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Lovecraft and Poe are two of the most well-known horror authors of all time. The two chosen pieces in this essay are classic examples of horror-themed literature. “Memory” by Lovecraft and “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Poe, each makes excellent use of various linguistic branches. Within the essay, you will uncover exactly how these authors mastered linguistic techniques such as syntax, semantics, morphology, and phonetics. Starting with Lovecraft’s Memory, it’s important to point out that he was directly influenced by Poe himself. Additionally, “Memory” by H.P. Lovecraft and “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe were published eighty years apart. American horror and science fiction author H. P. Lovecraft wrote “Memory” as a flash fiction short story in 1919, and it was published in May 1923 in The National Amateur. Unfamiliar with contemporary living, a genie and a demon question one another about societal developments in this short story. The narrative is about a demon’s ignorance of its past and shows how the current world disregards its own cultural history. Lovecraft’s story is brilliantly detailed. He didn’t extend the story, kept it short, and ended it on a quiet note, giving the audience time to absorb such a meaningful tale.
An example of phonetics is how the letter “b” in the word “moonbeam” is spoken – you start out with your lips together. Here’s an example from “Memory” by H.P. Lovecraft. “The Genie that haunts the moonbeams spake to the Daemon of the Valley…” (Lovecraft, 1923) When speaking aloud, pushing your lips together causes the “b”, sound to emerge. The vocal cords vibrate and generate noise as a result of the air being pumped over them from your lungs. Your lips then split abruptly, letting the air out, creating a “b” sound. This is a simple example of phonological techniques within H.P. Lovecraft’s memory in comparison to his other works, such as the story of Cthulhu. H. P. Lovecraft frequently uses the adjectives “obscene” and “blasphemous” throughout his body of work to express a sense that something is the subject of revulsion or that it is in some way debased. “B” sounds are often found in his work and the word blasphemous or blasphemy has been discovered within his works almost 100 times making this a major phonetic example in his writing (Ruth).
Moving on to Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart” is a short story that was first published in 1843. In this work, the unnamed narrator of the tale attempts to persuade the reader of the narrator’s sanity. In doing so, he simultaneously narrates a murder that he has committed. “The Tell-Tale Heart” appears in the gothic and horror fiction categories. The narrator freely boasts about his intelligence and his cunning behavior. He insists that he is not mentally ill. He chooses to murder the elderly man despite his affection for him. Regardless of the fact that he has no malice toward the elderly man, for no apparent reason he resolves to kill him. Many examples within this story feature grammatical, syntactical, and morphological elements. “True! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?” (Poe).
In linguistics, morphology is the study of how words are put together. For example, the word dreadfully is put together from three parts: dread, ful, and ly. Morphemes such as dreadful are used in Poe’s work to enhance the drama and suspense of the story. His ability to select the ideal word to express semantic intent provides morphological awareness in addition to fluency when choosing specific words for dramatic effect. The use of the chosen words found throughout each of these works relates to morphological and phonological concepts. The other author noted here, H.P. Lovecraft, is notorious for the use of his phonological techniques, particularly with the story of Cthulhu. Edgar Allen Poe may be considered more of a morpheme genius who utilizes repetition and specific word usage in his poems to get the idea of morphological words across, whether people are aware he is doing it or not. The below example shows morphemes within, “cautiously” as well as the repetition of the word; thus creating a poetic and dramatic suspense effect in writing. “And then, when my head was well in the room, I undid the lantern cautiously — oh, so cautiously — cautiously (for the hinges creaked) — I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye.”
Great writers employ a multitude of literary devices, branches, and techniques. Personification is one technique that writers use to capture the attention of their audiences. “Death, in approaching him had stalked with his black shadow”, (Poe). The semantics used by these two authors and writers have a great effect on readers. “In the valley of Nis the accursed waning moon shines thinly, tearing a path for its light with feeble horns through the lethal foliage of a great upas-tree” (Lovecraft). We know very well that death may not physically approach us as if it walking towards us. We also know that the moon cannot tear a path, unless its crescent tips are described metaphorically. Both writers used various techniques for semantics. Such techniques are found in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and H.P. Lovecraft’s “Memory”. Both are written in a fashion that allows them to be candidates for the subject of linguistic analysis.
