Monday, 11 May 2009

38. Edgar Allan Poe - 'Hop-Frog' (1849)

'Poor fellow! his large eyes gleamed, rather than shone; for the effect of wine on his excitable brain was not more powerful than instantaneous. He placed the goblet nervously on the table, and looked round upon the company with a half-insane stare. They all seemed highly amused at the success of the king's "joke".'
(Edgar Allan Poe, 'Hop-Frog', The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, Penguin, 1982, p.504)

Edgar Allan Poe has been a favourite of mine for some years; perhaps ever since I saw the excellent Roger Corman film from 1964, Masque of the Red Death, which combined that story with elements of 'Hop-Frog', creating a richly Gothic tapestry that bore quite an Ingmar Bergman influence. In 2004, I read the marvel that is 'The Tell-Tale Heart' and, more recently, deft exercises in morbidity such as 'The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar'.

After seeing Corman's film, I decided to read the short-story as part of my English Speaking Board examination - conducted at the end of my first year of Sixth Form College. It should be noted that I was in the last cohort of students to simply do 'A' Levels over two years, before the Advanced Subsidiary (A.S.) came in. One had to chair a debate on a topical issue, do a reading from a work of fiction, poetry etc. and do a short presentation on any topic of interest. At the time, I found the whole thing very difficult, but nevertheless could recognise that it was worth doing; presentation making and public speaking is an area I am now rather well versed in, but then was out of my depth. This forcible projection got me started, inadvertently perhaps leading to where I am today, lecturing after a fashion, engaging an audience of students on topics such as aesthetics, religion / science and changes in modern society. I am also seemingly in demand as a moment's-notice MC at friends' weddings, in lieu of anyone else, although mercifully am one who sticks to the bare essentials of that duty!

The sound of one's own voice; something you have to be comfortable with in many spheres - acting, politics, teaching and foolery. The eponymous Hop-Frog, is, as required by court jesters, silver tongued in his ability to provoke amusement with his jesting. As in Lear, where the Fool imparts sometimes harsh truths with the impugnity accorded by his position and attire, 'Hop-Frog''s titular protagonist lambasts and ribs royalty - but safely, within the confines of a 'game'.

Poe takes this scenario and portrays the nobility going too far, and the jokes becoming less 'safe' as a result and instead leading to a deliciously macabre denounement. There is the eeriness of sounds in Poe's description, conveying a subtle link to Beckett's Embers: 'There was a dead silence for about half a minute, during which the falling of a leaf, or of a feather, might have been heard. It was interrupted by a low, but harsh and protracted grating sound which seemed to come from every corner of the room.' (p.505) Horror - the myserious and unexplainable - seems to reside in this recurring (see p.508), bodiless noise.

This uncanny sound must - though seems not to - emanate from the dwarf Hop-Frog; it goes beyond his corporeal being: ' "The sound appeared to come from without," observed one of the courtiers. "I fancy it was the parrot at the window, whetting his bill upon his cage-wires.' '

I shall not go into the precise manner of the jester's revenge, other than to say that it revolves upon a masquerade - a role's reverse, which shows up the evil and corrupt as they really are. Hop-Frog assumes the role of master of a righteously macabre ceremony; Poe's use of italics indicate the shrill emphasis in this ritual performer's performance, shattering the institutions that bound and abused him:

"I now see distinctly," he said, "what manner of people these maskers are." (p.509)

In the end, the opening sentences reveal themselves astypically sardonic: 'I never knew any one so keenly alive to a joke as the king was. He seemed to live only for joking.'


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