantly growing, it is now perverted and ruined. The
reader can see the house: paint chipped, windows broken, a manifestation of evil. This
comparison allows the reader to picture the broken mind of the once great “king.” The
mansion looked impenetrable, invulnerable. But it was nevertheless the victim of evil.
The mind was corrupted in the same manner and Poe’s symbolism allows for a more
tangible representation of the process.
Poe’s use of symbolism and diction provide a concrete description of the mind’s
destruction when compared to the destruction of a great estate. The drastic change in
diction from words of elegance and reverence to words of sorrow and despair
demonstrate the magnitude of the change occurring in the house and mind. The
symbolism allows the reader to more accurately envision the process and effects of the
mind’s devastation as it can envision a house falling to pieces. Poe’s techniques allow
the reader to solidify an abstraction in order to comprehend it.