Analysis of language, words, and stylistic elements are easily reviewed when examining the works of Lovecraft and Poe. Semantics connect language structures to non-linguistic concepts and mental models to explain how native speakers understand sentences. The use of registers in the language is also critical in terms of linguistic analysis. According to Linguistics for Everyone: An Introduction., a register is a “manner of speaking or writing style adopted for a particular audience (e.g., formal versus informal)”. There are several registers that we either consciously or unconsciously switch between each day depending on the nature of conversation or writing. Register types may include formal, frozen, intimate, casual, and consultative. “Every language in the world has five registers, or levels of formality: frozen, formal, consultative, casual, and intimate, according to Dutch linguist Martin Joos” (Language Registers OEYC). At the formal and consultative levels, both require careful word choice and sentence structure. The register that Lovecraft and Poe primarily write in is formal, although the register may change within stories. An example from “Memory” is, “These beings were like the waters of the river Than, not to be understood. Their deeds I recall not, for they were but of the moment” (Lovecraft). This excerpt displays formal language usage. “Deeds that may not be recalled” are formal when compared to “actions that can’t be remembered”. This register appeals to the audience of Lovecraft who is composed of writers, readers, and horror and science lovers. The specific language choice by Lovecraft creates a conspicuous effect.
In Poe’s work, the narrative comes off as less formal, and more descriptive. “Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in! I moved it slowly — very, very slowly so that I might not disturb the old man’s sleep” (Poe). The narrative confession of “The Tell-Tale Heart”, is created to sound as if the protagonist is speaking to a friend. There are several instances of figurative language, repetition, and patterns, in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” that help inform the reader of the meaning behind the story. Hyperbole and specific syntax are employed to highlight the tension and paranoia the narrator is experiencing. The narrative structure and word arrangement are employed to justify the actions the narrator performs against the man. Another important signal is the unceasing heartbeat, which alludes to the sound of the narrator’s inner conscience or anxiety creating a pattern of suspense and repetition. Poe uses several terms repeatedly for emphasis throughout this short narrative, including louder and louder, very, very, and uneasy. There are numerous instances of the term “mad” used. These linguistic examples inspired H.P. Lovecraft’s future literary acknowledgments.
The word selections in “Memory”, by Lovecraft, are examples of linguistics that help readers understand the meaning of the story. “Daemon of the Valley”, a Lovecraft character, is one example. The spelling of Daemon was used instead of the modern American English dialect: demon. According to Etymology Online, the spelling and usage of the word “daemon” originated around c. 1200 and stemmed from the Latin version, “daemon” which meant “spirit,” and was translated from Greek “daimōn”. Lovecraft’s “Memory”, was initially published in 1919. By this time, the word “demon” was already in use in language and texts, indicating this choice of spelling was deliberate. Lovecraft’s choice of using “Daemon” instead of “Demon” for his character, “Daemon of the Valley” stems from the style of his writing which contains elements of Latin. Lovecraft was known to play with words and would later go on to create a fictional language. He was familiar with Latin and French despite American English being his primary dialect. The choice to use “daemon” gives the work a more ancient and mysterious quality, corresponding directly to the linguistics of his literature and the overall feel he presented to his audience through his writing. The overall style of each short horror tale by these authors adds suspense, drama, and beautifully demonstrated literary devices that convey the messages of each story to their respective audiences.
