- "As Moslemin their Shrouds at Mecca":The Arabic Repressions and Resurrections of Poe's Corpus
I learned that the glimpse I had obtained of her person would thus probably be the last I should obtain—that the lady, at least while living, would be seen by me no more.
For several days ensuing, her name was unmentioned by either Usher or myself: and during this period I was busied in earnest endeavors to alleviate the melancholy of my friend. We painted and read together; or I listened, as if in a dream, to the wild improvisations of his speaking guitar. And thus, as a closer and still closer intimacy admitted me more unreservedly into the recesses of his spirit, the more bitterly did I perceive the futility of all attempt at cheering a mind from which darkness, as if an inherent positive quality, poured forth upon all objects of the moral and physical universe, in one unceasing radiation of gloom.
I shall ever bear about me, a memory of the many solemn hours I thus spent alone with the master of the House of Usher.(Works, 2:404–405)
A core passage within the Poe canon, these sentences from his most iconic "The Fall of the House of Usher" trace tensions central to Poe's entire career. Balancing beloved dualities—recollection-repression, visible-invisible, moral-corporeal—this passage is framed by a family polarity, enveloped by sister-brother. Opening with the final "glimpse" of Madeline Usher's "person," the above soon turns to her twin, Roderick, who is lastly memorialized as "the master of the House." These sibling dichotomies are essential to Poe's artistry; and aptly, it is artistry itself that emerges at their center. Surveying diverse media—music, literature, painting—the middle of this passage emphasizes Roderick's "improvisations" which synthesize physical and metaphysical, "pour[ing] forth" externally while intimating "the recesses of his spirit." [End Page 28] However, it is another dialectic—that of "memory"—that caps this passage. Accenting the "unmentioned" name of Madeline, Poe's unnamed narrator yet ends with his enduring recall. In a rather odd turn of phrase, the anonymous speaker testifies that he "shall ever bear about" him the "memory" of these "many solemn hours. "
This passage on recollection has itself been remembered by countless readers, printed just as above in Poe editions that span a hundred and eighty years. And yet, in light of the repressions so essential to "Usher," it seems apt that this precise passage itself forms a site of repression. Testifying to the narrator's perpetual recall, these sentences also faintly hint at an act of forgetting. The above passage derives from the 1840 Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque; however, Poe's "Usher" had been printed first a year earlier, in the September 1839 edition of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine. In this initial appearance, the passage reads precisely the same as quoted above—the same, that is, until its very end. In the final sentence of the selection, a slight, but significant, difference emerges, with Poe's line in 1839 featuring a single simile later dropped from the standard 1840 text: "I shall ever bear about me, as Moslemin their shrouds at Mecca, a memory of the many solemn hours I thus spent alone with the master of the House of Usher. "1 By 1840, Poe's narrator would declare simply that "I shall ever bear about me a memory of the many solemn hours;" but, a year earlier, this same narrator's "memory" had been figured as wrapped "about" him forever as a "shroud." Likened to the ritual white covering worn by pilgrims to "Mecca," "memory" in 1839 is compared to burial garb—a comparison which itself becomes covered over by 1840, buried from sight.
To readers familiar with Poe's classic in its standard version—the 1840 "Usher" now typically printed—his original analogy of "memory" and "shroud" ironically appears new and alien. Excised from widely-available editions, Poe's wording seems doubly unfamiliar, however, due to its foreign vocabulary. Invoking the white winding sheet worn by Muslim pilgrims, "memory" is identified with the sacred clothing that reminds the faithful...