When Poe utilizes repetition, he indeed makes the narrator look more and more insane throughout the passage. His lack of punctuation and instances of improper grammar also adds to the suspense of the story. In Lovecraft’s short horror story, his style, use of semantics, and register dramatize the tale. “Memory” was a reference and metaphor describing the ancient earth. The chaotic ancient planet indicates the presence of congestion in the contemporary world. These techniques and linguistic styles are what truly made these stories worth studying and worthy of reminiscing old gothic horror literature. Memory” features very specific word choices and grammar in a nonstandard way. What is standard about Lovecraft’s linguistic ability is the simple fact that he is deviant with his writing. The words “sooth” and “spake” are found in the story, both of which by modern definition are considered “archaic” forms of “truth”, and“spoke/speak”. “For all time did their builders erect them, and in sooth they yet serve nobly, for beneath them the grey toad makes his habitation.”
The writing is poetic, full of imagery, and anything but basic. His grammar has subtle hints of the past. This sentence for example; “Their aspect I recall dimly, for it was like to that of the little apes in the trees” (Lovecraft). There is an inappropriate use of “to” within the former sentence according to modern American English grammar. Despite dozens of missing commas, it’s still easy to redirect analysis to grammar instead of punctuation within, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, by Poe. An example of grammatical error in this classic piece can be found here, “Yes, he has been trying to comfort himself with these suppositions: but he had found all in vain. All in vain; because Death, in approaching him had stalked with his black shadow before him, and enveloped the victim.” The underlined portion of the sentence shows improper grammar. When referring to “suppositions” of the narrator, “all in vain”, would appear proper, or standard if “of it” or “of them”, had been included in the sentence. Yet, in using repetition perhaps Poe excused himself politely from following grammar and punctuation rules for the sake of toying with syntax and semantics – which may be useful if you’re one of the greatest suspense writers of all time.
Poe’s writing style may be extremely infuriating (to some), despite the fact that we admire his precision and his densely packed, elegantly phrased, yet oddly harsh lines; each of which is subject to a lengthy discussion. There are no dialogues in the ever-famous “The Tell-Tale Heart”, and it reads more like a confession than a conversation. The old man’s vulture eye, a sign of the narrator’s conflict between his mind and heart, is one of the most crucial emblems. Poe’s use of language may hinder the original text due to the fact that the syntax utilized in the era he wrote is far less common now. Because our culture has become considerably less formal in regards to communication over the course of these years, our syntax has altered a great deal as a result of this shift to contemporary English. By analyzing an excerpt from “The Tell-Tale Heart”, it is evident that a dramatic shift in word use and placement within writing has transformed over the last few centuries since, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, was originally published. The following example will reveal such evidence.
Excerpt: II. 7-15, by Edgar Allan Poe: “It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! One of his eyes resembled that of a vulture — a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so, by degrees — very gradually — I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever (Poe).
Here is a rewritten excerpt suited for contemporary audiences. “I’m not quite sure how I first came up with the idea, but once I did, the thought haunted me day and night. There was no objection, no passion. It’s true, I did love the old man. He had never done me wrong. He never insulted me at all. He had money sure, but I never had a desire for that. I think, it was his eye. Yes, it had to be his eye… His eye was bright and blue, with a strange film over it. His eye looked just like a vulture’s eye. Whenever he looked at me, I felt sick. So, over time I decided to kill him. If I could kill him, I’d never have to look at that eye again.”
The first change was to rewrite the excerpt in a modern form of American English. Poe was a notorious Gothic literature writer. His form and style of writing focused primarily on tone, figurative language, punctuation, and sentence structure (which I’ve now rearranged.) Poe’s tendency to add suspense is expressed through the use of specific punctuation. There are many dashes and choppy sentences. The rewritten version has full sentences yet the idea of the excerpt is still comprehended the same. Instead of a dash, quotations like so “…” are utilized. These quotations are more common in this era in terms of written communication. The largest change is the syntax of the excerpt. The tone is quite similar even though the sentences rewritten sentences have more fluidity. Despite the changes, the overall theme remains – horror. The semantics are fairly unchanged in the updated version. To better suit the present audience, specific changes were considered for the passage. We do not generally say “by degrees” nowadays, so the sentence is reworded with similar words or a synonym phrase to say, “So, over time”.
The horrific elements that made Poe famous are evident in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which was first printed in 1843 in The Pioneer (Britannica). Poe participated in the 19th-century American gothic literary movement, which rose to prominence at the same time as Romanticism. American gothic literature addressed the human experience via irrationality, lunacy, tragedy, and otherworldly horror in contrast to Romanticism, which placed an emphasis on the individual’s power and the magnificent reality of nature (Hume). The barrier between fiction and actuality is frequently blurred by the presence of characters who are afflicted with melancholy, madness, and obsession.
Lovecraft’s use of language in the narrative, “Memory”, may also be viewed by some as difficult to understand due to the nature of the words and syntax being used. In this short quote from “Memory”, we can observe how much language has changed since the narrative was originally written in 1919. “Vast are the stones which sleep beneath coverlets of dank moss, and mighty were the walls from which they fell. For all time did their builders erect them, and in sooth they yet serve nobly, for beneath them the grey toad makes his habitation” (Lovecraft). If this were reworded to modern syntax it might say, “Many stones rest underneath a bed of damp moss. The stones fell from the walls that long ago, were mighty. The walls were built to last, but now have become the home of the small gray toad.”
In comparison to the worlds Poe and Lovecraft are from, ours is vastly different. In contemporary literature, there is now an ever-expanding body of past writings by authors from all walks of life that has made American literature more complex and inclusive than it was at the beginning of the twenty-first century (Britannica). With the sheer differences in word use, syntax, tone, and structure there is clear evidence of how historical and cultural influences have made their mark on the way we write, read, and communicate today.
Ganguly, Rohit. “Memory by HP Lovecraft.” Wordbred, 26 Sept. 2017, https://wordbred.com/reviews/memory-by-hp-lovecraft/
Master List of Morphemes Suffixes, Prefixes, Roots Suffix Meaning … https://www.fldoe.org/core/fileparse.php/16294/urlt/morphemeML.pdf
“Memory” by H. P. Lovecraft, https://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/m.aspx
A Narrative Discourse Analysis of Poe’s Short Story The Tell … – Eric. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1239146.pdf .
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Zakyoung. “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The Poe Museum, 28 Dec. 2021, https://poemuseum.org/the-tell-tale-heart/.
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“Daemon (n.).” Etymology, https://www.etymonline.com/word/daemon.
“Sooth (n.).” Etymology, https://www.etymonline.com/word/sooth.
“Spake.” Etymology, https://www.etymonline.com/word/spake#etymonline_v_48957.
“The Tell-Tale Heart.” The Poe Museum, 28 Dec. 2021, https://poemuseum.org/the-tell-tale-heart/
“The Tell-Tale Heart | Story by Poe.” Encyclopedia Britannica, http://www.britannica.com, https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Tell-Tale-Heart. Accessed 27 July 2022.
Hume, Robert D. “Gothic Versus Romantic: A Revaluation of The Gothic Novel.” PMLA/Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, vol. 84, no. 2, 1969, pp. 282–290., doi:10.2307/1261285
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X, Ruth. “It’s Not Squamous. the 10 Words H.P. Lovecraft Used Most Often.” Tor.com, 6 Mar. 2015 https://www.tor.com/2015/02/16/its-not-squamous-the-10-words-hp-lovecraft-used-most-often/.
4 thoughts on “A Smattering Selection of Lexical Analyses on Edgar Allan Poe & H.P. Lovecraft”
Really marvelous! It explains a lot.
I have enjoyed your work. I love the ancient writers. The artwork and the words. Outstanding.
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Thank you @johncoyote! I enjoy your writing as well. Thanks for reading!
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You are welcome, dear Kimberly.
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